As a young man, Shalom Carmy found himself impressed by the radical skepticism embraced by so many great philosophers, including Socrates and René Descartes. Even as his own attitude to these philosophers became more nuanced, Carmy recalls that he still believed the words of Alfred, Lord Tennyson: “There lives more faith in honest doubt, believe me, than in half the creeds.” At the same time, he writes,
I took seriously the comment of my revered mentor Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein that this sentiment, however noble, was not the way to be followed by Jews, who are “believers, the sons of believers.” I have pondered, without coming to a settled opinion, what exactly he meant by this. . . .
The tension between doubt and conviction can be painful, which is why we often avoid confronting it with an eye toward resolution. As a participant in, and commentator on, religious life, I was, from an early age, aware that many practicing Jews, and many Christians for that matter, do not enjoy a robust intellectual commitment to the principles of their faith. Even on an emotional or experiential plane, they are often divided between affirmation and doubt. What was I to make of this situation? Many seem to have furnished themselves with a comfortable niche of intellectual and religious indecisiveness. They are more interested in what they can wryly or dramatically doubt than in agonizing and struggling over the life-and-death questions that are answered by our religious traditions.
Pace Rabbi Lichtenstein, I could not help judging that among those who classified themselves as “honest doubters” were some who led more strenuous, perhaps more authentic spiritual lives than did their placid neighbors, who practiced their religion either blissfully ignorant of, or willfully oblivious to, the questions and crises that should have troubled their serenity. Lichtenstein himself acknowledged this reality. If one must choose between a religious life of commitment marked by anguished doubt or one of observant superficiality, then the former seems the better path, the one that promises richer and more ennobling spiritual rewards.
Jeremiah rebuked his generation, accusing them of “abandoning Me” (that is, God) and “not observing my Torah,” implying that violating the Torah is somehow worse than departing from God inwardly (2:12). Well-known rabbinic statements elaborate. They explain that God would rather be abandoned than that His Torah be disobeyed, because people who persist in their engagement with the Law may be brought back to God through the illumination that such a life provides.