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Yes I'm Sure... But Maybe Not.
by Dr. Arnie Gotfryd

A hundred and fifty years ago they thought that science and physics spoke the absolute truth. Kant and Einstein proved that science never did and never will be able to give absolute truths. - The Rebbe, Mind Over Matter, p.69
 
 

We live in an age of uncertainty.
 
Geopolitics, the economy, the environment. However much we know, things are still increasingly unpredictable. And then there is science.
 
At the heart of atomic theory, for example, is the "uncertainty principle," that pillar of quantum wisdom that informs us that the most fundamental building blocks of matter and energy are ultimately unknowable.
 
The laws of nature, once thought to be completely deterministic, are now viewed as probabilities. In other words, more uncertainty. Another case in point is the environment, which is modeled by chaos theory or the butterfly effect, the idea that tiny unpredictable changes can quickly reverberate into massive system change.
 
Science is not the bastion of unshakeable truth that we once thought it was. Science is now about probabilities and perceptions, not about things "as they are."
 
No wonder that many these days ascribe to a new kind of atheism, which is really more akin to agnosticism, a kind of knowing that you cannot know. If your sole anchor in the sea of knowledge is science, then all absolutes are denied.[1]
 
On the other hand there is more to scientists than meets the eye for they, after all, are human too. So what characterizes a scientist's faith? According to polls, about half of all scientists believe in the Creator and His continued guidance of natural processes. Some take scripture literally, others literarily, but they typically ascribe to some traditional faith system.[2]
 
But what about the other half... the new agnostics whose belief in doubt is firm? How do they celebrate their doctrine? Perhaps you can find them in the agnostic house of worship on Main Street. There's a big neon question mark out front and a minister is banging on the pulpit declaring to all, "I'm not sure!"
 
What's amusing about the agnostic church, of course, is that faith and doubt are mutually exclusive and diametrically opposed. Faith is about clarity, certainty and unshakeable principles. Doubt is about being undecided, unsure and (no hard feelings intended, but) unprincipled.
 
I have often been told by my secular friends, "I envy your faith. I wish I could believe like you. I am always plagued with doubts." For the most part, our discussions and debates don't really lead anywhere, but sometimes other approaches do.
 
A practical deed, a mitzvah, such as lighting a Shabbos candle, giving tzedakah (charity), or making a blessing over food can awaken the soul and evaporate doubts in a way that logical arguments never can. As King Solomon put it, "For the mitzvah is a candle and Torah, light."
But how does this work? Can deeds dispel doubts? According to recent experiments by psychologists, it seems the answer is yes.
 
In a study published in the prestigious journal, Science, subjects were asked to rate 10 CD's and were then informed they could choose their fourth or fifth favorite as a gift for participating in the experiment. Then they were given hand soaps to rate. Half based these ratings based on the packaging alone and half actually washed their hands with the products before rating them. After all this, they went back to the 10 cd's and rated them all over again.
 
The latter CD ratings varied in one significant way. Those who actually washed their hands ranked the chosen CD the same as they had earlier, but those who did not wash in between upped their rating of the chosen CD the second time.
 
Apparently, hand washing helped subjects put the decision process behind them and accept the gift for what it was, a mediocre gift. Surprisingly, however, those that did not actually wash rated the gift CD significantly higher the second time, indicating a need to rationalize and lingering doubts about their original decision.
 
Hand washing plays an important role in Jewish life, and there many occasions where the washing of hands is mandated by the sages. Of course one reason is sanitation, but there are spiritual and kabbalistic reasons as well. In light of this research perhaps we can add another dimension - the psychological.
 
For example, one occasion for washing is the eating of bread. At one level it's a hygiene issue. Who needs dirty germs on food? But that can't be the whole story because the ritual washing for bread needs to be done after the hands are hygienically clean. Add to this a cultural dimension - whenever we eat bread we use hand washing to commemorate the divine service of the priests in the Temple in Jerusalem.
 
Another layer of meaning is the kabbalistic. Water symbolizes Torah, divine intellect which flows from above onto the hands which symbolize the emotional level within man. The hands are raised after washing and before drying to symbolize the elevation of the emotions that results from being awash with divine intellect.
 
But what does washing for bread do for you psychologically? For one, it separates you from whatever it is you were doing before and focuses your consciousness on what lies ahead. A moment before you may have been cutting a deal, arranging a car pool, fighting with a phone company or shopping online. But once you've washed for bread, it's history. In fact between the washing and the eating you are not even allowed to talk, except for the blessing on eating bread.
 
Without the washing, we would be tumbling headlong from battles to bagels to making deals to breaking bread. Besides getting indigestion from worry, it's not a way to live. Conscious living means celebrating the moment, every moment, for the value it has. Eating is holy. It's life itself. The washing ritual gives you a chance to focus on the immense significance of what might otherwise feel like nothing more than stuffing your face because you are hungry.
 
But there is another psychological value as well. The same behavioral boundary that frames feeding time also serves as punctuation for your previous concern. And setting a limit to your past activity behaviorally also limits its impact on your psyche, preventing it from encroaching on other activities and values that also deserve undivided attention.
 
Rabbi Chaim Brovender, a popular and innovative educator in modern orthodox circles and head of Yeshivat HaMivtar near Efrat Israel, was once interviewed about his experiences with the Lubavitcher Rebbe. Besides being astounded by the Rebbe's prodigious knowledge, boundless energy and prophetic insight, the thing that impressed him most was his desk. He walked in to a late night appointment after the Rebbe had already seen dozens of people and responded to hundreds of issues in addition to his own myriad projects and concerns.
 
When you walk into the office of someone whose day is that complex and demanding, you would expect to see signs of it on the desk and around - piles of papers, open books, coffee cups, a phone or two, files, stationery, and electronics. We all know what a busy person's desk looks like when he's involved in so many projects. But not the Rebbe. His desk was perfectly clean, as if to say to the person who walks in, "I have nothing else in the world on my mind right now but you."
 
Washing your hands, clearing your desk, making a blessing, taking a deep breath, all these are ways to draw a line in the present to settle the past and focus on the immediate future, which is a healthy way to live.
Otherwise our minds can get murky and muddled, clouded by doubts, and invested in histories we should have left long behind.
 
Of all the Rebbe's teachings, one stands out as an overarching theme - Welcome Moshiach with acts of goodness and kindness. Our psychology lesson lends insight to this as well.
 
As we stand on the threshold between exile and redemption, we need to draw a line between the dubious values of worldly cares and the eternal values we will celebrate in the redemption. The best way to wash away the grime encrusting millennia of mess-ups and misery is also the best way to enter the era of unity and clarity we are all awaiting. And that is to define the moment with a cleansing event - a mitzvah.
 
And lest our doubts plague us still and we agonize over exactly which of those hundreds of possible mitzvos we should actually do, the answer is simple and clear: The next one.
 
[1]
http://www.slate.com/id/2258484/?from=rss
[2] http://www.religioustolerance.org/ev_publi.htm
[3] http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/80beats/2010/05/07/hand-washing-after-a-decision-scrubs-away-those-lingering-doubts/   
 

Dr. Aryeh (Arnie) Gotfryd, PhD is a chassid, environmental scientist, author and educator living near Toronto, Canada. To contact, read more or to book him for a talk, visit www.arniegotfryd.com or call 416-858-9868

 

 


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