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.