Seeking A Faith For Our Time

Faith and doubt are two concepts in Jewish religious life that generate a broad range of  definitions and understandings. While many of these definitions are commonly accepted,  they don’t always serve the individual in their commitment to truth or a deepening of their  relationship with the Divine. Faith and doubt, as this essay seeks to define, are instrumental  in determining our ability to act in the world in a way that brings goodness to our families,  our communities, our society. When I studied at the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem, Rav Shmuel Lewis helped conceptualize Jewish perspectives on  faith and doubt by breaking conceptualizations of faith into two distinct categories:  medieval/philosophical and biblical/rabbinic. I will introduce my understanding of his categories and comment on their import for ourselves and their relationship to each other. 

Medieval/Philosophic Faith 

The medieval/philosophical faith is the definition that modern religious thought is most  familiar with. In this faith, the individual adheres to certain ideas or concepts.  Grammatically, we use the word “that” to express our belief – “I believe that…I believe that  evolution is the way human beings came into existence….I believe that God is present in the  world…I believe that good can triumph over evil.” The medieval/philosophic enterprise is  the strengthening of faith through logic and rationality. From this perspective, my faith in  religious ideas or concepts is as strong as those concepts make rational/logical sense to me.  Maimonidies’ unique contribution to Jewish thought was the brilliant project of showing  how tenets and concepts of biblical and rabbinic Judaism made sense philosophically. 

From the medieval/philosophic perspective, faith is dependent on the ability of the human  mind to find rational congruence with Jewish religious concepts or ideas. If one is successful  in finding congruence, then it is possible to find commitment to Jewish religious life and  mitzvot, but it is questionable as to the amount of goodness to the world that this Jewish  religious life will bring. For me, “goodness” is the creation and enhancement of systems  (family, educational, economic, political) in a way that best supports the diversity of  individual expressions on the physical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual levels. My  assumption is that Jewish religious life has the potential to bring maximum goodness to the  world depending on the nature of one’s faith. 

The depth of understanding and the strength of one’s commitment to actions that express  goodness in the world are bound by the limitations of the human mind – both the  limitations of individual intelligence and one’s unconscious perceptions of reality. These  limitations can bring an individual different results. One result is an experience of perceived  congruence with Jewish concepts or ideas that has difficulty integrating other established  systems and thought and perceptions of reality. This result can be seen in the ultra-orthodox  perspective that has difficulty integrating Judaism with modern forms of science and social  thought. This schism can result in actions and choices that are limited in their ability to  bring goodness to the world through their limitations in establishing relationships with  people of a wide variety of backgrounds and the ability to affirm perspectives and choices  different than their own. This experience of perceived congruence results in an experience  of surety that is shallow in its understanding because of its difficulty of integrating and  finding relationships with perspectives different than its own. My assumption in using the  words “shallow” and “deep” is that the deeper the understanding, the more ability to find  relationships, patterns, and connections with other systems of thought and frameworks of  reality. While this “deep understanding” finds connections, patterns, and relationship, it  doesn’t negate the knowledge of distinctions and perception of the boundaries between  Torah and other modes of thought. 

The other result of the limitations of intelligence or the unconscious perception of reality is  that one experiences frustration in finding congruence with Jewish religious concepts and  ideas. A person sees the world and their life in the way that they have been trained through  upbringing, societal immersion, and education. They have had significant experiences that  have conditioned and shaped their view of reality. The frustration with finding congruence  with their own thought formations and the ones they encounter in Judaism may result in a  commitment to Jewish religious life and mitzvot that is tentative or non-existent. From the  medieval/philosophical perspective, their Jewish “faith” is not very strong. 

In both of these cases of medieval/philosophic faith, the function of doubt is instrumental  to the deepening and strengthening one’s faith. Doubt is the experience of being able to be  remove oneself from a concept or idea and see its limitations. If we define a “deep  understanding” of a concept or an idea as the ability to perceive connections, patterns, and  relationships with other ideas, then our only barrier to this understanding is the security and  surety by which we cling to certain ideas and concepts, whether we have encountered them  in the Jewish tradition or elsewhere. If one clings to a certain thought as being true only in  

the way that they experience it, they will not be open to considering other dimensions of  the thought, either in ways that connect it with other ideas or how it might be limited by  other ideas. Doubt allows a person not to hold their conception of reality too tightly, to be  open to having their thinking affected by others.  

In the process of deepening medieval/philosophic faith, doubt opens the way for both kinds  of people discussed above. For the people with perceived congruence between their perception of reality and Jewish religious thinking, doubt allows them to not  readily accept the conflicts between religious thinking and other ideas as incompatible. One  who doubts in this way will constantly call into question both the tradition and the  perspectives that seem to contradict the tradition. Within this dynamic tension, both  concepts have the potential to be broadened and deepened. In regard to the people who  experience a frustrated congruence between the tradition and their own modern  perspective, the same process of doubt will allow them to call into question their own  perspectives at the same time that they call into question any presentation of Judaism as a  presentation. In this case, doubt functions as honest self-examination as well as a constant  seeking of an understanding of Judaism that makes sense. 

Doubt demands great courage, because in doubt, one forfeits the security that comes from  “knowing how it is.” In order to welcome doubt into a process of deepening faith, a person  needs to find different source of security by which they move through the world. In this way,  the biblical/rabbinic mode of faith becomes important. 

Biblical/Rabbinic Faith 

Biblical/Rabbinic faith is belief in the God and Torah narrative as a description of one’s own  story. While medieval/philosophic faith deals with abstract thought and concepts, biblical/ rabbinic faith is personal and cannot be argued. While one expresses medieval/philosophic  faith with statement “I believe that…,” Biblical/rabbinic faith is expressed with the  statement “I believe in…I believe in the Creative Source of the Universe, I believe in the  Exodus from Egypt, I believe in the receiving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, I believe in the  coming of the Messiah.” My commitment to Jewish religious life is based in my sense of  relationship. For example, while one can rationally evaluate the merits and faults of any  member of my family, I feel love towards all of them because of the relationship we share. I  believe in our ongoing connection as a vital sustaining aspect of who I am. They are an  intimate part of my own narrative. Understanding and living my story with them is essential  to my ongoing understanding of who I am and what I am meant to do in this world. I could  choose not to believe in our relationship as being an essential part of who I am. I could  choose not to honor my mother and father. I could choose to do the bare minimum to  sustain my family while I engage in other pursuits. But I choose to have faith in our  relationships as being pregnant with meaning, support, connection, and growth. 

Biblical/Rabbinic faith is the belief in one’s relationship with the Torah as an essential part  of one’s very being. Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, Leah, Moses, Aaron,  David, and are not abstract ideas or characters in a story, but become part of one’s own  “family.” When one believes in Torah, one believes that engagement with this relationship is  an expression of who one is. Like any relationship, one does not have to always agree. And  Abraham did not always agree with God, Moses did not always agree with God, the rabbis  did not always agree with each other. But they were committed to the relationship. They  had faith in the relationship as an everflowing source of meaning, support, connection, and  growth. The rabbis describe the Torah as a “tree of life to all who cling to it.” Contrary to  the medieval/philosophic view of faith, this was not a solely rational endeavor. One does not  have to experience congruence of thought in order to be committed to the relationship. In  fact, in Biblical/Rabbinic faith, one could experience profound incongruence and paradox. 

Unlike the positive role of doubt in medieval/philosophic faith, the role of doubt in biblical/ rabbinic faith is negative. Doubt is negative in this faith because it threatens to severe the  relationship. There are rabbinic commentaries that link Amalek, the biblical arch-enemy of  Israel with doubt. Both the hebrew words Amalek and Safek(doubt) share the same gematria  – expressing the idea that doubt is a person’s greatest enemy on the path of spiritual growth.  This is not the doubt of ideas or concepts, but the doubt of relationship. When one  experiences biblical/rabbinic doubt, one feels isolated and cut off. Once can feel isolated or  cut off from a greater power than oneself, or from a relationship with a tradition or people  as having the potential of endless meaning, support, connection, and growth. This doubt can  only be useful if through it’s pain, one finds greater commitment to the relationship.  Otherwise, it keeps a person from seeking a “deeper understanding.” In medieval/ philosophic faith, doubt is essential to the process of engaging a deeper understanding, but  here in biblical/rabbinic faith, it keeps a person from engaging at all. 

In personal relationships, doubt can be important. Sometimes, it is necessary to leave  certain kinds of relationship because after consistent pain and consistent efforts to repair painful ways of relating, an individual simply doesn’t believe in the relationship as a source  of support, connection, and growth anymore. However, while doubt that leads to decrease  in contact and lived relationship may be necessary in relationships with other people, it is  

different in a relationship with one’s very Source. It is better to take refuge in the Holy One, than to trust in man. (Ps.118:8) 

Integrating the Two Dimensions 

A life of meaningful faith needs both biblical/rabbinic and medieval/philosophic dimensions.  Its the personal commitment to the relationship expressed in biblical/rabbinic faith that  allows us to live with incongruence and paradox, to hang in through the difficult times in  order to go deeper. Its the positive role of doubt in medieval/philosophical faith that is the  mental tool necessary to not become caught in any particular limited way of seeing the  world. In personal relationships, mental doubt and critical discernment allow us to set  boundaries around patterns of behavior that are not healthy for both parties. Belief “in” a  relationship, coupled with this discernment, allow us to together create new beliefs “that” describe a more supportive way of relating. 

For most of us, a faith for our time in a post-modern world needs the medieval/philosophic  quest for congruence between Jewish religious thought and our modern perspective in order  to discover a biblical/rabbinic faith. In a global world with so many choices, we need to find  a way for Jewish religious choices make sense with our current perspective. And yet, if we  don’t discover the personal commitment to relationship expressed in biblical/rabbinic faith  we will find it difficult to either stay with the frustration of incongruence or shake us out of  our complacency of perceived congruence. 

While medieval/philosophic thinking may be an inroad for some to discover a biblical/ rabbinic faith, ultimately the biblical/rabbinic faith necessary to sustain religious life will  only come about through a choice for relationship. And the choice comes from a  recognition that God, Torah, and Israel are a part of one’s narrative, the Great Story, where  our unfolding life is a stitch in the larger tapestry. 

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