Thursday, January 15, 2009


I recently read a blog entry about the nature of uncertainty - it's one of my favorite topics (I think...).

If you have a philosophical bent, you can get yourself in a quandary where you realize that every decision you have to make is actually very to hard to make - there are so many factors and possibilities that it can start to overwhelm the mind. In the blogger's example, when asked what he wants for lunch, he has to assume he knows how different dishes taste - even ones which he may not have tried. Also, he has to consider not only what sounds good now, but what's going to sound good in 5 minutes, and also later today when he is exercising, and so on. The reality is, it's impossible to know what the best answer is to the question, "what do you want for lunch?"

So, then, how do you chose? If you don't want to always go hungry, how do you pick what you eat? At some point, you have to admit that you don't know what's best, and go with your best guess. Make a tiny leap-of-faith (an "order of faith"?). But, an honest, intelligent person will also admit that, however that order turns out, they don't know if it was the best option - there are always roads untaken.

It's not a fun way to go through life; it can be quite frustrating. Absolute surety is much more comfortable and easy:

What I would like to be able to say is, “I want the falafel.” Very definitively, with a sense of authority and calm.

“Are you sure?”

“Yes. I want the falafel. I swear: I want the falafel.”

I imagine this type of certainty is accompanied by an incredible sense of relief. The endless permutations of This Moment are reduced to one, clear path. All that remains is to take the necessary steps in the right direction. The horrifying image of an infinite number of compasses pointing North in an infinite number of different directions—with a blink, it disappears. North is North. “I swear.” (See, for example, Charlie Chaplin’s paper compass in ‘The Gold Rush’.)

But we are far too limited to attain such certainty. I can do my best but I will never really know what I should have for lunch.
There's an obvious religious parallel here. Not to put too fine a point on it, but surety is nice. It's much easier to be religious (or anything, I suppose) when we're sure that we're doing the right thing. But, if I really think about it, if I can't even say, with 100% confidence, what the "right" lunch is for me, how can I be 100% sure that my God is real, or that my religion is "right", or that my denomination is best? I can't. And that is precisely the difference between me (and, hopefully, you) and a fanatic - the understanding that we never know. We're never sure.

Like with lunch, in matters of faith we must sooner or later place our order, or we're going to be very hungry, and hold up the line (ok, the metaphor might break down, a little). But, that doesn't mean that our order is best. It's just ours. Remembering that we're not sure, not 100%, about that order is an important step, maybe the most important step, in accepting others who have different tastes than we do.


Lorinda said...

Very thought provoking! Even though I don't always leave a comment, I do often read and your blogs always give me something to think about. This entry reminds me of a quote that I love...

The world in which you were born is just one model of reality. Other cultures are not failed attempts at being you: they are unique manifestations of the human spirit.- Wade Davis

Jill Gallagher said...

a few comments:
1) no mention of the yankees in here. what's up with that?
2) now i'm hungry
3) what is this working out thing that you mention?
4) did i mention that now i'm hungry?

Jerry N-S said...

It is an interesting question, and one that I often consider. On a personal level I think there are areas of our lives that we can or must at least ACT with certainty. Sometimes it's because the choice we make has little real consequence, as what we eat for lunch for most of us (my apologies to those of you with food allergies or on a diet.) We get another shot at perfection tomorrow. Sometimes it's because we have sufficient expertise and experience to make certain choices when we must, like in an emergency while driving.

Belief, or faith, if you prefer, can NEVER have that degree of certainty, simply because the object of that faith is beyond the realm of direct human knowledge. (the definition of "direct human knowledge" will await a more in depth discussion - shorthand is what we can know through our senses and the instruments we create to enhance those senses...I'm aware this is unsatisfactory to many) This is what makes faith so transcendent for people, but also makes faith a great lever for manipulation, fear, and hate. And when that faith includes the notion of a capricious God who may intrude directly into the affairs of the Earth, that is, disrupt what we observe as the natural progression of things, the very nature of human knowledge is thrown into chaos. In fact, faith in such a God tends to disturb certainty for a thinking person, not enhance it. For the fanatic, not so much!

I agree that we eventually must place our order. But I see this more like the lunch example - we gotta eat again tomorrow and make a new choice, and so we must also reevaluate our choices in regards faith. In fact, we need to do this continuously. Maybe we end up order up the same thing each time - that's OK. But no one is STUCK with the choice they make unless they decide to be. But too many just don't even consider the menu.

Rabbi Jason Rosenberg said...

Jerry - I think we're saying very much the same thing (or, at least, similar). Every decision has two aspects to it - how sure we are of our choice, and how important it is to be right. With lunch, we can be very sure, and the import is very low - if we make a mistake, it's no big deal.

With religious decisions, things get reversed. We are very unsure of how right we are, but the stakes seem very high - it's important to be right. So, people act like they're sure, and they get very angry if you question them or challenge them!

In the end, we can act with certainty in any realm of our lives - culinary or religious - in the sense that we pick a path and walk down it (I don't equivocate about my Judaism, for example). That's never a problem - the problem is when we start to act like we we're so sure that everyone else must be wrong (because I am devoutly Jewish, everyone else is a sinner).

I'm not sure, though, that I follow what you're saying about a capricious God throwing the nature of human knowledge into chaos. Care to elaborate?

Mike Morgulis said...

I've read that cravings and desires for food actually stem from that which our bodies lack - so when you pass by the orange juice and pour yourself some milk, it's because your body craves the calcium and lactose. I think that in many ways, religion fills that craving as well - we crave answers to life's bigger questions like what happens when we die, do our lives have value and meaning, and how to we maintain order admist chaos.

As for which religion is the "right" one, that is personal choice. Most are born into a religion, some actually choose one later on, some shed theirs as well. I've heard many say "It's all about being a good person" but I think that falls way short of why we have religion. Science can tell you how the universe works, some religions help you understand why it works.

But it goes beyond belief, or at least it should. Humans are social animals, but we have to push the animal insticts down, through higher thought. Religions or cults that reinforce the animal insticts end up destroying humanity, not promoting it. And usually for very selfish purposes which border upon idolatry and worship of the self. Religions that promote higher thought and reason help to elevate humanity. When you're forcing someone to convert to your religion at gunpoint, you're at the lower level. When you're in a quandry about which decision to make, you're approaching the higher level. When you push aside satisfying a craving immediately to wait until you're eating Kosher or organic or vegetarian, you're at the higher level again.

Every decision has a consequence, whether it's immediate or years from now. You can't second-guess everything ad infinitum otherwise you stand still, unless of course that's the goal, to stand still. Moses stood still long enough to recognize that the bush was not being consumed... which was God's test to see if he had patience! I guess if you stand still long enough, the universe begins to reveal itself to us.

The untaken path is an interesting thought - Sliding Doors - is it a matter of chance or Divine Intervention that brings about a change in our lives? Should we turn right or left? Do we always have to drive forward? Must we always keep moving? Shul or the supermarket on Saturday? Making deliberate choices shapes our future, making whimsical choices adds the colour commentary to it.

Which one of the 613 commandments shall I do today, or continue to do? Why should I do it? What if... what if.... why should I even bother?

One choice I never have to make, however, is after eating falafel at the Jerusalem Restaurant... the meal is always finished with a piping hot black coffee. Some choices are easy!!

Jerry N-S said...

To be clear, that comment was not a direct reaction to anything in your piece, just some stray gray matter that snuck in from left field. It really comes from my gut reaction to people claiming God's will or even his help. You've talked about this in at least one sermon - it reduces God a bit to a cosmic vending machine - a gesture at home plate for a double, a prayer to catch the bus. Once one believes that God intervenes in this way, one cannot be sure that what one observes is "natural" or "normal" or the result of supernatural interference. It might be the result of request, reward, or punishment, or just playfulness, but it means that the observed order cannot really be known, since the interference comes from beyond human knowledge. And since we can readily observe that all prayers, no matter how sincere, are not answered, there is a capricious, or at least, inscrutable, nature to this interference. The Red Sox home run might be the result of someone else's prayer. Why was my prayer for a grounder to the short stop for the double play not answered?

Shorthand version from the verge of sleep, Jason.

Rabbi Jason Rosenberg said...

Jerry - I think you're on to something very important - a God who capriciously/randomly intervenes means that we live in world which we can't trust. Anything goes. Our sense of regular normalcy is just 99% valid; it can be overturned at any time (which would, in fact, explain the Red Sox winning two World Series...)

In the midrash, our sages tell us that all of the major miracles (the Red Sea, the ground opening up to swallow Korach, etc.) were built into creation - they were kind of timed-events, pre-planned by God. The idea behind this teaching, I learned, is to say that, despite how it looks, there are no exceptions to the natural order of things, or at least not any left. The world has always worked exactly as it is supposed to work. Nothing that we do, no prayer that we offer, can change the course of the world.

The Rabbis also said that it's an a invalid prayer to see smoke rising across town and say, "Please God, don't let that be my house." Why? Because whatever house is on fire is already on fire. God can't change that, no matter how hard you pray.

Trusting in the world is, according to our sages, one of the basic tenets of faith. A God who is willing, even on occasion, to overturn the laws of physics/nature/reality is actually a God who can't be fully trusted!

Of course, that still leaves us trying to explain those Red Sox...

benjaminb1 said...

tsk tsk. You need to accept the fact that the Red Sox are the epitome of amazingness rabbi.

Mold Removal Tampa said...

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