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“Embracing Uncertainty: A Sermon for Kol Nidrey Night” by Rabbi David J. Cooper

The energy of attempt is greater than the surety of stasis

Mary Oliver


In late June, I was in New York and I had my first opportunity to go to the Pride Parade in Manhattan. Marilyn and I sat on the sidewalk on 5th avenue with her friend Mimi. For some reason, as my mind wandered, I found myself dwelling on the theme of Kehilla’s upcoming High Holydays, Living with Uncertainty. Everything seemed to relate to uncertainty. For example, I noticed that the New York parade seemed much more random than the San Francisco one. Maybe I’m wrong, but we would see a politician go by, then a gay bar, then a church, then a dance troupe, then another church or another politician. No exact order. And I liked it.


Mimi is an actress and we both had training in improv and what came to me was that improvisation was one tactic to use in the face of uncertainty. So somehow it came about that I was challenged to apply my training in rabbinics and improv to come up with a torah midrash on whatever the next contingent might be. Sure, what the hell. Just then, a wild group crosses in front of us and it’s a contingent of Shoeholics. Oy.


So with uncertainty and footware swimming in my head, I say, Okay. So Moses is shepherding his father-in-law’s sheep and he comes across a wondrous sight, a bush all on fire but which is not consumed in the flame. Then God’s voice calls out: “Moses, Moses” and he responds “Here I am Lord.” And God says, “Remove the sandals from off thy feet for the ground upon which thou standest is holy ground.” And Moses says, “But I just bought THESE!”


Well there aren’t that many stories in the Torah about shoes, so maybe I had to go to the Burning Bush for a midrash, but I actually think that it was my fixation on uncertainty that drew me to the burning bush sequence in the book of Exodus. You see, for a long time this story has been one of my favorites because—even if it is not historical—it touches on the real issues of uncertainty and indeterminacy.


Burning Bush & Theological Certainty
God has chosen Moses for engaging in a quixotic enterprise which is to confront the most powerful man on earth who is backed by the world’s most powerful army, and then Moses is to extract from Egypt all the Israelite slaves. Moreover, these slaves themselves will not be enthusiastic about such a confrontation. They would prefer the surety of their slavery over the uncertainties of their attempt to be free. When Moses hears the assignment he immediately wants to have certainty. He tells God: Look these people are going to want to know my authority for doing this, and I am supposed to do it in your name. But I don’t even know your name.


You see, to have certainty—whether it is real or not—is to have a sense of control. Moses wants to have a God that is certain, is understandable, that in some sense has handles. So God says, “I am the one who is with you.” But that isn’t enough for Moses. God says “I am the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob,” and that isn’t enough either. Moses needs a proper name, he needs a God who can be reduced to a certain proper noun. And God parries the question and finally says, “Whatever I become is whatever I become” “Ehyeh asher ehyeh.” Not only does the character of God in the story refuse to be a noun, She also refuses to a perfect verb, because Ehyeh asher Ehyeh is not as the King James Bible translated it as “I am that I am.” No, Ehyeh in ancient Hebrew is the imperfect tense which means it is a verb whose action is incomplete, whose end is not yet certain. “I am becoming whatever I am yet to be.” God affirms Her own sacred indeterminacy. Now that’s a Zen god. And the name that God finally reveals to Moses is a Zen koan, because it is a verb rather than a noun, and it is the verb for “to be” but conjugated in several tenses simultaneously. And it has become the most famous name for God and yet, no one knows how to pronounce it.


There are many ways to relate to living with uncertainty. Sometime we think of it as a negative: the anxiety of uncertainty; sometimes it is a positive: the anticipation of surprises. Me, I like it best when I follow Jeffrey Skinner’s advice in his book The 6.5 Practices of Moderately Successful Poets. He says “Nothing in life is certain. It’s less certain as a poet. You have to commit to the uncertainty.”


Life, DNA, Science & Uncertainty
All of us here today are the products of a sacred uncertainty and that is life itself. The DNA which determines our genetics is supposed to make exact copies of its individual strands and it is supposed to do that rather dependably. But it isn’t dependable. It works most of the time, but randomly at times it makes mistakes, mutations. The result is, on the one hand, a variety of species, and on the other hand, cancer. As Deuteronomy says, we get blessed and cursed simultaneously. But here’s the thing. If DNA were completely dependable in its exact duplication from its very moment of origin, then only the one original microscopic species would have ever existed, each individual a duplicate clone of the other.  It would not have been capable of evolution. And it could not have exited very long, because whatever change in the environment would have killed one of these would have killed them all. But they did individuate and they did mutate and evolve, and thus here we are.


But for uncertainty, we would not be here at all.


Philosophers, theologians and scientists have long debated the issue of uncertainty versus predetermination. I love Maimonides, Spinoza and Einstein, but each of them saw the universe as proceeding along a predetermined path. Their view held that if one could know absolutely everything, the position of every subatomic particle and the energies acting upon them, then we could ascertain the future. The evolution of the universe, of planet earth, of each species, of human society, all of it was implicit from the very start. Thus the end of this very sentence was already certain at the moment of the big bang. And the fact that no one did know all these things did not change the reality that it was predetermined even if one did not have the necessary perfect knowledge. Nothing proceeds at random. Einstein’s God does not play dice. But today, even in scientific circles, predetermination has come to be challenged as well with Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle and the emergence of chaos theory.


The Prophets & Fatalism
On the side of indeterminacy is the Hebrew Bible and the outlook of the Israelite prophets. Their view is based on the fundamental assumption that the future can in fact be altered by the conscious decisions we make in how we are to act. We can bring about a better world, but there are no guarantees. When our Jewish predecessors affirmed our ability to alter the future, they were breaking with the dominant fatalism that pervaded the Mediterranean world of their time. They believed in something that was not well-accepted: slaves can become free; people can change; progress is possible. The teshuva we do on these ten days denies fatalism. Teshuva is all about our power to change, our power to redirect our course. If the future was uncertain, then we could change it. Isaac Bashevis Singer was once asked “Do you believe in free will?” He responded, “I have no choice.”


Now, I want to make a friend of uncertainty. I want the novels and poems that I read and the movies and performances I watch to surprise me. In our prayer services in Kehilla, we keep mixing it up, we never do it the same way twice. And we are not the first generation to want our prayer to be surprising. During the Middle Ages, in response to the services becoming too rote, rabbinical poets wrote and inserted poems and songs into the prayer service even though strictly speaking according to prior Jewish practice they were not allowed to do so. They needed to mix it up too. In the Japanese tradition, making one’s artwork geometrically perfect and predictable is considered an aesthetic sin. Randomness and chaos has also made its way into Western art as well.


And I deeply believe that striving for certainty is spiritually and politically dangerous. If you’re tired of the unpredictability of democracy, try dictatorship. If you want to be free of every possible threat then give up your right to privacy and go empower a national security state to ease your mind. Erich Fromm and Hannah Arendt referred to this as the “escape from freedom.”


Spiritual Danger in Certainty
But I want to consider the spiritual danger in securing certainty. There is a current in every Western religious tradition to affirm something invariable about God. We know God said this. We know God has defined marriage in this way. We know that God gave us the correct religion, and we know that everybody else is wrong. We know it because the Bible tells me so. Well the Bible I read is what Marshall McLuhan called a “cool medium.” In a hot medium, everything is clear and nothing is left to your imagination. Radio is cooler than television because in radio you cannot see what the characters look like and so you have to use your imagination. Star Wars is hot, but 2001: A space Odyssey is cool. Hot media leave you with all the answers; Cool media leave you all the questions. I’d rather have the questions.


The Torah in Hebrew is cool. Really cool. The Hebrew is so beautifully ambiguous. I’ve had the exact same discussion with both Robert Alter and Everett Fox about the challenge each of them faced about translating the Torah into English. Both of them told me that they tried hard to capture the ambiguity of the Hebrew, but that often they were forced to resolve an ambiguity one way or another because the English translation just wouldn’t allow the simultaneous alternative meanings you can hear in the Hebrew. And the Torah contains contradictory material left in by its authors and its redactors. God creates a wet world in Genesis 1 and has to draw away the water to make dry land. In chapter 2, God makes a dry world and has to find a way to make it wet. Sometimes Moses is a humble character and other times he is a control freak. They left the Torah so cool, that the Jewish imagination could run rampant all over it. If the Torah were hot, we would not have had the space to fill in the gaps with the rabbinic stories of the midrash.


Those who want their religion and their bibles to be hot, who want their beliefs to be certain, who want their God to be unambiguous are, as I see it, trying to escape from uncertainty.


Whether we don’t or do believe in god, if we reduce god to something certain, something without mystery, then we are talking about an idol that has been manufactured out of our own anxieties.


I suspect that those who are most holier-than-thou and who are so sure that their concept of god is god are worshipping an idol of their own creation. They violate the prophet Micah’s warning to “walk humbly with your God.” But atheists also come holier-than-thou. Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawson wrote lengthy diatribes against a belief in god and when you look to see how they describe the god they don’t believe in, it is clear that it is the idol constructed by the fundamentalists that they abhor. Well duh, it’s so easy to strike down a straw god.


Folks in Kehilla know I don’t believe in a deity who knows everything, is all powerful. I don’t believe in a god who is judgmental and vindictive. I don’t believe in a god who consciously intervenes and designs our fate, or punishes and rewards.


Mystery vs. Certainty
I don’t want theological certainty or atheist certainty either, thank God. But what I do want is to feel the awe of divine mystery.


In my theology or atheology that mystery is forever drawing us to pursue a path toward truth, a path toward dignity and freedom, a path toward enabling the mystery itself to come to know itself and to appreciate the majesty of its own magnificence and to do so using our eyes and senses, using our cognitive, emotional and spiritual powers with which have been so mysteriously endowed. And if we ourselves are part of the great mystery, then we should not make idols out ourselves. We should know both our amazing powers and our importance, and we should also know our weaknesses and our vulnerabilities. One message the rabbis taught was to keep in one pocket a paper that says: “Remember that it was for you uniquely that this world was created.” And the message to be carried in the other pocket says: “I am only dust and ashes.”


So why don’t I just say that I believe in god by my own totally cockamamie definition? Because – and this is just me, this is not a prescription for anyone else – I fear that when I am heard loosely using the term God, that it will be heard as a belief in an idol in which I would never believe. I cannot believe in something smaller than the mystery itself, something that dogmas have reduced to a false certainty. As Abraham Joshua Heschel once said: “Let us insist that alienation from dogma does not necessarily mean a loss of faith.”


Taking Action in the Face of Uncertainty
But here in the sublunar region of everyday life, we do face uncertainties and we are summoned to act whether on behalf of ourselves or others. And our highest selves summon us to act for what we hope might be the higher good. Can I be certain that my actions are moral? Can I be certain that my actions will be effective? Should I wait until I can be entirely sure that this is the right policy or strategy for me to support in regard to Israel and Palestine? Can I be sure of the efficacy of the civic-oriented efforts of Oakland Community Organizations or the more confrontational strategies of the Occupy movement? Should I pursue one or both?


I am not hearing a burning bush voice that says this is the right thing to do, that this is the correct policy, that this is the most effective action. I listen to it all. I hear all sides, and in the end I only have my own limited understanding or misunderstanding to inform me. This is where I take a leap of faith. Are my actions guided from a point of view beyond my own selfish needs? Have I listened to the various concerns raised? Do I trust the integrity of the action I choose in this moment even if in retrospect it proves to be misguided? And I hope that I do act, despite it all.


And what if the policy we choose or the action we take proves to be ineffective or problematic in some way? I think of Jessica Mitford who broke with Stalinism after years in the Communist Party. She quit the party, incorporated an anti-Stalinist analysis, and she remained unrepentant about her service in the party which had provided her with a unique opportunity to work against racism before it became acceptable among white folks, and she acknowledged that the party gave her the skills which she used in writing her muckraking opus, The American Way of Death.


Leap of Faith in Lost Causes
Slavoj Žižek, the Slovenian philosopher and social critic, looks at the failure of the socialist movements in Russia and China to have created a classless society. Was it therefore wrong have aspired to an egalitarian society and does the failure to do so mean we should just accept as common sense that capitalism and its attendant injustices should now go uncontested? Žižek, a confirmed atheist, responds, “This, then, is the limit of common sense. What lies beyond involves a Leap of Faith, faith in lost Causes. … [Being] constrained to the horizon of the dominant form of common sense, cannot provide the answers, so one must risk a Leap of Faith.”


Moreover, there may be times when we might know that our actions cannot be effective and yet they are still mandated by their own integrity. I think of Janusz Korczak who was given the personal opportunity to escape the death camp, and who decided that even though he knew that he could not save the children in his care and that he would stay and would die with them.


So the leap of faith is not that the action will certainly succeed. The leap of faith is not that God will intervene and make it all come out right.  But rather it is faith that this is an action that I am taking with integrity.


Encountering the Unpredictable Certainties
But there are some things of which we can be certain. We know for example that we will encounter illness or medical and other emergencies. We are uncertain about when these might happen, not if. The Jewish answer to these unpredictable but certain events was to pool our resources the same way we do to support community institutions such as school, synagogue or community center. No one person should be depended upon to carry the entire burden for building a school or a road. It is our common responsibility. The shtetl or ghetto communities could not rely on the gentile governments who ruled them to provide social services. So each Jewish community created a fund or kuppah for this or that need into which everyone contributed commensurate with their ability to pay. So there was a kuppah for those who are sick, a kuppah for maintaining the synagogue and the bath house, a kuppah for ransoming Jews who had been kidnapped or imprisoned, a kuppah for those in need. At some point each of us would be in jeopardy beyond the point where we would have the resources to extract ourselves. Left to our own resources, there would be no safety net.


The Inuit, I am told, have or had a process that provided that should one igloo lose a necessity, such as a sled under the ice, for example, that the family could go to another igloo that had an extra and obtain the replacement from them without charge. The story goes that some missionaries saw this and remarked to the Inuit that they were impressed by their selfless act of charity in the face of need. The Inuit asked what was meant by charity, and when they heard the definition, they explained that this was not an act of altruism. Then why, the missionaries asked, do you hand over the extra sled without any payment in exchange? Because if we do not, we would all perish. The act described here is not charity, it is tzedakah, which means doing what is right or what is just. I define it as doing that which is warranted. I think charity is really important because it comes from love, but tzedakah is more than important, it is necessary. It means that when I can give, I give, and that when I am need, I can take. And if we all keep it to ourselves, then we all lose.


If I we have each other in community, then we can face uncertainty.


With a little help from our friends and community, we might actually love uncertainty. We can reap the spiritual benefits of being open to the surprises that greet us everyday. We can more easily weather the unforeseen challenges that each of us confront. Holding each other’s hand we give each other the courage to take the leaps of faith that we will need if we are to endeavor to leave the world better than we found it. With the safety net of mutual support, I can feel free to be creative as I improvise in the face of the unanticipated encounters that life provides. And with all of us together in this holy circle, we can manifest our collective effervescence to sing about the values we share even as we travel on this uncertain and unpredictable road together.


On page 118, please join us in Circle Chant.


Shana Tova


CIRCLE CHANT     Linda Hirschhorn,



Circle round for freedom,

Circle round for peace,

For all of us imprisoned,

Circle for release.

Circle for the planet,

Circle for each soul,

For the children of our children,

Keep the circle whole.



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