Doubt, Religion, and Knowledge

In Night, Elie Wiesel’s haunting memoir of the Holocaust, Wiesel reflects on time spent with Moishe the Beadle with whom he discussed the deep things of Jewish spiritual inquiry. In his conversations with Moishe, we are told, “He [Moishe] explained to me, with great emphasis, that every question possessed a power that was lost in the answer . . .” (Wiesel 2006: 4–5). Having read this book with my students many times now, I have always found this part of the narrative important for the story that Wiesel tells and for my own search for knowledge and truth. Answers inevitably mean that a given question is no longer compelling to ask. New questions often arise, but the question you started with no longer holds its potency to drive the questioner towards finding the answer. And thus, the power of the question is totally linked to the answer. In Night, one gets the sneaking suspicion that the question—perhaps I should say, The Question—is the answer. Or in other words, that in the most enduring human issues, predicaments, and trials, the questions we ask are an answer in and of themselves because they keep our attention on what is most important. For Wiesel, the question of how God could allow the Holocaust is a key motif in Night. He eschews easy answers and opts for the stance of protest. In one poignant scene, Wiesel recounts how the men he lived with in Auschwitz speculated on the reasons why God was allowing such horrible things to happen. Some said God worked in mysterious ways. Some said God was judging the Jews for their sins. Others saw it as a test of faith. Wiesel had come to a different conclusion: “As for me, I had ceased to pray. I concurred with Job! I was not denying His existence, but I doubted His absolute justice” (Wiesel 2006: 45). To the question of unjust suffering, Wiesel did not seek to turn to an answer that somehow got God off the hook; rather he doubts God’s justice in allowing such things to happen. Wiesel’s answer to the question, “Why does God allow suffering such as the Holocaust?” is something like, “Why in the world would God allow such suffering to take place?” And perhaps for good effect, it should be repeated several times with an ever-increasing urgency in the voice. The key is the incredulity, the unwillingness of the one who answers the initial question with another question to settle for a simple answer. This impulse seems critically important in religious life and more generally in the search for knowledge. In the face of pressures to find certainty and assurance of the things we hold most dear, it can be unsettling too. And yet, the creative tension, the power of the question as Wiesel puts it, is one of the strongest tools in our intellectual and spiritual toolkits. To embrace it is to accept that our need for certainty is less important than a long quest for understanding driven by unanswered questions.