On Mon­day, Darin Strauss wrote about wrestling with faith.

I’ve done an infor­mal poll — I admit, it’s very infor­mal — among Jews I know: What do we believe? A pret­ty fun­da­men­tal ques­tion, right? And yet there is no con­sen­sus of belief, even regard­ing the most bedrock prin­ci­ples of faith.

What’s more, this belief dis­crep­an­cy doesn’t exist just between our religion’s big three wings (between ReformCon­ser­v­a­tiveOrtho­dox); it exists with­in them, too. Ask a few obser­vant Jews what hap­pens to us after we die.

Some will say: We sit at the hand of G‑d — and the clos­er we are to Him, the more kind­ly we had been on Earth.”

Some will say: We live on, in the mem­o­ries of our friends.”

Some will say — and these are peo­ple who believe, as Madon­na does, in the Kab­bal­ah — that there are sev­en actu­al heavens.

This sort diver­gence exist­ed among us even in old­en times, well before we’d split into our three cur­rent camps. In the Sec­ond Tem­ple Era, the Phar­isees believed in bod­i­ly res­ur­rec­tion for the dead, while the Essenes believed that the soul itself is immor­tal. And the Sad­ducees — an old sect I had nev­er before heard of — believed, appar­ent­ly, in nei­ther: Not in an immor­tal soul, nor in any after­life. (Maybe that’s why they had sad” in their name.)

Anoth­er point of eter­nal Jew­ish dis­pute is the Mes­si­ahMai­monides wrote a com­men­tary that argued for a non-mys­ti­cal messiah:

Noth­ing will change in the Mes­sian­ic age, how­ev­er, except that Jews will regain their inde­pen­dence. Rich and poor, strong and weak, will still exist. How­ev­er it will be very easy for peo­ple to make a living…

Don’t you love the mod­ern sound of that? You can hear the blus­tery uncle at a 21st-cen­tu­ry seder table in that last bit, the very easy for peo­ple to make a liv­ing” part. (Maybe, like my uncle, Mai­monides had a Gar­ment Cen­ter guy who could get him a nice suit for a good price.)

I don’t write this to be dis­re­spect­ful. I think it’s a won­der­ful fact about Judaism — at least about the approach to Judaism I most relate to: there are no uni­ver­sal answers, we don’t have it all fig­ured out, G‑d is unknowable.

I won­der: Is this uncer­tain­ty, this lack of knowl­edge we have about the thing that is so cen­tral to so many oth­er faiths? Is it because so many of us spent so many of the last 2,000 years for­get­ting Hebrew? Pray­ing in a lan­guage a lot of us could pho­net­i­cal­ly sound out but not ful­ly understand?

Pho­to by Robert Birnbaum

That is prob­a­bly too sim­plis­tic; cer­tain­ly the most devout among us — cer­tain­ly a Mai­monides — spoke and under­stood Hebrew flu­ent­ly. But how many Amer­i­can Jews, say, actu­al­ly speak Hebrew with real under­stand­ing — how many under­stand all the words to all the prayers?

More­over, how many sub­scribers to such hip Jew” pub­li­ca­tions as Heeb and Jew­cy have a real tex­tu­al under­stand­ing of the reli­gion with which they so iden­ti­fy? These are unan­swer­able ques­tions. But com­pare all this Jew­ish uncer­tain­ty with the inflex­i­ble sure­ness of evan­gel­i­cal Chris­tians (not to men­tion fun­da­men­tal­ist Mus­lims). This is, para­dox­i­cal­ly, why I know I feel a kin­ship with Judaism that goes beyond the cul­tur­al and famil­ial bonds I have with the faith: the not-knowing.

Darin Strauss is the author of Half a LifeMore Than It Hurts YouChang and Eng, and The Real McCoyHe will be blog­ging all week for MyJew­ish­Learn­ing and the Jew­ish Book Council.

Darin Strauss’s most recent book, The Queen of Tues­day, came out in August 2020 and was a Wash­ing­ton Post best book of the year, among oth­ers. He’s also the author of the best­selling nov­els Chang & Eng, The Real McCoy, More Than It Hurts You, the NBCC-win­ning mem­oir Half a Life, and a best­selling com­ic-book series, Olivia Twist. These have been New York Times Notable Books; and Newsweek, Los Ange­les Times, San Fran­cis­co Chron­i­cle, Ama­zon, Chica­go Tri­bune and NPR Best Books of the Year, among others. 

The recip­i­ent of a Guggen­heim Fel­low­ship, a Nation­al Book Crit­ics Cir­cle Award, an Amer­i­can Library award, and numer­ous addi­tion­al prizes, Strauss has been trans­lat­ed into four­teen lan­guages and pub­lished in nine­teen coun­tries. In addi­tion, Darin has col­lab­o­rat­ed on screen­plays with Gary Old­man and Julie Tay­mor, and is a Clin­i­cal Pro­fes­sor of Fic­tion at New York Uni­ver­si­ty. He is cur­rent­ly a final­ist for the Joyce Car­ol Oates Award.