My father, a”h, passed away suddenly and young. At the cemetery in Israel, a small crowd of his and his family’s friends had gathered, and a rebbe of mine suggested I speak, to give those who had come out of respect for other members of my family some sense of whom we had lost.
I spoke about the gift of faith he gave me, a gift I can attach to a very specific moment. I will share that moment here, but not because I expect it to transfer to you. In fact, the opposite—I have told the story more than once, and find that it emphatically does not move others the way it did me.
That might be a function of my storytelling abilities, but it more likely stems from the fact that our road to faith is necessarily personal. What I hope to do here is suggest a road map for how we can each find our own way to the kind of sustaining faith that must underlie our relationship with the Holy One, Blessed Be He. The path to that road map runs through a review of a couple of personal stories of the road to faith.
Kierkegaard: The Leap of Faith
We start with Kierkegaard, whose formulation of a leap of faith has become so clichéd that we may forget to wrestle with what it demands. He wrote in the context of the Akedah, the Binding of Isaac, but his idea that faith demands a leap, a relinquishing of our intellectual faculties to accept ideas and claims beyond our ken, remains an important part of the puzzle.
The idea leaves at least two problems. There’s the question of how much to leap; in a world in which some people profess a faith in that which seems to us literally unbelievable (such as, perhaps, a belief that the world is literally 5774 years old, in the face of seemingly well-established evidence to the contrary), and some deny faith completely, many of us find the leap too vague, and others’ version of that leap too off-putting to imagine acting that way ourselves.
But the more important problem, I think, is that positing the need for a leap, doesn’t show us how to do it. If I find myself without faith, and lost on how to move from there, telling me to leap isn’t helpful. How do I get my leg muscles to push me from the ground into the air?
From where shall that faith be found?
R. Lichtenstein’s Answer
In 1992, the OU’s Jewish Action published a symposium with many Jewish leaders’ answers about the source of their faith. The answer of my Rosh Yeshiva at Har Etzion, R. Lichtenstein, has always stuck with me. In a piece he titled “The Source of Faith is Faith Itself,” he spoke of his three rebbeim, R. Hutner of Chaim Berlin, the Rav, and R. Ahron Soloveitchik, zt”l, each of whom were models of faith in their own ways.
Not having known any of the three in the way he did, his actual answer helps us very little, but begins to show us a way. For R. Lichtenstein, these models were crucial. For me, in my own way, my father was crucial. Allow me to share that story and then show what I think the common denominator tells us about where to look for our opening to faith.
Standing at Sinai
It was a random moment in my teen years (if there are random moments in those years). I was sitting at the breakfast table in my parents’ kitchen, and my father was standing in the refrigerator/oven/ dishwasher area, near the snack cabinet, probably with a mug in hand.
I don’t recall what made me think to ask, but I said, “What makes you believe in all this?” I was curious, not rebellious or challenging, and he answered in that spirit. He said (without quoting the Kuzari who said it before him) that he believed because his father had told him that his father had told him that his father had told him that we stood at Sinai, and saw with our own eyes, and heard with our own ears, that Hashem gave the Torah to Moshe.
There are various versions of what happened at Sinai, and the tradition about Sinai implies a similar direct link to the Exodus and the Splitting of the Sea. But that’s what he said to me. It worked for me, and has stayed with me ever since. Maybe because it was my own father telling me, initiating me into a family tradition, and I felt that connection.
It doesn’t work for others. Among the many with whom I’ve shared that story, only to have them dismiss it as insufficient to clear or quell their doubts, I remember two young men, studying in yeshiva at the time, who responded, “Yeah, but it would be nice to have archaeological evidence.”
What Convinces Us?
That captured the crux of the challenge. How does a person for whom archaeological evidence is more reliable than related tradition find his or her way to faith? If the model of rebbeim doesn’t work, if the sense of generational connection doesn’t work, what will?
I think I have an idea about where each of us can look: look for that which will convince you we don’t know everything, and can’t know everything. Our generation in particular–although some have felt this way in every period in history– fancies itself able to understand everything, if only we put in enough time. Scientific studies, many of us assume, will eventually peel back any curtains hiding the essence of the universe.
Mark Kec offered what has become a famous distinction between practical and magical geniuses. Practical geniuses are those whose greater intelligence we recognize, but leave a gap between us and them that we can imagine bridging, if only we had more intelligence, time, and effort. Magical geniuses leave us without a clue as to how they do what they do.
Especially those of us who are intelligent, who are used to understanding quickly and intuitively, we prefer to think of the world as practically difficult to understand. But I suggest we have to find the way to let ourselves realize that it is actually magically different than we can understand (in the Kec-ian sense of magical), that we cannot fully understand it essentially, and will never be able to.
That’s the leap: accepting that in some areas—and we can differ on how broad or narrow that might be—we have to relinquish our need to believe we can master the world, and instead accept what tradition tells us. The question for each of us is, what will take us to that realization, the realization that allows for faith?
Instead of an answer, I offer, I hope, a better formulated question. With Shavuot upon us, the memory of my father a”h’s answer about Sinai (and of that Chanukkah night at the cemetery in Beit Shemesh) is more alive for me than usual. I offer my story, and some others stories, in the hopes that we each find our way to a rediscovery of the faith so vital to a healthy relationship with our Creator, the Master of the Universe, our Father in Heaven.