The Price of Uncertainty

April 1, 2012
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Shaul Magid

Many of us were deeply disturbed by the exhibition of Haredi, or ultra-Orthodox, zealotry in Beit Shemesh, a bedroom community outside Jerusalem, earlier this year. Many essays were written about the uncouth Haredim and their uncompromising beliefs, about the political ramifications of such egregious behavior in Israel’s public space, and about the decline of Israel’s cosmopolitan civility. But these events of zealotry also raise theoretical questions that are perhaps less popular, albeit no less important, for understanding the present state of Judaism.

The Haredim live in a world of certainty where what they believe and practice is nonnegotiable and, according to them, what modern Jews — from progressive Modern Orthodox to Reconstructionist — believe and practice is heretical. Since many of us are committed to the notion that pluralism is a fundamental cornerstone of any free society, we reject in principle their uncompromising claim to certainty. Our pluralism, though, comes with a price. The Haredim have maintained a religiosity, a devotional passion, and a commitment to their beliefs that we pluralistic Jews cannot easily attain, much less maintain. This may be why we are often nostalgic about Haredi Judaism and romanticize it as an example of the “authenticity” we seem unable to capture.1 In short, while we reject Haredi rigidity, we are jealous of its passion, and we do not adequately consider how the rigidity and passion are linked. In what follows, I explore an alternative to pluralism that not only embraces the uncertainty principle endemic to modernity, but also offers a way to separate social mores from devotional practice. This may enable us to explore more deeply the passion necessary for a religious life and also to find ways to make it an integral part of our social commitment to tolerance.

Pluralism has many forms. Given the limitations of this essay, I mention only two. First is what I call “bifurcated pluralism” — that is, holding one’s religious convictions to be true and the convictions of the other to be false while tolerating the falsity of the other in the spirit of social cohesion. One articulation of this kind of pluralism is found among some in the progressive Modern Orthodox camp. While they reject as false many of the halakhic innovations and beliefs of non-Orthodox streams of Judaism, they remain open to working with non-Orthodox Jews. Bifurcated pluralism is essentially a modern category that constructs a space between truth and heresy. Heresy is considered not only false or errant but destructive and thus intolerable, while false belief and practice (e.g., biblical criticism, a God who does not elect a people, or egalitarianism) are mistaken yet not destructive enough to require eradication. As important, the need for social cohesion trumps the need for erasure. Given the inherent challenges and dangers experienced by Jews living in a free society, many traditionalists have decided that cultivating Jewish expression and identity, even based on false premises, is better than assimilation. This is part of the pact religion has made with the secular world in which it lives.

A second form of pluralism I call “postmodern pluralism.” It’s founded on the principle that all truth is constructed such that even what I hold to be true can never — should never — be universalized, because truth doesn’t really exist outside of our perception of it. Postmodern religious pluralists from any corner of the Jewish world include those who no longer believe in any objective religious truth but view religious practice as beneficial to their personal or collective lives. In the larger world, the postmodern critique of objective truth has found expression in everything from nihilism to psychoanalysis to deconstruction. It strikes at the heart of religious conviction and places the uncertainty principle as the only, and irresolvable, truth. Uncertainty is not the condition that requires faith as it is in thinkers from Martin Luther to Karl Barth. Rather, uncertainty is all there is.

The problem with the first pluralism is that it is disingenuous. By extension, bifurcated pluralism, arguably, not only weakens social cohesion by rejecting non-Orthodox Judaism while accepting the Jews who practice it, but also dilutes the expression of the devotional life because it cultivates a defensive and apologetic posture, i.e., “I must prove to the other, whom I tolerate, and myself why what I believe is correct.” Defensive religion does not often contribute to an impassioned devotional life. Bifurcated pluralists offer wonderful drashot and write brilliant essays, but I wouldn’t necessarily walk three miles on a snowy winter Shabbat morning to daven with them.

The problem with the second form of pluralism, postmodern pluralism, is this: The falsity of all “truth” jams the engine of religious conviction (based on a posture of certainty), which serves as the core of religious devotion. If one believes that all religious behavior is directed toward some constructed notion of truth, what drives the individual toward passionate devotion? While I may be intellectually drawn to this position, my heart often resists the temptation to integrate fully a belief or even an experience of transcendence into my imagination. Believing in or disbelieving in the transcendent other is a struggle that gives me no respite. Moments of belief, soon followed by moments of disbelief, often happen unexpectedly — sometimes when reading psalms late at night and sometimes when I walk in the woods in the late afternoon after a snowfall with our dog, Shlomo. In the moment, each one is as clear, and as certain, as its opposite.

One of the curious dimensions of Haredi life is its ostensible allegiance to Kabbalah and Hasidism. Mystical religion, as we know, is founded on the principle of uncertainty captured in Nicholas Cusanus’ 15th-century principle of coincidentia oppositorum (coincidence of opposites). According to Aristotle’s notion of “the law of the excluded middle” (Aristotle, On Interpretation, 9) a thing cannot be simultaneously its opposite (if x is true and y is the opposite of x, y cannot be true). In different ways, mystics argue that while we may never be able to logically or rationally apprehend it, things can be, paradoxically, both “black” and “white” simultaneously. Moreover, in the kabbalist’s “world of truth” (olam ha-emet), things are both black and white simultaneously, because the binaries of black and white are nonexistent. For some kabbalists, the unity of God is mirrored in the unity of existence, only part of which we can see without stepping outside the confines of our empirical lenses. Mystics from Rumi to Meister Eckhardt to the early followers of the Baal Shem Tov were often accused of heterodox views precisely because their doctrine of mystical paradox undercut the “orthodoxies” of doctrinal or even experiential certainty. Generally, mystics reject Aristotle’s law of the excluded middle.

So why is it that contemporary Haredim, many of whom hold allegiance to the paradox of opposites in kabbalistic teaching, a system that coheres to some degree with the modern uncertainty principle, live their lives in a world of rigid certainty? While this is not the place to answer this complex psycho-theological question, I can articulate an interpretation of coincidentia oppositorum drawn from kabbalistic teaching that might be useful in offering a model of religious tolerance not founded on one of the two pluralisms mentioned above. I do this for two reasons. First, Haredim would likely object to both models of pluralism mentioned above. They would reject the compromising posture of bifurcated pluralism as accommodationist and the atheistic posture of postmodern pluralism as blasphemous. Second, I am in search of a model for modern Jewish piety not founded on either of the above pluralisms, because while each cultivates social tolerance, neither in my view is particularly conducive to a life of devotion (as opposed to a life of religious practice).

Hasidic masters are fond of saying that the “All” is contained in each devotional act (mitzvah) one performs. For example, when one performs a mitzvah with intensity and focus, it is as if one is performing all the mitzvot. Yet, they also claim that no part of the “All” can contain the “All” — that all attempts to embody the “All” fall short by dint of our human limitations. Hence, for a religious act to be successful it must be performed with utter certainty. Yet, upon reflection, or in relation to another, we must acknowledge the uncertainty that lies embedded in, or perhaps frames, that certainty. We must act with certainty and be uncertain of the truth of that very act.

A similar principle applies to the kabbalistic ideas of the inner light (or penimi) and hovering light (or makif). The inner light is light that is absorbed into our consciousness and, for our purposes, represents certainty. The hovering light always remains beyond our comprehension and embodies the principle of uncertainty. Religious devotion must come from the light that is absorbed, apprehended, and thus — for the devotee — true. Perhaps we can say that religious relation is drawn from the uncertainty of all human apprehension in the or makif, the hovering light that cannot be absorbed. This distinction between devotion and relation is one way to embody the notion of the coincidentia oppositorum. We act from a place of certainty and reflect on that act from a place of uncertainty. To be “inside” a mitzvah requires a self that is certain, envisioned as embodying the divine in its entirety. However, when we relate to how others act differently, we stand squarely in the uncertainty principle, fully acknowledging that the certainty about how we act (the inner light) is framed by uncertainty in relation to the other (the hovering light). This is precisely what makes our acts transcendent. And it is precisely what gives our certainty religious, rather than merely rational, significance.

Why is this preferable to the two forms of pluralism mentioned above? First, there is no need to defend the certainty or truth of any position, because we fully acknowledge that truth, any truth, is both real and unstable — unstable in its very realness. Second, we avoid the cynical pitfalls of a fully constructed truth as it relates to religious devotion. In this model, we can never forcefully demand allegiance of our truths to another (the part that is “All” or the inner light of our devotion), because once we stand outside the act we recognize its constitutive uncertainty.

We can protest all we want about the ways in which the Haredim disrespect the pluralistic foundations of our vision of a free society. It will have little impact. They construct their world according to different rubrics. But our dissatisfaction with their certainty should also prompt us to reflect on the price we pay for our uncertainty. I suggest that a crucial distinction between devotion and relation exists in the very tradition the Haredim hold sacred. And, as important, I suggest that this model can contribute to the ways in which modern Jews can rethink the connection between the social mores they respect and the religious passion they desire.

1 For example, see the work of Elie Weisel, Marc Chagall, Martin Buber, Abraham Joshua Heschel, and Shlomo Carlebach.

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Shaul Magid is the Jay and Jeannie Schottenstein Professor of Jewish Studies in Modern Judaism at Indiana University Bloomington and a member of the Advisory Board of Sh’ma. His most recent book is From Metaphysics to Midrash: Myth, History, and the Interpretation of Scripture in Lurianic Kabbala (Indiana University Press, 2008). His forthcoming book, American Post-Judaism: Identity and Renewal in a Postethnic Society, will be published next year by Indiana University Press.

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