I Doubt It

Do you remember the card game “I Doubt It”? On every turn, a player claimed to be holding the required card; she would say, “I have two threes” or “I have one four.” And then everyone else had to guess if she actually had two threes or one four; if you thought she didn’t, you’d say, “I doubt it.” And if she were lying, she couldn’t get rid of any cards. The goal was to get rid of all your cards before anyone else. If you were smart, you paid attention to what players said on every turn and you remembered what they had and didn’t have. In this game, intelligent doubt was good.

I would say that intelligent doubt is good in just about every aspect of life.

The doctor who doubts his own diagnosis and does some more research to confirm it,

The attorney who doubts that her case is strong enough,

The teacher who tries to learn how to teach better because he doubts that he’s connecting to every student,

The accountant who checks her figures one more time,

The writer that re-writes and proofreads.

It’s not low self-esteem that drives the doubting; it’s the earnest desire to do things right. And we should doubt that we’ve done anything so well that it doesn’t need checking. And if someone else says something that’s too good to be true, we should doubt it.

Wayne McLeod was an investment adviser in Jacksonville, Florida. McLeod was paid by the government to provide retirement planning services. He spoke to law enforcement agents and other government employees who dedicate their lives to the service of this country. McLeod ran 255 investment seminars, from a Drug Enforcement Administration in-service training in Virginia to an FBI workshop in Alaska. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement hosted 33 of his seminars in the last two years. McLeod earned $15,000 for each seminar provided. He promoted a government bond fund that made 13% a year. He boasted about all the money he had made for congressmen and judges. And many of the agents and officials gave him their life savings. McLeod raised at least $34 million from federal employees across the nation.

As you may have guessed, it was all a Ponzi scheme. There wasn’t any government bond fund that made anything, much less 13% interest. When it was all exposed in June, four days after telling investors the fund was closed and no more money would be paid out, McLeod, age 48, killed himself in a park.

If you were a government employee, and your agency hired the man for a hefty fee, and the FBI and the Drug enforcement people and the Customs people all vouched for him, you felt good about investing with him.

And so hundreds of lives have been affected very badly.

Doesn’t anyone know my father’s classic statement: “Anything that can be stolen will be stolen”? Any loophole will be used; any shade of gray will be used to make people money.

Whether it comes to protection from oil spills or mercenary bankers, we not only need laws to protect us. We need people in the government who regulate, who apply the laws.

If FBI agents and Drug enforcement and Customs officials are themselves bilked by a con man, what does that tell us about the people who are supposed to be our watchdogs? You can have the best laws in the world, but if there is no enforcement, we’re all in big trouble.

The Madoffs and the McLeods prey on trusting people, people who should know better. McLeod hid in plain sight; he stole from FBI agents. Such brazen behavior is only possible when no one asks a question.

Nobody said, “I doubt it.” Or “let’s check this guy out.” Or “how can we be making 13% a year when nothing but the riskiest investments are making anything close to that?” No one doubted.

At a Board meeting last year, I asked about our checks and balances concerning our synagogue funds and accounts. I certainly had nothing specific on my mind, but I’ve heard too many stories to be naïve. Money sometimes makes even nice and honest people do things they would never even imagine themselves doing. What was interesting was that no one got defensive; everyone patiently explained how protected our money is, how no one can steal anything. No one thought I was accusing anyone or implying anything, and of course, I wasn’t. When there is nothing wrong, there is no reason to be evasive.

We have to be able to doubt. And especially when it comes to money, we should doubt.

One of the reasons that doubt is good is that it counters what we can call the inside view.

The inside view is what everybody tells you is the truth. It’s what everybody says is going to happen.

Do you remember a horse name Big Brown? In 2008, Big Brown won the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness and was the 3/10 favorite, the prohibitive favorite, to win the Belmont and thus the Triple Crown. Everybody said Big Brown would win. That was the inside view. But the outside view said: There is a reason that so few horses win all three races.

So what happened? Big Brown came in last.

What happened to Big Brown? It wasn’t injured. It wasn’t sick. What happened to Big Brown is an example of what lab researchers call Harvard’s Law: “Under the most rigorously controlled conditions of pressure, temperature, volume, humidity, and other variables, the organism will do as it darn well pleases.”

But we don’t remember this; we don’t remember that anything can happen, because we are too busy following the crowd and being influenced by everyone’s opinion. The inside view is not a fact, it’s just an opinion, but we take it as a fact.

We need doubt to counter the inside view. We have to say, when everyone says they know something, “I doubt it.”

We’ve all seen the incredible number of Jewish Nobel Prize winners. At least 180 Jewish people and persons of half- or three-quarters-Jewish ancestry have been awarded the Nobel Prize, accounting for 22% of all individual recipients worldwide between 1901 and 2009, and constituting 36% of all US recipients during the same period.  In the research fields of Chemistry, Economics, Physics, and Physiology/Medicine, the corresponding world and US percentages are 27% and 39%, respectively.  Among women laureates in the four research fields, the Jewish percentages (world and US) are 38% and 50%, respectively.  Remember that Jewish people currently make up approximately 0.25% of the world’s population and 2% of the US population.

Why is this? Good genes and a tradition of learning. But I also would suggest that not being part of the inside has led us to doubt things from the outside. Sigmund Freud could not become part of the medical establishment because he was Jewish. So he doubted the wisdom of the establishment, and changed the way the world thinks.

Now let’s talk about doubt in religion. Have you ever seen the play or the movie Doubt? It’s about a nun convinced of her faith and in her ability to see evil without substantial evidence. By the end of the movie, however, she’s shattered by doubts. Her world falls apart when she realizes that she may not have a monopoly on the truth, that she can be wrong. The story is not so much about the faith of the nun as it is about the certainty of a person in her ability to know everything. It’s a lesson for all of us. Don’t think (to quote an old album called “Sea Train”) that you’ve got the whole thing covered.

When is a person shattered by doubt? You are shattered if you have built a view of yourself or the world or faith and then something happens that challenges everything you believed. And then your worldview comes crashing down like a house of cards.

For the nun, doubt seemed bad.

But my point is that doubt is good.

Doubt can be positive and good.

In a new book, two sociologists Peter Berger and Anton Zildervald, one a believer and the other a secularist, discuss the value of doubt both for those who believe, that they should not be so certain and dogmatic, but that also, and this is the beauty of the book for me, for those who don’t believe, that doubt is important for those who do not believe in G-d or the value of religion. They say that doubt should be operative for a non-believer as well. A non-believer should be willing to express his or her doubts about non-belief.

So I’ll talk about how doubt is good for believers, and then how doubt could also be good for non-believers.

Here’s a classic Hassidic story.  The rebbe was lecturing his students:  “Everything God made in this world God made for a purpose.”

The students were surprised.  “Everything?” one of them asked.  “What about atheism?  For what possible purpose did God make atheism?”

The rebbe replied, “That is simple.  You should always be ready to say that there is no God.  For example, when your fellow comes to you and says he or she is in trouble, never say `Don’t worry.  God will help you.’  Perhaps there is no God.  Therefore you should be prepared to help.”

The rebbe’s point is that if you’re so sure about G-d and that G-d will take care of things, you might not help. Better to doubt G-d and help other human beings than not to help.

The rebbe meant that God could have created a world where everything was so upfront and obvious that no one could ever doubt.  But a world without doubt would be an impossible place in which to live.

I believe that doubt has a role in religion.  Have you ever met someone so sure of their faith that they never have a moment of doubt?   Often such people are impossible to live with and to deal with.  Perhaps a little bit of doubt keeps those of us who are religious people honest.  It gives us room to question what we believe.  And questioning can help strengthen our faith.

Now let’s talk about why non-believers should have doubts. People always ask me, in effect, “Rabbi, what cards are you really holding?” People ask me this all the time. If you’re a believer like me, if you believe in G-d, you find that non-believers are always anxious to challenge you, to dismiss your faith as nonsense and superstition. I’ve never been sure why my faith is an issue for anyone else; sometimes it seems like non-believers just can’t stand that someone like me, who can discuss football or movies or science, actually believes in G-d. And so they want to know why, they want to know what cards I’m really holding, they want me to show them my cards, in their hopes that I’m saying that I have two threes but I really have none, that there’s only a man pulling strings behind the curtain like the Wizard of Oz, and that I really knew it all along.

Berger and Zildervald would say: Don’t be so certain in your disbelief.

If you’re such a doubter, doubt your doubts.

Say to yourself,
“Gee, maybe there is something else going on in this world.

Wow, maybe belief can be a beautiful and powerful thing in a person’s life.

Maybe ritual and prayer and song and regular practice can change a person’s life.

Maybe it’s not for me, but I should doubt my certainty that it’s all so ridiculous.

I should also doubt whether I should act so superior. How is it a decent or courteous thing to be so cynical to people of faith?”

So here’s the new year and we’re thinking about the year that has gone by, about the decisions we made and how they turned out. We’re doing post-mortem analysis on the year that had passed. We’re thinking about things after the fact, second-guessing, Monday Morning quarterbacking. That’s post-mortem thinking.

But on this new year we should be looking ahead, and so we should be doing pre-mortem analysis. You’ve never heard of this and few of us ever do it.

A pre-mortem is when you think through what can happen before it happens. What if this decision goes wrong? How bad would the results be? Can I afford, whether it’s emotionally or financially, for this decision to be the wrong one? This is called thinking twice. This is doubting yourself in a constructive way.

My idea is simple: Belief in anything, in G-d, in yourself, in another person, without doubt, is dangerous. Belief with at least some measure of doubt, of questioning, of challenge, is positive and healthy.

And the High Holidays also come to bring you moral doubt, asking you: Are you as good as you’re going to be? As you could be? Could you be doing more for others? Are you reaching out to others? Are you paying enough attention to your loved ones?

Here, in this room of faith, I ask you to doubt. I ask you to use these holidays to doubt yourself. And in the coming year, whenever you find you’re too sure of yourself, or you have to make a big decision, or you’re about to criticize someone else, think twice. Say, “I doubt it.”