Wednesday, January 12, 2011

The Uncertainty Principle: My current struggle

As I was walking to the bus the other day and listening to RadioLab, the concept of Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle started circling in my head, and after a few moments, the idea for this post materialized.  I was still poking at it thoughtfully when I got home, not quite sure exactly what to write.  As I often do, I got to reading a few blogs for inspiration and discovered that one of my favorite bloggers had finally posted something after a little hiatus.  To my horror, he had used exactly the same title!  Luckily, my idea was dramatically different and so I don't feel bad sharing, but I do feel it appropriate to link to Gay in Golders Green's The Uncertainty Principle.  Do give a read.

[Disclaimer: Physicists, please don't hate me.  If you are angry, listen to the introduction to This American Life's Family Physics.  I hope this should assuage some hostility.  If not, I will understand if you feel the need to write your own post about how much you hate laymen using scientific principles out of context to explain things they have nothing to do with; I would even love to read it.  If your post is good, maybe we can republish it here.]

Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle states that the more precisely one can measure certain properties of subatomic particles, the more uncertain he is of other properties.  In finding a precise momentum, one loses track of location, and in measuring location, loses sight of the momentum (this is a very simple breakdown of the idea; for a more complete explanation, see the article linked above).  As such, it is not possible to gain a full picture of all aspects of these particles.  My life has recently fallen into an uncertainty in various regards much like Heisenberg explains.

This past Shabbos, I attended an Orthodox shul for the second time in months, and the first time entirely for my own sake (the previous time, I was attending my friend's auf ruf).  While there, I felt at home in prayer for the first time in a long while.  Although I didn't feel the same spiritual attachment to the services that I used to enjoy, I certainly felt a strong connection to the community, the structure, and the melodies.  In the moment, I was certain that my place in Judaism lay somewhere within the Orthodox fold, if only as a frequent guest at some shul.  Yet when the Rabbi there asked me how I affiliate, my best answer was "question mark."  Indeed, as I walked home, I found myself very unsure of where my spiritual path is leading me.  Yet in the last few months, either not attending religious services or attending Reform or Conservative services, I never quite felt comfortable with the worship style.  I was entirely certain that I was moving in a leftward direction in all respects towards something along the lines of Humanist or left-wing Reform Judaism.  All the while, I had absolutely no idea where I actually belong synagogue-wise or how I see myself affiliating in the future.  Since Shabbos, I am hovering somewhere in the middle of these ideas, not quite sure where I will end up next.  It appears that the more certain I am of where I belong synagogue-wise, the more uncertain I am of my current direction, and the more certain I am of my direction, the more uncertain is my place of belonging.

Over the last few months, I have been looking deeply into the ideas and writings of various atheists, most notably Richard Dawkins: The God Delusion (thanks to my friend, Baruch Pelta, for recommending the book).  It has been very interesting reading, and strangely inspiring.  All the while, I have felt no personal connection with the idea of atheism; my faith in some higher power has been rather strong.  Still, as mentioned above, I couldn't quite see where I fit in Judaism.  Nothing quite felt right in services or felt intellectually honest to me.  When I attended the services this Shabbos, it just felt right, and as I said above, I felt at home.  Yet suddenly, I was gripped with a deep foreboding that perhaps the God I believe in may not exist at all.  While singing Zot haTorah asher sam Moshe and Aleinu, my stomach was churning as my mind wandered toward the idea of atheism.  The more certain I am of the existence of God, the more uncertain I am of where I belong within Judaism, yet the more certain I am of my place, the more uncertain I am of the existence of a god.

At present, I don't know where I am and I don't know where I am going.  Until now, I had thought that the more time passed, the more comfortable I became with myself as a gay Jew, the clearer my path would be.  Today, I don't know if I should delve too deeply into what I want or where I am at all, because the more certain I am of some things, the more uncertain I become about others.  "Is a puzzlement."


  1. I can relate to what you're describing! The davening where I feel most at home always happens to be traditional non-affiliated synagogues or independent minyanim. Have you tried those? (f.ex. Hadar, Altshul, Mission Minyan, DC Minyan, etc.)

  2. I haven't tried anything like that; I don't think we have anything like that around me, but I'll keep an eye out. Thanks for the suggestion and for reading!

  3. "All the while, I have felt no personal connection with the idea of atheism.":

    Atheism is not about having a personal connection, and it is not about how you feel. It is rather the conclusion one draws from a natural application of being a skeptic. Even if an atheistic life makes you less happy one should rather accept the truth than making himself live through a lie to have comfort.

    I understand that giving up your religion is a very emotional experience. So I will never push you becoming an atheist. In fact, I do not care if you are not or not, as long as you honestly and skeptically think, and if you, by some strange conclusion, arrive at something other than atheism, that is alright too, you are still a freethinker.

    But atheism does not need to be empty and lonely. It can be. It does not have to be. You can become friends with like minded people such as yourself and do stuff with one another. You can explore and imagine. In some cases atheism can be a stronger religious experience than being religious, as strange as that sounds.

  4. Baruch,

    Perhaps my choice of wording was off, or perhaps I think too much like a Poli. Sci. major. Facts are facts, and when you lay them out in front of me in a clear way, I accept them. General Relativity makes sense mathematically and is testable; as counterintuitive as it may be, it is a fact. When dealing with ideas, however, with no clear right and wrong, I need all of the facts to line up in such a way as to make sense to me. I need to "connect" with the idea to accept it. I find Liberalism and Neoliberalism intriguing theories with a lot of factual and testable basis and Constructivism holds a lot of truth, but Realism makes more sense to me as a theory (in that from my understanding of the theory, of history, and my personal experiences, the theory seems to explain more effectively world events). My understanding of science leads me to accept that there needn't be a god, but my personal experiences and upbringing (or read indoctrination) generally lead me to feeling that some theistic approach makes more sense. While in shul the other day, the inverse seemed more palpable. I hope that clarifies things.

    Thank you for your thoughtful and respectful comment. I am well aware that life can be just as fulfilling as an atheist, and have had many atheist friends over the course of my life. I am not worried about emptiness or loneliness (I've got the latter already). You do, however, hit the nail on the head in stating that "giving up your religion is a very emotional experience." As I spoke of in a previous post to some degree, moving from haradi to mostly secular was very rough, and perhaps the fear of going through that again is a holdup for becoming an atheist. You've made me rethink my current status in a new light, and it will be interesting to see where it leads me. Thank you again.

  5. There's an interesting video of R. Jonathan Sacks about atheists and religious people:

    Being in a relationship with an atheist, I found it frustrating to talk about these things. My bottom line was always: if my idea of God were ("had to be") the same as yours, I'd be an atheist too.
    Any person's idea of God depends on how they've been educated, what they've experienced, read, etc. It sounds to me as if perhaps your idea of God (and religion) needs readjusting, and you're challenging yourself to explore in that direction. Personally, I don't find any problem with having one idea of God "philosophically" and a different one f.ex. when you're praying. In fact, I think that's healthy - same as you don't have to talk/write/think the same when you're working, with your friends, or with your mother. To be perfectly consistent isn't my goal in life, and that doesn't mean I don't think - it's just that for me life isn't like a Sudoku.
    But maybe I've got it easier - I'm a gay man who's gone from agnostic to kind-of observant, while you may be in a similar place coming from the opposite direction.

  6. QY,
    You saw the video I recently posted on my blog. In it the young man described the need to conform his identity to Judaism rather then force Judaism to fit him. Maybe it would be best for you to try and fit Judaism for you. Take the parts you like for now (the Orthodox Friday nights and whatnot). Take them one piece at a time and build everything up from there. Don't affiliate with a denomination, simply recognize yourself as a Jew and go from there.