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Sacred Doubt
Kol Nidrei, 5768/2007
© Rabbi Jack Moline

Thank you for your interest in my High Holy Day sermon. I hope you enjoy reading it. Please note that this material is under my copyright. You have my permission to forward it in its entirety, but not excerpted, as long as you include this disclaimer. I am sorry for these conditions, but they save me a lot of explaining on the other end! Jack Moline

We live in and around the nation's capital, and so meeting the people who make policies and make headlines is not all that unusual. In fact, BEING those people is not all that unusual. But I grew up in the suburbs of Chicago and I remember the thrill of discovering that one of my third-grade classmates was the son of a local kiddy-show host. In some sense, I have never lost the sense of excitement of meeting people in public office and public policy.

What has changed from my star-struck reactions of twenty years ago to my attitude of today is a discovery that sounds simple to most of you: the people whose work is so celebrated live very usual lives. They drive carpools and pay bills. They cherish family and friends, but often don't know how to balance the demands of work with the demands of the heart. They give love and seek it in return. They rejoice with pride in the small accomplishments of second grade, the soccer field, first jobs and promotions. They deal with illness, bereavement, betrayal and disappointment. Different from most others, especially outside of Washington and Hollywood, they do it under the glare of public scrutiny, that combination of fascination and prurient interest that is the price of celebrity.

As I have responded to the opportunities presented in this town, I have come to know a small number of public servants very well. At various times, I have devoted a significant amount of my personal time to the tending of their souls, just as I try to offer my modest talents to the souls of this congregation. I consider it my public service, service to the country I managed to avoid when I was a student, and to the extent that the opportunities arise, I am decidedly non-partisan in my service.

One of those people used to work in the White House – you'll figure out who it is as the story progresses – and I asked him once about coming to work there on a regular basis. Do you still feel a sense of excitement and purpose, I asked. Every day, he responded. Actually, there was an adjective between "every" and "day" that I can't repeat from the pulpit, but it only served to amplify his enthusiasm.

I got a call from that person one day during an August past asking my help in advising his boss, a President of the United States whose personal conduct had come under public scrutiny with particular fascination and prurient interest. I knew that my attitude about proximity to power had changed when, instead of feeling a surge of importance, I became profoundly sad. What I offered for the President in that moment you hold in your hands right now – words of contrition, abject regret and full responsibility from the Yom Kippur liturgy.

And I offered a small teaching that touched the heart of the man – I know because he told me so – from tractate Yevamot (25b): ein adam meisim aztmo rasha, "a person may not consider himself wicked."

Just because advice is sought and offered doesn't mean it is taken. It was the first of many times I encouraged people in the public eye to be genuine, to take responsibility for their mistakes, to acknowledge their doubts and shortcomings, but at the same time to embrace the essential goodness and holiness that is their divine nature. It is the same advice I try to give you, collectively in these settings and individually when you privilege me with your confidence. It is hard, perhaps among the hardest things. Most people outside of the rarified atmosphere of a room like this, or a confessional booth, or a therapist's couch find it to be as difficult in private as the President found it to be in public. My subsequent experience with electeds and appointeds, advocates and bureaucrats is as consistent as my experience with family, friends and congregants. It is my own experience as well.

The enemy is not sin. The enemy is not transgression. The enemy is not temptation, small or large. The enemy seems to be, in the minds of the famous and the obscure and everyone in between, the enemy seems to be doubt.

There is doubt, and then there is doubt. Tonight's discourse is not about the doubt you feel when you read the claims of the newest weight-loss supplement, nor when you confront the affirmation that a compact electronic device will make your life easier. That's just caution. And I am not referring to the doubt you feel when you hear someone's explanations about retrieving personal sports memorabilia or tapping a foot in a public toilet stall or making negative references to rich Jews. That's just cynicism. In both cases, those kinds of doubt are about the words and actions of others. And for all your experience, you are likely to be far more gullible about and forgiving of the words and actions of others than you would smugly affirm if asked by a pollster.

No, the doubt I am talking about is the gnawing feeling in the pit of your belly or the small of your brain that makes you question your goals and your dreams and your purpose in life. It is the dread that you feel when you even consider the possibility that the most deeply held convictions of your life about values and convictions, about love, about faith are less than dependable. It is the ache in your heart when you consider yourself wicked and unworthy.

I have to admit to you that this sermon was supposed to head in another direction. I had a desperate wrestling match with it early this week and finally allowed myself to be defeated since I knew the best I could hope for was a draw. I am so deeply troubled by the ideological wars that are being waged not only on this country but by this country in return that I was ready to rip into ideologues of all stripes, knowing full well that I would probably aggravate most of you in the process since the ideologues are running the asylum at the moment.

But the more I looked at the subject, and especially when I ended three unsuccessful days at the computer trying to force my opinion into the message of Yom Kippur, the more I realized that the ideologue of any persuasion is only responding to the ache, the dread, the gnawing feeling with denial. In that regard, it is no different than the transgressor who responds to the ache, the dread, the gnawing feeling with defensiveness and accusations of persecution, conspiracy and personal vendetta.

Why is doubt so threatening that it must be pushed back or projected elsewhere? In a sense, I blame our tradition with its human emphasis on perfection. Torat H' t'mima, we wrote in the Psalms. "God's Torah is perfect." Yom shekulo Shabbat u'M'nucha, we wrote in the Grace after Meals. "A day that is thoroughly rest and relaxation." Ani ma'amin be'emunah sh'leimah, we wrote in the Middle Ages. "I believe with a perfect faith." Barukh dayan ha'emet, we wrote for mourners to say. "Praise to the true Judge."

We tell ourselves the Torah is perfect, then we panic when its message conflicts with our lives. We tell ourselves Shabbat is perfect, then we resent when it makes demands we consider unreasonable. We tell ourselves that faith is perfect, then we grasp at pacifiers when it does not sustain us. We tell ourselves that God is perfect, then we collapse into ourselves when God's justice seems anything but. The facts of our experiences that contradict the assertions of our tradition create a deep sense of dissonance. We doubt Torah, we doubt faith, we doubt God.

Please don't consider this circumstance unique to Jewish tradition. Christianity has a theology that is built on the profound doubt that any human being can be perfect. Islam has a theology that presumes perfection in the Qur'an and suppresses any doubt about it. America celebrated just this week the 220th anniversary of the foundation of its legal system, which presumes to form a more perfect union and then spells out what we the people will do to secure, that is, to provide without doubt, the blessings of liberty to us and our posterity.

The more seriously a person takes these mandates, the more threatening doubt can be. And, as I mentioned, there are two ways to deal with doubt. The first is to deny it. And that is indeed the approach of the ideologue. When you are lashed to an immovable object the winds of doubt cannot topple you. Maybe it is a triumphal religious vision. Maybe it is a triumphal political vision. Maybe it is a triumphal military vision. To the ideologue, an expression of doubt is blasphemy, sedition or treason. Denial does not resolve the doubt; it only drives it deeper within.

The other way to deal with doubt is to deflect it. By blaming the doubts within on the influences without, you can pretend, maybe even convincingly, that were it not for some independent evil, some outside source of corruption, some devil with a blue dress, some rich power-broker, some unwanted alien things would be just fine. Defensiveness does not resolve doubt; it only obscures its true source.

You may very well suggest to me that there is another way to deal with doubt – that is, to surrender to it. It may even seem to you that American society has adopted this approach as example after example of what is familiar falls away: male and female roles in society, compensating for disadvantage rather than rewarding initiative, relying on volunteers to defend our liberties rather than expecting it of all healthy citizens, redefining love and marriage. Another time, I will gladly debate you about which of those are results of surrender and which of courage. But surrendering to doubt is a perpetual process. It does not resolve doubt; it enshrines it as a guiding principle.

My conversations with public figures and my conversations in the privacy of my office have made me aware of the deep need we all seem to have to dispel the doubt in our lives. If we cannot depend on the infrastructure of our lives, won't we collapse in a heap? If we cannot maintain a sense of the purity of mission, of the perfection of motivation, of the integrity of our hearts, are we not condemned to hypocrisy, failure and defeat?


The holiest figure of the second half of the twentieth century was Mother Teresa. From the time she left home at age 18 to become a missionary through her death ten years ago at the age of 87, she devoted her entire life to the service of others. First as a teacher, then as a self-taught social worker, and finally as a relief worker for the poorest and weakest of Indian society – almost none of whom shared her Roman Catholic faith – she inspired the world with her selfless dedication to the principles of love and compassion she embraced. On those rare occasions that she could be coaxed out of India, mostly to raise funds for and awareness of her work, she spoke passionately of her respect for life and devotion to God. Even those who found very traditional Catholic expressions of respect for life and devotion to God to be personally troubling, she was still universally hailed as an example of the power that personal faith had to motivate an individual to make the world a better place.

It is no secret now that the love and service that typified Mother Teresa's public life was matched or even exceeded by the crippling doubt that pervaded her private spiritual life. She enjoyed an almost ecstatic sense of communion with God during her earliest years. But suddenly, in 1948, and virtually without interruption for the rest of her life, Mother Teresa was overwhelmed with a sense of abandonment.

Listen to the words of the holiest person of the generation past:

"I call, I cling, I want – and there is no One to answer – no One on whom I can cling – no, No One – Alone…Where is my Faith – even deep down right in there is nothing, but emptiness and darkness – My God – how painful is this unknown pain – I have no Faith – I dare not utter the words and thoughts that crowd in my heart – and make me suffer untold agony.

So many unanswered questions live within me afraid to uncover them – because of the blasphemy – If there be God – please forgive me – When I try to raise my thoughts to Heaven – there is such convicting emptiness that those very thoughts return like sharp knives and hurt my very soul. – I am told God loves me – and yet the reality of darkness and coldness and emptiness is so great that nothing touches my soul. Did I make a mistake in surrendering blindly to the Call of the Sacred Heart?"

Some have called this the dark night of the soul, the long dry spell that deeply religious people sometimes feel as their spiritual life spins a cocoon as a prelude to the rebirth of devotion. But my friend and colleague Irwin Kula has a better name for what Mother Teresa experienced and passed along to us as a gift more valuable and enduring even than her example of selfless service to the poor. Rabbi Kula calls it "sacred doubt." It is a curative to those of us – to all of us – who believe that in ways large or small we are called on to be perfect in our actions, in our faith and in our lives.

What makes doubt sacred? I hope I can persuade you that just as surely as love and compassion and justice and gratitude are endowments that reflect the image of God in which we are created, that doubt as well is something we have been given to reflect the very nature of God.

Our Sages were reluctant to ascribe to God a sense of doubt, but even their abiding respect for the Holy One could not hold them back as they reflected on the divine nature. And so they created alter egos for God. Listen to this midrash on the creation of the first human being (Sanhedrin 38a):

R. Judah said in the name of Rav: When the Holy One was about to create man, He first created a company of ministering angels and asked them, "Is it your desire that `we make man in our image?'" They replied, "Master of the Universe, what will be his deeds?" God said, "He will do such and such." Indignantly they exclaimed, "Master of the Universe, `what is man that You are mindful of him, and the son of man that You [even] think of him?'" At that, God stretched out his little finger at them and consumed them with fire.

The same thing happened with a second company [of angels]. The third company said to him, "Master of the Universe, to what avail the former [angels who spoke to You?] The whole world is Yours, and whatever You wish to do in it, you will do!"

We owe our very existence to God's internal struggle about whether we were worth the trouble, at least according to the architects of the midrash, who had the courage to include this story. But the midrash itself is provoked by the text of the Torah, two small words that open a world of speculation. Surveying the world in the time before the flood, the Torah tells us that "the Lord regretted having made man on the earth, and His heart was saddened." Vayinachem, God regretted, vayit'atzev, God was saddened.

At that moment, at that critical moment the internal debate that preceded the creation of humanity overwhelmed God. Imagine, if you can be audacious enough, the thoughts that plagued God's mind.

I call, I cling, I want – and there is no One to answer – no One on whom I can cling – no, No One – Alone…Where is my Faith – even deep down right in there is nothing, but emptiness and darkness – how painful is this unknown pain – I have no Faith – I dare not utter the words and thoughts that crowd in my heart – and make me suffer untold agony.

So many unanswered questions live within me afraid to uncover them -- n – there is such convicting emptiness that those very thoughts return like sharp knives and hurt my very soul. – I am told God loves – and yet the reality of darkness and coldness and emptiness is so great that nothing touches my soul. Did I make a mistake?

We know the answers God accept within if only because we are here today. The doubt that defined the moment for God led to eventual renewal – not because it was denied, nor because it was deflected, but because it was embraced. Doubt is not betrayal. Doubt is not defeat. Doubt is the measure both of our humanity and our divinity, our understanding that there is always a choice, always an option, always another possibility, even when we choose the original course.

Without doubt, we are alone in the world because we rely only on that which is already in our minds and in our hearts. And it is easy to fall into the trap. When a nation puts its trust in you, when a district puts its trust in you, when a congregation puts its trust in you, when a child, a lover, a friend puts that trust in you the desire to be perfect is powerful, and the desire to be powerful is almost perfect.

Denial and deflection bring short-term relief, but they diminish the wholeness of a human life. Denial and deflection by a society bring short-term relief, but they diminish the wholeness of human lives. Looking to do the right and the good in the face of personal doubt is the Godly choice. Embracing doubt is the sacred choice. Lighting a candle against the dark night of the soul is the redemptive choice. To do otherwise will inevitably lead a person to consider himself wicked.

Those of us who will never approximate Mother Teresa's holiness have trudged through this bleak wilderness of spiritual emptiness. The people who represent us in the public forum are no more perfect than we are in our private lives. They sometimes need our permission to doubt, however. We must not withhold it.

Over the decades that we have shared this journey at Agudas Achim, I have found myself in that bleak wilderness many times. I can't ask you to put your needs on hold while I resolve a personal existential crisis. It takes a depth of genuine holiness much more profound than I ever hope to know to question with the passion and audacity of a saint in waiting. But I will do my best to remember to light that candle when the darkness falls, or at least accept your spark when mine fails.

Of that, you need have no doubt.

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