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Author’s Preface to A Certain Spirit

The following articles are from the second book Marc Gafni published in 2000 on the topic Certainty and Uncertainty. The book is called Vadai in Hebrew and A Certain Spirit in English.

The core theme of the book on certainty is a re-understanding of the core nature of religion. It moves from the old model in which religion claims to teach “It is True,” to a new paradigm in which religion reminds us that “I am True.”

The essays in the book then offer eight different paths to achieving the core certainty of being in which we know that “I am True.”

This new paradigm is of course not entirely new, but is the radical esoteric teaching of the esoteric teachings in all the major traditions.

In a very deep way this first book underlies the later development of Marc Gafni’s thought.

One of the paths towards the core certainty of being outlined in this book is the path of Soul Prints, or the path of Unique Self. Marc Gafni’s work on Unique Self and Soul Prints flowed from this quest for the core certainty of being.

Moreover, Marc Gafni’s book on Eros can also be understood as a deepening of this same quest.

This book is sold in Hebrew. It was originally written in English, but never published in English. Marc Gafni hopes to re-write several of the chapters and offer the book to English-speaking audiences.

Epigram to stand alone at the beginning of the book

All of this is just words until we learn it in the stories of our lives.

“Through my flesh I vision God.”

This quote from Job will be the guiding principle of this work. For the mystical reader of the Bible, to ‘vision God‘ is to understand being…for God and being are one. Kabbalists read this verse with a pronounced emphasis on the word “my.” My flesh means not only my physical form, but the body of my life experience. The verse is thus taken to mean that I access the epic of being through the drama of the psyche. And I can only access psyche through my psyche, i.e. my story.

Authentic philosophy in the modern context can not be divorced from the person of the philosopher. Gone are the days when we bow to the idol of objectivity. Radical truth is to be found, albeit paradoxically, in radical subjectivity. The story of the idea and the story of the writer are one. It is for this reason that in this book of serious reflection, I will interpolate personal stories. The goal is not to sell more books (although that would be nice); the goal is to write philosophy which is “true.”

My wife, a poetess, taught me that the greatest universal poetry emerges from the artist’s deep grappling with their personal universe, their own tradition. In that spirit, I want to deepen our understanding of these ideas from the context of my own reality and invite you, if we are from different traditions, to make the translation into your own story. For while the topics of the book are universal, I myself can only touch them in a way that is true through the prism of my people’s tale, the epic of the Bible.

In the internal self-reference of the tradition, the intimate and personal act of interpreting the bible is called the ‘creation of a new Torah.’1 This takes places through the meeting of two expressions of divinity: my holy subjectivity and the objectivity of the sacred text. Through the act of study, the creative encounter with text, we reintegrate these two expressions of God. This is, by its very nature, a highly intimate, private and intensely personal encounter. Whilst I share my glimmerings from the sacred text, they remain no more than my subjective interpretations. It is for the reader to see how these reflections resonate in his or her heart and ‘flesh’ and to continue to study.

Author’s Preface

One rabbi’s personal journey into the world of doubt and certainty

‘Uncertainty is an open closet,’ I ruminate, standing before a closet full of options. Uncertainty can run as deep as a question of faith in God or as shallow as the inability to choose the right suit. In the end it’s all really the same question. For instance, I face the dilemma of what outfit will fit the occasion as well as my occupation. The occupation – Orthodox Rabbi, the occasion – the wedding of a hip secular couple in Tel Aviv. It’s an interesting combination of the Jewish Rabbi who feels very Israeli and the Israeli couple who feel real ambivalent about their Jewishness.

The terms Israeli and Jewish, as my reader may know, have two very different connotations. ‘Israeli’ as a new idea and identity embodies the courage, humanism and brashness of the modern world. It is secularism with all of its determined denial of the certainties of tradition. Like that pair of new shoes at the center of the closet, it is an exciting new reality that is sure to cause a few blisters. On the other hand ‘Jewish’ connotes old ideas and identities, evoking images of piety, establishment, and a community which cuts across the ages. Jewishness is the comfort of deep roots, kind of like those worn slippers at the bedside. Every religion, indeed all of society today, is pulled between these two very different archetypes – that of the Israeli and that of the Jew. These archetypes of course apply universally. Although I write out of the language of my tradition, my intention, like that of the poet, is to touch the nerves that unite us all irrespective of the particular contexts of our different lives.

Much of this book will be about what that tension means in each of our lives. How do we resolve our deep yearning for the familiar, the stable and the certain with our equally insistent craving for the risk of the new and the unknown?

But, as often happens, I seem to have gotten ahead of myself. Let’s get back to my original dilemma – how to dress for this wedding. Of course, the core of the question really is what suits the inner me? I seem to live in both realities. I feel the need to merge the worlds, to bridge the gaps between people. Indeed, that’s my task this evening, to wed the opposites. And how to dress the part? I decide on a strong statement of neutrality – all black. People won’t be quite sure if I’m ultra-Orthodox or an aspiring artist on the cutting edge.

Granted such all-black ceremonial garb may be a little unusual for an Orthodox Rabbi but I’ve never quite felt like a classical Orthodox Rabbi. Indeed I’ve been deemed a bit of a black sheep, though the black is only garment deep. I qualify as an Orthodox Rabbi twice ordained. But I prefer to define myself as ‘post-denominational,’ for I’ve learned that if you’re going to meld worlds then you can’t be molded into only one. I don’t have a beard, but I always cover my head. I drive a car, rent movies with a passion, use a mobile phone…but do none of these on the Sabbath. Although one of my greatest delights is presiding over Jewish weddings, I was until recently single, nursing the pain of two failed marriages. I am privileged to have taught thousands of people all of whom I love very much. I have wonderful students who honor me with the title of Rebbe – Teacher. I am grateful to them for the honor. I have close friends, partners and supporters. And I am also pained to have a small group of adversaries, virtually all of whom have never spoken to me at all, but have persistently done the most vicious things you can imagine to stop me from teaching. Thus, some maintain that my history makes me unsuitable as an Orthodox Rabbi, while others argue that my life-style, experience and capabilities are the ultimate qualification. Perhaps they’re both right. For me the struggle with the mistakes of my past has only deepened my knowledge of and faith in God, as well as in myself.

Thus, all I know for sure is that I cannot live without my God and my religious observance, and I cannot be true to myself without teaching. In the end I’m a Rebbe – a teacher. Not because I have chosen it but because it has chosen me. I know I am flawed always falling and always reaching for greatness. I’ve tried to leave. I spent three years marketing hi-tech, peddling the joys of software interfaces, and the ubiquitous Internet. But none of this could compare with the intellectual and spiritual inspiration, and the sheer ecstasy of panic, and deep intimacy with God- that would overwhelm me whenever I stepped up to the lectern to teach. I suppose I feel called. But simultaneously, I also often feel so radically inadequate that I’m embarrassed by my own reflection in the mirror. And so here I am; a post-denominational, qualified and ‘dis-qualified’ orthodox rabbi, trying to make sense of the world by embracing all of her paradoxes and imbalances.

This book began when one day, despite keeping Jewish laws and customs, despite trying to be a good person with deep belief in God, I found myself unable to decide whether or not to propose marriage to my girlfriend. Why couldn’t my religion help me? Can anything help us with the choices we need to make in life? And what about the deeper doubts: how can there be a just God in a world full of suffering? And if I’m unsure of God, then how can I be sure of anything? Can I even be sure of myself?

And so I set off on a journey to find some answers, or at least to find peace with the questions. I don’t ride a motorcycle: I go in search of my Zen through my books. For me study isn’t a professorial kind of thing – it’s time-travel, argument, and flying to the stars. Rashi – medieval French commentator – keeps interrupting me. The Ishbitzer – revolutionary mystical master of 19th century Poland – grabs me and whispers into my ear. Rabbi Nachman, tortured, joyous and controversial teacher sits me down and tells me a story, and Isaac Luria – the ‘Lion’ of renaissance mysticism – simply fixes me with his burning eyes and pierces my soul. And then the Bible itself! Sometimes I think I don’t read the Bible: I see it in 3D movie. Better yet, I am the movie, playing every one of the characters. For me bible-study isn’t ritual, it’s a personal quest into a world of complexity, pain, love, betrayal, and towering characterizations of archetypal man. Freud, that good Jewish boy, looked to Greek culture; I find my typologies from Genesis. The Judah Moment, the Orpah Complex, the Israel Moment, the Joseph Complex and Comfort’s Ark rise out of the text, speak to me and guide me on my way.

For one of the ways, teach the Kabbalistsi that we find the certainty our own voice is through engaging in conversation with guides. The men and women of the Bible are such guides. They are real people who lived and loved, while at the same time they are larger than life symbols of the best and occasionally the worst in us. Maybe this is some of what the Rabbis had in Mind when they said “the deeds of the ancestors are guides to the children”. For the peoples of the book reading the bible is what traversing the land is for the Australian ‘first nations- a return to the dream time in which the footprints left by those who have gone before and the stories told about them enter meaningfully my life and quest for lived authenticity.ii In finding voice I both open myself to their wisdom – and yet since their wisdom is intentionally never stated in clear sentences – hidden as it is in image and story – I can only receive them through the prism of my soul.

And so on this exhausting and exhilarating journey the guides from the text and the ghosts from my own life convene upon me, demanding answers. On the one hand, I find myself rejecting the authoritarianism of fundamentalist religion which reduces man to an unthinking automaton, and on the other hand I cannot accept the feel-good platitudes of those who seek to transform religion into therapy with God as the impotent well-meaning and meaningless couch. As I draw closer to a faith and certainty in God that rings true, I can in turn touch new understandings of uncertainty as a spiritual value. I can wed the opposites.

A word about method

I was taught in Rabbinical school that certainty meant believing in things ‘out there’; things like religion, theology, dogma and the divine integrity of the biblical text. However, through the highways and not a few byways on the strange, sad and wonderful trek of life I have come to the conclusion that certainty as a religious idea is not about stuff ‘out there.’ Rather, certainty is about being fully sure that the ‘inside stuff’ of who I am, is significant and deeply valuable. Faith in God must be an internal experience of self, and not an intellectual theory. Often we tend to locate certainty outside of ourselves, but my journey teaches me that rather than scale the heights on the horizon I must plumb the depths of myself. Certainty of faith emerges from knowing myself so deeply that I experience the divinity of my self-created in God’s image.

Religious certainty is not believing that a particular theology is true, but rather that I am true. Once we feel the divinity of our selves, we can touch an anchor of certainty and security which can allow us to honestly and authentically face the uncertainties of life. With this in mind I embark on my personal journey – traveling upon my vehicle of Biblical text. To my surprise and delight I found that a close reading of these texts reveals that indeed certainty is not a belief in dogmatic principles about the world ‘out there.’ Instead it is as a sense of core assurance in my infinite value, adequacy and dignity in the world. To be sure, means to be sure that I count, that I matter.

We live in a culture of masks. Everyone is wearing one – the masks of profession, religion, personality type and the like. The reason we are so reluctant to strip off our masks is because we are deathly afraid that there is nothing underneath. Certain faith is the belief that there is something underneath. To be sure means to know that when I strip off all the masks what remains is not ’emptiness’, but that what remains is a gorgeous and unique miniature face of the divine. What remains is a visage of one who is loved and who can love; one who has a song to sing that no one else in the world is able to sing. And therefore I matter.

In my search for certainty I discovered a group of mystical texts2 which taught that we can only understand the Bible – a sacred text which is ‘out there’ – as it is refracted through the prism of our own experience – the ‘inside stuff’. These ancient teachers suggest that there are actually two types of sacred texts. The first set is the 24 books of Bible, Talmud, Midrash and Kabbalah. The second type is the sacred autobiography of our lives – the text that is ourselves. The first set is no more important than the second. In fact, the claim of the Zohar is that both texts are actually the same. Both the inner and the outer stories are the same sacred stories. One passage in the Zohar even suggests that I can use the weekly portion of the Bible traditionally read in Synagogue, as the road map to the events of my life which occur in that same week. Even if we don’t take it quite so literally, the intent is clear.

Engaging the text is an encounter with my inner self.

Personal journeying always has to start from myself. The Kabbalists3 teach that the place to begin the journey towards myself is with my name. And so that is where I started. My Hebrew name is Mordechai Israel. Mordechai in biblical consciousness is always known as Mordechai Hayehudi. Mordechai is the hero of the Purim story who saves the Jewish people from the decree of annihilation. The text in introducing Mordechai calls him Ish Yehudi – the Jewish person. Mordechai – the only person who merits such an appellation in biblical text is considered to be the Archetype of Yehudi. The source of the word Yehudi is Yehuda (Judah), the son Leah. The entire first part of the book is a reflection upon the spirituality of Yehuda which, based on my textual reading, I understand to be about our search for core certainties. I call this the Judah Moment.

My second name Israel, is the name given by the angel of destiny to Jacob after wrestling with him through a long dark night of the soul. Unable to best each other, with no certain winner at hand, the angel renames Jacob and blesses him. The entire second half of the book is a reflection on the spirituality of Israel which I understand, based on my textual readings, to be about our need to hold uncertainty as a spiritual value. I call this the Israel Moment.

My personal journey is a meeting between these two aspects of my name, which as the mystics teach, is the key to my story…

My story is always a reflection of a larger story. Indeed these two dimensions – my two names – capture the essential dialectic in the modern unfolding of the story of the Jewish people, and the universal story of the spirit. There is Yehuda – the Jewish moment – the moment of certainty and tradition. It is an experience of safety and comfort.

There is by its side an Israel Moment which is uniquely Israeli – (in the typological not the political sense) It is defined by struggle and a jettisoning of old traditions. It is about risk and uncertainty. All too often these two worlds, that of the Jew and Israeli, are difficult to reconcile. It is only through that synthesis however that I can understand my own life and participate in writing the next page in the story of my people and the saga of the spirit.

Introductory Essay

The world of the spirit has long been torn asunder by two radically disparate understandings of the nature of the religious endeavor.

On the one side there are those traditionally associated with the world of faith religion, dogma, and redemptive ideologies, who maintain that there are no questions which have not already been answered. Religious Marxists, humanists and believers of all kinds, diverse as they may be, are all potential members of this group. According to this school of thought, every event in the world has an explanation: certainty exists can and should be accessed through religious orthodoxy.

On the other side are the inhabitants of a world where western secularism and modern deconstructive theories intersect with colonized eastern philosophies and simplified modern science. Students of this school mandate the dogmatic absence of core certainties of value or spirit.iii There are no answers. There are no discernible truths. Existence is seen to be axiologically prior to essence, and, as some of the more extreme existentialist philosophers taught,iv what exists is what I feel at the present moment.

Moreover even the fact of our existence itself is in doubt. If Descartes could still find a way back to himself through thinking – Cogito Ergo Sum, I think therefore I am – later philosophers walking in his wake, lost any sense of a certain self. We live in a world of uncertainty. Nothing is ‘ultimately sacred’, nothing is eternal. Personhood writes Foucault is a face drawn in sand at the edge of the sea erased by a wave. History, ethics and our relationship to the sacred can be and are continually revised and rewritten. Everything – morality, spirituality, and personality – can and is re-shaped in the image of the age. Context is content.

But it is not just in abstract religious thought that these very different attitudes to uncertainty and certainty manifest themselves. They find expression in our lives as well. There are people who find themselves paralyzed and unable to function when confronted by scenarios of uncertainty. They are unable to hold even the slightest measure of certainty. I believe that this is not just an intellectual-emotional difficulty in deciding between competing options, but rather a reflection of a profound ontological doubt about their place in the world. And these people are us.

And then there are those who always seem to be driven by an extreme sense of their own essential certainties. One is sometimes inclined to envy those souls who live comfortably in an existential certitude, where everything falls into place where and as it should. Deeper examination, however, often reveals that these individuals lack the ability to ‘hold’ even the slightest measure of uncertainty. Their need for certainty is obsessive, often covering over profound ontological doubt about their place in the world. And these people are us.

This study is a pendulum which swings between these two positions.

It seeks to accomplish two major intellectual spiritual moves.

The first is to redefine the realm in which we search for the certainty of faith. The second is to reclaim uncertainty as a spiritual value.

Classically certainty is said to be about Dogma and credos of belief.v In our re-understanding however, certainty – particularly religious certainty – is about owning a core certainty of being. In this understanding the uncertainty, in Hebrew the Safek, which needs to be resolved is the existential Safek about the core value of my existence. It is in the reclaiming of what R. Kook termed the ‘essential I’ that religion needs to make it’s most vital contribution. Religion’s ultimate teaching must be that the realm of the holy is the sanctity of person. Such an understanding can only flow from the internalization by the individual of their full adequacy and dignity as divine miniatures; this is the Kabbalisticvi understanding of the biblical view of the human being as created in the image of God.

The thesis of this book is that when human beings fail to resolve the essential Safek of identity from the wellsprings of their own personhood they are forced to use others to define their identity. This using of ‘other’- what Buber called an I-it relationship, is in its essence the introduction of the dynamic of evil into the world.vii In contradistinction with Marxism,4 shades of Platonism, and New Testament Christianity, classical Biblical consciousnessviii locates the source of evil in world as the individual’s inability to resolve his uncertainty about the meaning and value of his personal story. This is the existential logic underlying the mystical identification of Amalek and uncertainty. Amalek is an ancient Near Eastern tribe who became the literary symbol of evil in biblical, Talmudic and Kabbalistic texts. Usually this identification of uncertainty and evil is thought to be about lack of belief in Dogma; however, in our reading it is about an inability to attain a core certainty of self as the primary source of evil. In our new understanding, core certainty for the man of faith is core certainty of self.

– – –

The old understanding of the certainty of the man of faith leaves no room for doubt or struggle. Faith is propositional- to believe that x is true. The moment a question penetrates his consciousness leaving in its wake particles of uncertainty, he is ipso facto no longer a man of faith: faith is synonymous with certainty.ix In this understanding, every idea is measured in relation to unchanging and eternal certainties.

One of the corollaries of this position is that the universe is often seen as functioning according to clear-cut and ascertainable patterns. If good things happen, it is the result of meritorious act; if tragedy occurs, it is the result of sin. According to this view, there is no room for uncertainty. The explanation or rationale for every event can be found in religious text. The Modern Hebrew word safek– uncertainty – never appears in the bible. According to one modern teacher Dr. Akiva Tatz, this was because uncertainty was anathema to the God experience of biblical man. Most contemporary representatives of classical Judaism express some form of Tatz’s argument as the “proper” understanding of the Jewish position.5

In the second volume of this study – which is about uncertainty – I will take issue with this position. I will show that not only can uncertainty not be avoided in life, but that on the highest levels of the spirit, uncertainty authenticity and authenticity is faith.

– – –

A word about uncertainty

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?

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.x 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 are 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.xi 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 passagexii 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, commentaryxiii 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 commentariesxiv 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.xv A classic example is David Gottlieb leading lecturer in Ohr Sameach – what 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 cry 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 would’ve 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.

– – –

The book is organized around a re-reading of two major biblical stories, that of Leah and the birth of her fourth son Judah, and the story of Jacob who is renamed Israel.

I understand these stories as expressing two typologies which we will term the Israel moment and the Judah moment. In the personal preface (which I hope you read!) I talked briefly about how these two moments welled up for me, both from my own story and from my name.

Now in the more classical role of philosopher – yet without leaving the personal behind – I want to sketch for you in several brushstrokes the basic outline of these two volumes. Unavoidably I will touch – in a different way- the ideas which we have talked about in the preface and in this introduction up to this point. I hope however that the new formulation will help you deeply internalize these critical ideas as well as give you a bit of a book map to help you navigate.

The basic move in the first half of the book is to relocate the space of core certainty – to redefine the religious understanding of faith and certainty as being faith in the divinity of myself. Faith means faith in myself. Faith means that I am valuable enough to be loved by God. This is not grace. It is not the idea that God loves me even though I am not worthwhile. On the contrary, God loves me because I am valuable, because I am worthwhile. The moment of core certainty we term the Judah moment.

How is this core certainty of being attained?

The first book discusses seven essential paths, each with many byways and detours…They are the paths of:

parents and early childhood,
sacred memory,
historical community,

and yearning.

– – –

The understanding of certainty in book one, as faith in my own worth, and not as the absence of all doubt, allows me in book two to reclaim uncertainty not just as a reality that we must face, but as a religious and spiritual value. I find through personal experience, which I later root in text, that uncertainty is valuable for three reasons:

1) Only by holding uncertainty can I reach the higher certainty and vision that is mine.

2) Through the holding of uncertainty we avoid the seduction of false certainty. False certainty in my reading of life and texts is the ultimate source of evil in the world. False dogma, be it religious, national, spiritual or secular, is the ground out of which the dynamic of human evil always grows.

3) I need to hold uncertainty because only in uncertainty do I reach spiritual authenticity. This third level of authenticity is never resolvable in favor of higher certainty. This uncertainty is higher than any certainty and is reflective of the deepest nature of reality – both in the laws of the spirit and in the laws of physics. (Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle)

I acknowledge that life, the world, and even God’s works are mysterious and uncertain. Through uncovering previously ignored writers of Kabbalah and reinterpreting the classics to reveal an entire genre of Biblical ‘maybe stories’, I move to reclaim uncertainty as the only road to full authenticity. The claim cited above – that the absence of the word Safek in biblical Hebrew implying that the experience of uncertainty was foreign to the people of the bible – though well intentioned enough by the author, struck me as totally wrong. And yet it is true – the word Safek does not appear in the Bible.

But Eureka! Although this word for uncertainty (safek) does not appear in the Bible, the word ‘maybe’ (Ullai) appears time and time again in key passages in the bible, particularly in the book of Genesis. The literary core of Volume Two is the uncovering of a new biblical genre – the maybe stories, which champion the spirituality of uncertainty.

As in Volume One, I constantly move between the Biblical6 text and the living text of anecdotes, stories and images which make up my personal life. The major character in the maybe stories is Jacob son of Isaac whose name changes later in life to Israel. The moment of uncertainty I term the Israel Moment.

The dialectic between Judah and Israel, rooted in the biblical text is the inner dance of spiritual life.

– – –

Both midrashic and mystical tradition teach that each character in the bible symbolizes and personifies a particular dimension of human experience. Abraham for example is taken to personify overflowing love while Isaac is the symbol of heroic restraint and boundaries. The major personalities in the bible are understood as typological archetypes each expressing the spirituality of a different human existential moment.

It is emerging out of this tradition that I suggest that the certainty moment is expressed by Judah, the fourth son of Jacob, while the struggle with uncertainty is personified by Jacob himself. Furthermore it is surely more than a literary-historical curiosity that these same two moments are prominent in the contemporary struggle to define spiritual identity.

The tension between the seemingly contradictory spiritual sensibilities of the self defined Jew and Israeli form the crux of modern spiritual discourse. The dissonance between Jew (Yehuda Moment) and Israeli (Israel Moment) which developed in the personal preface far from local issues of concern to a narrow group of people. The People of the Book in the text of their history are once again playing out a drama of overarching concern to the spiritual progress of humankind.



1. ‘Torah’ means both the five books of Moses in a restrictive sense, in a restrictive sense and also all of the scripture and interpretation that have been attached to it through the ages. Thus the book of Genesis is part of Torah and this book is part ‘the Torah’. But the philosophy I present in this book based on my life of the richness of Jewish textual tradition may be thought of as Torah as well.

2. The key text cited overwhelmingly by Jewish mystical authors is “Through my flesh I vision God”, understood in Hassidism to mean that my inner story is the landscape of divinity see epigram page.

3. See for example Zohar…Mei Hashiloach Vol. 1 pp

4. For the Marxist the source of evil is economic forces, for the Platonist the source of evil is lack of knowledge, for the Christian it is original sin.

5. Living Inspired, Targum Press Ltd., 1993. Tatz does not present his original thoughts but rather sees himself as a purveyor of the classical tradition of Lithuanian ethical pietist (musar) yeshivot. (See the introduction, pp. 11-13.) In chapter five, which is entitled “Doubt and Uncertainty,” Tatz observes that true religion offers no place for uncertainty.

6. The fundamental Jewish approach to text emerges from the epigrammatic Midrashic declaration: There are “seventy faces to the Torah,” with layers upon layers of meanings in each story. Each generation needs to re-confront the stories, symbols and characters of the text. Each generation strains to hear the echoes of eternity as they whisper their special message uniquely to each one of us. In our generation we need to hear the whispers of uncertainty even as we hold the core certainty of our being.


i. See for example the work of Nachum of Chernobyl , Meor Eynayim, and the work of Eliyahu Dessler, Michtav Meeliyahu both on Genesis for relatively recent expression of this strain on kabbalistic thought. See particularly the Nachum’s essay on parshat Lech Lecha with particular reference to his interpretation of Abraham as well as Dessler’s essay on the patriarchs.

ii. See for example Michael Jackson; Minima Ethnographica

iii. Abraham Kook, mystic philosopher (early twentieth century) and first chief Rabbi of Israel before statehood, critiques modern uncertainty on the grounds that in his understanding, it is paradoxically dishonest- this because it claims near ontological certainty about its existential uncertainty. See Kook Letters…

iv. See “Irrational Man – a Study in Existential Philosophy”, William Barrett, 1958. See also Walter Kaufman in his excellent introduction to Existentialist philosophers from Dostoevsky to Nietzsche.

v. For a classic modern expression of this posture see J. David Bliech with Perfect Faith, The foundatins Jewish Belief; see also Maimonides Thirteen Principles, London… Menachem Kellner. Kellner shows that there actually was a fair bit of diversity among thinkers concerning the content and scope of obligatory beliefs.

vi. This is the essential implication of the Kabbalistic teaching on Adam Kadmon i.e. that the human form – physically and psychologically is modeled on and even participates in the divine form. For a scholarly discussion of Adam Kadmon see Gershon Scholem…For an unmediated Kabbalsitic discussion see in Hebrew Leshem Shevo Achalma sec…see also Zohar…

vii. See Walter Kaufman’s different understanding of Buber in his introduction to Bubers classical work I and Thou

viii. By biblical consciousness I mean the five books of Moses – what Jews call the Bible and Christians call the Old Testament Bible.

ix. This position, usually associated with classical western religions, understands spirituality to be essentially a statement about human certainty. Within this position there are three schools; one argues that certainty is accessible through the vehicles of human intuition or reason, the other that certainty is received through a tradition of divinely revealed truths and the third is some combination of the first two. For our purposes this discussion is besides the point. The point is that according to all three schools such a certainty does indeed exist.

x. Talmud Erachin 8a

xi. Cite texts from Psalms with minor explanation

xii. See classic medieval commentator, Rashi, on the passage

xiii. See Chaim Shmuelevitz interpretation of Rashi ibid in his hebrew work Sichot MusarSec two number 27

xiv. ibid

xv. 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.”

-Marc Gafni


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