Un-Certainty (response to Shaul Magid)

Shaul Magid wrote a very interesting piece about “certainty” that appeared in Shm’a  to which I wanted very much to respond. I also wanted to give Shaul the last word, and I’m delighted that he agreed to respond here at JPP. His words follow those of mine that appear below.

In Shaul’s essay, he compares the certainty with which Haredim live their religious lives with the uncertainty lived by liberal Jews. In the essay, he explores an alternative to the two forms of pluralism that, he argues, leaves so many liberal Jews jealous of Haredi devotion. (These would be “bifurcated pluralism” by which we tolerate the claims of others we regard as false and “postmodern pluralism” by which we renounce all claim to a single set of truths).

To get past the bind of rigid certainty versus liberal uncertainty, Shaul recommends to see how, internally, religious faith and practice “requires a self that is certain,” whereas how we relate to others puts us “squarely in the uncertainty principle, fully acknowledging that the certainty about how we act ([an]inner light) is framed by uncertainty in relation to the other ([a] hovering light).”

One problem I have with Shaul’s recommendation is that I think he cedes too much certainty to the Haredim and not enough to liberals. In fact, I don’t think his third model is an “alternative” to liberal uncertainty. It is, I think, a sharp description of the model of certainty by which liberal people have always understood their place in the world vis-à-vis others. The firm inner compass combines with an open approach to the status of truth.

The most important part of Shaul’s essay has to do with tensions between belief, doubt, and transcendence. I’ll quote Shaul almost in full. “While I may be intellectually drawn to this position, my heart often resists the temptation to integrate fully a belief or even an experience of transcendence into my imagination. Believing in or disbelieving in the transcendent other is a struggle that gives me no respite. Moments of belief, soon followed by moments of disbelief, often happen unexpectedly…In the moment, each one is as clear, and as certain, as its opposite

There is something about the aesthetics to all this that I’d want to highlight. The moments mentioned by Shaul reflect on the interplay between nighttime and daytime, black and white color tonalities, text and snow, sedentary and peripatetic motilities. I guess I would want to ask why this tension has to be posed as “struggle.” Maybe the oscillation between certainty and uncertainty can take more gentle, more round and more relaxed shapes because, in the end, maybe there’s nothing to prove.

SHAUL MAGID RESPONDS:

Thank you, Zak, for posting my essay and for your thoughtful response. I will not use this space to defend myself as much as peel off one more layer of what I was trying to say. It may in fact be the case that “liberals” – and here I mean the term solely in a religious and not a political sense – live their religious lives from what you call a “firm inner compass,” that is, from a place of conviction. But I would suggest that conviction and passion are not identical. From one perspective, what undermines the transition from conviction to passion is the bleeding of tolerance (and all the good that it includes) into one’s inner religious life. I do not say this as an outsider but as one who experiences this phenomenon. Tolerance can (but does not by definition) breed equivocation. I need to be somewhat unsure of my position in order to truly invite the opposing view into my world. I can, of course, perform religious passion (this is done all the time) but that is another matter entirely. I suppose from my life as a Haredi Jew (and now a very ex-post-un-Haredi Jew) I experienced a kind of passion, sometimes performed but also often very real, that I find lacking in our progressive world. As I wrote, that passion has a deeply dark underside, perhaps even a corrosive core, but it does generate something real in my view. This is much different than your “more gentle …inner compass.” It is ferocious and barely controllable, it tears at your insides, it is hungry and it makes you hungry, it takes you away, and brings you back differently. It is not pretty but it is beautiful, it is both frightening and comforting simultaneously.

I believe that the price is too high for that kind of ferocity if only because that too bleeds into one’s “political” life (in the broadest sense) and makes one rigid, xenophobic, and intolerant. I was struggling in my essay to think about how we can capture that experience without it bleeding into our social lives, without it informing how we view and treat the other. I think the Kabbalah offers us some rubrics as it is acutely invested in the “uncertainty principle” of human experience yet it also evokes that ferocity. The problem is that it is not very reflective of its own ability to problematize the rigidity of its commitment to law  and its equally passionate commitment to uncertainty, not only as an experience (i.e. we cannot fully experience God) but as a doxa. Hasidism moves in that direction and here I think Buber understood early Hasidism deeply even as he may have overly romanticized it. But Hasidism took another path. And neo-Hasidism perhaps tries too hard to make Hasidism tolerant rather than cultivating a ferocity of religious consciousness. I am looking for another way. I am not convinced it can be done. But I am convinced we must try. If we fail, I will bid farewell to the wonderful and awesome ferocity of Haredi piety and will “settle” for what Buber called a life of “meeting” with all kinds of others. I will do it, but I will always wish there was another way.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics. http://religion.syr.edu
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18 Responses to Un-Certainty (response to Shaul Magid)

  1. betweenbellies says:

    Dialogue in actu.

  2. hayyim rothman says:

    I would like to suggest a further alternative. Although I am not much of a fan of Kierkegaard for many reasons, it would not be difficult to say that, for him, religious passion is anything but a feeling of certitude. Rather, religious passion is suffering, is a tortured and uncertain faith which is nonetheless upheld. One is never certain of one’s position vis-a-vis god or man, yet there is passion. To put it in biblical terms, why can we not conceive of religion and religious passion along the lines of God’s question to Adam: “where are you?” To be religious would be to attempt a response which would only open towards a more intensive repetition of the question.

  3. hayyim rothman says:

    “neo-Hasidism perhaps tries too hard to make Hasidism tolerant rather than cultivating a ferocity of religious consciousness.”

    I think that here you must be more clear on what you mean by “neo-hasidism.” If you mean Carlebach types, or A. Green, that may be one thing. However, I don’t know that this association exactly works for people like myself, Menachem Feurer (another commentator here) and several others we are in contact with who are somewhere on the border of chabad (perhaps the Rebbe’s court jesters?).

  4. max kohanzad says:

    as mentioned on fb Hayyim “… i feel it must be pointed out that Chabad IS NOT Haredi ! To define terms “those that tremble at the commandment of our God” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Haredi_Judaism#Terminology. Although wearing the same clothes Chabad/Lubavitch does not generally identify with Haredim or the Haredi world.”
    That is perhaps why the certainty which Shaul in the Haredi devotion/world, which refers to seems a little bit alien.

    I have experiences the passion of religious / devotional certainty, but it was in no way a Chassidic experience, it was of a young naive zealot, in fact my journey within Chabad mystical philosophy and the identification with the Lubavitch community has been a growing up, a form of maturation away from a simplistic form of religious certainty, towards embracing a certainty of uncertainty.

    For me, it seems too easy to polarize, secular uncertainly with Haredi certainty, it seems more of a personal internal reflection rather than a clear or very useful description of the external political or religious reality.

    Hayyim Rothman in his easy on the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s thoughts, quotes the Rebbe, who states (approximately) that ‘Mitzvoth come from a place beyond reason” that is, that Mitzvos by definition are meant to be embraced precisely because they make no sense, which within the realm of the above discussion reaffirm this notion of ’embracing a certainty of uncertainty’.

    The Rebbe also seems to embrace uncertainty in his own geocentric worldview, he suggests that the Theory of Relativity means that ‘we can’t tell which celestial body is going around which’ – the Rebbe not discounting the possibility that the Earth goes around the Sun, chooses to side with Maimonides/the Torah which states that the Sun goes around the Earth. And as ridiculous as that sounds to anyone who went to High School, what I’m suggesting is that the Rebbe is completely aware and comfortable with uncertainty.

    As Shaul mentioned, Makif is by definition what which is beyond our ability to comprehend, it is beyond certainty.

    The reason why Shaul is confused by Haredim that seem certain is because he is confusing terms, his experinece of Haredi is blurred by his own Carebach/Habad/Breslov Kabbalistic leanings, who are at times (less so breslov) deeply overly intellectual – complicity in its own uncertain certainty and certain uncertainty. However the Haredi world is not identical to this, although wearing the same clothes, the Haredi world is not Kabbalistic or intellectual in any real or deeply meaningful sense.

    In fact the Haredi and hard-nosed Secular worldviews are not too dissimilar, the world is real, life is hard, let’s fight.

    The Rebbe suggest a solution to the devotional predicament Shaul confronts us with, the Rebbe explains that everything can be a form of devotional worship, an opportunity to commune and be open to the Great Mystery, for the Rebbe the clear distinctions between Holy and Mundane should be, must be blurred, confused and suffused…

    • Shaul Magid says:

      I have no history with Habad. That is not my Haredi experience. I spent some time hanging around Crown Heights (and learned my share of Habad Hasidus, mostly later as an academic) and went to a few farbengens in the 1980s but Habad never really interested me.

  5. Menachem Feuer says:

    Shaul, Hayyim has good suggestions. And it is the case that AJ Heschel wrote on Kierkegaard and the Kotzker Rav in depth. Most of Heschel’s rejections deal with uncertainty. He is, as far as I know, usually cited as a major part of the Neo-Hassidic movement. And it is obvious that there are growing numbers of people who are feeling uncertainty within their religiosity in the frum world. Toronto has a growing community of those who struggles, as does LA and NYC.

  6. Menachem Feuer says:

    Sorry…’reflections’ not ‘rejections’

  7. zjb says:

    I think Alan Brill (he can be found at www.http://kavvanah.wordpress.com/) said something once about the disproportionate presence of orthodox Judaism on the blogosphere. I think the interest indicated in the comments to Shaul would suggest that Alan is right. For what it’s worth, no other post at JPP has yet generated as much commentary. I find very interesting this thinking through the differences between certainty-uncertainty, Haredism-liberalism. How and to what degreee do these two tensions map over onto each other and the degree to which they don’t?

    • Shaul Magid says:

      Not sure I agree Zak. I always thought so too but when I publish something in, say, Religion Dispatches, I am happy if I get 100 “likes” (who know how many people think its crap). And then you check some essay on Mormonism or Jesus, etc. and your get 800 “likes.” And then you realize how much of a bubble we really live in.

  8. zjb says:

    When I meant “liberals,” I meant liberal Jews. Regarding the bigger picure, I remember Daniel Boyarin once made an immently sensible point, probably at the AJS. Apropos to his own work on Paul versus his own work on Talmud, he compared the 30 who came to hear him speak about the latter versus the 300 who came to hear him talk about the former. The upshot to his quip was simply that there are more of “them.” Consider too the not-even-marginal status of Jewish philosophy in Continental Philosophy, now that C-P superceded midrash and literature and turned to Paul and “the real.” Part of this is the fault of contemporary Jewish philosophy. And part of it has to do with numbers and the zeitgeist. About this there’s nothing really we can do.

  9. Shaul Magid says:

    Perhaps we should be on the margins. Why should we be of intense interest to others? I have been a moonlighter for some years in the American religion discourse. It hardly includes Judaism. But then again, why should it. Jews make up less than 2% of the population. Yes, “Judeo-Christian” discourse and all that bullshit, but truthfully, many of us are interested in other discourses to the extent that they touche on our interests. Why should we think it any different in reverse. There is a strange Judeo-centrism that some of us have as if to say “why aren’t they interested in us?” Why should they be? And in fact the American academy has taken more interest in Judaism than many other areas that are arguably more central to American concerns (Mormonism, for example).

  10. Shaul Magid says:

    Excluding Habad from the category of “haredi” based on a wikipedia definition is nonsensical. The term refers to a sociological category of which Habad surely should be included, in terms of social norms, political allegiance, and basic ideology. On a related matter, The New Yorker April 30th has an interesting essay on the Salafi’s in Egypt by Wendell Steavenson “Letter from Alexandria.” The essay, based on interviews makes the Salafi’s sound strikingly like Habad.

  11. max kohanzad says:

    @Shaul – let’s just clarify a couple of things:

    1. you said “I have no history with Habad.” and then go on to list your history with Habad: “I spent some time hanging around Crown Heights (and learned my share of Habad Hasidus, mostly later as an academic) and went to a few farbengens in the 1980s” ? and then after that admission claim “Habad never really interested me.” What?!? how does that make any sense at all!?

    1(a) Why no admission of the Habad influence of Reb Zalman & Reb Shlomo Carlebach – both deeply influenced by it’s ideas and ideology!

    2. I am not excluding Habad from the category of “haredi” BASED on wikipedia! I’m merely quoting a source which describes the term “haredi” – which i generally agree with, and just to clarify, my view preceded the invention of wikipedia. It is my own intimate identification with the Lubavitch Community, from the inside out, that leads me to assert that Lubavitchers do NOT “generally identify with Haredim or the Haredi world.” I feel that identification and identity is not something an “outsider” can genuinely do. You want to say that Habad/Lubavitch is definitely Haredi? Because of your understanding of their “social norms, political allegiance, and basic ideology. ” This either reveals your lack of insight and sensitivity to the nuanced subtlety of how Lubavitch fits in or does not fit into your definition of Haredi or a leaning towards comfortable generalizations which put all “Jews who wear black hats & beards” into the same box. My hunch is the latter because you are well aware there are fundamental ideological differences between Habad/Lubavitch and those of the Haredi world.

    3. Your assumption that “Salafi’s sound strikingly like Habad.” this just helps to prove my last point, your views of Habad are superficial, politicized and frankly disingenuous – why the striking similarity? is it because they have fluffy beards? If they wore black hats would they also be Haredi?

    • Shaul Magid says:

      I am sorry Max but your distortion of my views (or perhaps simply misreading of what I wrote) makes me feel that responding at length will benefit no one her. Hanging around Habad for a while does not constitute a “history.” At least not to me. I’ve hung around lots of places in my life. I do, however, have a history in the haredi world, both in JM and in Boro Park. And I can tell you that the Habad people I knew in JM and BP certainly considered themselves part of the larger “haredi” world, your idiosyncratic definition notwithstanding. And in terms of Habad Hasidut itself, with which I have more of a history, it is founded on very similar ideational and metaphysical principles as some other forms of Hasidism and Kabalah more generally.

      • hayyim rothman says:

        if i can possibly offer a translation of what i think max is trying to say and, possibly, uncover some common ground:

        I think that what he is expressing is that the relation chabad has with the secular/non-haredi world, a relation which emerges from its theology, is different than the more general world-perspective of certain strains of hasidism. it is much more literal and much more radical. this sets chabad outside the normative haredi world which generally takes a stance of rejection (e.g. the anti-internet rally in the works, a rally which chabad has no part in: a fact specifically noted by the big guns in lakewood).

        on the other hand, you are absolutely correct that the overall ideology of chabad – internally speaking – is very much within the haredi camp.

        so, in short, chabad is a unique case. but its uniqueness is that it straddles two worlds. because it does this, it is neither appropriate to interpret it in terms of the haredi world without a great deal of nuance (which I do not think you were suggesting) nor is it appropriate to categorically reject such interpretation.

  12. nachumklafter says:

    Thank you Zak and Shaul for your openness and generosity.

    First I will respond to Max: I admire your reverence for the late Rebbe, זצ”ל, but nothing you say about the Rebbe is accurate. The Rebbe was not at all comfortable with uncertainty. In fact the very source you quote–his letter where he tries to justify Ptolemy’s geocentrism, is a perfect illustration of this. He attempts to cite relativity to justify his maintenance of geocentrism because he cannot tolerate the notion that חז”ל accepted antiquated scientific ideas which would later be disproven.

    Your paraphrase of the Rebbe’s emphasis on the non-rational aspects of mitzva observance has nothing to do with uncertainty as it is being discussed by Shaul and Zak. His approach to טעמי המצוות is well summarized with ample documentation by Yoel Kahn in the pamphlet גדרן של מצוות. Suffice it to say that the Rebbe’s פשט on “זאת חוקת התורה”, which is what you are alluding to, has nothing to do with uncertainty. Uncertainty and certainty are not equivalent or even analogous with rationalism and mysticism, or scienticism and religion, or anything of the sort.

    Uncertainty is the acceptance that the human mind is motivated largely by subjective experiences which, at their core, are shaped by factors which are essentially unknowable. People who are comfortable with uncertainty are able, despite these shaky foundations, to coherent, meaningful view of the world. People who are uncomfortable with uncertainty are driven to assemble a theoretical realm that serves to define all the sources of our knowledge. Habad Hassidut is therefore a stunning example of a system which is very uncomfortable with uncertainty and goes to great lengths to set up a system upon which an entire theology can be built.

    Existential philosophers work in uncertainty. Essentialists, such as Lurianic Kabbalists, are very uncomfortable with uncertainty, and work only in certainty. They have constructed an elaborate theoretical realm which is in fact designed to eliminate any shred of uncertainty and provide a totalistic theory of everything.

    And this is where I think the dialogue between Shaul and Zak breaks down in my opinion. The “certainty” that Shaul sees in the Haredi world might be better described as spiritual ferver and ideological inflexibility. But inflexibility is not “certainty.” I would rather agree with Zak that inflexibility is typically a symptom of uncertainty and fear.

  13. nachumklafter says:

    Thank you Zak and Shaul for your openness and generosity.

    First I will respond to Max: I admire your reverence for the late Rebbe, זצ”ל, but nothing you say about the Rebbe is accurate. The Rebbe was not at all comfortable with uncertainty. In fact the very source you quote–his letter where he tries to justify Ptolemy’s geocentrism, is a perfect illustration of this. He attempts to cite relativity to justify his maintenance of geocentrism because he cannot tolerate the notion that חז”ל accepted antiquated scientific ideas which would later be disproven.

    Your paraphrase of the Rebbe’s emphasis on the non-rational aspects of mitzva observance has nothing to do with uncertainty as it is being discussed by Shaul and Zak. His approach to טעמי המצוות is well summarized with ample documentation by Yoel Kahn in the pamphlet גדרן של מצוות. Suffice it to say that the Rebbe’s פשט on “זאת חוקת התורה”, which is what you are alluding to, has nothing to do with uncertainty. Uncertainty and certainty are not equivalent or even analogous with rationalism and mysticism, or scienticism and religion, or anything of the sort.

    Uncertainty is the acceptance that the human mind is motivated largely by subjective experiences which, at their core, are shaped by factors which are essentially unknowable. People who are comfortable with uncertainty are able, despite these shaky foundations, to coherent, meaningful view of the world. People who are uncomfortable with uncertainty are driven to assemble a theoretical realm that serves to define all the sources of our knowledge. Habad Hassidut is therefore a stunning example of a system which is very uncomfortable with uncertainty and goes to great lengths to set up a system upon which an entire theology can be built.

    Existential philosophers work in uncertainty. Essentialists, such as Lurianic Kabbalists, are very uncomfortable with uncertainty, and work only in certainty. They have constructed an elaborate theoretical realm which is in fact designed to eliminate any shred of uncertainty and provide a totalistic theory of everything.

  14. ysara says:

    Shaul –
    Kudos on a thoughtful taxonomy of pluralism.
    Your distinction between passion and conviction ring true for me as an Israeli parent faced with educational choices. When choosing a preschool framework for my kids’ “girsa de-yankuta” the path was clear: send them where kriyat yam suf is conveyed with the rumble of the galloping horses and the splashing of the rough waters; where prayer is magic and hitlahavus; and where there is an order to contain the free zones in which every activity occurs – eating, playing, prayer, the seasonal activities – I call it “emunadik” education (ironically, the local framework that did this best, also drew on Steiner). Not “religion as subject” but as “total experience” (or, referring to the joke, not “the line to the lecture about Olam Ha-Ba for the Conservatives, but the line to the actual place for the Orthodox) (it’s not a very nice joke but serves to illustrate a point.) I was confident that the multiple manifestations of choseness theology, the slippery slope to racism, the parochial obsessions – all of which lurked between the lines, or in the sandbox, wherever, were trends I could balance out at home and in later settings; and I believed that when faced with the choice between beginning with passion and building tolerance or vice versa, passion was the founding fire that had to come first.
    Now we’re on the cusp of high school and the stakes are higher.
    I am looking for an Israeli religious school for my kids (oh yeah, and Jewish-Arab/multi-cultural, auto-didactism-encouraging, rigorous, relaxed, yeah yeah yeah), whose key educators are grounded firmly (or davka grounded tenuously) in Coincidenta oppositorium (relief and joy – you’ve given it a name!), and whose graduates by and large are humans whose passion partners with tolerance (modern sensibility, critique, pious irreverence).
    A secular, or even a liberal school points the way to the gentle, inner compass, which is aesthetically balanced and ethically compelling but essentially pareve. I love your rendering: “ferocious and barely controllable, it tears at your insides, it is hungry and it makes you hungry, it takes you away, and brings you back differently. It is not pretty but it is beautiful, it is both frightening and comforting simultaneously” and share your fear: that it “bleeds into one’s “political” life (in the broadest sense) and makes one rigid, xenophobic, and intolerant.”
    The uncertainty principle is a handy 20th century paradigm. If only we could get our minds around it, and then pass it on to our kids.

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