From Belief to Faith

Can the skeptic embark on a Jewish spiritual journey?

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.

Of 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.

It is not difficult to understand why religious traditions tend to catechism, why they often create rigorous definitions of what they believe. One reason has to do with public identifi­cation as part of a larger group. Without catechism, what de­fines a person as a member of that faith? If Judaism so validates skepticism and searching, if it is not illegitimate to be uncer­tain about God, then what defines a person as a member of the Jewish “faith community”? Surely it has to be more than birth. As we will see, Jewish tradition was not unaware of this question, but opted for some­thing very different than catechism.

There are also emotional reasons that explain why religions tend to enumerate distinct lists of beliefs. Many people–Jews as well as non-Jews–understandably find such certainty com­forting. The world can be a very frightening place, and for some people, absolute belief in God’s existence and certainty that God has a plan for each and every human being makes it possible to find the strength to go on. When such theological structures and belief systems provide comfort, there may be nothing at all wrong with them.

Making Room for Skeptics

But not everyone reacts to the world in the same way. There are many other people for whom absolute religious certainty is simply not possible. Many people cannot assert with confi­dence that God exists, or that God has a plan for them, their people, or the universe. They cannot honestly recite Mai­monides’ Thirteen Principles of Faith as reflections of their own belief. The world these people witness seems unfairly cruel, and they find it difficult to accept the notion that in a “world to come,” good people will be rewarded and the wicked will be punished. How does Jewish tradition make room for them? Where do they begin their Jewish spiritual search?

As important a figure as Mai­monides was, Jewish tradition simply does not demand the sort of theological conviction that Maimonides espoused and that some Jews continue to find comforting. While it is true that many Jewish philosophers and some very important dimen­sions of Jewish tradition have long advocated precisely the cer­tainty that Maimonides sought–and that the Torah and much of rabbinic literature take God’s existence for granted–those dimensions of Jewish thought are not the only way in which Jews have viewed the world.

Although Maimonides attempted to impose a catechism-like philosophic approach on Judaism, he was ultimately not successful. His Thirteen Principlesare still well known and to this day are found in many prayer books, but they never became a catechism in most Jewish communi­ties. They are studied and discussed, but personal acceptance of Maimonides’ principles never became a sine qua non for Jewish legitimacy. Somehow, important streams of Jewish tradition resisted his approach. Those particular dimensions of Jewish thought may be especially helpful to Jews in modernity who still struggle with the whole idea of God.

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.

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

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