Jews don’t really have a word for faith. Faith is not a Jewish concept. It is absolute and universal and never up for reinterpretation. Jews believe, in the sense of being persuaded by coherent arguments and demonstrable proof. The proverbial leap of faith, a blind jump off the edge into the abyss, is just not something we do. We prefer to stand on solid ground.
אמונה (emuna) is the word we use to describe our belief in God and in Torah. אימון (imun) is the word we use for training. This is a fairly apt description of the Jewish modus vivendi: our belief is a work in progress. It is a life long journey of training one’s mind to fully understand past the point of doubt. We question and quibble, we analyze and debate. We do not have faith, we have holy doubt. Until we are convinced that there is a rational reason for every single little thing we do, we keep on questioning.
Our biblical role models were human and flawed. They too questioned, had lapses in their belief and sometimes even failed miserably. The miracles they performed were never theirs, they were always God’s. This is our tradition, our story. As Jews we recognize that we are flawed and that our greatest and most godly assets are knowledge and understanding. We are a stubborn, stiff-necked people who tend not to accept anything at face value. We have no word for faith.
Though I have not always accepted Judaism, I have always regarded God’s existence as self-evident. There must be a starting point to existence, a fulcrum from which the universe began its expansion. This point is God. Even believing in the Big Bang does not negate the existence of a perfect, eternal Being. After all, where did those gaseous vapors come from?
One need only watch the sky blaze pink and orange at sunset, sight a struggling cyclamen peeking out from under a rock, breathe and speak and write and love to know that God exists. But this Divine Watchmaker, the architect of our perfectly ordered world, is not the God of the Jews. That removed, detached deity in the machine is not the meddling, personal God that the Jews pray to. We see His presence in a cat that darts into the road, forcing us to brake just as a child runs out in front of our car. We see coincidence as divine intervention because it is more logically plausible.
Jews believe in a present God because we should not be here. We should have been wiped off the earth long before Spinoza, before Freud, before Einstein, before Buber. We shouldn’t be here in this land that has been conquered and burned. And yet against every possible odd, here we are. What choice does a Jew have but belief?
In every person’s life things happen that inexplicably change their course like a ship yielding to a sudden storm. Being fired from one job leads to being offered a superior position elsewhere, losing one great love is followed immediately by meeting a truer love, being late forces a loved one to miss the bus that explodes two stops down the road… these moments make us realize that God is there beside us, building the labyrinth of our lives moment by moment.
So God exists. He shapes history and intervenes in our lives. All of this is well and good, but what does it have to do with organized religion? Why not eat bacon and believe? What kind of an infinite Being would care if I went to a Radiohead concert on Friday night?What exactly is the deal with Yom Kippur; does being hungry make one holy?
To be honest, I still struggle with these questions. Nonetheless, I choose to live an Orthodox lifestyle. In our home we keep kosher, and we keep the Sabbath. We pray and learn Torah because it is our truth. The fabric of our daily life is richly embroidered by the threads of Jewish tradition. Why do I do it? Why do I choose to raise my kids this way?
There is a meditative practice in the yogic tradition called Trataka. The practitioner focuses their gaze on a single point, often the flame of a lit candle, in order gather and focus their consciousness. I think I practice Judaism as though its rituals were a flickering flame, gathering and directing my focus towards God. When I make a blessing on food I view it as a moment for mindful contemplation and gratitude. When I light Sabbath candles I take pause to ask for greater patience and kindness. When I emerge from the ritual waters I try to feel that I am emerging from a place of total purity and divinity. These practices are how many Orthodox Jews bring God closer to themselves, and how they offer themselves to God. By elevating even the basest human acts, we tip our yarmulkes and head scarves to the Creator and Navigator.
But does this translate into an absolute obligation to wedge oneself between the narrow straits of rabbinic law? Honestly, I’m really not sure. I cannot say with any certainty whether Orthodox Judaism is the right way for a Jew to live, or what form of Orthodoxy is superior. Maybe the way we observe the Sabbath is a complete misinterpretation. Maybe our dietary restrictions are truly just an advanced form of clean eating circa 1300 BCE. I have no deep insight into what God wants us to do, but I believe at the very least we ought to be kind and generous to one another. At the very least we should not use our religion to shame and castigate, to judge and condemn how others choose to live.
Judaism is not a religion of faith. It is a religion of analytical examination and rational argumentation. Everything we practice has been chiseled and etched and written in a multiplicity of forms. It is audacious to presume that there we could ever know the one right way; belief in God is necessarily a belief in human fallibility. Just as our greatest role models were flawed and often mistaken, how much more so are we?
Every choice I have made in my practice of Judaism has been fraught with doubt and questioning. While I rely on the interpretations of those more learned than myself, the final decision is always the one that brings me and my family closer to God and fosters greater love and empathy for others. I don’t believe that what I do is right, only that it is right for me.
Judaism is a long series of unresolved arguments with very few accepted basic premises: God IS. Be nice. Nearly everything else is exegesis.
I believe in God because I have been convinced beyond doubt. I practice Judaism because I believe it is right and true for me and my family. Beyond that I can’t be certain of anything. I believe, but I have no word for faith.