In Praise of Doubt – Guest Sermon at Central Presbyterian Church – Eugene, OR

This is a guest sermon I was invited to give at a Presbyterian church in September 2013.

“In Praise of Doubt”                   By Rabbi Maurice Harris

University Sunday –  September 29, 2013         

Central Presbyterian Church (Eugene, OR)

Good morning and thank you for this opportunity to share some thoughts with you during University Sunday. Rev. Bostwick told me that one of the purposes of University Sunday is to explore the connections between church and academic disciplines, and to demonstrate this church’s commitment to creating the kind of spiritual community that welcomes all questions and invites critical thinking skills into religious life. Actually, what he said was more like, “Maurice – your job is to convince the university crowd that they can feel at home here. You must accomplish this task in one sermon. No pressure though.” . . . It’s possible that I’m remembering our conversation a little wrong.

The point here is that clergy like Rev. Bostwick and me – who welcome the questioning mind, who regard doubt as a healthy part of spiritual seeking – we sometimes struggle to get the word out that there is such a thing as non-dogmatic, intellectually honest, open-minded religious life. That there are places where people can come for prayer, song, community, social action, and yes, tradition too, and together explore how to form a plausible faith in a desperately uncertain world. That is the kind of religious life that synagogues like the one I served for eight years, Temple Beth Israel, and churches like this one seek to cultivate.

This talk is called “In Praise of Doubt,” so let me get to the heart of it. The Reverend Val Webb is an Australian Christian theologian and writer who writes about the spiritual value of doubt. She’s the author of one of my favorite books, In Defense of Doubt: An Invitation doubtcover527x800-263x400to Adventure. Webb describes a healthy religious community as one that turns to its sacred texts, traditions, and customs for deep guidance, but that also allows room for the open expression of doubt and the possibility of change, especially in response to new knowledge about the world or the insights of human experience. She writes, “…questions of human experience cannot be silenced by the loudness of authoritative doctrinal interpretation.”[1]

Webb describes two kinds of congregations – those that are inhospitable to doubt, and those that welcome doubt as part of the spiritual adventure. She describes doubt as not only spiritually necessary, but also as inevitable. She critiques religious communities that treat doubt as a demonic influence, and she argues that there’s a falseness to responding to healthy doubt by telling worshippers to repeatedly affirm the officially sanctioned set of beliefs until the doubts are driven out.

For Webb, doubt is not the opposite of faith, and faith is not the same thing as beliefs. Faith is about trusting in the cosmic goodness of the universe despite the doubts. In fact, faith asks us to trust that the questions and doubts we experience are invitations to spiritual growth. Faith doesn’t ask for certainty about all things; rather faith asks us to have the courage and humility to carry on to the best of our ability despite uncertainty, trusting that something greater, something loving and good and beyond words, is holding us.

I’d like to share with you a story from the world of Judaism – specifically, from the Talmud. It’s a story about a dispute between two of the great early rabbis, Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus and Rabbi Joshua ben Hananiah. I’m sure you’ve all heard of them. (ironic smile)

But just in case some of you haven’t, here’s a teeny bit of background. Rabbi Joshua and Rabbi Eliezer lived during the parts of the 1st and 2nd Centuries, C.E., just a few generations after the life of Jesus. They were young men in the year 70 C.E., when the Romans destroyed ancient Israel along with the Temple in Jerusalem, and exiled the Jewish people. Their debates appear in many places in the Talmud, and they come across to modern readers as figures we easily recognize in terms of religious temperament. Eliezer was the religious conservative, strict in his interpretations of Jewish law. Joshua was the religious liberal, usually offering a more flexible, compassionate, or open-minded interpretation.

These two early sages were rabbinic heavyweights, and the stories the Talmud shares about them became part of the mythic tradition of rabbinic Judaism, helping to define the religion of the rabbis. And although Joshua was much loved and very influential, Eliezer was the superstar rabbi of his generation. Eliezer was incredibly gifted, and he knew it. His jaw-dropping insights were coupled with an attitude of certainty and self-righteousness. In other words, he didn’t get invited to a lot of rabbi parties.

Okay, let’s get to the story.[2]

It begins with a raging debate that was going on between Rabbi Eliezer and the rest of his colleagues, including Rabbi Joshua. The question before them was whether a particular kind of clay oven, made of several different layered sections, was susceptible to becoming ritually impure. (Though I’m not Christian myself, I can imagine this might have been exactly the kind of Pharisaic debate that made Jesus roll his eyes in exasperation. Side note: isn’t it wonderful to live in an era of religious pluralism in which I could stand here as a rabbi and get away with making that joke?) All right, back to the Talmud.

So, Eliezer ruled one way, but all the other rabbis in the debate disagreed with him, and the rabbinic system had long established that the law would be determined by a majority vote of the rabbis. Eliezer knows his position is going to be relegated to one of the generally un-followed, minority viewpoints in the Talmud. Here’s where we’ll pick up the text itself:

It was taught: On that day Rabbi Eliezer brought forward every imaginable argument, but the Sages did not accept any of them. Finally he said to them: “If the Law is in accordance with me, let this carob tree prove it!” Sure enough, the carob tree immediately uprooted itself and moved one hundred cubits from its place.

I’m going to interrupt to point out that a miracle has just occurred. So how do the rest of the rabbis respond to a supernatural divine intervention?

“No proof can be brought from a carob tree,” the other rabbis retorted.

Dang, right?!

So, again, Rabbi Eliezer said to them “If the Law agrees with me, let this nearby stream of water prove it!” Sure enough, the stream of water miraculously flowed backward.

Okay, Eliezer just bumped things up a notch. After all, miracles involving the redirecting of bodies of water are kind of Moses-like. Maybe this will get the other rabbis to yield.

“No proof can be brought from a channel of water,” the rabbis responded.

Again Rabbi Eliezer urged, “If the Law agrees with me, let the walls of the house of study prove it!” Sure enough, the walls tilted as if to fall.

I’m going to interrupt again and invite you to think about the symbolism of this third miracle that Eliezer has manifested to try to prove to the others he is right. In the absence of the Temple in Jerusalem, the House of Study had become the new holy of holies, if you will. Back to the Talmud:

Rabbi Joshua rebuked the walls, saying, “When disciples of the wise are engaged in a Jewish legal dispute, what right have you to interfere?”

In deference to Rabbi Joshua the walls of the house of study did not fall, and in deference to Rabbi Eliezer they did not resume their upright position; they are still standing aslant.

Usually, these kinds of stories come in threes, so you’d think we might be done with the showdown now, but Eliezer takes one more shot at this.

Again Rabbi Eliezer then said to the Sages, “If the Law agrees with me, let it be proved from heaven.” Sure enough, a divine voice (known in Hebrew as a bat kol) cried out, “Why do you dispute with Rabbi Eliezer, with whom the Law always agrees?”

Okay. At this point, the tension in this tale has reached its peak. Eliezer has not only called for three miracles to back him up and gotten them, but now a voice from God has come out of the heavens and told the rabbis not only that Eliezer is right regarding this oven purity question, but that he has always been right in every debate they’ve ever had.

Given the understanding the ancient rabbis shared that Judaism is, first and foremost, a religion that commands the Jewish people to obey God’s instructions, you would think that this story might go on to tell us that the sages conceded the argument to Eliezer, and the moral of the story was that majority rule of the rabbis on religious questions prevails most of the time, unless there is a great prophetic figure present who is backed up by God. Or, maybe this story could have gone on to describe the ascension of Rabbi Eliezer to a new position of authority – maybe even presenting him as the redeeming prophet of the Jews and developing a religion entirely along the lines of his teachings. (After all, Eliezer was a Jewish genius who argued with the rabbis, performed indisputable miracles in front of witnesses, and was claimed by God by means of a heavenly voice. Not exactly an unfamiliar kind of story for First Century or early Second Century Jews, right?) Hold on to these questions, because this is where the text really gets brilliant.

Rabbi Joshua stood up and protested to the divine voice (the bat kol). Quoting a fragment of a single verse in Deuteronomy, he shouted, “It is not in heaven!” (Deut. 30:12).

In an instant, Joshua has just done several important things. First, he has now taken his argument (and that of the majority he represents) to God as well as to Eliezer. Echoing biblical figures who also argued with God successfully (think Abraham or Moses, for instance), Joshua rejects the “God-said-it / I-believe-it / That-settles-it” bumper sticker form of religion. And how he does this is just as important as the fact that he has the courage to do it.

So what did this “It’s not in heaven” quote mean exactly? What happened is that Rabbi Joshua threw at God a new rabbinic interpretation of a very small bit of Scripture, using the Torah’s own words to make his case. He quotes a fragment of a passage in which Moses is explaining to the Israelites that they are fully capable of following the laws of the Torah. Here’s the wider context of the bit that Joshua quotes. In this passage from Deuteronomy, Moses is speaking to the Israelites on behalf of God:

Moses says: Now what I am commanding you today is not too difficult for you or beyond your reach. It is not in heaven, so that you have to ask, “Who will ascend into heaven to get it and proclaim it to us so we may obey it?” Nor is it beyond the sea, so that you have to ask, “Who will cross the sea to get it and proclaim it to us so we may obey it?” No, the word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart so you may obey it. (Deut 30:11-14)[3]

As you can see, in its original context in Deuteronomy, the “it” of “it is not in heaven” is the Torah and all its laws. Moses was trying to encourage the Israelites that the Torah’s laws were not so difficult to understand or hard to follow that only experts or exceptional people could fathom their meaning and successfully follow them.

Moses does not, however, appear to be saying that one day in the future the rabbis will debate and decide matters of religious law by majority rule, ignoring God’s voice coming down and instructing them to the contrary. But Joshua is embedded in the rabbinic tradition, and all the rabbis, Eliezer included, had a long track record of making rabbinic arguments based on pulling biblical phrases out of context and giving them new meanings.

The argument Joshua makes, simply put, is that the Torah is no longer up in God’s domain, in heaven. It’s here, on Earth, and it’s been left by God in the hands of the rabbis to debate and struggle to make the right decisions, by majority rule, accepting that sometimes they’ll get it wrong. That’s why the Talmud preserves minority opinions, in case the majority got it wrong.

It’s a brilliant counter on Joshua’s part. The only thing that could possibly help Eliezer at this point in the story would be another divine intervention – perhaps the bat kol speaking again and rebuking Joshua, or an angel descending and directly instructing the entire group not to listen to Joshua’s bold claim for rabbinic independence from heavenly interference in matters of religious interpretation.

But there are no more miracles or divine voices in the story. Joshua’s statement ends the argument, and the rabbis enact their majority decision regarding the oven. There’s more to this Talmudic story, but time constraints prevent me from sharing more.

I’ll just mention this one bit. The Talmud ends up reassuring its readers that, in the end, God accepted Rabbi Joshua’s and the other rabbis’ majority decision about who has the authority to interpret Scripture. Here’s how that part reads:

At another time, Rabbi Nathan met the prophet Elijah [in rabbinic tradition Elijah would continue to appear to various rabbis and offer guidance]. Rabbi Nathan asked him, “What did the Holy One do at the moment that Rabbi Joshua said “It is not in heaven” and defeated Rabbi Eliezer in the dispute? Elijah responded: “God laughed with joy, saying, ‘My children have defeated Me, My children have defeated Me.'”[4]

*          *          *

I think of this Talmudic story as the (sort of) Declaration of Independence of Rabbinic Judaism. What Rabbi Joshua wins for his people is God’s acceptance of the human-centered, rabbinic interpretive method as the basis for the Jewish religion going forward. This messy, multi-vocal, argumentative, creative, and at times errant process, ending in majority rule and minority opinions preserved for the record, had become the norm prior to Joshua and Eliezer’s days. But in this story the whole rabbinic system was challenged by a great figure, Eliezer, who represented the possibility of establishing rabbinic Judaism on a basis of prophetic certainty and other-worldly authority.

How tempting that kind of certainty must have been to the Jewish community of that time – living in exile, facing Roman persecution, and witnessing the growth and success of early Christianity as a rival. In overruling Eliezer (and God), Joshua and the other rabbis declined an offer of certainty and infallibility in favor of the uncertainty of error-prone humans struggling through their religious questions. And, the Talmud tells us, God approved.

 And this brings us back to the subject of the religious value of doubt. Rabbi Joshua and his colleagues won an important place for doubt in the very structure of Judaism. If claims of possessing absolute Truth and Certainty were the goals of the new rabbinic system of Judaism, then Joshua and his rabbinic colleagues would have embraced Eliezer as their prophet or chief rabbi and, from that day forward, simply brought every question of Jewish law, belief, and ethics to him. After all, the bat kol (the divine voice) told them all that Eliezer was always right.

I never cease to be surprised that the Talmud’s final editors preserved this story in the rabbinic canon, because on its surface the story seems to undermine the reader’s confidence in the rabbis and their methods. After all, this story tells us that the majority of the rabbis voted on a matter of Jewish law and got it wrong, not just this one time, but many times (every time they overruled Eliezer at the very least).

This story also tells us that the rulings of the rabbis throughout the Talmud are subject to our doubt. The Talmud represents a body of religious literature that proclaims that doubt is sacred. That it’s our duty to debate the moral and spiritual questions that come before us and then struggle to find a way forward, but no decision is beyond our doubt. And the thing to do with people who proclaim they have all the answers, no matter how talented they are, is to not permit them to take over.

As I think we all know, sometimes the monotheistic religions, mine included, get practiced in such a way that absolute certainty, about the beliefs of the religion or the infallibility of its sacred texts, is held up as the model of faith. As Rev. Webb teaches, the fear that creeps into these kinds of religious communities is that if someone could disprove any one part of the sacred creeds, the whole system will come crashing down like a house of cards. What Rabbi Joshua gives us is an alternative model for our relationship to faith and to our sacred texts.

Joshua’s stand opens the door to an approach to our religious tradition in which we start with the assumption that there are different possible interpretations and opinions about everything in our texts, and that when our religious leaders make religious decisions, they might be wrong.

From this story we learn that part of religious life is our trying to discover truth on our own, using all available tools in the effort: our intellect, the sciences, our religious teachings, and the truths we discover through human experience. God values the sincere effort to find the truth and live by it, whether or not we get it right. And God values the doubting mind.

The antidote to the discomfort we may feel about living with constant doubt is not to replace that doubt with rigid certainty – that was what Eliezer and the bat kol tried to get the rabbis to do. The antidote to doubt is acceptance of doubt and trust that God means for us to live with such doubts and do our best. To put it differently, the spiritually mature response to doubt is to cultivate faith that the doubts are part of the process.

To quote Rev. Val Webb once more: “Those who believe God is active in individual experiences are able to see doubt as creative nudges of God.” She also describes a sincere doubter as “…a person of great creativity and adventure who challenges the status quo and pushes knowledge forward…” My hope is that after today’s service, you’ll leave here worrying about whether you doubt enough. Just kidding. Actually, what I really hope you’ll take away from this talk is the awareness that the quest to explore sacred texts and traditions within a framework that is vigorously open-minded and welcoming of doubt – that is the quest of this church and of many other progressive religious communities in town. I hope you’ll decide to join in the adventure. The experience will not only engage both your mind and spirit, but you’ll also enjoy the warmth of community and fellowship, and the nourishing rhythms of tradition without the straitjacket of unbending dogma and rigid thinking.

Thank you and God bless you!


[1] Webb, Val, In Defense of Doubt: An Invitation to Adventure, Chalice Press, 1995, p. 28.

[2] The Talmudic story I’m excerpting comes from BT Bava Metzia 59b.

[3] NIV

[4] H.N. Bialik and Y.H. Ravnitzky, eds., Sefer Ha-Aggadah (The Book of Legends), translated by William G. Braude, Schocken Books, NY, 1992). page 223. (translation adapted)wordle

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