Yom Kippur 5779 - Doubt is Your Friend
... Certainty Is Not
Many a phone call with my mother, of blessed memory, would begin, “Wahashtini, ya ibni. Laesh mish bit kelimni?” Which means, you’ve made me miss you, my son. Why don’t you ever call.”
There are rabbis who give sermons to mostly empty sanctuaries who similarly complain to the few people who showed up, that nobody shows up.
So let me start by saying, “Thank you for showing up.”
Showing up is the most important step. My friend Edmond David told me about exercising, once. He said, if you do nothing but put on your sneakers, you should consider that a successful work out.
Indeed, our High Holiday liturgy contains this line in the Une Taneh Tokef, “ad yom moto, techakeh lo” - saying that God accepts our repentance, even if we don’t get there until our dying day. We’re still ahead of the game.
So now that we are all here, I’d like to tell you a personal story, from long before many of you were born.
When I was 5 years old, my mother, z”l, brought me and my younger sister to visit our aunt, Bella, and grandmother, Rachel, in their high rise apartment in the Bronx. In my youth, and truthfully, to this very day, I loved to jump. I’d jump as high as I could, as far as I could, and I liked to jump down from as high as I could, like from the middle of a flight of stairs to the bottom.
One evening at Tante Bella’s, I managed to open the bathroom window. It was autumn, and a cool draft ran through the apartment. I climbed onto the window ledge, and looking down to the sidewalk, about 6 stories below, I thought to myself, “It’s farther than I’ve jumped before, but I think I can jump this.”
I remember the briefest moment of hesitation, and then I heard Tante Bella’s booming voice, looking for the source of the cold draft. I turned to see her at the bathroom door, with a look of horror on her face. Her arm seemed to stretch from the doorway to the window sill, wrap around me, and pull me into her ample bosom.
Bella brought me to my mother and told her what dangerous stuff I was up to. My mother, who had quite an “Old World” sense of parenting, said that if I ever pulled a stunt like that again, she would leave me there.
As best I can remember, and we’ll talk about that in a bit, I was shocked, embarrassed, and scared witless about the mistake I had apparently made, but more about being left alone in New York City. My grandmother, whom we called Nonna, had an old-world sense of telling others how to parent their children. She pulled me close, hugged me, and said, “met khefsh, ye ibni” - “Don’t be afraid, my son.” You can always stay with me.
Those were the only words I remember my Nonna speaking to me. She died the following.
I tell you this story not because of the love and acceptance my Nonna gave, for which I am still grateful, but because of my hesitation. That moment of doubt about my ability to make the jump down to the sidewalk, saved my life. Had I not hesitated, I would not be standing here today.
We are about to confess a hundred sins. Whether those are your own sins, or whether your own personal issues are buried too deeply to declare in public, you would not be here if you thought you were a saint. None of us is.
We have all made mistakes in the past year, and we all will make mistakes in the coming year. Wouldn’t it be nice to make new ones?
The problem is that who we are is what made it possible for us to make those mistakes. So unless we change something about who we are, we’re likely to recreate our history.
But Yom Kippur is also the most hopeful day of the Jewish year. It is a day not just of confessing our sins, but of proclaiming our agency! Today is the day in the Jewish year dedicated to affirming our God given ability to choose differently than what we chose yesterday.
And unless we have some good measure of self-doubt, we won’t have any reason to change.
Folks, I think doubt is in short supply these days. I think we are in a full scale doubt drought, and it does not bode well for our future.
So, if we can come through this YK just a little bit less sure of our attitudes, and a little bit more cynical of certainty and self-righteousness, I think it will enable us to bridge some of the communication gaps that plague our social discourse today.
In fact, self-doubt is a necessary, though insufficient first step for breaking down one’s hubris and self-righteousness. The other is respecting the humanity of those who are not like us. These are like 2 sides of a coin.
Here is the rub. Respecting the others’ humanity is not pity for those who are not as wealthy as you. It’s not being charitable to the “great unwashed masses” as an uncharitable acquaintance of mine once put it.
Respecting the other’s humanity is accepting that a person can have a viewpoint that contradicts your own narrative, and still be a good human being.*
Accepting that another person is good even though their choices contradict our own, does not mean our choices are wrong.
Let me give an example.
There is a substantial and often animated (often vitriolic) debate in America about public versus private education.
On one hand there are those who believe the best way to improve the education of our children is to correct the historic underfunding of our public schools, to end the disparities between FL and MA, between poor inner city and poor rural schools and affluent suburban schools.
Some want the complete opposite - to put children’s education completely into their guardians’ hands with vouchers and school choice.
I’m going to go out on a limb and propose to you that there is a common goal between these two sides, and that is, that both sides want a better future for our children. Their ways of achieving that better future have so far proved incompatible. And so, they will continue to fight, but they don’t have to hate.
Last January, I was waiting for a plane to Rochester. I had my violin with me, and I noticed a middle aged woman and teenage boy with a big hard shell cello case. They were from rural Arkansas and the boy was auditioning at Eastman School of Music, a place that is close to my heart.
In the course of conversation, the mom said that she had homeschooled her boy. Later, in the conversation, I made a biblical reference, thinking they were Evangelical Christians, and that she would know the reference.
But she corrected me, and said, “A lot of people believe that, but actually we’re not.” The reason they homeschooled was because they wanted to provide a liberal education, and that wasn’t available in the more homogeneous public schools.
I thanked her for disabusing me of my prejudgement.
Part 2: A Neuropsychological Background
In tomorrow morning’s haftarah, Isaiah exhorts us to unlock the chains of wickedness. Would that those chains were merely made of steel.
For us here tonight, breaking the neural pathways that bind us to believe our biases is our job, and far more difficult job than many of us imagine.
Neuropsychologist, Dr. Orli Peter, has a two sentence mantra: “Never trust what you think. Certainty is not your friend.”
She says people hold their thoughts too dearly. Our stories, our image of self (I’m fat, I’m skinny, I’m too tall, I’m too short, I’m smart, I’m not smart, I’m macho, I’m cool, I’m nerdy), This self-image along with our memories all become subject to confirmation bias.
Whatever we believe to be true, we find or amplify in our experiences. Whatever we do not believe to be true, or can not accept as true, we minimize or ignore.
The longer this process happens, the more we confirm. Neuroscientists attribute this to the understanding that memory is not mere recall, like opening a file on your computer. To re-member, as we discussed on Rosh Hashanah, is really to piece many things together again.
It is during this process of piecing back together that new information can be added, while information that is not consonant with our beliefs can be removed.
For example, the story I told earlier, from when I was 5 - some things about it are true. We did take the train to NYC and stayed with my Tante Bella, but was I 5 or 4 or 6? Was it the 6th story, or the 10th, or was it the 2nd?
Bella did rescue me, but did she have magical powers like Stretchable Man of the Fantastics?
(I think it’s safe to say she probably did not have magical powers.)
“Never trust what you think. Certainty is not your friend.”
Religiously, the opposite of doubt is belief. Faith and hope lie somewhere in between. As Jews, there is only one thing we believe, and that belief holds such a special place, even our name for it is a mystery, the unpronounceable Tetragrammaton, Yud Hey Vav Hey. We say that G-d is Kadosh, really separate, in part, because we discipline ourselves not to believe anything else.
On one hand there is G-d, on the other, there are only questions to be answered through rational and critical thinking. And for every answer, there are always more questions. We have no choice but to live with doubt.
Of course, this has to be put into perspective. Doubt in excess can paralyze us. So how do we embrace doubt and make decisions, and how do we look backward and move forward?
Part 3: Our history
There is a Rabbinic saying which refers back to our matriarch, Rebecca. As you know, Rebecca carried twins, Jacob and Esau. They became bitter enemies. For 1,500 years, the archetype of Israel’s worst enemy was Esau.
Esau morphed into Edom. He became Assyria, Greece and eventually Rome, when Romans first conquered Judea.
That enmity was thought to be intractable until after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in the year 70 C.E., the execution of the Great Sages, including Rabbi Akiva which we will read about tomorrow, the forced exile of most of the Jews to the Roman empire, and real prospect of extinction for Am Yisrael.
In the face of all this, Rabbi Yehudah HaNassi developed a counternarrative, expressed in the Talmud, which we hold to this day.
Rabbi Yehudah HaNassi (Judah, The Prince) was born in Judea around 135 C.E., just around the time the Romans crushed the Bar Kochba rebellion. Perhaps his greatest contribution to the continuity of the Jewish people was that he redacted the Six Orders of the Mishneh.
He was greatly respected, head of the Sanhedrin, and led the Jews who continued to live in Judea after the Romans destroyed the Beit Hamiqdash. The Gemara refers to a Roman boy named Antoninus**, who was born at about the same time as Yehudah.
The Talmud relates that when the Roman authorities heard that Yehudah was circumcised, his mother was summoned to the magistrate. By then, Roman Law forbade circumcision. The punishment was death.
On the way to the magistrate, Yehuda’s mother stopped at an inn run by Antoninus’s mother.
When Antoninus’s mother heard what was about to happen, she offered to let the Jewish mother bring the uncircumcised Antoninus in front of the Magistrate, to fool the authorities.
The trick worked. Yehuda’s mother was eternally grateful, and the two mothers vowed they and their sons would always be friends.
Yehudah grew to become the leader of the Jews, and Antoninus the leader of the Romans. The two remained friends all their lives.
The Talmud presents many of their discussions of important issues, in which one realized that he was wrong and the other was right.
The message from the Talmud is beautiful, powerful, and oh so relevant in our intensely polarized society today. For 1,500 years, our nation repeated a collective belief that Esau and his heirs were our perpetual foes. But then, we chose differently.
Instead of confirming our bias, we developed a whole new reason for the destruction of the Beit Hamiqdash. It was not Romans’ evilness, but our own grave sin Sin’at Hinam, baseless hatred of one Jew against another.
We chose differently then, and we can choose differently today.
That which we believe to be intractable enmity does not have to be so. We merely have to consider the faintest possibility that we are not correct, and we can only entertain that possibility if we embrace doubt.
Later in Jewish writing, we find the saying, “May you be like Rebecca’s womb.” In other words, may you be able to hold and balance two things that are in conflict.
(or for you trekkie geeks out there, can you have an antimatter containment field in the warp drive na-cell.)
Curiously, modern neuroscience has discovered the function of a part of our brains called the anterior cingulate cortex.
This set of neurons is physically lodged deep within our brains, and functions, among other things, as a sort of bridge between our limbic system and our cortex, between our emotions and our higher thinking functions.
It apparently enables us to hold multiple conflicting thoughts simultaneously, enabling us further to solve our most complex problems.
It is a Rebecca’s Womb that lives within each of us.
Tomorrow, we will read from the Book of Isaiah, one of the most famous soliloquies in literature.
“Shout with all your voice. Declare to God’s people their sin. Yes, you say you are praying to God. You say you want to be near God. But then you go about your business as usual. You fast your bodies, but then cheat your workers!” “Is this the fast that God wants?”
Isaiah must break our hubris, our conceit, and our self-righteousness. Only then can we see and take responsibility for the inequality and corruption that led to our downfall.
Only then can we understand the real meaning of Yom Kippur, a day in which we accept not only our responsibility for what exists today, but our responsibility for creating the world we want tomorrow.
This hour marks the beginning of a day of confession and introspection. It’s also the most hopeful day of the Jewish year.
Today, together, we become agents of change. Let us shout with all our voices, “Today we choose,” and may we be humble enough to succeed.
* Of course, there is a limit to acceptable behavior. When that behavior advocates or performs acts of physical harm, one must not merely invoke dialog, but one must invoke the rule of law.** The name, Antoninus, in this context, does not reflect Roman history, but may have been adopted, as Emperor Antoninus, who was born in Rome and not in Judea, was known as a good and Just emperor.