ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 227

Promoted Essay The Times of Israel - Promoted Content Sources Journal: Spring 2024

Doubt in a Time of War

Rabbi Gordon Tucker on living with uncertainty at this moment.

Gordon Tucker is Vice Chancellor for Religious Life and Engagement and Assistant Professor of Jewish Philosophy at the Jewish Theological Seminary, and a fellow of the Kogod Research Center at the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America.

The unspeakable events of October 7 in Israel, and the ongoing horrors that have ensued during the war to root out Hamas, have left us with so many doubts. We shall have some things to say about them, both implicitly and explicitly, in what follows. But it is good to begin by building up some reflections on the general phenomenon and role of doubt in human affairs.

Doubt assumes a variety of guises that plague us—as a species, we seem wired to desire certainty. Nine centuries ago, the Jewish philosopher Abraham ibn Daud set forth two of these species of uncertainty. The first is the doubt that results from our ignorance of facts that, in principle, could be discovered. Interestingly, the mishnah that has so often been chosen to introduce young students to rabbinic literature (Bava Metzia 1:1) deals with a doubt of that nature. It tells of two people clutching a cloak, each claiming to have found it and picked it up first. There must have been a discoverable fact of the matter, but the court—in the absence of other evidence—could not know it, and possibly even the litigants did not know the truth. Thus do countless generations of young students of Talmud begin their studies with the question of how to reach a fair and acceptable accommodation with doubt. The resolution is, in one respect, almost certainly suboptimal: the cloak is to be divided between them. Yet had the judges been there to observe the scene, they would have known for sure who found the cloak first and was the rightful owner of 100% of it. The Mishnah’s decision, then, is a means of living in a civilized way with the unresolved doubt.

Elsewhere in the Talmud (bShabbat 69b), we are asked to consider the case of a person who has been trekking through an uninhabited area for some days, but in the absence of any human contact, has forgotten what day of the week it is. How shall he fulfill his wish to observe Shabbat? Again, the resolution is suboptimal. The traveler is to count six days and designate the seventh as (his) Shabbat. He is permitted to find and prepare food for himself—but do no more work other than continuing to travel—on every day, including his designated Shabbat. This instruction cannot possibly produce a correct observance of the actual Shabbat. It is nevertheless a way of adapting to the (perhaps temporarily) incorrigible doubt, while maintaining, through thought and liturgy, a presence of the holiness of time in one’s life.

Ibn Daud then notes that there is a second species of doubt that arises because God has so made the world that uncertainty is in some cases guaranteed. The author’s intent was to suggest that the furnishing of free will to human beings meant that even God had agreed to have uncertainty about how God’s creatures would act. But for our purposes, we need not get into those theological matters. It is enough to consider the matter of other minds. Here is a simple example of a doubt that we could not, even in principle, resolve. First consider a simple statement from Wittgenstein:

It means nothing to doubt whether I am in pain. That means: If anyone said, “I do not know if what I have got is a pain or something else,” we should think something like, he does not know what the English word “pain” means, and we should explain it to him. (Philosophical Investigations I:288)

So, one’s own pain may be indubitable, but what about someone else’s pain? Even if they tell us they are in pain, how can we know whether they are being truthful? All schoolchildren know that if they want to stay home from school, they do not claim to have a fever; that can be checked and verified. They claim to have a stomachache. For that presents the parent with a doubt that cannot be resolved.

Related to this kind of doubt is what results from an analogue to the parallax phenomenon, i.e., that the very same scene viewed from even the slightest change of perspective results in images that are different; even, at times, mutually contradictory. The analogue is this: the very same event can, in the perceptions of distinct actors with different histories and world views, be understood in significantly divergent ways. And a recognition that such divergences reside in other minds can only raise for us measures of doubt: are mine the complete and accurate perceptions of what has occurred?…

Continue reading at Sources: A Journal for Jewish Ideas

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