Doubt Isn’t What We Think It Is

I used to see the world as divided between two kind of people.  The “scientific” folks who questioned everything.  Who were excited and curious about life.  And the “religious” folks who were scared of questioning.  Doubt was great, and the “doubt-deniers” were confused and lost.

But then something truly bizarre happened: the more that I questioned the more I slowly joined the religious folk.

The religious folks I was interacting with, from my Christian friends to my Chabad rabbi, didn’t seem so afraid of the doubt that I was excited about.  They seemed to invite it, in their own way.  Obviously, they came from their own perspectives.  But the doubt did not scare them.  It excited them.

I loved this.  I loved them.  I loved what was happening.  Because in this situation, the more I debated these folks, the closer I felt like I was coming to some truth.

And eventually, I chose that truth.  They call it Judaism.

And then for quite a while, as I started down that path, my doubts and my questions persisted.  But there was something about that doubting that kept me going, kept me excited, and so I would become more and more religious.

But then I learned something in the Jewish tradition that worried me.  There is a teaching, especially encouraged in Chassidus, that doubt is is this no good, bad, horrible thing that turns you into cold shell.

“What was going on?” I wondered.  Were these people the doubt-haters I had fought so hard against my whole life?  The ones I had debated, the ones who had led me here, to this religious life?  Was it all just a trick?

I didn’t have an easy answer, and because this particular lesson seemed to me to be about not asking questions, I decided not to ask anyone to clarify.

Instead, I told myself, “Okay, this is the life I chose.  I won’t question.  I won’t doubt.”

But then, ironically, I turned cold.  I turned empty.  All those things they warned me that doubt would do… they happened when I stopped doubting.

What the heck?  What was going on?

I decided it was my fault I was turning cold.  I would just have to study and pray and work past it. Grit my teeth and move forward.

But it didn’t work.  And soon I was downright depressed.  An empty shell.  Even worse, I was less and less motivated to study and pray.

That’s when I decided to rebel.  I just couldn’t live like this.  I needed to trust that feeling within myself that something was wrong. And so I started to investigate again.

And almost immediately, I was back.  More religious than ever.  Studying more.  Praying more.  Feeling the presence of G-d back in my life.

This made no sense, though.  How could I be religious and also doubt?  How could stopping to doubt have the opposite effect on me that the religious folk claimed?

It was around this time that I started to write this blog, Pop Chassid.  Through it, I’ve had this incredible access to so many different ways of thinking.

And the more I blogged, the more I noticed something.  I noticed this group of people.  The doubt-worshippers.  They would troll my blog, troll me especially on the Huffington Post.  You wrote about G-d and they would stick out their tongues and wag them in my face and tell me what a fool I was for believing.

“Idiot!” they yelled out.  Or if they were nicer, they’d say something like, “Oh you poor idiot.  You never questioned and now you’re stuck in this world of blind conformity.”

And I wondered to myself… am I like those people?  I doubted.  I fought against blind belief.  By all rights, my doubts should have made me exactly like them.

And yet… I felt nothing like them.  Even as I doubted.  They were so… cold.  So angry.  So cynical.

Just like the doubters they described in my progression towards Judaism.

What was going on?  How did my doubt just make me warmer?  How did their doubt make them so cold and cynical and angry?

The more I wrote and witnessed this, the more I thought about it.  And, slowly, something became clear to me: their doubt was different than the doubt I was embracing.  Their doubt was aimed at discouraging excitement.  Against exploration.  To them, doubt closed their world off.  With each doubt they addressed, their world became more narrow.  Their reality more closed off.

The doubt that I had come to learn and love was different.  In fact it suddenly became clear to me that I was using the wrong word for my experience all along. I wasn’t cold from doubt because what I was experience wasn’t doubt at all.

It was curiosity.

Curiosity is full of questions.  It’s the two year old that keeps asking, “Why?”  And every time it gets an answer it has two more questions.  Curiosity isn’t interested so much in the destination as much as the journey.  It wants to keep getting deeper, and with each question answered it gets more excited.

This is what I had been missing all this time.  It was why I had gone so cold.  Just because of a linguistic discrepancy.  I had stopped questioning because  I equated questions with doubt.  When, in reality, questions can be the exact opposite of doubt.  They can mean you’re excited and want to learn more.  They can mean you liked the answer, but it just wasn’t enough to satiate you.  It can even mean you reject the answer, but you accept you may be wrong and want to keep learning anyway.

And I realized… “Oh my gosh, the whole world has been using the word ‘doubt’ to describe both doubt and curiosity.  They’ve gotten the two mixed up.  From the religious to the scientific, everyone’s been jumbling these words up and making themselves all confused and worried just because of a translation issue.”

I see and know so many religious folks that are afraid of being curious.  Because they think curiosity equals doubt.  They think they are sinners when really they are saints.  Their curiosity is the best part about them, but they are shutting it off.  And they’re turning themselves cold and empty because of it.

And then there are the scientific folks.  The people who glorify their doubt.  Who love it, hold it close to them at night when they go to sleep.  They think they are being curious.  They think they are in awe of the world.

They’re lying to themselves.  And to them, their “curiosity” is really the doubt I learned about in yeshiva.  It turns them cold.  Empty.  Just like the confused religious folks.

Because each side has chosen answers over questions.  Being closed-off over being open.  “Reality” over possibility.

What a shame.

It’s time we have a curiosity revolution.  A love of questions that lead to more questions.  It’s time we come out from the cold and into the warm embrace of the glorious journey that never stops.

  • gabi532

    Doubt is perfectly healthy…It’s how we strengthen our faith. If I didn’t have doubt and question, that would make me part of a cult…

  • HS

    Really great 🙂
    I feel like I’m on a seesaw sometimes…
    “Torah is truth! It’s the answer to all questions!”
    “But wait, what if it isn’t? What if I dig a little deeper and find out that all of this is ridiculous?”
    “No wait, that’s just doubt, that’s chutzpah, just believe!”
    “But what if I’m just brainwashed?”
    “But my teachers have answered all my questions…it must be true!”
    “But…”
    etc, etc, etc.

    • Renata Magurdumov

      Thats exactly how i feel!! Glad im not the only one. I think its the ‘evil inclination’ in us. I also learned the closer you get the harder it seems… Good luck! 🙂

  • Red Cow

    Well put. A really cool chasid once told me that the linguistics of the term “baal teshuva” are spot on- A Master of the Answer. We keep asking the right questions for the right reasons and we’ll come to ever greater answers.

    Hi, by the way, I’m new to your blog.

  • Noam D

    That’s nice but I can’t see how your doubt and curiosity led you to religion. For most people it leads them away. Food for thought.

  • Rachel Landes

    Mind-altering. The written equivalent of a psychedelic.

  • disqus_FuBl2QPRTg

    Interested in knowing specific examples that you felt you were teetering on doubt? BSD

  • Katrina Bascom

    I’m a scientist and a Christian. Science and religion can find balance. 🙂

    And I believe we cannot find answers without asking questions! I think the key, then, is whether we are addressing those questions to G-d or not. If we ask the right source, we can get the right answers, just like you did!

  • Renata Magurdumov

    Thats exactly how i feel!! Glad im not the only one. I think its the ‘evil inclination’ in us, it tries hard to throw off path. i also learned the closer you get the harder it seems… Good luck! 🙂