A Lifebelt for Doubt in Faith

Excerpts taken from interview with Reb Zalman z’l by Daniel Epstein. You can see the whole interview by clicking here. (The video appears as part of a YouTube Channel called, “Portraits in Faith“) [NOTE: Edited by Seth Fishman]

D: What is your earliest memory of faith or this idea that there is a God?

Reb Zalman: This is so hard to get to because there is a level in which it is so deep. I am reminded of the well-known story of the child who is around two years old when they brought home his newborn brother. And the parents overhear in the intercom as he is saying, “Please tell me about God. I’m beginning to forget!”

So this is a very deep thing because whenever you get to trying to describe a place of deep insight… There used to be a television program with a big wheel that’s a door and you entered into another world through it, [“the Time Tunnel”], and I could sort of see the center of the Mandala through which I have to walk [to access this place], and there are memories that are not quite up in sharp relief.

So I can’t tell you about that earliest memory because that’s what stumped me. But if you say an early memory:

  • To be with my Papa under the Tallis when he is davening and he would sort of hug me – that was such a moment, a recognition that the universe is a good universe; that I’m at home.
  • Seeing my mother light candles as a child; knowing that she was talking to someone who really was there – that was an important thing; it made me feel that I could also talk to God.

And sometimes, when my aunt didn’t let me play with my cousin, I would get back on the staircase and talk to God saying how unfair it is; but it was a very real thing.

As a child I would walk by a little side-chapel in a big church and the ladies would be lighting candles and standing like my Mama did on Shabbos. And Papa would take me to shul with the men. So I had this notion that women were Catholic and men were Jewish.

This is childish but there was something very special about that, that when people are praying, this thing, i.e. to be able to talk to God, is important.

Once I looked under the tallis when Papa had just finished leading a Rosh HashannahYom Kippur service and I saw tears in his eyes and said:

Papa warum weinst du” / why are you crying?

And he says:

“I just talked with God.”

And I asked him:

“Does it hurt when you talk with God?”

(That’s the way a child looks at it.) And he says:


“So why did you cry?”

“Because I remembered it was such a long time since I really talked with Him.”

So these are deep impressions that are wonderful.

There’s a waking up that came a little bit later, after my bar mitzvah, when I was with friends and we were talking about whether creation really happened according to the Jewish Calendar or not. And there was a man named Isaac Breuer who was a good apologist for Orthodoxy. And I went to hear him speak and he made it come out as true:

“According to natural law the world was created millions of years ago but how long has the natural law been?”

So he came up with the idea that natural law did not extend past the Bereishit years.

But I was excited by that because it helped me. So I figured out that all the oil and coal was the result of the flood with Noach and it still was in this way.

About Olam haba, the world to come, etc: That was still in the background. They were talking about it, but what was it? But later on, I had the opportunity (and I’ve described it [in other places]):

After we fled from Austria, (I was about 15 years of age), one Shabbos afternoon in Belgium I knew that my friends were going to learn Pirkei Avot in Tzeirei Agudas Yisroel so I went to join them. There the text begins with Moshe Kibel Torah Mi-Sinai / Moses received the Torah from Sinai. But earlier in that book it says Maamar Kol Yisrael Yesh La’Hem Cheilek L’Olam HaBah / All Israel have a Share in the World to Come.

So I was going to let them have it!

“Pie in the sky in the sweet by-and-by.”

“Opiate of the masses!”

I did the whole spiel. The kids were ready to tear me up.

And there was a man there who was leading that group. His name was Baruch Merzl (alav hashalom). He was a good person. (He was [later on] in Auschwitz and survived.)

So he said to me:

“Would you like to hear from someone who agrees with you?”

And he brought down the Gemara Sanhedrin in the back of which was the Rambam on Chelek explaining:

“What do people know about spirituality? Blind people don’t know about color; deaf people don’t know about music; eunuchs don’t know anything about sex. So does anybody know [about Olam Haba]? All These descriptions are foolish descriptions.”

And then he goes on to talk about what it really is.

And the debunking was very important to me.

D: Tell me about the experience where you feel like you claimed a faith in God for yourself.

I was learning a lot with my early Hasidim friends in Belgium about why everything had to be the way that it was and I came to an understanding that divine providence made it so.

And that there should be the freedom of choice so we don’t get such clear things so that our integrity as people should be [something we shape ourselves].

So one Shabbos afternoon I went with my friends out into the open and it hit me for a moment I saw it as though a curtain parted and I could see why God has to hide and why it is all as it is.

And, as it were, I “knew” at that point. And, despite the fact that we say v’anachnu korim umishtachavim u-modim / And we kneel and bow and give thanks, Jews don’t get on their knees; but I got on my knees and I prayed, “Please God, don’t let me ever forget what I have just seen right now.”

That was a very important part of that [claiming a faith you asked about].

D: What was going on? Where were you?

Outdoors in a park. My friends were off to the side and I’d just gone a little bit away. It was just as if an aura of awareness was starting to come down. And then I saw why it has to be the way it is and, I was willing, and deeply satisfied, to allow it to be that way.

D: What in your core did you understand at that moment?

That I am known and am being seen and worthwhile to the Creator. That’s only words and doesn’t do justice to the experience but that’s a way to say what it was like and very much what it was.

D: Have you had moments of doubt about your faith?

A concept: Faith gets barnacles of superstition. Doubt is what scrapes them off.

Because doubt always makes sure you don’t go into beliefs; rather you go into faith.

Beliefs: There are a whole bunch of them and you can make beliefs without number.

I believe this. I believe that.

They are affirmations we do in order to keep ourselves from being hit with great anxiety.

But Faith is not something we possess; it is not an object. It’s not something I can buy.

It’s a verb, we are faith-ing. And unless we are faith-ing, it goes away; it’s not there.

So there is that moment when Howard Thurman was saying to me:

“Do you trust the Ruach haKodesh?”

And there were three weeks in which I was having a very deep struggle:

“Am I committed to being a Jew because that’s what God wants me to do?

“Or am I a Jew and I don’t give a damn what God wants because I am a Rabbi, I make my living that way, etc.”

So there is all this outer stuff, i.e. the expectations of “How things are supposed to be” and, there is the inner sense of what is the right course: There is this great struggle.

After the Holocaust, questions keep coming up about the theodicy: If God is good, how could this have been? Etc. These questions are always there.

But remember this first impact I was praying for was:

“Please God, don’t let me ever forget what I have just seen right now.”

So whenever I get to the door of the doubt, thinking, “Maybe everything is stupid!” etc…

(And I’ve been there also. There are moments when nausea, “No exit”, all those things the existentialists were talking about, where everything in the universe looks gray, stupid and the work of an imbecile. And being there, is a kind of a Hell. It’s not the Hell in which you get punished like in purgatory where they do this or that to punish. The Hell is, “Then what’s the point?” “What’s my life for?” Then suicide makes sense. And there are other kinds of thoughts like this. If I hadn’t been there myself, I wouldn’t even know to talk about it; I’ve been there.)

But just like strap-hangers in the subway, what are the straps you can hang on?

I find that’s very much an understanding that “gam zeh yaavor” / this, too, shall pass.

I’ll give you a little arm band that says that. I used to have rings like that which I would give to people.
(When I was in Israel the first time, I went to a Yemenite silversmith and asked him to engrave a ring with “Gam zeh Yaavor” because that’s the story with King Solomon: A ring that he can use for all occasions: When he is happy? Gam Zeh Yaavor! When he is sad? Gam Zeh Yaavor!)

So that understanding that’s on the ground of Buddhism is the notion that everything changes.

Reb Nachman has it very strong: Nothing is steady. The world is a dreidel! What is above goes below; what is below goes above. So don’t trust either the moment of elation or the moment of depression.

Then comes the sacred routine.

I want to say that’s the lifebelt: In the routine recitation, every now and again you say a word, one of those words at which time the light shines in again.

How would I talk about this? If I had all of my theophanies all at once, I might be either blown out of existence. Or else, I would be so enlightened that I would be incapacitated, unable to do anything in the world.

So it is also necessary to have a kind of forgetfulness with respect to these moments.

But there is also the need to make vessels for these moments so that we can access them later.

Reb Nachman puts it so beautifully:

“Every insight you have from your soul must be taught to the body because the insights from this place will evaporate; they will go away, but the body will remember and when you need to, you can draw it up from the body again.”

It’s a beautiful teaching.

Reb Pinchas haKoretzer puts it this way:

“The soul of a human being teaches him knowledge. So why then are we so stupid even after a lifetime? He answers: Because the soul is an indifferent teacher.”

It never repeats anything twice so you get a sense of the uniqueness of the theophany.

So therefore, it is important to make vessels for these moments.

But getting back to the question of the doubts, the doubts don’t come up for me so much any more. They may have been earlier as in the moment when I was willing to throw it all away.

At this point, I have enough lifetime understanding about the evanescence of the moment, the guardrails that see me through and the deep commitment that I’ve made to see it through that this life-time I’m going to be a Jew.

2 Responses to “A Lifebelt for Doubt in Faith”

  1. Daniel Epstein Says:

    So beautiful to see this in writing too. Thanks Seth. I encourage all to see the Portraits In Faith project: http://portraitsinfaith.org/about/description/

  2. Portraits in Faith Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi - Portraits in Faith Says:

    […] Read more about Reb Zalman here. […]

Leave a Reply