By Rabbi Shlomo Riskin
“And Haran died before his father, in the land of his birth, in Ur Kasdim.” (Gen. 11:28)
When it comes to questions of belief, the agnostic is the loneliest of all. On one side stands the atheist, confident in his rejection of God. On the other side stands the believer, who glories in his faith that the universe is the handiwork of God. The agnostic stands in the middle, not knowing whether or not God exists.
Our Biblical portion makes reference to two very different agnostics, Haran and Noah. The contrast between them contains an important lesson all.
The Bible states that Noah went into the ark “because of the waters of the Flood” (Gen. 7:7). From this verse, Rashi derives that “Noah had little faith; he believed and he didn’t believe that the Flood would arrive.” Noah didn’t enter the ark until the water literally pushed him in. Rashi’s phrase that “he believed and he didn’t believe” describes an agnostic who remains in a state of uncertainty. As such, Noah is the first agnostic.
The second Biblical agnostic appears in the guise of Haran. “These are the generations of Terah. Terah begat Abram, Nahor, and Haran” (Gen. 11:27). Why does the text specify “and Haran died before his father in the land of his birth, in Ur Kasdim” (Ibid. v. 28)? What is the significance of citing the exact place of Haran’s death?
Rashi explains by citing a fascinating midrashic tradition that details how Terah, a famous idol manufacturer, brings charges in the court of King Nimrod against his own son Abram, who destroyed his father’s idols while preaching heretical monotheism. As punishment, Abram is to be cast into the fiery furnace. Haran is present at the trial and takes the position of having no position. He decides that if Nimrod’s furnace will prove hotter than Abram’s flesh, he will side with the king; but if Abram survives the fire, then it would be clear that Abram’s God is more powerful than Nimrod’s gods, and he will throw in his lot with his brother. Only after Abram emerges unscathed, is Haran ready to rally behind his brother. He confidently enters the fiery furnace, but no miracles await him. Haran burns to death.
Is it not strange that the fate of the two agnostics should be so diﬀerent? We read how Noah was a man of little faith, and yet not only does he survive the Flood, he turns into one of the central figures of human history. He is even termed “righteous” in the Bible. In contrast, Haran, father of Lot, brother to Abraham is punished with death for his lack of faith.
Rabbi Moshe Besdin, z”l, explained that while Noah and Haran shared uncertainty about God, there was a vast diﬀerence between them. Noah, despite his doubts, nevertheless builds the ark, pounding away for 120 years, suﬀering abuse from a world ridiculing his persistence. Noah may not have entered the ark until the rains began–but he did not wait for the Flood before obeying the divine command to build an ark. Noah may think like an agnostic, but he acts like a believer. Haran, on the other hand, dies because he waits for someone else to test the fires. In refusing to act for God during Abram’s trial, he acted against God. He is an agnostic who acts like an atheist.
Indecision is also a decision. A person who is indecisive about protesting an evil action or a malicious statement is aiding and abetting that malevolence by his very indecisive silence. After all, our sages teach that “silence is akin to assent.”
Noah reached his spiritual level because he acted, not so much out of faith, but despite his lack of it. Our Sages understood very well the diﬃculty of faith. What they attempt to teach the agnostic is: If you are unsure, why act as if you are an atheist? Would it not be wiser to act as if you were a believer?
We learn from Noah’s life and Haran’s death that perfect faith is not necessary in order to conduct one’s life. Belief is never as important as action. In the World to Come, there is room for all kinds of agnostics. It depends primarily on how they acted on earth.
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is chancellor emeritus of Ohr Torah Stone and chief rabbi of Efrat, Israel.