Monday, 8 October 2007

A Tale of Two Skeptics

Originally posted 10/8/07, 11:35 PM, Eastern Daylight Time.
Recalling earlier posts on Nishmablog about Faith and Doubt, I decided to relate this story to our readership.
Once upon a time, three people discussed the history of Megillas Esther
  1. Rabbi W
  2. Mr. X
  3. Rabbi Y
Rabbi W gave possible proofs about the origins of the story; he showed how it could mesh well with some of the points made by Herodotus.

Mr. X felt intrigued. He listened to hear more.

Later on, Rabbi Y came along. He stated firmly that Megillas Esther never actually happened and, like "Iyyov," was merely a religious story, a myth, a legend to teach a lesson.
Furthermore, Rabbi Y asserted the following: "If Rabbi W were so certain about the authenticity of the literal existence of Megillas Esther, he would need not speculate about Herodotus etc. this PROVES that Rabbi W. is just as skeptical as I am." Then Rabbi Y left the discussion.

Mr. X felt shaken, He liked what Rabbi W had to say but now he had doubts himself. He wondered if ANYONE believes The Esther story to be true.

"Say it ain't so Rabbi W! I want to believe that the story of Esther REALLY happened. Do YOU harbor any doubts?" asked Mr. X.

Rabbi W. thought for a few minutes. He then proceeded to explain his position.
"I'd like to believe it is true, too. And it is true that Rabbi Y and I do share a sense of skepticism about certain events and texts. We can both be critical of "conventional wisdom" and we both enjoy to promote a new angle on old ideas. BUT - and I must emphasize this - you must NOT confuse our very different positions re: Megillas Esther!"

"Rabbi W, you are a skeptic, and so is Rabbi Y! So how are any different after all?"

"You ask a good question Mr. X! I will explain. You see Rabbi Y is not JUST skeptical, he is also a bit cynical. It is not like he finds historical problems on Megillas Esther, and therefore has a doubt about its authenticity. Rather, he has FIRMLY MADE UP HIS MIND, that Megillas Esther CANNOT be historical! And following that conclusion he is now adamant about not listening to any proofs to the contrary! On the other hand, I have some doubts. I am not certain it IS historical and I am not certain it is NOT historical. But as a skeptic - and NOT a cynic - my mind is far from made up. I am researching and looking for more and more points. In fact I would prefer to find solid evidence that it IS historical after all. On the other hand, I do share some of Rabbi Y.'s doubts about some of the accounts. So my mind is not 100% certain that this book is to be taken literally! Can you see the difference?"

Mr. X pondered it a bit. "I think I can understand a distinction... but it seems neither of you are believers!"

"Well, it seems that way. I am actually saying that I AM a believer to an extent but that I harbor some doubts. Let's say I keep my options open."

Mr. X persisted: "What's the point of that?"

"Let me give you an example. Let's say that the story DID happen, but not 100% as reported in the Megilla. Rather, let's say there was a dose of literary license, a bit of hyperbole, or perhaps some symbolic messages embedded in the way the text is presented. IOW, like many legends, the story has been embellished. By taking a wait and see attitude I can find out just how much of this story is history and how much is allegory. Let's say there are about 3 categories:
  1. Almost 100% historical
  2. Almost 100% non-Historical
  3. Somewhere in between!
This is like during the 10 days of Penitence. There are:
  1. 100% righteous people
  2. 100% evil people and
  3. The vast majority in between.
God immediately deals with the 100% people first. With the majority in between - God HIMSELF takes a wait and see attitude. On the other hand, Rabbi Y. has given up. He has made up his mind. And perhaps those that firmly believe the story is 100% true have done the same thing at the opposite end. They really do not care about the history of the event from any other source. I am trying to get to the truth of what happened and what is so-called "legend". I realize that harboring doubts is not necessarily the ideal for a religious person, but I am not a denier either. I am just human and trying my best to sort things out."

Mr. X tugged at his chin. Rabbi W.'s points were sinking in after all It had been a bit of a shock for him to see any Rabbi as not having 100% faith, but now he kind of understood that faith can allow for some doubt, and that not everyone was 100% filled with faith. He also realize that Rabbi Y in a way WAS filled with a strong faith, but his was a faith in the negative sense. And he could see how Rabbi Y.'s cynicism blinded him from seeing any new facts emerging from archaeology that might give a more positive historical spin on this story. Mr. X also appreciated that faith, reason, doubt, skepticism, etc. could be gray and not so black-and-white - and that there was room for variety of perceptions. He also appreciated Rabbi W.'s candor, realizing that other rabbis might have doubts, too but are not up-front enough to admit them.

Rabbi W told Mr. X. "Now let's have some tea and cake, something in which we can BOTH believe in equally!"


Kol Tuv / Best Regards,

1 comment:

Rabbi Ben Hecht said...

On this exact point, see Rashi, Shabbat 31a, d.h. gaireha.