What Does Perfect Faith Mean?

It has long been considered the case in Judaism that there is no “catechism” that one needs to subscribe to in order to be a Jew. We are, for the most part, much more a community that measures a person’s commitment to the covenant by what he/she does– the mitzvot they perform- than one that cares about being able to say “I do” to a set of neatly and very specifically articulated beliefs.

There was, of course, one great Rabbinic sage — among the greatest, without a doubt- who challenged that truth, and that was Maimonides, known widely by the Hebrew acronym of his name, the Rambam. He authored– amongst many far more prolific and far-reaching Halachic works -– what came to be known as the Sh’losh Esrei Ikkarei Emunah, the thirteen articles of faith that a Jew is expected to subscribe to. The most famous of these thirteen, famously set to music, is the one that is said to have been on the lips of many traditional Jews as they were led to their deaths in Nazi concentration camps: Ani ma’amin be’emunah shleimah b’vi’at hamashiach. I believe with perfect faith in the coming of the Messiah, and even though he may tarry, I shall await him.

I translated be’emunah shleimah as “perfect faith” because that is the way the overwhelming number of translations of the Rambam’s formula render it. The Hebrew word “shleimah” is the adjectival feminine form of “shalem,” which means whole, or complete (quite possibly part of the root of Yerushalayim, the Hebrew name for Jerusalem, and obviously related to “shalom”). But I am wondering… is saying that one believes with a whole or complete faith the same thing as saying that one believes with a “perfect faith?”

There are a few reasons why I ask, not the least of which is rooted in that tradition of the Jews marching to their death with these words on their lips. It is hard enough for the mind – my mind, at least– to grasp what must have been going through the minds of Jews as they were being led to the gas chambers. But it is infinitely harder to imagine that even the most traditional among them were professing “perfect faith” in the God who so obviously was not able to save them from such a horrible fate. Far be it from me to cast doubt (as it were) on their faith and its sustaining power, but even in such extremis?

And in a related thought… do not the words “perfect faith” come perilously close to being an oxymoron? Faith, without any adjectives, is the polar opposite of doubt. The two exist in a dialectical relationship with each other, with each one pulling the other closer to the opposing pole. Rare indeed is the person of faith who never struggles with doubt, and equally rare is the doubter who never experiences moments when the possibility of faith seems improbably accessible. Faith and doubt need each other to complete the belief experience. The way that I see it, and always have, the person of faith lives with doubt as a constant presence, but that is not a bad thing as much as it is a natural one. Faith without doubt is not only incomplete; it is potentially flawed, and even dangerous.

I grew up in the Yeshiva world, where, in the 50’s and 60’s of the last century, doubt on matters religious was not something that one admitted to in Yeshiva even if its presence was real and palpable. Given that the period of time I’m referring to was barely twenty years after the Shoah that is certainly a remarkable statement, but it simply was not on the curricular chart of anyone that I was exposed to. I am sure that there are, today, places in that world where doubt is dealt with more charitably, and that is all for the good. But the reality for me as a child was that it wasn’t. Doubt meant lack of faith, and that was a sign that you were in some way deficient. As I’ve written in different contexts for different reasons, the ability to validate doubt as an intrinsic component of faith was an important component part of why I ultimately migrated from Orthodoxy to the Conservative movement.

To this day, I remain skeptical and even more than a little suspicious of people of faith who profess to have no doubt– who claim “perfect faith.” It remains hard for me to know exactly what that means. The capacity to experience doubt is what grounds the person of faith in the complex realities of this world, as opposed to seeing religion as providing the perfect and unassailable answer to every problem that one might encounter.

This is not, by any means, an exclusively Jewish issue. We can easily point to Christian and Muslim fundamentalists for whom doubt as a religious concept simply does not exist. Sadly, we have seen the implications of that reality when they are carried to their most extreme outer limits. People who have no doubt, who are completely convinced that they know God’s will and those who might differ from them are in error, are not a benign force in the religious world. We have seen what happens when that certainty carries over into the political sphere. Terrible things can happen.

It is worth noting that the Rambam’s articulation of the Thirteen Articles of Faith was not universally welcomed within the Jewish world. One has the sense even now, as some did then, that we are a better and healthier religious community when our tent is opened wide, as opposed to when it restricted to those who would follow a certain version of the truth. Yes, any version of Judaism that subscribes to the rule of Halacha is, to some degree, exclusionary. But that is the exact place that we come to one of the central issues of contemporary Judaism: how does Halacha continue to evolve, assuming that it does, and how open is it to multiple interpretations?

No matter how one chooses to respond to those incredibly complicated and important questions, one thing is for sure. Faith and doubt are indispensable components of the answer. Not being sure is not a sign of weakness; it is a sign of intellectual candor, and courage. If doubt never accompanies faith, then surely, something crucial is missing from the discussion.

About the Author
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the Rabbi Emeritus of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.