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Uncertainty is a Revelation of the Divine

Marc Gafni » Certainty / Uncertainty » Enlightenment of Fullness » Wisdom for Your Week » Uncertainty is a Revelation of the Divine

by Dr. Marc Gafni from the English version of his book Certainty, which is already published in Hebrew and which will be re-released as part of his two-volume series entitled Integral Religion.

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When we discuss an Embodied Certainty of God, we are also confronted with the human experience of the tremendous uncertainty that can enter into our lives. I believe that  there are times when only through entering uncertainty can authenticity be achieved.

Biblical theology’s unique understanding is that living the sacred life requires a dialectical relationship between paradise and paradox – between core certainties and the existence of uncertainty. Both certainty and uncertainty are vital – each has its moment. Healthy religion as well as healthy living flow from simultaneously maintaining certainty and uncertainty.

So how then, do we hold uncertainty during those times when our lives are deeply challenged?

In the wake of quantum physics we have begun to dance with uncertainty. Now that Newton has given way to Shrodinger, the modern scientific community has a way of expressing the confusion inherent in the world. Opening the scientific world to uncertainty, Schrodinger came up with his famous mind-experiment of a cat placed inside an opaque box, wherein there was a fifty-percent chance of the cat being fed lethal poison. Whilst the opaque box remained closed, one would not know whether the cat was dead or alive. In the key paradigm of the twentieth century, quantum physicists explain that until the box is opened, the cat cannot be classified as dead nor alive: it is both dead and alive. This ‘wave function’ of uncertainty, combining as it does all possibilities in one, cannot be resolved until the box is opened, thus ‘collapsing the wave function’ into either a dead cat, or one that lives.

Quantum Physics, despite the elegance of its imagery and astonishing scientific breakthroughs, does not ask what seems to be the crucial question: what if Mrs. Schrodinger loves her cat? What can she be going through while her dear pet is inside the potentially lethal box?

Image Credit Rajisvaraman

Image Credit Rajisvaraman

Biblical consciousness is concerned not only with the metaphysics of uncertainty but first and foremost with the Experience of Uncertainty.

A friend of mine was in a terrible state. The woman with whom he was engaged to be married in only two months time had suddenly been overwhelmed by second thoughts: she wasn’t sure if she did want to marry him, after all. She pleaded for some time alone, time to ‘get her head together.’ My friend Paul agreed, and had to spend an entire week in the torture of limbo, not even allowed to speak to his fiancée on the telephone, waiting for her to decide whether or not she would break his heart.

It was a terrible week, but not so terrible as the phone call he received after those seven excruciating days. His fiancée told him that she was still not sure, and begged for another week to think some more. When I saw Paul in the middle of the second week he looked like he hadn’t eaten for a month and hadn’t slept for two. Pale and shaky, with tension pulling at his face, he said, “You know the first week was bad. But this second week of not knowing, of feeling totally and utterly helpless – sometimes I catch myself wishing she had just finished with me after the first week, rather than condemn me to another week of this torture. I mean, I love her and I want to marry her, and to be told that she doesn’t want to marry me will destroy me, I know. But at least I’ll be sure. Now, not knowing anything, hoping and dreading, it’s tearing me apart.”

Unbeknownst to him, Paul was going through exactly the same process as described in a Talmudic illumination of the book of biblical book of Leviticus[i]. The book of Leviticus says that if a person sees on the walls of his or her house an unusual discoloration, then the priest comes to interview the family and to examine the stain. The priest spends seven days trying to determine whether this discoloration is merely physical or an expression of a moral or spiritual discoloration within the family living there.  In the mysticism of the bible the walls not only have ears but a heart.

If, at the end of seven days, this stain is in fact considered a spiritual imperfection then the house must be destroyed. If however, the priest is still in doubt, then a second seven-day period is instigated to allow for further investigation. The family living in the house is granted a reprieve of a week: their house could have been destroyed, but instead they have another week to live in hope – or dread.

Now living in a house that quantum physics might describe as both demolished and not demolished, it is the family that becomes the focus of

the rabbis’ concern.  Two phrases are cited from the psalms[ii]. One phrase is positive, and the other has a negative conation implying human suffering. The positive phrase which suggests joy and satisfaction is applied to the situation in which the uncertainty about the nature of a discoloration is resolved after the first week. The negative phrase is applied to a situation in which the house is not yet destroyed, and a second week of investigation is underway.

Commentary on this talmudic passage[iii] implicitly asks the obvious question: if a person has an opportunity to delay the destruction of his home, of his financial net-worth, for another seven days at the end of which perhaps everything will be fine and the house won’t be destroyed and he’ll suffer no financial loss, why isn’t this seen as a wonderful opportunity? Shouldn’t the positive phrase suggesting satisfaction and joy be applied to the temporary reprieve and not to the immediate destruction?

In a stunning tour de force, commentary[iv] suggests that the anxiety of non-resolution, the anxiety of uncertainty is, at least on one level, more difficult to deal with than the certainty of having the house destroyed at the end of the first seven-day period. As both Paul waiting for his fiancée and the family in the Talmud would agree: There is no joy like the resolution of doubt and there is no anxiety more difficult to live with than uncertainty.

 The paradoxical nature of the experience – happiness if the house is destroyed, suffering if it remains standing for at least another week – demonstrates the sensitivity of Biblical thought to the pain of uncertainty. Sometimes knowing bad news is easier than not knowing whether the news will be bad. We are all familiar with the agony of waiting for that fateful telephone call, checking the post for the all-important reply, collecting the test results.

 Much of religious tradition can be understood as the attempt of culture to fully triumph over uncertainty. Indeed one of the most important modern commentaries[v] argues that divine revelation is a gift of a loving god who wants to spare the world the pain of uncertainty described so poignantly in this very Talmudic passage.  Many voices in the religious world have declared unilateral victory, arguing that all of life’s doubts can be defeated through faith and religious observance and logic[vi].

 A classic example of such a voice is David Gottlieb, leading lecturer in Ohr Sameach – which is perhaps the premier intellectual center of Orthodox study for those returning to Jewish observance from an assimilated secular context. Gottlieb argues explicitly that if one takes together all of the classic theodicies- religious explanations offered to explain how a good God can allow innocent  suffering – one has “solved the problem ” of innocent suffering. Gottlieb, explicitly and rather matter of factly, makes the claim that religion has answered the great question of theodicy. The Holocaust for Gottlieb no longer poses any essential challenge to religious faith. The extent of the challenge that one may feel is no more than the extent of one’s own ignorance of the explanations of suffering offered by Jewish wisdom. That is to say for Gottlieb, religion has answered the cry of the prophets who call out in great pathos and audacity – ‘How can the good God whom we loves so allow such horrible suffering in his world?’

Had the prophets only attended Gottlieb’s lectures at Ohr Sameach the problem surely would have been solved.


I believe our life experiences give lie to such certainty. Sometimes only through entering uncertainty can authenticity be achieved.

And yet Safek, which we have translated as uncertainty or perhaps more correctly, ambiguity, is the greatest producer of anxiety, tension, and general existential malaise. There is no joy like the resolution of doubt. But how do we know how to resolve and when to resolve? Emily Dickinson wrote ‘Hamlet wavered for us all’. His “to be or not to be” soliloquy is Shakespeare’s song of uncertainty which resonates in the melodies of all of our lives.  How if at all can certainty be achieved. How are such decisions made? When do we need to be safe and clear, when is risk irresponsible and immoral, and when is risk courageous, audacious and even the highest expression of our humanity?

Biblical theology’s unique understanding is that living the sacred life requires a dialectical relationship between paradise and paradox – between core certainties and the existence of uncertainty. Both certainty and uncertainty are vital – each has its moment. Healthy religion as well as healthy living flow from simultaneously maintaining certainty and uncertainty.

In order to live in the world in a way that is both grounded and passionate, I need first to be certain about myself. If I do not doubt myself, then I have the inner strength to able to encounter the many areas of my life where uncertainty is inherent and inescapable. Moreover healthy acceptance of uncertainty will enable me to avoid either the paralysis of indecision, or the recklessness of extremism which craves the certainty of over-simplification. If I am anchored and motivated by some sense of inner certainty, I can act courageously in uncertainty. If I hold no inner certainties, then acting from uncertainty is almost invariably a dangerous proposition.


All of the above is implicit in the magical dance of Hebrew language and the way it teaches connections between concepts that are seemingly unrelated. Safek , we have pointed out, is the word for uncertainty. Sippuk is the Hebrew word for satisfaction. At first blush, these two words seem to express mutually exclusive concepts; uncertainty seems very far from a satisfying situation, as the midrash referred to earlier says wisely: “There is no joy like the resolution of doubt”. However linguistically, these two words are close relatives, both deriving from the same three-letter root (S-P/F-K). The Hebrew language is suggesting to us that the two concepts interlock further than we would at first imagine. True sippuk – satisfaction – depends on resolving the inner safek of our identity. If we succeed in finding core certainty of our own being, we will be able to engage the uncertainties of the world in a healthy and ultimately satisfying way. If on the other hand we do not resolve our inner safek, if we are not sure of who we are and what we truly need, we will spend our lives blindly searching for sippuk in all the wrong places.

Having resolved the inner uncertainty of my own being, I can then begin to approach both religious and existential uncertainty as a friend rather than an enemy. Rather than anathema to Judaism, we will reclaim doubt as a religious value, re-reading the bible as a guide to uncertainty in the modern world. T.S. Eliot writes of the “awful daring of a moment’s surrender”, extolling the abdication of self and destiny in handing over our fate into God’s hands. We will find that Judaism’s attitude to risk and uncertainty is far more robust and active. Rather than surrender, we must choose to act in uncertainty, not simply give ourselves up to the flow.

In engaging with the full experience that life has to offer, we will find that uncertainty is far more than an unavoidable necessity; uncertainty is the realm where we achieve authenticity. Uncertainty is a revelation of the divine.




[i] Talmud Erachin 8a

[ii] cite texts from Psalms with minor explanation

[iii] see classic medieval commentator, Rashi, on the passage

[iv] see Chaim Shmuelevitz interpretation of Rashi ibid in his hebrew work Sichot Musar Sec two number 27

[v] ibid

[vi] An exception which I read eagerly as a Yeshiva student was Dr. Norman Lamm’s classic Faith and Doubt. Although the approach of this study is entirely different than Lamm’s I am indebted to him for being a sane and  comforting voice during my early years. However, Lamm gets caught by framing the issue in Halachic terms in relation to the formal belief in God. Because of his framework he was justly taken to task by some of the initial respondents to the article when it first appeared. Although I cannot prove it I like to think that Dr. Lamm let slip his own more authentic position when he concludes with the words of the Spanish Poet Unamuno, “May God Deny You Peace and Grant You Glory”.

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