From Belief to Faith

Can the skeptic embark on a Jewish spiritual journey?

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Reprinted with permission from God Was Not in the Fire (Simon & Schuster).

Judaism, more than any other major religious tradition does not see skeptics as second-class citizens. It would be difficult to imagine a committed Christian for whom some faith statement about Jesus was not a central religious tenet, or a Muslim openly skeptical about Allah. In that regard, Ju­daism is somewhat different. 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 doubt.

In Jewish spiritual life, 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. Indeed, as we will see, the Torah goes to great lengths to reassure the searching Jew that skepticism is healthy, legitimate, and even cele­brated in Jewish life. Fundamentalists [of other religions] may regard anything short of absolute faith as religiously insufficient; Jewish tradition does not share their reliance on certainty.

doubt and fear ahead road signOf course, the perception that belief in God is fundamental to authentic Jewish religious experience is not only the result of popular culture. Much of what Jews see about Judaism itself confirms that sense. After all, synagogue services constantly speak of God. The prayer book seems to assume confident belief in God. Almost all Jewish weddings make mention of God, as do naming ceremonies for children, the Passover seder, Hanukkah candle-lighting cere­monies, funerals, and mourning rituals. Synagogue sermons tend either to speak of God as obvious fact or to avoid the is­sue of God altogether.

The result is that there are very few Jew­ish settings where Jews have the opportunity to wonder aloud about God, to articulate their sense of what they do and do not believe, and to share their frustrations at not being certain. Nowhere in their Jewish experience has Judaism provided a place to find reassurance that, in their doubt, they are not alone.

Catechizing Judaism

There have also been some strains of Jewish tradition that denied the value and legitimacy of skepticism. Maimonides (1135-1204) was perhaps the most prominent example, though by no means the only one. Judaism's greatest medieval philosopher, Maimonides thought that Judaism ought to have something akin to today's Catholic "catechism," a series of faith statements that would succinctly define what Jews ought to believe. He therefore composed his Thirteen Principles of Faith, enumerating his basic theological convictions, beliefs he thought every Jew ought to share.

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Rabbi Daniel Gordis

Rabbi Daniel H. Gordis is Director of the Jerusalem Fellows program and a member of the Senior Staff of the Mandel Foundation Sector on Jewish Education and Continuity. His most recent book, on the demise of peace in Israel, is entitled If a Place Can Make You Cry: Dispatches from an Anxious State; other books include God Was Not in the Fire: The Search for a Spiritual Judaism.