Being the Right Kind of Agnostic


101014_riskin_sholmo_rabbiWhen it comes to questions of belief, the agnostic is the loneliest of all. On one side of the fence stands the atheist, confident in his rejection of God and often dedicated to the debunking of religion.  the other side stands the  believer, who glories in his faith that the universe is the handiwork of God. The agnostic stands in the middle, not knowing whether or not God exists, usually despairing of the possibility of acquiring certitude about anything transcending observable material phenomena.

Our biblical portion makes reference to two very different agnostics, Haran and Noah. The contrast between them contains an important lesson for agnostics, believers and atheists, alike.

The Bible states that Noah didn’t enter the ark until the water literally pushed him in. Rashi’s phrase that “he believed and he didn’t believe” is really another way of describing an agnostic who remains in the state of his uncertainty; he  believes and doesn’t believe. Noah is therefore described by Rashi as the first agnostic.

The second biblical agnostic appears in the guise of Haran. Terah, the father of the clan and a famous idol manufacturer, brings charges in the court of King Nimrod against his own son. He accuses Abram of being an iconoclast who  destroyed his father’s idols while preaching heretical monotheism. As punishment, Abram is to be cast into the fiery furnace. Haran is present at the trial and takes the position of having no position. Only after Abram emerges  unscathed is Haran ready to rally behind his brother. He confidently enters the fiery furnace, but no miracles await him. Haran burns to death.

Is it not strange that the fate of the two agnostics should be so different? We read how Noah was a man of little faith, and yet not only does he survive the Flood, he turns into one of the central figures of human history. Haran, father of Lot, brother to Abraham, hovers on the edge of obscurity and is even punished with death for his lack of faith.

Rabbi Moshe Besdin explained that while Noah and Haran shared uncertainty about God, there was a vast difference  between them. Noah, despite his doubts, nevertheless built the ark, pounding away for 120 years, even suffering abuse from a world ridiculing his  eccentric persistence.

We learn from Noah’s life and Haran’s death that perfect faith is not necessary in order to conduct one’s life. Belief is never as important as action. In the World to Come, there is room for all kinds of agnostics. It depends primarily on how they acted on earth.

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is the chief rabbi of Efrat.

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