Kathryn and Ellen Talk About Doubt and Faith
A Sermon for Erev Rosh haShanah
By Rabbi Ellen Lippmann and Kathryn Conroy
ELLEN: 14 years ago my wife, Kathryn Conroy, noted casually to me that Kolot is a place where doubt is an act of faith. I laughed out loud. And remembered it. Sometime during Rosh HaShanah services that year, I mentioned it. And members began referring to it over and over. It touched something true. It became part of our mission statement, placed prominently on our website, our Facebook page, our T-shirts.
Something about those words made people, many of you probably, think you could come as you are: Be fully yourselves, for if you can bring your doubts to shul, you can bring a lot else besides.
As I prepare to retire, it has been clear to everyone working on the transition that the Kolot mission and values are the linchpin of Kolot’s future, the thing that will carry current members forward and new members into a new era grounded in the abiding values of this community. What better to talk about as we begin this new year, then, than the most-quoted phrase of Kolot’s mission. How and why do doubt and faith remain crucial?
One thing I can tell you is that a few weeks ago, during one of our first August services in the park under the Tallis Trees, I asked the gathered community to think about God. Not to offer thoughts then, but to take some questions with them to mull over during the week ahead. As I asked the questions, I became aware that there was in that green and shady space a deep hush as people listened. This was important! Was it more important this year than last, as we all have lived through this year of horrifying changes in this country and elsewhere? Or was it that we at Kolot have become so used to speaking about doubt that it is stunning when we speak about God without conditions? Whatever caused it, the hushed attentive reaction made me think again that speaking about faith, and about doubt, was needed as this year begins.
This year! Shock wave after shock wave, protest after protest, vigilance, urgency. And then the hurricane season: Biblical, terrifying, deathly. Doubt and faith.
So for my last Rosh HaShanah at Kolot, I asked Kathryn if she would join me to talk about faith and doubt and what she saw in Kolot members back then. We have never spoken together anywhere except at our wedding, but as Yehuda Amichai wrote, “...doubts and loves / Dig up the world / Like a mole, a plow.” I wanted us to dig into our hearts and dig up this world a little. We hope our personal reflections will spark yours.
(Kathryn joins on the bima.)
ELLEN: Let’s start right here on erev Rosh HaShanah:
A Hassidic teaching tells us that people and God connect intimately during the month of Elul when “the king is in the field” before returning to the palace to ascend the throne, a chief image of Rosh HaShana.
The month of Elul ended tonight as the month of Tishrei began. The king now re-enters the palace, and mounts the stairs to sit on the “kisei rahm v’nisa” - the elevated throne on which Rosh HaShanah’s great King now sits.
KATHRYN: Really? Really? (gently said, not funny.)
ELLEN: Of course not. But I have thought about this imagery a lot this year, especially in the past few weeks, not just because I love this sort of anthropomorphic image-making, but more because I have yearned so deeply for some great power somewhere to DO something ... I have thought a lot about the old English biblical word “smiting,” frankly wishing there were some smiting going on, IF I got to decide when and where.
Years ago the poet Susan Griffin wrote, “I like to think of Harriet Tubman...who was never caught, and who had no use for the law / when the law was wrong, /who defied the law.../ I like to think of her especially/when I think of the problem of feeding children./ The legal answer / to the problem of feeding children / is ten free lunches every month,/ being equal, in the child’s real life, / to eating lunch every other day. / Monday, but not Tuesday. /I like to think of the President eating lunch Monday, but not Tuesday.”
KATHRYN: I like to think now of the President being spit on by a neo-Nazi or grabbed by an ICE agent on a street somewhere or suffering the effects of a leaking oil pipeline or losing his health insurance right when he needs major surgery.
ELLEN: I don’t really think about God like this. Except when I really do.
KATHRYN: I don’t. But you are the one who once wept at the graves of the Biblical Abraham and Sarah, though you don’t really believe they existed.
ELLEN: Well, it IS Rosh HaShanah when Abraham and Sarah seem very real. So let’s just posit that the king has left the field and is ascending to the heavenly throne. What better time to confront and embrace or reject or wonder about the ancient, royal, male, decreeing, or inspiring or comforting God of our tradition? What better time, as this new year begins, to face the despair of the year that is ending, trying to locate some new faith and recognize our very real doubts?
KATHRYN: When I first said that Kolot Chayeinu is a place where doubt is an act of faith, I think what I meant was that I was seeing adults doing adult Judaism. I believe that mature faith has to incorporate doubt, otherwise it is mindless belief. Mindful (such a hackneyed word right now) mindful belief has to incorporate doubt. Otherwise it IS mindless; it is not adult faith.
Ambiguity and ambivalence mark adulthood. I am ambivalent; I can hold two diametrically opposed feelings at the same time; and not be crazy. Like Ellen weeping at the graves of people she does not think ever lived. Or me really wanting to write and speak this sermon with her, and ready to pull out every day since I said yes.
Often life is ambiguous: unknown, uncertain. But we too often act as if that wasn’t true.
I try to ask myself, “What do I really, truly KNOW?” All of experience exists on a continuum. The continuum of belief might run from Absolutely Yes to Absolutely No. From “Absolute Belief and Faith” to “Absolute No Belief or Faith”.
ELLEN: Completely certain atheists and completely certain people of faith hold up the poles. Between those two clear poles stand the rest of us, where we two stand. Between the certain poles is the realm of doubt.
KATHRYN: We are both doubters, but our doubt has taken us in different directions. I have moved from an early Catholic childhood steeped in dogma and certainty to a place of comfort as an agnostic.
What do I really truly KNOW?
What I KNOW is that I am truly most comfortable knowing that I do NOT know. I embrace uncertainty, surprise and mystery. Years ago I fell in love with a bumper sticker that said “Militant Agnostic: I don’t know and you don’t either.”
ELLEN: I have moved from regular Jewish practice and prayer in my childhood to - well, an adult life of regular Jewish practice and prayer. But the adult version is different, deeper, more often tested, and with the strengthening of doubt.
What do I really, truly KNOW?
I know that people can be heart-breakingly cruel, and breath-takingly kind.
I know that birth is a miracle of immense proportions. And I know firsthand that people die. This is partly why we have these High Holydays, to try to come to terms with life and death, as well as with our hopes and prayers for a good year ahead. Death is a fact of life, and a fact of war, random, planned, created, accidental. I have learned with the deepest sorrow of my life that children die. When children I know have died, at 12 or 24, I have yelled - really yelled - at God in anger and fear and confusion. AND I have asked God for comfort for the parents, praying to El Malei Rachamim, the God who is full of compassion, wondering where that compassion is and how I can possibly say so and knowing that I can’t do anything else. I am not the bereaved parents. Some of you are and I do not know how you get out of bed. Your willingness to do so, your determination to continue living, takes my breath away, and I bow before you. One of you said recently, “I'm angry at a god I’m not even sure I believe in.” I get that. And yet I do not stop yelling or beseeching God or decide there is no God. I am certain enough that something is there to yell at.
KATHRYN: I don’t KNOW that a god exists though I lean toward thinking probably there is something (even the physicist Stephen Hawking has come to that). But a personal god? A god to yell at or beseech? A god to turn to in distress? Never.
I grew up Catholic. When I was a child we went to church and the Jewish neighbors went to temple. They had their prayers, we had ours. Maybe everyone had prayers? I said mine faithfully, if a little thoughtlessly, for many years. We had prayers and a saint for everything: choosing a mate, passing a test, finding lost objects, we even had one for lost and impossible causes. Sometimes I miss that certainty; mostly I don’t. My childhood assumptions about prayer did not last into adulthood.
ELLEN: On a main road near where we vacation upstate, some people put out a series of four separate signs in a row that read: “Did” “You” “Pray” “Today?”
We drove past it frequently this summer and often I would read it aloud: “Did - you - pray - today?” And almost every time at almost the same moment, Kathryn would say “yes” and I would say “no.”
KATHRYN: I said yes because I DO pray! Prayer for me now is not rote though I do recite some daily intentions. Now prayer for me is spontaneous and “gut felt” much more than “heart felt”. It comes from the belly, not the chest. I consider myself praying when I spontaneously feel and acknowledge gratitude which I do very often; when I contemplate death, which I do daily; when I am deeply concerned about someone or something so much that the rest of the world fades away for a moment; when I see someone perform a small act of kindness when they don’t think anyone is watching. Those moments are me praying.
ELLEN: I said “no” because the question makes me think of formal prayer and I was asking myself, “Did you sit or stand with a siddur or other words of prayer in your head or hands and read or chant them today?” Most days other than Shabbat I do not do that. BUT almost every day something happens or I see something that makes me think one of Jewish prayer’s big four: “Please, thank you, oops, and wow.” And when I think one of those, I try to spend a moment of intentional focus:
“Please bring healing to my friend even though the predictions aren’t good.”
“Thank you for the strength that keeps so many people resisting truly awful government decisions.”
“Oops, I forgot to call that person and I know my call might have helped them a lot.”
“Wow, the lake in the park looks so beautiful this morning, sparkling in the sun.”
Sometimes I even add a blessing: a traditionally Jewish way of marking the moment, joining me, the event, and God in a prayer that insists on deep attention.
I have already told you that I also sometimes yell and beseech God.
So did I pray today? Yes.
Every evening Kathryn and I read a poem aloud, which is to me a form of prayer, if by prayer we can also mean a touching of our heart or soul or kischkes, what Kathryn calls “guts”, by evoking something deeper than ordinary life.
KATHRYN: The poet Mary Oliver writes, “Understand, I am always trying to figure out / what the soul is, / and where hidden / and what shape — ….I believe I will never quite know./ Though I play at the edges of knowing, / truly I know / our part is not knowing, / but looking, and touching, and loving…" [from Bone, in Why I Wake Early.]
ELLEN: “Looking, and touching, and loving.” Did you pray today?
KATHRYN: “Our part is not knowing.” Did you pray today?
ELLEN: Native American writer Sherman Alexie had a story in the New Yorker in June, about a maid in a motel. I once worked as a maid in a motel, so was especially drawn to it. This story is about a maid who retires. Since I am retiring, I was drawn to it for that reason too.
KATHRYN: It begins like this: “The used condoms stopped bothering Marie after a while. At least the people were being safe during their motel sex. She was Catholic and didn’t believe in abortion. But she was more flexibly Catholic than strictly Catholic, so she did believe in birth control...That’s good science, she thought. And God created everything, including science. One of God’s other names is Big Bang. Sometimes, when she prayed, she said, ‘Dear Big Bang,’ and she was half certain that God enjoyed the inside joke. Nobody was allowed to be fully certain about God. And she’d never trusted anybody who claimed to be certain about God. You cannot be confident and faithful at the same time, she thought.”
ELLEN: Kolot Chayeinu is a place where doubt can be an act of faith, because you cannot be confident and faithful at the same time.
KATHRYN: I describe myself as a permanently lapsed Irish Catholic with some practice in Zen and Judaism. I regularly practice Kyudo, Japanese Zen Archery which is a form of moving meditation, and zazen, which is meditation sitting on the cushion. I regularly begin Shabbat on Friday nights with Ellen with candles and kiddush, and I do those things without her if she is away. We celebrate all the Jewish home rituals; there is a mezuzah on our doorpost. We say a blessing in Hebrew before every meal. I come to some services here at Kolot and occasionally elsewhere, really appreciate Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur (which I actually use as a personal retreat) and love that we count the Omer starting the second night of Passover.
I am a product of Catholic education, kindergarten through college. In elementary and high school I had nuns from two different orders, and not one horror story. When I was in eighth grade we studied the Holocaust. During high school the nuns were involved in the Civil Rights Movement; two of them marched with Dr. King from Selma to Montgomery. When I was at the end of high school and into college the nuns and Jesuits I knew, and knew of, were involved in anti-war work. I learned from their example that part of a life of faith was attending to the world around us and working to make it a better world. They described it as “Faith in Action.”
However, study of religion in school was more of an intellectual exercise than anything else. We memorized the catechism and took courses in theology. We were never taught to pray, only taught prayers. Complete Faith was assumed and doubt was tightly regulated.
Growing up I especially loved the stories about an individual saint’s moment of doubt followed by their anticipation and acceptance of martyrdom for the faith they had just questioned. But our own doubts? Never discussed. It was assumed that everyone had doubts but that everyone came to grips with them and then was more committed for having struggled. But for me, doubt became more important than faith; doubt became my faith.
ELLEN: I was never asked if I believed, because it didn’t matter. At 5 I knew God existed, and was sure Abraham and Sarah had lived. At 9 I was less sure. But as the late great Rabbi Arnold Jacob Wolf said, when confronting a nine-year-old who proudly exclaimed, “I don’t believe in God” - “What makes you think it matters to God?”
What mattered to Wolf and to centuries of Jews before him was action. Rabbi Wolf once greeted me as we boarded a bus for a demonstration in Washington by asking, “What are you reading?” What are you reading, what are you doing, how are you living? Those are the ways Jews have always acted, the way we show relationship with God. God wants me to put up a mezuzah? So I’ll put up a mezuzah. And in the doing of the act and its blessing somehow there is a small subtle shift in my home because a little bit of wood and parchment are stuck to the door. It says to the world “A Jew lives here.” It says to me I need to be careful about how I act in my home and out in the world. Holy. Sacred. God’s in there somewhere.
KATHRYN: So this agnostic and that person of faith (pointing to Ellen) live in that house with a mezuzah on the door. And we both have a sense that we must commit to what is important in life, that relationship and obligation and discipline matter. For me, discipline is doing something you believe you are obligated to do even when you doubt its efficacy. Doubt is not disbelief.
ELLEN: Judaism urges me to enter into a covenant, a relationship with God predicated on mutual care and obligation. I have learned about a relationship with God by being in relationship with people, especially this person (pointing to Kathryn). We argue and solve, admire and criticize, trust and lean on one another in a regular ebb and flow - ratzo v’shov - of connection. I have committed to one person to stick with it for as long as we possibly can. So I know that I can also stick with God for as long as I possibly can, arguing and solving, trusting and leaning on. Sometimes, God, you make good things happen. Sometimes you inflict the unbearable. But really, why can’t you just do a little smiting when I want you to? PAUSE. I can almost hear God asking me the same thing.
KATHRYN: Things are very bad right now. I don’t have to enumerate; you all know the list as well as I do. I still have faith in our form of government, if not in those doing the governing right now. I do harbor some fear, a few doubts, but I think democracy will bear out in future. It is our job to make that so.
ELLEN: Aleinu. It’s up to us. Or as my email signature says, borrowing from the poet Charles Wright, “God is the fire my feet are held to.”
KATHRYN: I don’t protest because of god. No personal god, remember?
So why do I believe in and engage in social action? I don’t know. Maybe it’s the DNA that goes back to my grandfather in Strokestown, Ireland, and the rebels there. Maybe I got some of it from my Aunt who fought for a woman‘s place in publishing in the 40’s. Maybe the kernel of it was from the nuns and their “Faith in Action”. I don’t know. But as an adult, I can live ethically and compassionately without requiring of myself absolute, blind belief in something. Doubt is my act of faith that it is possible.
ELLEN: I don’t require of myself absolute, blind belief. I don’t have it and wouldn’t want it. But I think I live as ethically or compassionately as I do because the God I have learned to live with requires it. I probably more often think “Judaism demands it” than “God demands it,” but in my head there is the faint sound of the prophet Micah, telling me what the unnameable God requires of me: “Only to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with my God.” Justice, mercy, humility. Brief words. Tall order. I could try to get there without God, but I don’t think I’d be as successful. I’m not all that successful with God!
KATHRYN: Ellen and I have an annual pre-Rosh HaShanah ritual that feels important here. Each year we go to the Rose Planetarium at the Museum of Natural History, buy tickets, ride the elevator up, and watch the space show. They only change the space show every couple of years so sometimes we see the same show two years in a row. It doesn’t matter. Whether we hear the voice of Tom Hanks or Whoopie Goldberg or Neil deGrasse Tyson, what we see is the vastness of the universe, and the reality that we - who like to think of ourselves as fairly accomplished and important - are just specks of skin and water, mere flecks in a cosmos of multiple universes and countless stars.
ELLEN: Last Friday, Neil DeGrasse Tyson taught us that there is no center of the universe, but that wherever you are you think that is the center. The prophet Hosea asked (14:3), “What lets you see there is more than you?”
A midrash teaches that the heavenly throne that God ascends tonight is THE thing that distinguishes human achievement from the divine. We humans can do a lot, it notes, but we do not have the “kisei ram v’nisa,” the elevated throne that is God’s alone. We do not have the view from on high, from space or from the throne.
Kathryn doesn’t know if there is God or not. I kinda think there is. What do we KNOW? That we are obligated to work on our home and on our world, and that we must do it with the humility due the universe which is way bigger than we are. If there is a God, we are not it. And neither are you.
KATHRYN: This year I have doubted more than ever. I have doubted the strength of our democratic systems, even while having faith in those systems. I have doubted my place in a country too many of whose citizens clearly do not want me here, do not want so many of us here.
ELLEN: “...doubts and loves / Dig up the world / Like a mole, a plow.”
What did you dig up this year? What did you lean on to find meaning or solace or haven or the push to resist?
Kolot Chayeinu is a place where doubt is an act of faith. It has to be, because certainty would kill us all and the community we’ve built where we can come as we are.
KATHRYN: Why would I suggest “Doubt is an act of faith” for Kolot? Because Kolot is a community built on diversity including diversity of opinions and beliefs...Kolot is made up of people who believe in God; who don’t believe in God; who believe that God personally intervenes in their lives; who assume God completely ignores them; and everything in between. And no one is threatened by the others’ dis/belief...They attend the same services and sing the same songs, together. Maybe, just maybe, each has something to learn from the other.
Doubt is an act of faith at Kolot because the community is adult enough to embrace a diversity of opinion about even the most heartrending topics...The only rule that I have experienced at Kolot is that one person cannot oppress another.
ELLEN: Do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.
KATHRYN: Do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly.
ELLEN: Doubt away. What makes you think it matters to God?