In Praise of Uncertainty

Certainty or doubt? Go with the certainty.
— Bav Metzia 97b

Last week, in our ongoing study of Ethics of the Fathers, we talked about precision, based on a statement of the Talmudic sage, Rabban Gamliel, who pre-empted his exhortation to be exact in giving charity with four resounding words: "Stay away from doubt." That seems, right now, to be the least of our problems. No one seems to doubt themselves enough. Just look at one Twitter feed if you don't believe me. Every day, we encounter the presumption of certainty as the unqualified assert their strident opinions on politics, current events and celebrity gossip. It's got me wondering about this intense need to be certain and what deep human insecurities it masks. It also reminds me of what the philosopher Bertrand Russell wrote, "The trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent full of doubt."

The Talmudic principle above appears in several places and serves as a decision-making, law-adjudicating principle. "Certainty or doubt - go with the certainty." Elsewhere the Talmud says, "One who has bread in his basket is not like one who does not have bread in his basket" [BT Yoma 74b]. This is the Aramaic equivalent of "A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush." The medieval commentator, Rashi, observes that this means having food one day is no guarantee for tomorrow, offering a different reading than the literal sense of the expression. Both, however, involve certainty and doubt. If you have before you a doubt and a certainty, go with a reality you know and what you already have. This is a terrific way to walk in the world when you are risk-averse.

Elsewhere, the Talmud offers a similar view: "Doubt cannot negate certainty,"(BT Pesakhim 9a, BT Hullin 10a). When something you know is rock solid, it's near impossible to break through the armor. While this sounds reasonable and mimics much of human experience, we all know that doubt can creep in when it's least invited and make us question what we believe to be true. In the arena of love, parenting, and friendship, it is not hard to make someone feel insecure. One sharp question, nagging suspicion or morsel of gossip can do great injury.

In the introduction to Alan Mittleman's excellent new book Human Nature and Jewish Thought: Judaism's Case for Why Persons Matter, he makes a persuasive case for uncertainty: "...certitude is not our birthright, nor does it come easily or cheaply. The desire for certitude arises from within our experience of perplexity, from within the interplay of light and dark, knowledge and ignorance, that always attends our quest for knowledge. The desire for certitude wants to override that interplay. It signals impatience with the shifting balance between the two; it represents a panic for resolution. We need to get over the panic and live, fully and well, with a lack of resolution."

The desire to control, to dominate, to live with abiding confidence can obstruct our capacity to be truly open to change, creativity and personal development. "The lack of certainty does not stop us, Mittleman claims, "from advancing our needs and concerns. We make our way toward whatever certainties are possible for us from the middle, moving outward. The form of life that we lead is already saturated with norms, principles, beliefs and convictions. We don't need the certitude of an ultimate truth, speaking to us as if from the outside."

We know what we know. But we're greedy when we want to know everything that can be known and even what cannot be known. We want surety when it cannot be guaranteed. And perhaps the frustration that this will guarantee will never be ours morphs into the strange problem of sounding certain about everything. When we do that, we alienate people who are comfortable living with ambiguity and humility in a world of mystery. I don't know about you, but I would hate to live in a world without mystery. I'm not sure of many things, but, without a doubt, I am sure of that.

Shabbat Shalom