I admire my ancestors: They knew who they were. I am envious of them. They lived in a world of certainty. There were no doubts that they lived by the law of God and that suffering was a punishment for sin. They were willing to give up their lives to sanctify the Name of God and they endured bitter exile rather than surrender their identity and their faith. The encounter with the philosophy and science of the day was not fraught with the threat of disbelief and there was great confidence that one could live a life of synthesis. The Jews of old polemicized with confidence, arguing without any doubt for the superiority of their way of life. Even in a life that was nasty, brutish and short, the Jew could utter the words of the Shema on his deathbed or being burned at the stake knowing that the Garden of Eden and an afterlife were waiting.
The confidence of old has been shattered. After Auschwitz and the creation of a modern Jewish State, after a relentless assault on Divine Law by the forces of historicism, and after a European Enlightenment that undermined Revelation and Jewish self-confidence, we face numerous challenges as Jews. How do we make whole again that which has been broken to pieces? It is a daunting task. On the one hand, it is would be easy to throw out the baby with the bathwater and descend into the realm of a moral relativism that shuts down any claim to be a treasured people of God. On the other hand, it would be even easier to bathe the baby in dirty bathwater and reject all of the values and movements of modernity. These days, there seems to be no room for a middle ground, that middle path navigated by Philo, Saadya and Maimonides. Those who express doubts about God’s existence and justice are either labeled as atheists or censured as heretics. We either have to embrace all that is new as superior or reject all that is new as a threat to belief and a way of life.
We live in a difficult and frightening age. The extremes of atheism and fundamentalism cannot be the only answers to our dilemma and our alienation. After the events of our time it cannot be business as usual. We cannot return to a world in which Jewish law was the sole law of the self-governing community but to totally reject that law would be reckless and self-defeating. Judaism, even in a secular world, has much to say about how we live our lives and prevents us from worshiping all that is new. We can have a healthy respect for advances in science and technology yet realize that all human beings are ultimately of value and created in the image of God. We possess an indestructible soul. Science does not have all the answers. We are not slaves to an indifferent materialism. We have free will, to do good or evil. Determinism does not rule the day.
If Moses had the fortitude to save the tablets of the Law that he shattered, we can do the same as Jews. We can even emulate our greatest prophet by ascending Sinai and continuing the work that must be done to repair the relationship between God and His people in the face of a broken Covenant. We can never return to the Promised Land of absolute certainty. Doubt in the existence of God or in God’s justice has become a reality of what it means to be a Jew in the 21st century. We ask questions and that is not a crime. It is simply arrogant to embrace absolute certainty in the modern rejection of God or in the unquestioning acceptance of God that strengthened our ancestors but does not take into account the reality of recent history. Doubt forces us to question our relationship with God. That questioning ultimately will strengthen that relationship. Ambiguity and doubt need not lead to moral relativism and the leveling of the playing field. In fact, they make us stronger and better equipped to face the great challenges ahead.