From Belief to Faith

Can the skeptic embark on a Jewish spiritual journey?

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How can Jewish life make room for skeptics? Why does Ju­daism validate doubt? Judaism takes doubt seriously because it takes people seriously. It recognizes that if Jewish life is to touch us, then it has to meet us where we are. That "place," Jewish tradition understands, is often a place of bewilderment, of hurt, of skepticism. It is often not a person's intellect but something less rational, more emotional, that prompts a spiritual search, and Judaism understands that.

Sparking a Jewish Journey

Though there are many factors that motivate Jews to embark on spiritual journeys, Jewish tradition recognizes that, often, the most important factors are not cerebral. Sometimes, it is the grandeur of the universe that either provides a spiritual experience or motivates spiritual searching. A glimpse of na­ture more breathtaking than we imagined it could be. A sim­ple unexpected kindness that so profoundly touches us that we begin to ask, "Who are we? Why are we here?"

Sometimes, it is the birth of a child. A child emerges into the world and despite the presence of nurses, physicians, ma­chines, family, and all the attendant elements of modern de­livery, we know that we are in the presence of a miracle. We gaze at our child and we recognize that all the biology in the world cannot explain this new being. We cradle in our arms not just another person, but a being of infinite value and vast potential. We cradle a piece of ourselves, and know that if we are fortunate, this piece of ourselves will survive us. Suddenly, we have a small piece of immortality. And we wonder: Who will remember us? How will we be recalled? After we're gone, will we and this child ever "meet" again? How? When?

At other times, it is trauma that motivates spiritual odysseys. Illness, death, loneliness--all of these also cause us to ask life's ultimate questions and to begin the quest for mean­ing. At still other points in life, it is neither celebration nor mourning that motivates our wonder. It can be a simple pause in the hectic pace of life. That moment when we have achieved most of the things that we planned to accomplish. All the needed degrees, a career, perhaps a family.

The details vary with every person, but at some point in our lives, we may suddenly stop and realize that we've attained most of what we set out to do. Then what? Where next? What does it all mean?

Many people today begin their conversations about religion with the proverbial question "Do you believe in God ?" But Ju­daism understands that if that question is the first one, then people who cannot answer yes will not be able to begin the journey. That is why the question "Do you believe in God?" is not the central Jewish spiritual question. It is not an illegiti­mate question; Jews are certainly not forbidden to ask it. But Judaism has chosen a different emphasis, a focus not on belief, but on faith. Jewish life is interested not in proving God's ex­istence, but in feeling God's presence. Judaism is interested not in philosophic arguments for God, but in what modem Jewish philosopher Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907-1972) called moments of "awe and wonder," moments when God suddenly seems close.

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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.