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FAITH, from a JEWISH Perspective

by Rabbi Lawrence Kushner

Faith, and by that I mean one’s ability to access the divine, does not seem to me to occupy the central place in Jewish spirituality that it does for Christianity. Sure faith is important, but acting, or pretending, like you have faith is not only more important but, fortunately, something over which most of us have at least some control. From a Jewish perspective, you can’t help what you believe. Sometimes you do; sometimes you don’t. (Ask me after the funeral of a child if I believe in God.) But you can help how you act.

This insight tends to make Judaism an overwhelmingly behaviorist tradition. It’s based on the premise that how one acts eventually determines how one comprehends the universe and ultimately what one believes. (“Look at that: I have been giving to charity for thirty years, I must believe in being generous!” etc.) But there’s something more. Because faith, from a Jewish viewpoint, must necessarily come and go, it is rarely understood in simple binary terms: I believe; I don’t believe. Indeed one of my revered professors, the late Dr. Samuel Sandmel, used to warn us in his southern drawl, “Gentlemen [in those days it was only men], if you don’t seriously doubt the existence of God every few weeks, you are theologically comatose.” The result of this approach is a spectrum running from perfect faith (which hardly anyone has for more than a short time) to no faith (which, alas, is true for most of us all too often) but, and this is the key, also includes a vast spectrum in between. You could call it faith states of proximity and distance.

I once led a discussion with a dozen Jewish adolescents. I asked them if they believed in God, figuring I’d get an even split and a good discussion. But, to my chagrin, they all said, no. I was crushed, devastated. I remember thinking, “So it’s come to this: three thousand years of piety and struggle for a bunch of obnoxious, suburban teen-age brats who don’t believe in God!” I did the pedagogic equivalent of dropping back a few yards to punt and changed the topic. Fifteen minutes later, however, it occurred to me to ask a similar question. “By the way,” I said, “how many of you have been close to God.” And, so help me God, every one of them raised his or her hand. Curious, I pushed on. “Tell me when.” And, one by one, they ticked off a Jewish experience of faith: “Last night when my mother lit the Sabbath candles and she got that teary look in her eyes, I was close”; “Last year, when my grandfather died, I was very sad, but I felt close”; “Last week, my father wanted me to help him and I didn’t feel like it, but I helped him anyway.”

We Jews drift back and forth between proximity to God and feeling distant. We rarely have moments of unquestioning intimacy nor, thank God, moments of certain atheism. We are near; we are far; but most of the time, we are somewhere in between. Always in motion. Wondering about how our behavior affects our faith this week, this day, this hour. So it goes.

Copyright ©2004 Rabbi Lawrence Kushner



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