Faith is not a science, it’s an art

One of the most popular Jewish books published this year is All Who Go Do Not Return, by Shulem Deen. It belongs to a growing genre of memoirs written by ex-ultra Orthodox Jews. However, within this genre Shulem’s book stands out. Unlike others, it does not set out to dish the dirt on the ultra-Orthodox, but rather to tell of a personal journey involving loss of faith. Its tone is sad rather than angry. It is wistful and full of pathos. It is brutally honest, but never sensationalist. It absorbed me completely.

Deen spent his teen years and early adult life ensconced in the ultra-Orthodox cocoon that is Skver Hasidism. Yet, while to all outward appearances he was a pious Hasid, inside he had begun to question everything he had been taught. He wrestled mightily to cling to his faith but couldn’t. An important turning point in his story is when an old friend tried to convince him that Jewish belief and ritual practice is entirely rational. He gives Deen some Jewish outreach books to read, that purport to prove the existence of God and the veracity of the literal accounts of such biblical narratives as the Creation story and Noah’s Flood. Deen grasps at these books like a drowning man grasping at straw, but he is too clever. He sees right through the tired medieval proofs and circular arguments. This is essentially what pushes him over the edge and propels his journey out of religious belief and practice altogether.

While it is impossible to predict what Deen’s journey might have looked like otherwise, the fact that it was triggered by the discovery that Judaism isn’t entirely rational and logical is particularly tragic. Why should one suppose that Judaism, or any faith for that matter, is logical? Why do so many outreach rabbis and educators expend so much energy trying to prove the veracity of Judaism? Proof, cold logic and objective rationality are tools for the laboratory they are simply not suited to the realm of faith, they are too blunt. Science is linear, deductive and logical. Faith is circular, inductive and intuitive.

The Jamaican poet Kei Miller captures beautifully the dichotomy between hard ascertainable facts and deeply held intuitive beliefs in a series of poems entitled “The Cartographer Tries to Map a Way to Zion.” Zion in the Rastafarian context is Jamaica, a mysterious land where history, folk religion and landscape are inextricably linked in a way that is coherent only to her natives. When a European cartographer sets out to map this elusive land by imposing his own logic and scientific framework, he learns that his methods are simply not suited to capturing its essence. The poems are structured as a dialogue between the cartographer and the Rastaman. The following two poems give a flavour of this dialogue: 

 The cartographer says

No –

What I do is science. I show

The earth as it is, without bias.

I never fall in love. I never get involved

With the muddy affairs of a land.

Too much passion unsteadies the hand.

I am to show the full

Of a place in just a glance.


The rastaman thinks, draw me a map of what you see

Then I will draw a map of what you never see

And guess me whose map will be bigger than whose?

Guess me whose map will tell the larger truth?

Our problem is that we have bought into the notion that scientific proof is the only measure against which faith may be judged, and in desperately trying to make the case that it measures up, we have allowed faith’s unique truth to slip from our grasp. We approach religion with the same cocksure attitude of the cartographer and this blinds us to the larger truth.

Take the Genesis creation account for example. Much energy has been expended in trying to harmonize science with the literal reading that God created the universe in six units of twenty-four hours. Not only is the fruit of such efforts intellectually flawed, the effort itself is a colossal waste of time as it misses the entire point of the story. The novelty of the story of Genesis, as set against other Near Eastern creation myths, is not about how long it took God to create the world but that unlike other gods, He is not susceptible to the laws of nature, but rather the creator and master of nature. This truth is far more interesting and compelling than how long it took for the universe to emerge. It is also a truth that cannot be proven or disproven as it does not belong to the realm of science. This in no way diminishes its value and its influence in shaping our lives.

The same goes for the proofs for God’s existence. Many of these proofs are essentially medieval with some minor modern tweaking and, not surprisingly, to many they are just not compelling. Here again, proving God’s existence is to expend energy in the wrong direction. That there is a God who created the universe and cares about how we behave is simply beyond the realm of science. It can neither be proved nor disproved. God is not a proposition. God is experienced in relationship. And unless one is standing within this relationship it cannot be comprehended. Arguing about God’s existence will take you in circles. Committing to a relationship with Him is the only way to experience the truth of His existence and presence. The biblical account of the giving of the Torah has the Israelites declare “We will do and we will hear” (Exodus 24:7), intimating that when it comes to faith doing precedes and leads to understanding. Anslem of Canterbury captured this succinctly: Credo ut Intelligam “I believe so that I may understand.” Many Hasidic masters voiced similar sentiments.

Faith is not rational. That does not mean it is irrational, but rather that it is arational. It simply does not lend itself to rational analysis. It’s time we stopped apologising for this and instead embrace faith on its own terms. This requires a new mindset and an open heart. It will undoubtedly  result in a faith that is more robust, compelling and relevant to our lives.

About the Author
Rabbi Dr Naftali Brawer is the Neubauer Executive Director at Tufts Hillel, and Jewish Chaplain at Tufts University.