The following is a true story. It takes place about two decades ago in the second-floor apartment of a two-family home. The stairs led from the front door straight to the living room. In that living room was the family computer, a big, clunky desktop job with a dial-up connection to AOL because that’s how we rolled in those days. (Remember the ubiquitous AOL discs? Open a box of cereal, there’s an AOL disc inside. Go to the Post Office, have an AOL disc. I’m not kidding.) Anyway, when seated at the computer, the user’s back would be to the door through which people would enter the house.
In those day, I had three small children and my wife worked some nights as a mikvah attendant. On this particular night, my kids were asleep, my wife was at work and I was on the computer. From my peripheral vision, I saw my wife enter. She stood over my shoulder as I worked on the computer but she didn’t say anything. Without turning from my work, I asked her, “How did it go?” She replied, “Mwah wah, wah wah, mwah wah wahwah.” I’m not kidding. Like one of the adults from the old Peanuts specials is the best I can do to describe it.
Her response being unintelligible, I turned around, saying, “What was that? I didn’t underst–”
I stopped mid-sentence because there was nobody there. Which was weird because I definitely saw a figure in my peripheral vision and I heard a voice, garbled though it was.
I checked my kids’ rooms and they were all asleep in bed. I called the mikvah and my wife answered, still at work, a good 20-minute drive away. (Some of you may be incredulous that I didn’t call her cell phone, and maybe she was nearby, pranking me by pretending to still be at work. Well, remember that this was 20+ years ago. Cell phones certainly existed but it was not something that every person necessarily carried.) So this was a little freaky because there was nobody there but me and I definitely heard and saw something.
I had a great aunt who had died several days before this incident. My wife suggested that it was she that appeared to me. I discounted this theory for two reasons. The first is, I doubt that an aunt with whom I was never close, whom I hadn’t seen in years, would come to me rather than her own children or grandchildren in order to say “Mwah wah, wah wah, mwah wah wahwah.”
The second reason I discounted this hypothesis? I don’t believe in ghosts.
Oh, sure, I believe in an afterlife but I don’t believe in restless spirits wandering the Earth on unfulfilled missions. I didn’t believe it then and I don’t believe it now. My experience with an unexplained apparition hasn’t changed that.
See also What is the Jewish View on Ghosts? by Rabbi Gil Student
Someone who believes in ghosts might use this experience to support their argument. “I know there are ghosts,” this person might say, “because I’ve seen one!” But I’m a confirmed non-believer so what benefit do I have in sharing an inexplicable experience that undermines my own position?
It’s just that: I didn’t let an inexplicable experience change my beliefs.
There’s a huge difference between ignoring facts and not letting unanswered questions destroy your faith. Let’s take a famous example: when people started unearthing dinosaur fossils in the 19th century. The discovery of such things posed a challenge to the most literal understanding of Genesis, with the result that people responded in one of three ways:
- The first was that people flipped out and abandoned their faith. (“The Bible is a lie! There is no God!”) To me that seems to be something of an overreaction;
- The second is to ignore the evidence altogether. (“Those bones were put there by Satan in order to trick us!”) I don’t happen to care for such denial. At the very least, it’s unhealthy;
- The third approach is reconciliation, to see how one’s beliefs may jibe with new evidence that appears at first glance to be problematic. I will illustrate.
While the world in general was flipping out about dinosaurs seemingly contradicting Genesis, the Jewish world largely went, “Eh.” This is because Judaism has a midrashic tradition that God created worlds before this one. Each world was less advanced than the one that succeeded it and God would wipe them out and build the next world on top of the previous one. This happened a number of times before God concluded with our world, which is where the clock starts. When archaeologists started uncovering strata with cavemen skulls and stegosaurus femurs, learned Jews just shrugged and said, “I guess those midrashim were more literal than we assumed.” (Perhaps the best-known work on this subject is the Drush Or HaChaim by Rav Yisroel Lipschitz, best known as the author of the Tiferes Yisroel. This work can be found in the back of Sanhedrin in the mishnayos Yachin u’Boaz.) This may not be everyone’s approach but it seems to serve the purpose of recognizing the facts on the ground without jettisoning one’s beliefs in favor of a theory. In the absence of a time machine, that seems to be a healthy balance. (See the opinion of the Rambam on Torah vs. science as discussed in this edition of The God Papers.)
I’m not saying that a person should be so obstinate in his opinions that he never changes his mind on any issue when presented with solid proof. I’m saying that we should not be so wishy-washy in our beliefs that we change them at the drop of a hat. This is especially important in the area of one’s theology. People misquote things. They misrepresent them. A person with an agenda can spin your head around. A person has to be tenacious in their beliefs and investigate challenges to determine the truth.
There’s a lot we’re never going to know for sure. The mishna in Chagigah (2:1) says that a person would be better off never existing than he would be if he tries to figure out what’s above Heaven, what’s below Earth, what came before the world, and what will be after, in the end times. We’re never going to know everything and we can literally break our brains trying.
The Talmud has a word for when a discussion reaches an impasse: teiku. Literally, it means “let it stand” but it’s traditionally understood as an acronym for Tishbi yitaretz kushiyos v’ibayos – Elijah will eventually answer all of our questions and difficulties. In The Rav: The World of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Rabbi Aaron Rakeffet writes that the Rav learned from his father that, “In matters of faith, teiku will also be encountered. … The basis of faith is teiku. If a Jew does not master the concept of teiku, then he cannot be a true believer.”
Is it possible that a ghost appeared to me and said “Mwah wah, wah wah, mwah wah wahwah?” I imagine it’s possible, though that’s not what I believe. (Others may believe that and it’s fine with me if they do.) Is it possible that the synapses in my brain misfired, causing me to have both visual and aural hallucinations? Such a thing never happened before and it hasn’t happened since but I can’t rule it out. I suspect the real answer is some third thing that I’m simply never going to know. And that’s okay.