Book of Doubt

When I first arrived in Los Angeles from Dallas, we—my dad, stepmom, and I—lived for over a year in a 500 square foot bungalow in Santa Monica. It was a few doors down from a small apartment complex occupied exclusively by a family of Hasidic Jews. The front of their building was quarantined by a low fence and crammed with playground equipment. I traipsed past countless times on my way to the candy counter at the neighborhood liquor store. Along this route was the stretch of sidewalk that my dad wanted to search, believing we would find my name among the many scrawled into the concrete.

Some of the Hasidic boys were my age. I had never seen anything like them. They had tassels at their waists and curls at their ears. In those months, I officially went “boy crazy” and I weighed even those boys as romantic partners. I would see them in the evenings walking in their uniform of tiny suits with the rest of their family members: one dad and one mom, and a string of siblings from big to small like stairs stepping down. I thought they looked particularly fetching when they topped off their outfits with kid-sized fedoras like old-timey gangsters from a school play.

For all the time I spent eyeing those kids, I never once spoke to them—nor they to me. Whatever made their world operate was too different from the particulars of mine; it was like we occupied dimensions so distant that any sound I might utter would dissipate before it reached their ears. I had the idea that they might be an optical illusion, a projected image on a screen; if I snuck up and looked behind it, I’d see only dust bunnies and boxes.

My dad and I walked back and forth in front of the apartment building, searching the names and messages left in the sidewalk. I kept glancing up at the building. It looked exactly the same, right down to the playground equipment.

Dad and I came to the corner without finding my name and then doubled back. A hundred other names were there, but we couldn’t find mine. Had it been washed out by time? Had my father only imagined our subversive act?

At first I was disappointed, but then I decided maybe it wasn’t there for a reason.

According to Jewish tradition, on Rosh Hashanah the “Book of Judgment” is opened and those who have lived righteously will find their names inscribed in the “Book of Life,” while those who have not will be written in the “Book of Death.” It’s a theme that Christians have galloped away with, sometimes to horrifying effect. When I encountered it at a Baptist church, the Book of Life was presented as set-in-stone—your name is either in there or it’s not. If it’s not, then you can forget about spending eternity with God.

In Judaism, I discover a more flexible interpretation. Besides these two options, there’s another place your name can be. It’s the location of a majority of our names. Those who are neither all bad nor all good, but a mixture of the two, will find their names in the “Book of the Doubtful.” Technically, the period of reflection and repentance between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur provides the opportunity to have your name reassigned to the Book of Life; more realistically, I think it’s a long-term goal: you hope to do enough good during your days on earth that the scales tip in your favor.

Perhaps all sidewalks are an extension of the Book of Life, I thought. My name wasn’t there because it is in the Book of the Doubtful. Like most people, I have some work before it gets reassigned.

As my dad and I got back in the car, I spotted a Hasidic man standing near the apartment complex. I knew then that I would try to visit the synagogue in which the residents of this building worship—due to the rules about not driving on Sabbath, it had to be within walking distance. At the very least, a visit to that synagogue would allow me to inquire about my old Hasidic neighbors. As long as I was righting the old wrongs I had drudged up with my Rosh Hashanah soul-searching, this seemed a good one to add to the mix. Maybe our two worlds could finally speak.

41 thoughts on “Book of Doubt

  1. Isn’t it always odd to go back to a childhood scene? Everything has shrunk. Everything seems to be in black and white instead of the technicolor you remember from childhood. Sometimes, it can be a truly horrible experience, like the time i went back to the street and home where I spent the first 10 years of my life. The magnolia tree that had been my center of the universe, my home outside, my playground, had been cut down. I felt kicked in the gut and as though someone had stolen part of my past.

    I am so very, very glad that going back seems to be a good experience for you. And I cannot tell you how much I appreciate the whole concept of “A Book of the Doubtful”. It is very nice to think of God as having a modicum of common sense! I will have to check to see what, if any, the Anglican concept of ‘purgatory’ is, but isn’t that, in the Catholic sense, the closest Christian analogy?

    No matter… is a somehow reassuring concept. I hope the rest of your journey into Hassidism goes well.

    Yours in Christ

    • Hi Patti, I’m not sure what the Christian equivalent would be or if there is one. From my understanding the Jewish “books” are more for the living whereas the Christian versions apply to those who are no longer living. I agree, I like the idea that you can change where your name goes by making amends and doing good.

  2. Using the language of other religions is a tough one for me because it oftentimes sends messages that are not intended. With that said, however, I am sure that you are in very good company in the Book of the Doubtful. If I were Jewish that is where you would find me, also. Trying my best to tip the scales toward The Book of Life. Trying to live righteously, but not always meeting the mark….but always striving. Seems like a Universal idea to me. And a healthier more helpful way of thinking than trying desperately to stay out of that Book of Death.

  3. Ha! I liked two of the books you reported on: The Baptist book where my name would not appear because I didn’t meet the requirements. GOOD!! Now I can finally just live my life without feeling judged. And the wonderful Jewish book of the Doubtful. It lets me know that God offers possibility. I believe in neither one, of course. If I believe in anything it is the book of Life which I am living at the center of every day.

    • See this is the problem of “talking in the language” of another religion…because really, Frank, I am more agreeing with you about Living in the Book of Life I think that I picked up on the constant opportunities for positive living—-along with forgiving myself for NOT being perfect—in this Book of the Doubtful. It is that lack of finger pointing and guilt-making that I found compelling!

  4. Corinna said-

    “According to Jewish tradition, on Rosh Hashanah the “Book of Judgment” is opened and those who have lived righteously will find their names inscribed in the “Book of Life,” while those who have not will be written in the “Book of Death.”

    Of course, you never claimed it WAS original to Judaism, but the idea of a “Book of Life” was derived from earlier Egyptian beliefs, where a person who died supposedly who go to have their heart weighed after death to see if they measured up to earn their way into the afterlife, and to determine the ultimate fate of their soul.

    Eventually someone in the Egyptian temple allowed a means to “buy” one’s way into heaven, by selling heart scarabs with an incantation that would prevent their heart from ‘telling’ on them. Consider it an early form of purgatory, buying one’s way into a blissful after-life.


  5. Where in Judaism did you find this more flexible interpretation? I wanted to find out a bit more about it, but I can’t seem to call up the right words to access it, I can assume, however, that it is not the Hassidic belief?

    • Hi Merrill, I needed to check my notes. I found this idea presented in a fairly old book I stumbled across in the college library. Here’s the citation: Isserman, Ferdinand M. This is Judaism. Willett, Clark & Company, Chicago, New York: 1944.
      I would think it would apply to Jewish thought across the board whether on the more observant side of the spectrum (like Hasidic) or the less observant side (like reformed). But I’ll be interested to see what Rabbi Aaron has to say when he logs on next (he won’t be online at least until the end of Sabbath at sundown on Saturday night.)

      • Hi Merrill and Corrina,

        Perhaps I need to be written into the Book of Appointments, as I was occupied and forget to take a look at the blog. I may be missing something, but my whole perception of the Book metaphor is profoundly simple and revolves around the idea that the Book is focused on Life not the opposite. According to Jewish tradition, Rosh Hashana is the time that Gd issues takes a broad view of the whole world, of every living creature and establishes a unique plan for every person, that includes: health, wealth, blessings and and all of the opposites, and the way in which one may be treated. A year of bounty versus a year of hardship. Naturally they are two factors that drive these rulings. One is purely divine and has no reflection on the individuals worthiness, (a negative event in one’s life may not be a punishment) while the second factor is dependent on the efforts of the individual to strive to maximize their personal spiritual potential. (Spiritual potential, that is measured in real actions inclusive and beyond prayer: such as charity, helping another, avoiding slander and judging others favorably…..these are merely a small sample.)

        On Yom Kippur, Gd reviews the plan, with the hope that each person will have spent the last 10 days with a sincere introspective attitude, resulting in constructive and meaningful resolutions to become a better person. These 10 days are not to find fault, but more like a parent’s hope that an errant child will mend his ways and the parent can joyfully reward the child. The seriousness of the 10 days is real, but the interval is seen as an opportunity, not a burden.

        This “Return” in Chassidic circles, comes with a sense of joy as we want to do better, because we know that our Father wants to embrace us and ultimately our Father desires to bestow blessing and inscribe us in the “Book of Life: despite our shortcomings.

        Lastly, I saw a commentary from a great scholar called the Chasam Sofer. He wrote that not only do these day reckon out the judgments of individuals but also all of the wars that meant to occur in the coming year. He writes that when talmudic scholars fiercely debate the meaning of the texts and thy arrive at a peaceful resolution, they displace one of the physical wars that was destined to occur in the same year. This is powerful anecdote to give meaning to each of us that strive to make the world a better place, our charitable acts not only benefit the recipient but they literally change the world dynamic.

  6. All I know, for sure, is that I know nothing about “after life”. I know many many theories and philosophies and a variety of ways to interpret what the Bible says but until now I have had no personal experience with the “after life”. I believe there are gifted sensitives who have the ability to talk to someone on the other side and mystics who appreciate the oneness of all life and people who have near death experiences and see the white light and see Jesus and people who write about going to heaven and back. I don’t question their gifts or “trips.” But……..for me it is the joy and fulfillment I can create for myself and others in this life that becomes far more important. I don’t believe in an anthropomorphic God but I do believe there is an ever existing Consciousness of eternity that is filled with the Self/self expression of possibility, probability and potential that provides an energy that I can easily work with if I choose to. This Consciousness of Life is what I live in and so does everyone else. The more I open myself to the expression of this Life the more good I can do in the world. At the end I hope to say, “I did my best.”

  7. I think all of us have had our names written in the Book of the Doubtful at one time or another. Nobody is immune from at least a shadow of a doubt, when God seems to have abandoned us to our fate. I also think there is a fine line between assurance and arrogance. The Baptists Corrina described may have been absolutely sure they were written in the Book of Life—and just as sure who was in the Book of Death—but that kind of smug assertion runs counter to our free will, and leads to the insular, self-absorbed “faith” a lot of us associate with fundamentalism. Maybe the key is how we react to doubt—which way we turn. Do we embrace Franks philosophy of living in the here and now in joy and try to be a positive force in the world, or do we turn inward until doubt becomes our philosophy, and we believe in nothing beyond ourselves? When Jesus said “Seek the Kingdom of God”, it wasn’t an order to sit around and wait for something to happen. It was a call to put His preaching into action in the here and now.

    • Which we do when we live life as if we were already in that Kingdom. “Preach” doesn’t necessarily mean word of mouth. Seems as if I remember that somewhere he said that the Kingdom is within. We get to share it as we co-create its consciousness. “Surely, goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life….” the Psalm says. For me it’s more about living it than waiting for it. Again reminded of the good Samaritan story. He wasn’t a Jew but he lived as if he was on the inside and I think that’s the point Jesus was making in telling it.

    • Hi Tim, I still can’t help but think everyone who has ever lived would be in “the Book of Life.” I mean, it’s so remarkable that each of us has made it here. To me, the beauty of that alone qualifies each of us.

      • Well said, Corinna. I think I’ve expressed the opinion before–why would God create us only to condemn us? The Bible calls us a “royal priesthood” and a “little less than angles.” I think it breaks His heart every time we use His name to condemn someone whom we define as too much of an outsider.

      • Hi Corrina. I couldn’t agree with you more. I think that many religions lead their followers to believe that they only get this one lifetime, this one chance to get it right. This view overlooks the possibility that we may live many lifetimes and that making our way into the “Book of Life” is a long term, perhaps eternal process of spiritual development. I look forward to when you get to Buddhism where reincarnation is central to belief.

  8. An interesting corollary to Frank’s comments. There are many times in the Gospels where someone Jesus heals begins to serve others. When He heals Peter’s mother-in-law of her fever, she gets up and serves her guests. The possessed man in Gerasenes, once Jesus sends his demons to the herd of pigs, actually becomes one of his first disciples outside of Judea, spreading the word in the cities of the Decapolis. And tonight I just read about the healing of blind Bartemaus; when Jesus restores his sight, he becomes one of His followers. Maybe we’re healed so we can do good in the world and be written into the Book of Life…

    • Tim I think you’re right about that….there does seem to be that pattern evident in those who are healed. Of course, these were people who were healed outwardly (physical), but they also were healed inwardly, which compelled them to serve others. Image if we really got ahold of what it would mean that we are redeemed spiirtually….

  9. As Black said to White, “I ain’t a doubter, but I am a questioner.” Carmac McCarthy. Please add me to the Book of Questioners.

    • I like this even more! Unitarian Universalists are all about questions and cracks in the plaster. I would say that the doubts I have are not about my inherent worth….but more about the words that get thrown about calling themselves the Truth. MET

      • Ha! Sometimes I think I’m just a jaded observer. I wish I had a brighter mind and a better memory. I don’t often pick up a book about Jesus these days since I feel like I’ve spent a life time reading about him already but there has been so much talk about the book “Zealot” that I decided to get it. It is so well written and not at all religious but simply a well told, well researched story about the historical Jesus. The writer is a professorial researcher as well. I’m enjoying the wonderful clarity with which he writes.

        • I just finished “Zealot”, too, and once you get over the fact that Reza’s not making a case for Jesus representing what the term “zealotry” came to mean a half-a-century later (i.e. a small group devoted to gaining political power via terrorism and violence), I found it to be well-written, and pretty much in agreement with prior works I’ve read about historical Jesus. So while it’s not exactly new territory, it IS a great compilation of prior research, presented in a well-written manner of a screenplay.

          BTW, “Zealot” covers the bases for the many reason(s) many Jews rejected Jesus as “the Jewish Messiah”; Messiah claimants were literally a dime-a-dozen in 1st Century Palestine, and he was viewed as nothing particularly special or noteworthy at the time. It’s an interesting story of how a loser can be transformed into a winner, once powerful Earthly forces align behind them.


  10. Hi all, a couple of thoughts on this post –
    I am struck by this whole idea of spiritual development versus personal development and definitely realize that I am much more for the personal kind – perhaps I’m completely hedonistic? Or is it realistic? We just spent a 4-day weekend (now that hubby has retired we get to have those!) camping, listening to all kinds of musicians at a Hank Snow Festival (OK, so some of it was of the honky-tonk variety- you gotta give ’em credit for getting up on a stage in front of 1000+ people!), attending an outdoor family wedding, enjoying wonderful Maritime scenery, and laughing uproariously at times. I have to admit, I am voraciously attuned to the Book of THIS life!

    • Amen and Amen!! And isn’t it wonderful to enjoy it without worrying about whether or not you were “sinning” or wondering if you should ask for forgiveness for something you might not even have been aware of. Pure, unadulterated, joie d’ vivre as the French say. Your mention of honky tonk reminded me that there was an old country Western song that went something like: “Didn’t you know God made honky-tonk angels…” hee hee ….Love it. Some day maybe more of us will realize that it’s ALL GOD….We’re not separate from. We’re one with.

  11. Corinna, I love your post, as usual; it always makes me ponder. I love your idea of the book of doubt. Certainly everyone doubts at times and no one is totally good or bad but a mixture on most days, so being present in the Book of Life can’t be due to absolute faith or absolute goodness. If so, no one would make it and heaven would be a very lonely place. (Actually I think Jesus would be on the only one there!)

    In the Old Testament God is someone who seeks us. And, faith is viewed as someone who responds to God’s initiative by seeking God. For example, Moses saw a bush that burned but was not consumed. He wanted to explore that phenomenon when God suddenly spoke to him from the bush. They had a conversation, but it wasn’t far into that conversation that God said, ‘take off your shoes for you are standing on holy ground.’ So there was the gift of the connection with this exquisite, eternal being but also the command which held him accountable.

    When we say “I’m going to become a believer,” it doesn’t mean we don’t ever doubt again. But it means we pursue a relationship with God, and we are willing to “bow” or ‘take off our shoes’ so to speak, that is, be held accountable to God. Our life takes on meaning in light of what matters to God. (It’s kind of like a marriage.)

    God does certain things in response to this decision to believe. God gives the gift of the Holy Spirit as a guarantee of the relationship. The Holy Spirit also helps reassure us on those bad days that God is real, present, and will help us believe and assures us that we belong to Him. Also, the Holy Spirit graciously helps us live out our faith and lifts us back up when we fail.

    We all seem to agree here that faith is carried out in how we live. Both Testaments of the Bible also say this. But if faith was only based on how we live, we’d all be up a ____ creek without the proverbial paddle! Thank goodness God is full of grace.

    • It’s the interpretation of who or what the “proverbial paddle” is that becomes the touchstone for many discussions. For me, the “paddle” is ever present and within all life and every person. It awaits our discovery of it but even without our discovery of it it continues to pay attention to that we wish to create in our lives. Even without it’s discovery many atheists live a good life without the recognition. As Jesus said, “It is done unto you as you believe.” It’s kind of like carrying around a electric plug for a lamp. You can stand in the light of day and do lots of things but when night falls, if you plug in the lamp you can do even more and greater things. Once we discover our internal connection we can light the way for ourselves and others. We sang a lovely song with sign language in church this morning: “You are the face of God. I hold you in my heart. You are a part of me. You are the face of God.”

  12. A curious piece of timing. During Mass this morning, the Gospel reading was from Luke, where Jesus says He has come “not to bring peace, but division”. It was, as our priest said, one of those “hard readings” where Jesus isn’t being the warm and fuzzy Messiah. There are many interpretations of this passage, but one is the recognition that division has always been and will always be part of the human condition. In the earliest days of the church, there was a divide over how to admit Gentile members—should they go through the Jewish custom of circumcision first, and then be baptized, or baptized regardless of their background? James and Paul worked that one out, obviously, but there are plenty of examples of division since.

    Here, the division seems to be about the Book of Life vs. the Book of Death, with the Book of the Doubtful somewhere in the background. When it comes to doubt, there really shouldn’t be an issue. I’ve heard many theologians say truth never fears questioning. I think we all recognize there are some universal truths shared by nearly all humanity—I did a quick Internet search and there are at least 21 religions or cultural traditions that include some form of the Golden Rule. Some of us may disagree on the origin of universal truth, but few of us question its existence. Ginger and Frank are closer in their view than it may appear. Ginger pointed out acts alone aren’t enough, and she’s right. We may all agree on the idea of the Golden Rule, but how many of us really live up to it? And Frank used an example from the Gospel when he talked about a lamp; Jesus said we are foolish to hide the light our own lamps can bring to the world. Both of them talk about a striving for something beyond the self.

    And Carmen, I don’t think you’re a hedonist! I do think spiritual and personal development go hand in hand. Remember Paul’s “When I became a man, I put away childish things”. My understanding of God and the way He works in the world is much deeper and nuanced now than it was when I was in my 20’s, or 40’s. As for enjoying your family weddings and the Hank Snow concert, if you want to read about enjoying the pleasures of this life, read Ecclesiastes (it is right for man to enjoy the fruits of his labor), and the steamy poetry of Song of Songs!

    So what does this mean in terms of Corrina’s post about being in the Book of the Doubtful? I think it means it’s okay to doubt, to question, and to seek. But it’s also okay to listen when you get the answer, and act when you hear the call.

      • Thanks, Frank–I appreciate that. Given my almost complete ignorance of the specifics of Jewish theology, I’m not sure my comments are relevant to the subject. But I will say this…some days, I read what everyone says here and I’m as sure as ever what I believe is true. Other days, I wonder about the veracity of nearly everything. And I guess that’s a good thing for me, spiritually and socially. But I do know there is no shame in questioning or doubting; otherwise free will would have no meaning.

        • I really think it comes down to keeping integrity with ourselves and not feeling that we must defend our beliefs to someone else. We’re really the only ones who must feel comfortable with our relationship or non-relationship with a Higher Power.

  13. There’s a lot of wisdom in what you say, Frank. I think a lot of “believers” and even some non-believers are so strident in defending their beliefs, and so vehement in attacking others who don’t share their views, because they’re not quite as secure in those beliefs as they wish they were. Admitting to even the slightest bit of doubt, or the legitimacy of an alternative view is just too dangerous, because you just never know where it will lead…

  14. Joseph Dunninger, a 30’s and 40’s entertainer (bogus mindreader) who performed regularly on radio was bombarded by critics insisting he confess, or “dumb-down”, his performances for those naive enough to think he was actually performing telepathic miracles. His solution, ignoring those with the “slightest bit of doubt” was to close his show witht he line, “If you believe no explanation is necessary; if you don’t believe no explanation is possible.” Radio magic reminds me of Edgar Bergen’s comment, “Being a ventriloquist on radio is the world’s easiest job.”

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