By Dr. Marc Gafni
Uncertainty is ethically and spiritually essential, Marc Gafni writes here, because it allows us to reach higher certainty, avoid the seduction of false certainty, and reach spiritual authenticity. In this excerpt from Chapter One of his volume Uncertainty, Marc introduces the core “Ullai Stories” or “Maybe Stories” of the Old Testament, explaining the role of Jacob, whose name is changed to Israel, as a major character in these stories.
The Israel Moment: Reclaiming Uncertainty as a Spiritual Value
Much of religious tradition can be understood as culture’s attempt to fully triumph over uncertainty. Indeed one of the most important modern Biblical commentaries argues that divine revelation is the gift of a loving God who wants to spare the world the pain of uncertainty. Many voices in the religious world have declared unilateral victory, arguing that all of life’s doubts can be defeated through faith, religious observance, and logic.1
I believe our life experiences give lie to absolute religious and spiritual claims to certainty. Sometimes the way religious tradition critiques itself and conveys its more subtle and even radical ideas is through the seemingly innocent story. It is in this light that I understand the following wonderful story:
Yankele used to go to the market every week to buy the basic necessities for the Sabbath. Every Friday, he would buy Sabbath candles for one ruble, bread for one ruble, and Kiddush2 wine for another ruble: three rubles were all he and his wife could spare for the Sabbath meal. One day, Yankele arrives at the market with the three coins jingling in his pocket, and he comes across an elderly gentleman that he has never seen before. The old man looks at him deep in the eyes and says softly, “Excuse me, young man, but I am terribly thirsty. Could you please buy me a cup of tea?”
Now a cup of tea cost one ruble. To buy this man a cup of tea means that Yankele would have only two rubles left, which would make one of his Sabbath purchases impossible. Yankele is not sure what to do. But he looks into the eyes of the stranger, and for some reason, has a feeling this man is truly thirsty. And, as something of a scholar, Yankele knows that one can make Kiddush over bread even without wine, and so he decides to do without the wine this week and buy this enchanting stranger a cup of tea. Together they sit down in the tea-shop, the old man picks up his tea cup, makes a blessing and drinks the tea, closing his eyes in pleasure as the refreshing liquid pours down his throat. It is a few minutes before he opens glistening eyes and thanks Yankele with a very slight bow of the head.
Just as Yankele stands up to leave, the old man says, “Excuse me, could you wait a moment? You have been extremely generous to me. But you see, I am very, very thirsty. Perhaps you could buy me one more cup of tea?” Yankele looks at this old thirsty man and knows he has a problem. What to do? On the one hand, he likes this strange old man. On the other hand, his wife will not like him too much if he comes home with no way to celebrate the Sabbath.
……But then, on the other hand, Yankele remembers that one legal authority, R. Akiva Eger, taught that lacking bread and wine, one can just say “Shabbat Shalom” to bring in the Sabbath. In the end, Yankele takes the plunge. He sits back down and orders the man another cup of tea.
Again, the old man makes the blessing and drinks deep with eyes closed. Again, the man thanks Yankele with glistening eyes. But this time, as soon as the man bows his head, Yankele stands up quickly in the hope of escaping the words he knows are about to come: “Excuse me, sir,” says the old man before Yankele has reached the exit, “I am still very, very thirsty. Please could you buy me just one more cup of tea?” Again, Yankele is full of uncertainty. A crowd of Halachic variables rush around his head, but this time he can find no legal justification for forfeiting the last ruble which he needs for the Sabbath candles. “I’m sorry,” he says, “But I can’t buy you another cup of tea.” The old man smiles a sad smile, and bows his head. “Before you leave, let me bless you,” the old man says. “I bless you with great wealth, health, and a good long life.” Yankele thanks the man for his blessing and hurries off to prepare for Sabbath.
Sure enough, Yankele becomes a very wealthy man. He is able to look after his wife and all his children in luxury and style. He lives the epitome of a good, long life. But he is now nearing the end of his days, and he has only one desire left in the world and that is to thank the old man from that fateful encounter in the tea-shop. And so he goes and sits in the tea-shop every Friday in hopes of finding him again. Finally, one Friday before the setting sun, Yankele looks up from his tea and sees…the old man. It’s the old man—and although Yankele has grown older, the old man seems to look exactly the same.
Yankele jumps up, grasps the old man’s hands and blurts out all the gratitude that has built up inside him all those years. But the old man does not return his embrace, does not respond to his thanks. Yankele sees that the old man has bowed his head in order to hide a silent tear running down his face. “What is the matter?” asks Yankele, “Did I say something, did I do something wrong?” And the old man says, in a quiet, infinitely understanding voice—a voice which resounds throughout the heavens—he says, “If only, if only you had poured me one more cup of tea…”
The story,3 speaks to the experience of us all. We have all of us faced situations where we have needed to risk buying a cup of tea for a stranger, where we have to decide whether to take a leap in the dark. Likewise, we have all come across situations where we wish we had risked more, where with the benefit of hindsight we regret our caution. I have drawn on a story from within the Jewish tradition to point out that this universal experience of the uncertainties in life happens to us all. Yankele is a religious man, an observant, knowledgeable Jew with a deep faith in God, and yet this faith does not save him from uncertainty. Yankele acted according to the certainties provided to him by the law. The stranger makes the radical suggestion that there are times when we need to move beyond the soothing certainties of law or even common sense. This is the symbol of the third cup of tea. There is a point in our lives where, in order to reach authenticity, we need to buy the third cup of tea. Indeed in this story, sometimes only through entering uncertainty can the highest treasures be attained.
And yet Safek, which we have translated as uncertainty or perhaps more correctly, ambiguity, is the greatest producer of anxiety, tension, and existential malaise. There is no joy like the resolution of doubt. But how do we know how to resolve and when to resolve? Emily Dickinson wrote, “Hamlet wavered for us all.” His “to be or not to be” soliloquy is Shakespeare’s song of uncertainty which resonates in the melodies of all of our lives. How, if at all, can certainty be achieved? How are such decisions made? When to buy the tea and when not to buy the tea? When do we need to be safe and clear; when is risk irresponsible and immoral; and when is risk courageous, audacious, and even the highest expression of our humanity?
Biblical theology’s unique understanding is that living the sacred life requires a dialectical relationship between paradise and paradox, between core certainties and the existence of uncertainty. Both certainty and uncertainty are vital—each has its moment. Healthy religion, as well as healthy living, flow from simultaneously maintaining certainty and uncertainty.
In order to live in the world in a way that is both grounded and passionate, I need first to be certain about myself. If I do not doubt myself, then I have the inner strength to be able to encounter the many areas of my life where uncertainty is inherent and inescapable. Moreover, healthy acceptance of uncertainty will enable me to avoid both the paralysis of indecision and the recklessness of an extremism which craves the certainty of over-simplification. If I am anchored and motivated by some sense of inner certainty, then I can act courageously in uncertainty. If I hold no inner certainties, then acting from uncertainty is almost invariably a far too dangerous proposition.
In our book on Certainty, we understood that in order to reach sippuk—fulfillment—I need to resolve my inner safek—uncertainty. My failure to resolve that inner safek will prevent me from ever reaching true sippuk—satisfaction and will cause me almost pathologically to seek sippuk in places which are not of myself. Such a spiral will eventually lead to Amalek—the embodiment of evil—which the Zohar explains is the mystical equivalent of safek.4
In the first book of this study entitled Certainty, the Judah Moment framework was introduced, associated with the biblical story of Judah, in order to unpack the experience of core certainty. There is, however, a second moment in biblical consciousness where precisely the opposite holds true: where, rather than being enemies, safek-uncertainty and sippuk-satisfaction are inseparable allies. In this way of thinking, I can never reach deep sippuk without holding, choosing, or grappling with safek. Satisfaction is not attainable without uncertainty. In this second mode of Jewish thought, it follows that if I am unable to countenance safek in my life, I will always rush to grasp at a false certainty in order to escape the tension of uncertainty. This false certainty will never lead me to true sippuk.
In conjunction with teaching the need for inner certainty, biblical thought also deeply affirms the benefit of doubt. Uncertainty is understood to be both a spiritual necessity, a requisite for reaching authenticity, and an indispensable tool in achieving the highest levels of certainty. I shall refer to this experience as the Israel Moment. This because the archetypal Biblical figure of Jacob, whose name is changed to Israel, is the paradigm for the spiritual reclamation of uncertainty as a reality to be embraced and not resolved. First, however, let us acknowledge the common assumption that faith and uncertainty are inherent contradictions.
Ever since the medieval period, when Aristotelian rationalism began to exert its overwhelming influence on western culture, doubt has been the perceived foe of religious man, or rather, religion has been the stick with which to beat down doubt. Dr. Akiva Tatz provides a contemporary example of this tradition in his popular spiritual handbook, Living Inspired.5 There, he suggests a seemingly overwhelming piece of evidence to prove that true religion is the antithesis of uncertainty. According to Tatz, not only does the Bible not accept the existence of doubt, but biblical Hebrew does not even have the word to express it. On the face of it, Tatz would appear to be correct: the word for doubt—safek—first appears in post-biblical Hebrew and cannot be found anywhere in the Hebrew Bible. Linguistically at least, doubt seems to be banished from the spiritual vocabulary of Biblical consciousness.
Tatz should not be so sure. For there is a second Hebrew word signifying uncertainty in the Bible, and particularly in the book of Genesis; that word is “maybe”—in Hebrew, ullai. As soon as we begin to explore the appearances of this word “maybe -- ullai,” an astonishing pattern begins to emerge. The Book of Genesis contains six distinct episodes which contain the word ‘maybe.’ In all of them, “maybe” provides a vital key to understanding the story. They are a heretofore unacknowledged, yet clearly recognizable, genre in their own right—-the six “Ullai Stories” of Genesis—and they provide us with the entry-point into Judaism’s embrace of doubt.
Sarai, the barren wife of Abram, uses the word ullai when she suggests Abram marry her maidservant Hagar, saying, ullai—maybe—Avram will have children through Hagar. Eliezer, servant of Abraham, expresses his fear of uncertainty with the word ullai when sent to find a wife for Isaac, saying, ullai—maybe—she will not agree to return with me to Isaac. Abraham himself sings the defiant song of ullai to God when challenging Him over the destruction of Sodom. Ullai—maybe—there are 50…40…30…20…10 righteous people in Sodom for whose merit you should save the city.
We will examine all these episodes at a later stage in our discussion. We will see how these, together with five other biblical episodes which—though they lack the word ullai in the biblical text—have been understood primarily by the Kabbalistic mystical writers as what we have termed “Ullai Stories.” These stories are no less central than the Garden of Eden, the Binding of Isaac, Eliezer and the search for Isaac’s wife, the Covenant Between the Pieces, and finally the Golden Calf stories reread. In all of these stories ullai-uncertainty–plays a central role.
The major ullai character, however, is Jacob, whose life encompasses two of the ullai stories and whose transformation from Jacob into Israel will provide us with the matrix within which we will attempt to chart the spiritual path of uncertainty. It is this story that we have termed the “Israel Moment.” In contrast to the Judah moment, which suggests paths to inner certainty, the Israel moment is about struggling in uncertainly and the dialectical oscillation between the two. The final Ullai Story, with which we conclude, is when old Jacob, now called Israel, is confronted by Judah. Judah, the major protagonist of our first volume meets Israel, the major protagonist of our second volume. Henceforth, our discussion will revolve around the Israel Moment and the Ullai stories.
Before beginning our journey, however, it may be of value for the reader to have at least a very bare outline of the three reasons I hold uncertainty to be ethically and spiritually essential. These underlying motifs will guide our entire discussion.
1) First, only by holding uncertainty can I attain higher certainty. The embrace of false certainty always prevents me from reaching the higher clarity and vision that is mine.
2) Second, we hold uncertainty in order to avoid the seduction of false certainty. False dogma, be it religious, national, spiritual, or secular, is the ground out of which the dynamic of human evil always feeds. Most of the evil in the world is committed by people who are one hundred percent convinced they are right. People who hold uncertainty as a spiritual value rarely perpetrate massacres. Uncertainty is one of God’s protective mechanisms against hubris and it’s devastating consequences.6 Indeed, the cruel shadow side of modernity, which killed no fewer than a hundred million people in the last century, stems largely from its refusal to hold intellectual uncertainty. Instead of holding safek, moderns feel the need to claim their safek as Vaddai—clarity. Modernity, however, has ample precedent in almost all of the religious systems which history has produced. Uncertainty is sublimated by excessive and often fatal displays of religious or secular zeal and certitude.
3) Third, I need to hold uncertainty because only in uncertainty do I reach spiritual authenticity. This third level of uncertainty is never resolvable in favor of higher certainty. This uncertainty is higher than any certainty and is reflective of the deepest nature of both spiritual and physical reality.
Dr. Marc Gafni
1. A classic example is David Gottlieb, leading lecturer in Ohr Sameach, the premier intellectual center of Orthodox study for those returning to Jewish observance from an assimilated secular context. Gottlieb argues explicitly that if one takes together all of the classic theodicies, religious explanations offered to explain how a good God can allow innocent suffering, one has “solved the problem ” of innocent suffering. Gottlieb explicitly and rather matter of factly makes the claim that religion has answered the great question of theodicy. The holocaust for Gottlieb no longer poses any essential challenge to religious faith. The extent of the challenge that one may feel is no more than the extent of one’s own ignorance of the explanations of suffering offered by Jewish wisdom. That is to say, for Gottlieb, religion has answered the cry of the prophets who cry out in great pathos and audacity—How can the good God whom we love so allow such horrible suffering in his world? Had the prophets only attended Gottlieb’s lectures at Ohr Sameach, the problem would’ve been solved.
2. Kiddush is the blessing recited by observant Jews in order to usher in the Sabbath. According to the law the blessing is preferably recited over wine.
3. In my retelling of the story I haven interpolated my understanding into the text of the story much in the same way that Buber retold tales of Hassidim.
4. In chapter two of Certainty, volume 1 of this study, it is explained that the numerical equivalence in Hebrew letters between the word Safek and Amalek suggests that uncertainty is an Amalek quality. It does not primarily refer to theological uncertainty as it is usually understood, but uncertainty of my own essential value.
5. Targum Press Ltd., 1993.
6. See Abraham Kuk who expresses this notion in one of his letters.