Wednesday, September 08, 2004

In Defense of Agnosticism

While browsing Kol Nidrei sermons on the web, I came across this very unusual drash, delivered by Rabbi Ethan Seidel in 2002. 2001 was a difficult year for Rabbi Seigel, as it was for most of us. Aside from the September 11th attack, he endured the death of a friend, and this precipitated what he describes as "theological depression."

I don't mean to make light of clinical depression - that's serious business, and my condition was just not that serious. But for a Rabbi, at least, a theological depression is a problem. I'm paid to believe in God. If I'm suddenly convinced that all is chaos, how is that helpful to my congregation?

Rabbi Seidel relates some of the thoughts that plagued him during this period, thoughts that are very familiar to me. Then he gives us his reason for self-disclosure, and it's one of those simple truths, the kind that is as shocking as it is obvious:

I wonder if you all realize how common such a theological crisis is, even among us Rabbis? Maybe you think that there are some people who have perfect faith, and that you with your imperfect faith are somehow a defective Jew. I'm here to tell you not to think that.

It gets even more outrageous:

I think that there is something pareve, even unhealthy about both the atheist and the fundamentalist. How can they be so sure of themselves? They live in a world where everything is known. But is that 2-dimensional world reality? I ask the atheist: is goodness really just a human invention, just a matter of opinion? And how can the fundamentalist ignore the chaos that seems to permeate the world? Reality is incomprehensible. And I mistrust . . . those who claim to understand life.

There is, admittedly, a certain arrogance to this approach. How can he be so sure of himself? How can he declare something that others claim to know to be fundametally unknowable?

But I understand. I think that way, too.

Anyway, it's a good read. Somewhat comforting, if you're one of those Jews who struggles privately with the fundamentals.

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