The Torah emphasized in last week’s reading, Terumah (Exodus 25:1-27:19), that the Tabernacle in the desert was to be held up by planks of acacia, or shittim, wood. Hasidic tradition notes that the verbal root on which that Hebrew word is built appears also in the word for foolishness, shtut. The Talmud has it that sin is committed through foolishness. But more benignly, a willingness to be found foolish is an essential ingredient of religious life. We like to think we have rational grounds for belief, and I think we do up to a point, certainly more than evangelists for secularism would have you think. 

Yet one takes a considerable chance, in identifying with any spiritual teaching, of being totally mistaken in the end. Something I find incredible about certain versions of Christianity is the threat of eternal torture if despite the best intentions, and having earnestly sought to discern God’s will in the Bible, you nevertheless get things wrong. The idea that God could come up with such an “economy of salvation” is pretty hard to believe. In fact, the image of the Tabernacle, designed by God himself, suggests the opposite: that faith fails if you can’t take the chance of being mistaken in the end.
William James said as much in his famous 1896 lecture, “The Will to Believe”:

He who says, “Better go without belief forever than believe a lie!” merely shows his own preponderant private horror of becoming a dupe. He may be critical of many of his desires and fears, but this fear he slavishly obeys…..I can believe that worse things than being duped may happen to a man in this world….Our errors are surely not such awfully solemn things. In a world where we are so certain to incur them in spite of all our caution, a certain lightness of heart seems healthier than this excessive nervousness on their behalf.

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