Here's a great tip:
Enter your email address and we'll send you our weekly magazine by email with fresh, exciting and thoughtful content that will enrich your inbox and your life, week after week. And it's free.
Oh, and don't forget to like our facebook page too!
Contact Us

The Skeptic

The Skeptic

 Email

A debate is currently raging in campuses across the country about binge drinking. Some believe the solution lies in stricter enforcement of existing laws against underage drinking. Others argue that enforcement will simply drive the drinkers underground. They prefer to reduce the minimum drinking age and to combat the problem through a comprehensive education program abut the dangers of binge drinking.

Skeptics don't counter your argument with reason; they dismantle itWe have some experience with the question of prosecution versus education. Education, for example, has been highly effective in persuading students, who were previously unaware of the dangers, to abstain from habits such as drugs and sexual promiscuity. However, these problems are never fully solved through education. There are kids who are perfectly aware of the dangers, but dismiss them with a skeptical shrug of incredulity. These children slip right through the educational cracks and drag others along with them. You can't help them by teaching them about the damaging effects of their bad habits; they already know the effects. But they insulate their emotions from such knowledge through a healthy dose of skepticism.

The skeptic can destroy, in an instant, understandings and commitments that take years to establish. What makes it difficult to contend with is his imperviousness to argument or debate. Skeptics don't counter your argument with reason; they dismantle it by making light of it.

Take for example the recent ad campaign splashed across 800 city busses in London, England that proclaimed, "G‑d probably does not exist so quit worrying and enjoy life." This is not a philosophical defense of atheism nor is it a reasoned attack on religion, but it is far more damaging than either of those could ever be. It is a sound-bite that appeals to our collective quest for contentment promising pleasure and contentment to those who reject G‑d. Philosophical theories and religious treatises cannot counter this appealing sound-bite. It is the attack of the skeptic and it is almost impervious to response.

Amalek

This is the spirit of the Biblical Amalek. Our ancestors were enslaved by a Pharaoh who proclaimed ignorance of the Jewish G‑d. G‑d made Himself known to Pharaoh through ten awesome plagues and Pharaoh responded by liberating the Jews. The nations were in awe of the Jewish G‑d. No amount of cajoling or debating could persuade them to attack G‑d's people. Amalek stepped into the breach and cooled their ardor. He brazenly attacked the Jews and was roundly defeated, but the deterrent power of the Jewish G‑d was shattered. Amalek did not present the nations with philosophical arguments. He presented them with skepticism. He made light of their concerns and dismissed the Jewish G‑d with a careless shrug of his shoulders.1

Skepticism is only possible where the truth is not obviousAmalek is the quintessential skeptic. In fact, skepticism is embedded in his very name. The word Amal, which is ordinarily translated as labor or suffering can also mean distress and despair. The skeptic, more than any other challenger, wears out the believer and causes him to despair. (The Hebrew word Amalek also has the same gematria (numerical value) as the word safek, "doubt.")

The descendants of the Amalekites have since dispersed among the peoples of the world, but the spirit of skepticism is alive and well. It gnaws away at every noble intention and is the most difficult trait to overcome. The Torah proclaims, "First among nations is Amalek and his end will be eternal destruction."2 The mystics view this verse as a treatise on skepticism; it is the first and the root of all evil and it is destroyed only at the very end, i.e. the inner struggle against skepticism can be lifelong.

Our Response

Skepticism is only possible where the truth is not obvious. One can be skeptical of the existence of G‑d because in His first act of creation, G‑d concealed Himself from His own creation. Elokim, the Divine name of justice, alludes to G‑d's infinite ability to conceal. In other words, one can be skeptical about Elokim, a G‑d that is concealed, but one cannot be skeptical about a revealed G‑d because even skepticism cannot belie the obvious.

The patriarch Jacob "struggled against Elokim… and triumphed."3 The mystics saw Jacob's struggle as a quest to confirm first to himself, and then to others, the fact of G‑d's existence. When he succeeded in demonstrating the existence of G‑d he effectively overcame Elokim, G‑d's concealment of Himself. At that point he was granted the name Israel, which tells us that Israel refers to our ability to overcome doubt. It alludes to the purity of our convictions through which we overcome skepticism, both inner and outer, about the existence of G‑d.

The Torah testifies that, "There is no Amal in Israel." Jacob might feel the despair of Amal, but Israel does not.4 The skeptic makes the believer despair and causes him distress because the believer cannot counter skepticism. His arguments are dismissed, his faith is scoffed at and his noble aspirations are made to seem foolish. But that is only true of the believer who responds to skepticism as Jacob would. The Torah teaches us to respond as Israel would.

Amal, despair, has no place among IsraelTo overcome skepticism born of Elokim we must allow our inner Israel, our soul that knows with certainty of G‑d's existence, to respond. Its conviction is so rooted and entrenched, that no amount of skepticism can dilute it. Amal, despair, has no place among Israel. When faced with a bout of skepticism Israel counters not with words, but with conviction. We counter the certainty of the skeptic with the certainty of our faith and allow our convictions to ring with clarity. This is the way to avoid the despair brought on by the skeptic. This is the way to avoid Amal.

We are enjoined to eradicate every last trace of Amalek. Though we cannot identify the descendants of Amalek, this commandment is relevant to us today in our struggle against our inner Amalek; the Amal that has no place among the ranks of Israel. We take comfort in the knowledge that our triumph against Amalek will usher in the Messianic era.5

Footnotes
1.
See Midrash Tanchuma and Yalkut Shimoni on Deuteronomy 25: 18.
2.
Numbers 24: 20.
3.
Genesis 25: 29.
5.
This essay is based on the Lubavitcher Rebbe's Reshima #153.
Rabbi Lazer Gurkow is spiritual leader of Congregation Beth Tefilah in London, Ontario, and a frequent contributor to The Judaism Website—Chabad.org. He has lectured extensively on a variety of Jewish topics, and his articles have appeared in many print and online publications. For more on Rabbi Gurkow and his writings, visit InnerStream.ca.
© Copyright, all rights reserved. If you enjoyed this article, we encourage you to distribute it further, provided that you comply with Chabad.org's copyright policy.
 Email
Join the Discussion
Sort By:
10 Comments
1000 characters remaining
Lazer Gurkow (Author) August 21, 2010

Cynic or Skeptic Dear Anonymous in Seattle...

Semantics can be tricky. When I wrote about the skeptic I meant the one who asks, not out of a desire to understand, but out of doubt that matters of faith can be true.

This person may or may not be a cynic and his/her skepticism vis a vis G-d may or may not be born of cynicism.

Yet the skeptic that pus forth an honest question is a decent fellow and is not the one addressed in my essay.

Semantics... always a tricky slope to climb.

Thank you for making an important contribution to the conversation. Reply

Anonymous Seattle, Wash. August 20, 2010

Why attack skeptics? Or do you mean cynics? Brian S has it right. The skeptic asks you to prove your point. What's wrong with that, assuming that the skeptic's question is sincerely put? The cynic denies the possibilty of proof, much less of faith or belief. Put another way, the skeptic believes in the value of questioning, else why question at all -- and what is more fundamentally Jewish than to question, again assuming that the question is sincerely put. The cynic sees no value to questioning and casts only denial and doubt. Put yet another way, the skeptic wants to make sure s/he is not missing something. The cynic doesn't care. Reply

Brian S Simsbury, CT August 30, 2009

Skepticism v. Cynicism God made humans in His image. God has created a universe that runs by definite laws which are discoverable by rational humans. The application of rationality upon the universe is Science. Science is applied skepticism. Nothing that is amenable to observation, hypothesis, experimentation and observation of results should be accepted only on someone's "say-so", or "authority". Science is rightfully skeptical of all theories involving the workings of nature. And within the created universe consisting of spacetime, particles and energy nothing should be accepted on faith. But an honest scientist must admit that the ultimate MEANING of the universe and its inhabitants is not amenable to scientific methods. A Cynic is a dishonest scientist who claims there is no meaning to the universe. But that is a question that science is not able to address! Meaning is a second order. It is as if an illiterate person who was expert in paper and ink claimed the knowledge to deny writing.
Reply

Alexandra New York, NY August 28, 2009

billy the skeptic Bravo Billy, this is so funny, did you make your comment to illustrate the point of the article? Or did R. Lazer Gurkow post it himself to illustrate his point? Reply

Anonymous Fairhaven, MA via chabadsouthcoast.com August 27, 2009

skepticism I am not a skeptic. Reply

Nosson Beijing August 27, 2009

to the skeptic Would you have written you are probably wrong, your argument would have made its mark.
You have only proven that the skeptic wishes to believe 100% in his skepticsm, I chose 100% to believe in G-d! Reply

Richard Raff Bonney Lake, WA August 24, 2009

Seeing is a Lesson Skeptics are like sword fighters they are ready to duel but not ready to lose.Every body has to lose, that is the only way we all can find peace.Great story Rabbi Gurkow, learning our lessons can be one of the reasons why we live to gain from them. Reply

Thaddeus J. Kochanny Ingleside, IL August 24, 2009

"The Skeptic" Young "binge drinkers" are made in homes that either prohibit or misunderstand the legitimate use of alcohol. Homes with an alcoholic parent often produce abstainers because of the harm suffered growing up. Arguing that our Creator "probably doesn't exist" loses because of "probably." Pharo took beer from the preceeding dominant culture. Wine occurs naturally. Distilled spirits evolved from boiling beer and wine. All are intrinsically neutral. "Evil" occurse with their misuse. G-d makes all, including skeptics. Man lives to choose either truth or error; both with attendant consequences. It's good you recognize everyone's "inner Amalek." It won't be your "triumph" that ushers in the "Messianic era." Only G-d knows this! Defeating our own "inner Amalek" is through love and forgiveness, starting with ourselves and proceeding to others as we are guided to do. Reply

Lazer Gurkow london, ON August 23, 2009

I am wrong IN the true spirit of Israel my only response is - "No I'm Not." Reply

billy the sceptic munter aka aev san antonio, texas August 23, 2009

you are wrong Reply