The Principle of Uncertainty

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The results of the election last week were shocking; the polls did not prepare us. Like many of you, I’ve spent the past week reading countless articles trying to make sense of what happened. But I’m not only looking for political analysis, historical comparisons or discussions about the potential ramifications. I’m also searching for spiritual insights into myself and the world I live in.

In the immediate aftermath of the election, I wrote about applying the wisdom from shiva to this situation. We need time to embrace our feelings of unease and not ignore them. That process is difficult and should not be rushed. But there is also the Jewish outlook of seeing everything as a growth opportunity. I’d like to start wondering what we can and should learn from this truly unprecedented moment in history.

Over the next few weeks, I’ll offer some post-election thoughts — rooted in Jewish wisdom — that perhaps will allow us to move forward with greater awareness of who we are as Jews and people.

Thought #1: The world is filled with uncertainty.

One of the unofficial theme songs for Hillary’s campaign, now tinged with a tragic irony, was a song by Demi Lovato in which she asks: what’s wrong with being confident? The answer, as we’ve learned from this election, is that confidence can blind us from reality. The world is filled with uncertainty. Faith is about recognizing that you are not God, and that so much of life is beyond your awareness and control. Doubt, theologian Paul Tillich writes, is not the opposite of faith – it is an element of faith.

We cannot predict the future. Even the prophets of the Hebrew Bible didn’t predict the future — they were only describing what would happen without a change of behavior. Nothing is guaranteed, and religion is not a fortune cookie. It is why the rabbis in the Talmud say that God’s presence was removed from Jacob when he tried to foresee the future. It’s scary to not know what will happen next – but not being able to foretell the future is also a critical feature of being human. As King Solomon asks: “Who can tell a person what the future holds under the sun?” (Ecclesiastes 6:12).

This limit to knowledge is not limited to the future. This may be the reason God forbids Adam and Eve from eating from the tree of knowledge of good and evil – a metaphor for the limits of human knowledge and a lesson in humility. As psychologist Eric Fromm writes in The Art of Loving: “The further we reach into the depth of our being, or someone else’s being, the more the goal of knowledge eludes us… The experience of union, with man, or religiously speaking, with God… is based on our knowledge of the fundamental, and not accidental, limitations of our knowledge.” (p. 27, 30). The more we know, the more we realize how little we know.

Many Americans were 100% sure about being right regarding this election. These postures of confidence masked a repressed vulnerability; we were afraid to consider the full range of possibilities. One lesson from this election is that we need to embrace our uncertainty. Doing so allows us to see the world more clearly as it is and not as we wished it were.

We shouldn’t give up on trying to understand ourselves and others. Wisdom and truth are holy pursuits central to religious life. These values cannot be sacrificed or compromised. There’s a danger in “not knowing.” But there’s also a danger in knowing. We should always recognize that we might be wrong, that we will never obtain complete knowledge and the full truth. Like Louis CK, (kind of), we should follow up any “Of course” with a “But maybe…”. Because the only thing we know for certain is that we will never know anything for certain.

The views and opinions expressed in this blog and on this website are solely those of the original authors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of the organization Gather the Jews, the Gather the Jews staff, the Gather the Jews board, and/or any/all contributors to this site.

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