Sermon: Living with Uncertainty

Written by Rabbi Josh Levy — 10 June 2017

When I was making my journey to the rabbinate, one of the people who guided me was Rabbi Sheila Shulman.  Sheila was an extraordinary person – unconventional, anti-establishment, ridiculously well read, fiercely intelligent – often with the emphasis on the fierce, certainly with me.

With Sheila, you didn’t get away with platitudes, or woolly thinking.

Towards the end of my first year of rabbinic studies, Sheila challenged me.  She said that I needed to work on my negative capability.

It was a very Sheila comment.  Literate, rich, demanding, above me.

Negative Capability – it turned out when I looked it up – is an idea from the Romantic poet John Keats.  Speaking about achievement in literature, he praised the virtue of Negative Capability:  “That is,” he wrote, “When a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason”.

Sheila was encouraging me to be more open to doubt, to appreciate that which is, rather than feel a constant determination to work everything out.  She was saying (beautifully, of course) that it is important to recognise the limitations of our own power, our own control, our own knowledge to find a way to be comfortable with uncertainty, to find how to live positively within it.  This rather than thinking that we can explain everything, force everything into reason, into logical boxes, Keats’ “irritable reaching”.

I was reminded of Negative Capability yesterday morning, as politicians, journalists and commentators scrabbled around for explanations and patterns, trying to impose themselves onto the most unexpected of election results, with new predictions and declarations.

Reminded again yesterday lunchtime by the Prime Minister’s extraordinary statement – her “anti-Keatsian” new mantra – that hers will be a “government that can provide certainty” because “what the country needs more than anything is certainty”.
As if to convince herself and all watching that it is possible to overcome – by will alone – uncertainty, in the most uncertain of times.  No room there for doubt or possibility.

To live with uncertainty is an aspect of our lives.  It cannot be wished away.  We fool ourselves if we think we can live with true certainty.  If this week has done nothing else, it reminds us of our lack of control, our lack of ability to predict the future.

As Jews, of course, we have always known this to be true.  Our foundational story is one of our ancestors taking steps out into the unknown – Abraham going forth from his home without certainty, Moses leading Israel across the Reed Sea not knowing what journey will follow, a pattern of exile and return.  This reality continues into Jewish history – a reminder that uncertainty is always with us.  We have lived throughout our existence as a people with the possibility of disruption, of being moved on, of instability.  Our texts have evolved and changed to reflect this disruption, to reflect not knowing what is to come.  In modern times, until very recently, ours has been a history of existential uncertainty.  As Jews we have always lived in what is now sometimes known, in an acronym introduced by the US military, as a VUCA world – a world of volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity.

Uncertainty is an undeniable feature of our experience – and it is an inevitable reality of human nature.  We do not know all the answers, we cannot plot out every event; we cannot know the future with certitude, it is not ours to control.

Our texts express clearly this inability to control, to predict, to know.  Most powerful perhaps is the imagery of God’s refusal to show the divine face to Moses.   Even Moses, the greatest of all leaders, can have only a limited understanding of the world.  Doubt, lack of knowledge, lack of control is a reality of being human; certainty a politician’s illusion.

The Israelites in the wilderness ask “is God here with us or not” – they who have most experienced certainty can still not be certain.
Isaiah articulates the impossibility of certainty even to the Prophet by having God declare “My plans are not your plans; My ways are not your ways.”

And this is hard.

Uncertainty is scary.  We don’t like not knowing, we don’t like doubts and mysteries.  They make us feel unsafe.  We find this repeatedly in our narrative, too, when the Israelites express their anxiety about the future by moaning, complaining.  As Talia has recounted for us, this week’s portion is one such example.  In the face of uncertainty, forced to face the future once again, after a period of apparent stability, the response is not to recognise that which they have, but to fear about the future.  Their despair even causes Moses to despair.

Uncertainty is so hard that sometime we prefer to have an answer that we don’t like to none at all.  A common phrase in medieval rabbinic writing is “ein simchah k’simchat hatarat ha-s’feikot” – there is no joy like the joy of the resolution of doubts (though, ironically, it is uncertain where exactly the phrase comes from).

In the Babylonian Talmud, the rabbis compare the merits of the Prophet with that of the Sage.  Both have special insight. But they conclude – it will not surprise you to hear – that the Sage is greater.

The Prophet is given glimpses of the future. But the Sage lives the present.  The Sage studies and grapples.
The sage lives with doubt, with disagreement; the sage enjoys flights of fancy – as we saw in our haftarah, creates, tells stories, argues.  The sage does not demand certainty but enjoys possibility.  Ours is a tradition based on multiplicity of meanings, diversity of voices.  The sage builds and lives in communities of study and prayer – better to do that which Talia spoke about – to appreciate that which we have, to celebrate our moments, to appreciate the beauty, to strengthen one another in the face of uncertainty.

When Sheila told me those years ago to work on my Negative Capability what she meant was that.  Be open to wonder, to possibility.  To do so requires the possibility of uncertainty.
As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks wrote, our religious lives are not about “certainty but the courage to live with uncertainty; not a destination but the journey itself.”

To promise certainty is to promise an illusion.

It is hard to recognise the limitations of our power, to recognise that we are not able to fully control that which is around us.  But the task Sheila gave to me is one for all of us: to work on our Negative Capability.  To be capable of coping with the doubt and the mystery, to live positively from within the uncertainty that we face.