A Healthy Dose of Doubt

A Healthy Dose of Doubt


Religion is something that’s difficult to explain. Some people embrace its beliefs; others think it’s mostly a product of curiosity, a way of exploring and explaining the inexplicable.

Rachel LaVictoire

One thing is certain: at one point or another, most everyone questions religion and their own beliefs. The questioning comes in many forms, and often progresses like a snowball, growing quickly and gaining speed as it rolls along. It might go something like this:

Do I believe humans all descended from Adam and Eve? Do I believe Moses wrote the Torah? Do I believe that my prayers are being heard? Do I believe there is something after I die? Do I even believe in G-d?

And those are just questions you can ask about Judaism. What about other religions – for example, did Siddhartha Gautama really reach enlightenment after observing the suffering in our world? Is karma real?

And what makes the beliefs of Buddhists and Hindus “wrong” and our Jewish beliefs “right”?

Such questions can send a person into a frenzy of doubt and discomfort. It’s not easy to raise these queries, but truth to tell, it’s only through questioning that we can reach new depths in our own faith.

A course I’ve been taking titled “Thinking About Religion” is very difficult. It’s been forcing me to step outside my comfort zone, set aside my Judaism and look at other beliefs and ideas.

Take, for example, this excerpt from our textbook, “Comparing Religions: A Textbook Initiation” by Jeffrey Kripal, a professor at Rice University. Recounted is the story of 19-year-old Bill Barnard, from Gainesville, Fla., who in 1975 took a workshop in “latent spiritual energy” from a Hindu guru.

When it came time for the “Descent of Power,” Bill sat reciting a mantra over and over again as the guru tapped Bill on the head with a peacock feather. This is Bill’s recollection:

“My consciousness dramatically shifted inside of me…I remember very vividly how odd it was to me to pay attention to where this mantra was coming from inside of me. It was as if I had split into two parts: one part was watching this mantra arise within me, while the other part of me was the mantra…

“Then, something shifted again. All at once, I was no longer split into two, I was no longer looking for the source of the mantra; instead, I felt myself to be the source of the mantra…

“There was a deep, solid inner knowing that ‘this’ was who ‘I’ was, that ‘this’ was very real, [and] that ‘it’ was much more real than my previous sense of myself as a limited, suffering, ignorant ego with a body.”

At first, Bill Barnard may sound crazy. Some old man hit him over the head with a feather, and suddenly space and time are non-issues and he’s a swirling mass of consciousness?

Many people would write this off as nonsense, or maybe even a cry for attention. Why, though? It seems to me that Bill Barnard’s experience isn’t anymore difficult to accept than the story that G-d provided the Israelites manna from heaven.

That’s not to say I’m thinking about become a Hindu; I just think it’s okay for me to ponder other beliefs.

In this week’s Torah portion, Vayigash, Joseph reveals himself to his brothers. It had been 22 years since they sold him into slavery, and Joseph was now a noble and respected man of Egypt.

He told his brothers to go back to their father in Canaan and to bring their families and settle in the land of Goshen so that Joseph would be near them. So the brothers went back to their father Jacob and told him that Joseph was alive and that he had sent wagons for the family in the hopes that they would leave Canaan and go to the land of Goshen.

Jacob was excited by the thought of seeing his son, whom he thought had died, and so he agreed to go. During the trip, G-d called out to Jacob:

“I am G-d, the G-d of your father. Do not be afraid of going down to Egypt, for there I will make you into a great nation. I will go down with you to Egypt, and I will also bring you up (Genesis 45:4).”

Still, Jacob was anxious. He didn’t fear violence or danger. He feared the loss of the Holy Land. It seemed plausible that if he left Canaan, his descendants would never know the land.

That which he experienced was the same sort of anxiety, I think, that arises when people question their faith. They become nervous that they will lose their core beliefs, that their answers will lead them into denial or even down an entirely different path. However, in this week’s parshah, G-d confronts that worry.

G-d will be with us even when we question, for He is always with us. He will bring us back after our journey, back to the Holy Land and back to faith. That’s why I can question my beliefs – I know in my heart what I believe:

Adonai eloheinu Adonai ehad. “The Lord is our G-d, the Lord is one.”

But it’s the curiosity, the doubt and the questioning – followed by G-d’s pulling me back to Judaism – which reinforces all that I believe.

So follow in Jacob’s footsteps. Go on both intellectual and spiritual journeys. Just as G-d promised to Jacob, so too will He “go down with you and also bring you up.”

Rachel LaVictoire (rlavictoire@wustl.edu) is a graduate of the Davis Academy and Westminster High School, recipient of the prestigious Nemerov Writing and Thomas H. Elliott Merit scholarships at Washington University of St. Louis and an active member of Temple Emanu-El and the Marcus Jewish Community Center of Atlanta.

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