Reflections on Faith
In my series of vignettes of various kinds of Jewish faith presented on Erev Rosh Hashanah HY XIII: Nitzavim-Rosh Hashanah), particular interest was elicited by the words of the man I described as a “leading intellectual of the Conservative movement in America,” who has made a maxim of intellectual integrity, calling upon people to avoid self-deceit and easy, conventional statements about God and mitzvot. “There is no such thing as faith,” he says, “only knowledge”—and one must be true to what one knows. (For those who were curious as to his identity: the individual in question is Martin S. Cohen, rabbi of the Shelter Rock Jewish Center in Roslyn, Long Island; editor of the journal Conservative Judaism; among the compilers of The Observant Life, a guide to Conservative halakhah; author of an intriguing little book about lessons to be learned from Seder Toharot, generally considered the most obscure and arcane order of the Mishnah, entitled The Boy on the Door on the Ox; and editor of Siddur Tzur Yisrael, as prayer book he prepared fir his congregation which, interestingly, reinstates passages usually excised from Conservative siddurim, as well as adding study texts and theological reflections in the margins in the margins. Thus, alongside a rigorous honesty, he has a deep and abiding love for tradition, and often speaks of the goal of the religious life as “the journey to Jerusalem.”)
I would like to elaborate somewhat on this subject. I had hoped to do so during the Days of Awe, but time pressures didn’t allow me to do so; fortuitously, this week’s parashah, Moses’ farewell poem of admonition to the Jewish people, contains a description of God as אל אמונה, “a God of faith” or more likely “a faithful God” (Deut 32:4), making a discussion of the term emunah germane. At first blush, Cohen’s words might be seen as proximate to those of my atheist–empiricist friend, who refuses to engage in metaphysical discussions because one can never arrive at a definitive proven answer thereto. But what he is trying to say, as I understand it, is quite different: that what people most often mean by “faith” is the acceptance of certain axioms or dogmas regarding God and religion without any sort of evidence or argument or even reasonable plausibility. His point is that there are not two kinds of knowledge: one either knows a given thing or does not know a given thing;. When people say “I believe” what they really mean may be “I don’t know whether this statement is true or not, but I would like it to be so, so I will pretend that it’s true”—i.e., an elevated kind of wishful thinking. On the contrary, he argues, religious truth must be like any other kind of truth: it must make sense, and must not be based on ideas that fly in the face of what we know from other sources of truth or knowledge.
This approach belongs to a venerable tradition of purifying the intellectual contents of faith. Thus, Maimonides insists on a well-thought-out, philosophically coherent belief in God: a faith that can be proven and not one adopted in a capricious way. Thus, he speaks of the mitzvah of Anokhi Hashem Elohekha as implying knowledge of the existence of God which, according to him, can be acquired by acquired through an (admittedly arduous and demanding) process of philosophical reasoning. Hence, in Yesodei ha-Torah 1.1 he uses the word לידע שיש שם נמצא ראשון—“to know that there exists a First Cause.” Indeed, as Simon Rawidowicz demonstrates, even in Sefer ha-Mitzvot, where one finds the word להאמין—“to believe”—used in the equivalent passage, the Arabic original is a word which refers to knowledge, not faith. (Unfortunately, in the modern world we are less sanguine about the validity of such proofs, so we must find another path to knowledge of the Divine.)
The Torah itself never speaks of “faith“ or “belief” in God as a mark of the religious person. The word אמונה means “faithfulness” or “trust,” and is used, for example, of Abraham and the other patriarchs who had no need for “faith” in the modern sense because they stood in a living relation with a God whom they knew—whom they talked to directly. והאמין בה' ויחשביה לו לצדקה (“And he trusted in God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”: Gen 15:6). This is likewise its meaning in Habakkuk 2:4, צדיק באמונתו יחיה (“the righteous shall live faithfully”). Martin Buber, in his book Two Kinds of Faith, elaborates in this idea, noting how the two terms, pistis and emunah, reflect the very different conceptual worlds of the Greek and Hebrew mentalities.
I don’t know when the word emunah first acquired its modern meaning as belief in a proposition: certainly nowhere in the Bible, and I suspect neither in the Talmudic or Midrashic literature. It most probably emerged in the world of medieval Jewish thought, which need to confront Greek philosophy in its Arabic guise: e.g., in Rabbenu Saadya Gaon’s Emunot ve-De’ot.
But the real problem with so-called “faith” is its abuses. On the lowest level, there is the popular idea that to be religious means to have the ability to believe any and very form of nonsense, provided that it is dressed in a halo of religiosity; that is, to be credulous: e.g., to believe that wearing a red string on one’s wrist that at one point was (allegedly) tied around Rachel’s tomb is somehow a segulah, that will help one against whatever troubles one--illness, money problems, matches for oneself or one’s children, etc.; that God will heal even the gravely ill, raising them from their suck bed if one prays hard enough, if one recites the entire Book of Psalms ever day for forty days, if one visits the grave of a holy man or, especially, if one enlists the help of a Rebbe or Kabbalist (who, needless to say, expects to be handsomely rewarded for his intervention).
“Rabbis,” rebbes, “Babas” and Kabbalists who take advantage of people’s desire and need to believe, not only in God, but in holy men, are a ubiquitous feature of contemporary Israeli life. It is a strange phenomenon: multi-billionaire, secular tycoons visit Kabbalist rabbis like Rav Afargan (“the Roentgen”) and Rav Pinto for advice and blessing. I am doubtful as to whether these “spiritual” counselors told them what is most important, ethically and halakhically: that they must assure that the nearly 2000 workers who were recently displaced by the sale of Ma’ariv are provided with the final salary, compensation, and pension that are rightfully there’s.
I am not worried about the Denkners and Nimrodis of this world wasting their money on such charlatans, but some of these rabbis are notorious for abusing the faith placed in them to squeeze money out of poor and misfortunate people who can ill afford it. Indeed, this phenomenon led to the murder last summer of one of the more grasping of these “rabbis” by a frustrated, disappointed believer.
A second misuse of faith is found in the political realm. The prophets spoke harshly against those who invoked God’s name to propagate false interpretations of actual events, who taught messages of unwarranted complacency or self-confidence (see, e.g., the story of Michaihu ben Yimlah in 1 Kings 22:16 ff.) of the type of “God is on our side.” Unfortunately, similar attitudes are all too prevalent today.
What then might be meant by serious, mature Jewish faith? Faith might be described as accepting a certain axiom which one accepts without proof, as a guideline or operating assumption in one’s life—e.g., that the Torah is in some sense is from Heaven, or that God exists and is our Master—while knowing that it is not knowledge in the usual sense. These beliefs are by their very nature unknowable, mysterious, unfathomable, but we accept them as articles of faith, that is, as something to live by. It seems to me that this is why the language of religion is that of parable, metaphor, midrash, even myth—forms of expression that are suggestive, allusive, not scientific—pointing as they do towards that which is beyond the realm of empirical truth.
An interesting aside: I’ve recently been reading some books by G. K. Chesterton, an early 20th century British intellectual convert to Roman Catholicism. He shows his “Father Brown” character surprising others by being consistently more down-to-earth and sceptical than the more secular characters in the story, making the point that scepticism about nonsense of various sorts (e.g., believing that a certain murder was performed by a ghost) is as important to true religion as is faith in that which is true.
I also recently read an insightful caveat about the relation between these types of truth, written by the Dalai Lama: “A clear distinction should be made between what is not found by science and what is found to be nonexistent by science. What science finds to be nonexistent we should all accept as nonexistent, but what science merely does not find is a completely different matter… [for example,] consciousness itself. Although sentient beings, including humans, have experienced consciousness for centuries, we still do not know what [it] actually is…”
Another line of thought about the nature of Jewish faith/religious knowledge: Judaism sees the masoret, that which has been received in the tradition, as a form of knowledge—if not about God Himself, than certainly about the halakhah and the other components of our teaching. The basis of our faith (and here some people may demur as well) and say that this too is unreliable) is as a tradition we have received from our parents: this is what it means to be a Jew. (Part of the crisis of modern Judaism is the break or rupture in tradition. Fewer and fewer people who can say: I practice mitzvot because I received it from my father, who received from his father, and so on. Neophytes to Jewish religion need instead to be convinced of the value and legitimacy of the enterprise, and often of each and every mitzvah—whether by rational argumentation or by emotional experience.) In any event, this is the high road, “the long but short path” to His service.
A Sad Correction
In the issue for Ki Tavo, towards the end of my essay on Jewish marriage, I mentioned Monique Susskind Goldberg’s Za’akat Dalot, and added “for whose health we pray.” Shortly after sending out this number of HY, I received a note from a reader in Arad informing me that Monique had died, already several months ago.
I first met Monique nearly forty years ago, when her home served as the venue for Shlomo Carlebach’s teaching whenever he came to Jerusalem. All his followers and whoever wished to hear him crowded into Monique and Gaby’s living room and Shlomo would learn, talk, sing, and in between shmoose with the people till the wee hours of the morning, Later I heard that Monique was studying fir a doctorate in Jewish thought, and had been ordained as a rabbi by the Mesorati movement in Israel – one of the first woman to receive that title here, and quite possibly the only French speaking Conservative rabbi in Israel.
Throughout her life, Monique suffered from a serious handicap—she had suffered polio as a child, and was confined to a wheel-chair—but she had an indomitable will, and did not allow her limitations to stand in the way of making something of her life. She was highly learned in Talmudic and halakhic literature and. among other things, write the above-mentioned book, which is a compilation of halakhic solutions to the problems of Jewish marriage. She was accompanied everywhere by her devoted husband, Gavriel Goldberg, whom I came to know somewhat during one of the few periods when they were apart: our six-week basic training in the IDF.
May her memory be a source of blessing.