Rabbi Marder asked me to talk about one of the Jewish spiritual paths we explored in our Adult Confirmation class. I chose the Jewish idea of faith -- though all I can really talk about is my own conception of faith.
Years ago, I had trouble with the idea of faith, because I believed in science, and I felt that scientists were skeptical of supernatural activity, and thus had no need of God.
Fortunately for me, Judaism does not see skeptics as second-class citizens. Judaism does not require faith statements as a sign of legitimacy. Judaism does not ask Jews to give up their questions or to deny their doubts.
In Jewish spiritual life, I’ve discovered, faith is not the starting point of the journey. Uncertainty is not the enemy of religious and spiritual growth. Doubt is what fuels the journey. The Torah goes to great lengths to reassure the searching Jew that skepticism is healthy, legitimate, and even celebrated in Jewish life.
There have been some strains of Jewish tradition that denied the value and legitimacy of skepticism. Maimonides was perhaps the most prominent example. Maimonides thought that Judaism ought to have a series of faith statements that would succinctly define what Jews ought to believe. In the middle ages, he composed his Thirteen Principles of Faith, enumerating beliefs he thought every Jew should share.
As important a figure as Maimonides was, Jewish tradition does not demand the theological conviction that Maimonides sought. While some Jewish philosophers have advocated the certainty that Maimonides had, those dimensions of Jewish thought are not the only way in which Jews have viewed the world.
Maimonides’ attempts to impose a doctrine-like approach on Judaism, was ultimately not successful. Today his Thirteen Principles are studied and discussed, but personal acceptance of Maimonides’ principles never became a test for Jewish legitimacy. Somehow, important streams of Jewish tradition resisted his approach.
My conception shifted, from thinking that faith means only faith in God, to faith that there is a difference between good and evil, between right and wrong actions.
Or, to put it another way, how can you have faith in God after the Holocaust?
The Holocaust to me was history--something I studied and taught. But recently learning, via the magic of genealogy websites, that I have family members who were murdered in Auschwitz has brought it back into my mind in a more powerful way. I ask myself: how can you have faith in God after the Holocaust?
But I also ask: how can you not see the reality of evil after the Holocaust?
And if you admit to yourself that evil exists in the hearts of men, and women, how can you not admit that its opposite also exists, that simply acting to prevent suffering is a right action? And that belief -- that some actions are better than others -- requires a leap of faith.
I think most people do not know what they believe. But you can figure it out. You figure it out by watching yourself.
You can only find out what you actually believe, rather than what you think you believe, by watching how you act. You simply don’t know what you believe before that.
It takes careful observation, and education, and reflection, and communication with others, just to scratch the surface of your beliefs. We Jews have been watching ourselves act, reflecting on that watching, and telling stories distilled through that reflection, for thousands of years. That is all part of our attempts, individual and collective, to discover and articulate what it is that we believe. Part of this knowledge is encapsulated in the Torah stories. The Torah is the root document of Jewish conceptions of good and evil.
Whether you think it was written by God, Moses, or the collective human imagination, the careful, respectful study of the Torah, can reveal things to us about what we believe and how we do and should act that can be discovered in no other manner.
We learn that behaving properly now, in the present--regulating our impulses, considering the plight of others--can bring rewards in the future, in a time that does not yet exist.
Our ancestors personified the force that governs fate as a spirit that can be bargained with as if it were another human being -- as Abraham bargains with the Judge of all the world in the book of Genesis. And the amazing thing is that these ancient Jewish teachings work to produce the desired effect: changing people’s behavior.
Judaism is about proper behavior. It’s about what Plato called “the Good.” To be a Jew is to strive to be a good person. But you cannot aim yourself at anything if you are completely undisciplined and uneducated. You will not know what to target, and you won’t fly straight, even if you get your aim right. And then you will conclude, “There is nothing to aim for.” And then you will be lost.
So I have come to the conclusion that there is no difference between faith in the difference between right and wrong, and faith in God.
As far as I’m concerned, saying I have faith in the God of the Torah and saying that I will strive to follow the teachings of the Torah and the Jewish tradition, are actually the same thing.