The Power of Doubt

by Rabbi David Zaslow

Israel, 1990: Our Havurah tour group was boarding the bus to meet a renowned mystic in Tsfat who would reveal the hidden kabbalistic secrets of creation. Debbie, Judy, Claire, and Bill were staying behind in Tiberias where they would relax in the sun, be with the kids, or just enjoy the touristy boat ride across the Sea of Galilee. Debbie gave me her blessing to enjoy the teaching in Tsfat.

As I was saying good-bye, five year old Ari looked up at me with a gigantic tear falling down his cheek, and said, “Daddy, I don’t want you to go, I want you to stay with me today!” Oy, what should a would-be kabbalist do? How could I miss what was going to be the teaching of all teachings, the revelation of the secrets of creation itself? On the other hand, how could I say “no” to my son wanting to be with me? In less than a flash of an instant I said to Ari, “Okay, I’ll stay!” Bruce and Aryeh looked at me like I was crazy. Our little group boarded the boat for the ride across the Galilee.

To battle my doubt and despair at having stayed behind I went to the front of the boat, took out my guitar and the few remaining Havurahniks that stayed behind started singing “Hiney Ma Tov ” as we got underway. Suddenly a dozen members of a Christian choir from Spain joined in with exquisite harmonies. We spoke no Spanish. They spoke no English, but we all sang together in Hebrew. It was what we call in Yiddish a gevaldtik moment – powerful and inspiring. It was a taste of heaven! We kept singing as our Christian friends celebrated the place where Jesus walked on water, and where on a spiritual level we all felt as if we were walking on water at that very moment.

Last March Debbie and I stayed with Rachel in Brooklyn. From great jazz to the shul where Reb Zalman was ordained in the late 1940’s, all the way to the Twin Towers site – this trip was special. Except for one thing – I was dying to see a Broadway musical like Hairspray or the off-Broadway Elvis review called All Shook Up, but Rachel and Debbie would have nothing to do with my sentimental desires to relive my childhood. No, for these two urban sophisticates our night on Broadway was going to be meaningful – a drama! A drama? We’re in Manhattan for one evening and we’re going to a drama? Who was I married to? What kind of child did I raise?

They dragged me to Doubt, the 2005 Pulitzer Prize winning play by John Patrick Shanley, that deals with an accusation of child molestation against a priest. From the opening scene when Father Flynn delivers a brilliant sermon on the nature of doubt, I was riveted. For the next ninety-minutes everything would get turned inside out. A priest who was kind, progressive, and who sincerely loves kids is accused of molesting a boy by a nun who had no proof, only what she called her inner “certainties.” She was the kind of nun that my Catholic friends hated when they were growing up: strict and arrogant. Yet it was that very arrogance that gave her the courage to stand up against the priest, and the whole Church establishment if necessary. But is Father Flynn really guilty? Is Sister Aloysius crazed in her arrogance? I’m not giving anything away, but the audience will never find out anything with certainty. You will be given the gift of doubt itself. Whatever opinions you have about the priest or the nun, your own sense of certainty will be shaken. The play is nothing less than a parable of life itself and will, I believe, become an American classic.

I had doubt about staying with my family at the Sea of Galilee in 1990. I had doubt about seeing a drama with my daughter and wife in 2005. Yet it was the very energy of my doubts that permitted me to transform my own self-centeredness into two special experiences. And isn’t that what the High Holidays are really all about? We come to shul with doubt about our own self-worth, about out ability to really change, about the power of God to forgive. So, we work with the doubt – we shape it, we battle it, we let it shape us, observe the battle within us, and then at one amazing moment we surrender control to something greater than ourselves. For just a moment in one of the services (we never know which one), in one of the prayers (we’re never told in advance) we let go of the reins and let Shekhinah guide us for a change. Literally, She guides us for a change! As the popular saying goes we “let go and let God.” May the High Holidays be sweet, profound, healing, and transformative for each of us and our loved ones. May we hold on to our doubts as long as necessary, and may we know when to let go!

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