A Note on Religious Doubt

With Shabbat Zakhor approaching, and in light of the classic Hasidic identification of Amalek with religious doubt (Amalek and safek are both 240 in gematria), I’ve been giving some thought recently to the theme of religious doubt. Having recently reread Dr. Lamm’s classic essay “Faith and Doubt” as well as Josh Golding’s response, I'd like to add a source to the mix that could plausibly be cited as bearing on our subject. Given that the text is drawn from the Yom Kippur liturgy, it dovetails nicely with the Zohar's motif of Yom Kippur as resembling Purim.

In the final Al Het, the lengthy Yom Kippur confession, we declare: “Ve’al het she-hatanu lefanekha be-timhon leivav,” literally translated as “and for a sin that we violated before you with bewilderment of the heart.” The nature of the confession is not at all clear, leading contemporary mahazorim to grapple with the phrase. Artscroll explains that the sin is for “confusion of the heart,” which is understood as a reference to religious doubt. A contemporary author sums up this position:

Faith and belief in Hashem is the basic tenet of our religion. A Jew must believe in Individual Divine Providence and that there is a "Master to this palace." Nothing occurs by chance or accident. One is not to question why the righteous suffer nor why the wicked are successful. Similarly, to credit the wonders of the world as acts of nature and not the doing of Hashem is heresy.
Skepticism about G-dliness is a grave iniquity, and it is an evil condition that induces man to sin against Hashem. Since a used heart leads a person to skepticism about Hashem and his Providence, we ask for forgiveness for sins committed through timhon leivav.

Rabbi Sacks, on the other hand, writing in the Koren mahazor for Yom Kippur, seems to hedge, explaining that

we acted in the heat of the moment, confused, disoriented or afraid, instead of taking the firm decision not to do the wrong thing. Others say it means that we allowed our faith to be shaken by skepticism or doubt (Iyun Tefilla).

Interestingly, Rabbi Sacks seems to present the former view as his own and the latter as belonging to "others," perhaps implying that he is not entirely comfortable with Artscroll's translation. At the same time, the fact that he fails to provide a source for his preferred explanation raises the question as to whether his interpretation finds support in classical texts.

In Rabbi Sacks' defense, I would suggest that his view - or one that runs along similar lines - is deeply grounded in traditional sources. Our starting point, as noted by the 14th-century Spanish commentator Abudarham, is that the phrase “timhov leivav” is drawn from the tokhekha in Parshat Ki Tavo, where Moshe warns the Jewish people: “Yakekha Hashem be-shiga’on be’ivaron uvtimhon leivav,” "God will smite you with insanity, blindness and bewilderment of the heart" (Devarim 28:28).

Although Rav Hirsch suggests, along the general lines of Iyun Yaakov, that the curse forewarns of intellectual confusion, Onkelos and Rashi maintain that timhon leivav denotes psychological paralysis - not related to faith per say - brought about by suffering. Rashi and Onkelos' interpretation seems to best accord with the verse's context, which describes crippling physical ailments as punishment for the Jews' sins. Indeed, Mezudat David and Radak, following Onkelos and Rashi, cite the passuk in Ki Tavo in explaining the term "shemama" as it appears in Ezekiel 5:15, 7:27 and 12:19, as well as Isaiah 59:16.

Following the majority of classical commentators, timhon leivav can be understood as “a sin brought about by psychological paralysis.” This need not refer to intellectual doubt but to individuals who have, for instance, experienced emotional traumas leading them to neglect certain religious obligations. This comes close to Rabbi Sacks' "we acted in the heat of the moment, confused, disoriented or afraid, instead of taking the firm decision not to do the wrong thing."

A close examination of Iyun Tefilla's commentary, moreover, ironically lends support to this position. After presenting the view that timhon leivav refers to religious doubt, he cites R. Yaakov Emden who suggests, albeit cryptically, that the confession refers to one who has sinned due to suffering. Although R. Emden does not elaborate his interpretation, it seems to closely resemble the approach we have put forward. Furthermore, his invocation of the term “kelala” reinforces Abudarham's position that we ought interpret the viduy in light of the tokhekha, further strengthening our view.

In the end, most simply understood, “timhon leivav” does not imply that doubt is sinful. To better understand the traditional view on religious doubt, it seems we will need to turn elsewhere.