Avoiding Your Belief’s Real Weak Points

A few years back, my great-grand­mother died, in her nineties, af­ter a long, slow, and cruel dis­in­te­gra­tion. I never knew her as a per­son, but in my dis­tant child­hood, she cooked for her fam­ily; I re­mem­ber her gefilte fish, and her face, and that she was kind to me. At her funeral, my grand-un­cle, who had taken care of her for years, spoke. He said, chok­ing back tears, that God had called back his mother piece by piece: her mem­ory, and her speech, and then fi­nally her smile; and that when God fi­nally took her smile, he knew it wouldn’t be long be­fore she died, be­cause it meant that she was al­most en­tirely gone.

I heard this and was puz­zled, be­cause it was an un­think­ably hor­rible thing to hap­pen to any­one, and there­fore I would not have ex­pected my grand-un­cle to at­tribute it to God. Usu­ally, a Jew would some­how just-not-think-about the log­i­cal im­pli­ca­tion that God had per­mit­ted a tragedy. Ac­cord­ing to Jewish the­ol­ogy, God con­tinu­ally sus­tains the uni­verse and chooses ev­ery event in it; but or­di­nar­ily, draw­ing log­i­cal im­pli­ca­tions from this be­lief is re­served for hap­pier oc­ca­sions. By say­ing “God did it!” only when you’ve been blessed with a baby girl, and just-not-think­ing “God did it!” for mis­car­riages and stil­lbirths and crib deaths, you can build up quite a lop­sided pic­ture of your God’s benev­olent per­son­al­ity.

Hence I was sur­prised to hear my grand-un­cle at­tribut­ing the slow dis­in­te­gra­tion of his mother to a de­liber­ate, strate­gi­cally planned act of God. It vi­o­lated the rules of re­li­gious self-de­cep­tion as I un­der­stood them.

If I had no­ticed my own con­fu­sion, I could have made a suc­cess­ful sur­pris­ing pre­dic­tion. Not long af­ter­ward, my grand-un­cle left the Jewish re­li­gion. (The only mem­ber of my ex­tended fam­ily be­sides my­self to do so, as far as I know.)

Modern Ortho­dox Ju­daism is like no other re­li­gion I have ever heard of, and I don’t know how to de­scribe it to any­one who hasn’t been forced to study Mishna and Ge­mara. There is a tra­di­tion of ques­tion­ing, but the kind of ques­tion­ing . . . It would not be at all sur­pris­ing to hear a rabbi, in his weekly ser­mon, point out the con­flict be­tween the seven days of cre­ation and the 13.7 billion years since the Big Bang—be­cause he thought he had a re­ally clever ex­pla­na­tion for it, in­volv­ing three other Bibli­cal refer­ences, a Mi­drash, and a half-un­der­stood ar­ti­cle in Scien­tific Amer­i­can. In Ortho­dox Ju­daism you’re al­lowed to no­tice in­con­sis­ten­cies and con­tra­dic­tions, but only for pur­poses of ex­plain­ing them away, and who­ever comes up with the most com­pli­cated ex­pla­na­tion gets a prize.

There is a tra­di­tion of in­quiry. But you only at­tack tar­gets for pur­poses of defend­ing them. You only at­tack tar­gets you know you can defend.

In Modern Ortho­dox Ju­daism I have not heard much em­pha­sis of the virtues of blind faith. You’re al­lowed to doubt. You’re just not al­lowed to suc­cess­fully doubt.

I ex­pect that the vast ma­jor­ity of ed­u­cated Ortho­dox Jews have ques­tioned their faith at some point in their lives. But the ques­tion­ing prob­a­bly went some­thing like this: “Ac­cord­ing to the skep­tics, the To­rah says that the uni­verse was cre­ated in seven days, which is not sci­en­tifi­cally ac­cu­rate. But would the origi­nal tribe­s­peo­ple of Is­rael, gath­ered at Mount Si­nai, have been able to un­der­stand the sci­en­tific truth, even if it had been pre­sented to them? Did they even have a word for ‘billion’? It’s eas­ier to see the seven-days story as a metaphor—first God cre­ated light, which rep­re­sents the Big Bang . . .”

Is this the weak­est point at which to at­tack one’s own Ju­daism? Read a bit fur­ther on in the To­rah, and you can find God kil­ling the first-born male chil­dren of Egypt to con­vince an un­elected Pharaoh to re­lease slaves who log­i­cally could have been tele­ported out of the coun­try. An Ortho­dox Jew is most cer­tainly fa­mil­iar with this epi­sode, be­cause they are sup­posed to read through the en­tire To­rah in syn­a­gogue once per year, and this event has an as­so­ci­ated ma­jor holi­day. The name “Passover” (“Pe­sach”) comes from God pass­ing over the Jewish house­holds while kil­ling ev­ery male first­born in Egypt.

Modern Ortho­dox Jews are, by and large, kind and civ­i­lized peo­ple; far more civ­i­lized than the sev­eral ed­i­tors of the Old Tes­ta­ment. Even the old rab­bis were more civ­i­lized. There’s a rit­ual in the Seder where you take ten drops of wine from your cup, one drop for each of the Ten Plagues, to em­pha­size the suffer­ing of the Egyp­ti­ans. (Of course, you’re sup­posed to be sym­pa­thetic to the suffer­ing of the Egyp­ti­ans, but not so sym­pa­thetic that you stand up and say, “This is not right! It is wrong to do such a thing!”) It shows an in­ter­est­ing con­trast—the rab­bis were suffi­ciently kinder than the com­pilers of the Old Tes­ta­ment that they saw the harsh­ness of the Plagues. But Science was weaker in these days, and so rab­bis could pon­der the more un­pleas­ant as­pects of Scrip­ture with­out fear­ing that it would break their faith en­tirely.

You don’t even ask whether the in­ci­dent re­flects poorly on God, so there’s no need to quickly blurt out “The ways of God are mys­te­ri­ous!” or “We’re not wise enough to ques­tion God’s de­ci­sions!” or “Mur­der­ing ba­bies is okay when God does it!” That part of the ques­tion is just-not-thought-about.

The rea­son that ed­u­cated re­li­gious peo­ple stay re­li­gious, I sus­pect, is that when they doubt, they are sub­con­sciously very care­ful to at­tack their own be­liefs only at the strongest points—places where they know they can defend. More­over, places where re­hears­ing the stan­dard defense will feel strength­en­ing.

It prob­a­bly feels re­ally good, for ex­am­ple, to re­hearse one’s pre­scripted defense for “Doesn’t Science say that the uni­verse is just mean­ingless atoms bop­ping around?” be­cause it con­firms the mean­ing of the uni­verse and how it flows from God, etc. Much more com­fortable to think about than an illiter­ate Egyp­tian mother wailing over the crib of her slaugh­tered son. Any­one who spon­ta­neously thinks about the lat­ter, when ques­tion­ing their faith in Ju­daism, is re­ally ques­tion­ing it, and is prob­a­bly not go­ing to stay Jewish much longer.

My point here is not just to beat up on Ortho­dox Ju­daism. I’m sure that there’s some re­ply or other for the Slay­ing of the First­born, and prob­a­bly a dozen of them. My point is that, when it comes to spon­ta­neous self-ques­tion­ing, one is much more likely to spon­ta­neously self-at­tack strong points with com­fort­ing replies to re­hearse, than to spon­ta­neously self-at­tack the weak­est, most vuln­er­a­ble points. Similarly, one is likely to stop at the first re­ply and be com­forted, rather than fur­ther crit­i­ciz­ing the re­ply. A bet­ter ti­tle than “Avoid­ing Your Belief’s Real Weak Points” would be “Not Spon­ta­neously Think­ing About Your Belief’s Most Pain­ful Weak­nesses.”

More than any­thing, the grip of re­li­gion is sus­tained by peo­ple just-not-think­ing-about the real weak points of their re­li­gion. I don’t think this is a mat­ter of train­ing, but a mat­ter of in­stinct. Peo­ple don’t think about the real weak points of their be­liefs for the same rea­son they don’t touch an oven’s red-hot burn­ers; it’s painful.

To do bet­ter: When you’re doubt­ing one of your most cher­ished be­liefs, close your eyes, empty your mind, grit your teeth, and de­liber­ately think about what­ever hurts the most. Don’t re­hearse stan­dard ob­jec­tions whose stan­dard coun­ters would make you feel bet­ter. Ask your­self what smart peo­ple who dis­agree would say to your first re­ply, and your sec­ond re­ply. When­ever you catch your­self flinch­ing away from an ob­jec­tion you fleet­ingly thought of, drag it out into the fore­front of your mind. Punch your­self in the so­lar plexus. Stick a knife in your heart, and wig­gle to widen the hole. In the face of the pain, re­hearse only this:1

What is true is already so.

Own­ing up to it doesn’t make it worse.

Not be­ing open about it doesn’t make it go away.

And be­cause it’s true, it is what is there to be in­ter­acted with.

Any­thing un­true isn’t there to be lived.

Peo­ple can stand what is true,

for they are already en­dur­ing it.

1Eu­gene T. Gendlin, Fo­cus­ing (Ban­tam Books, 1982).