Jeffrey Radon
Jeffrey Radon

What is true faith?

I think that it would be fair to say that in the Western world the concept most associated with religion would be the concept of faith or belief in God.  However, if one takes a concordance (index) of the Hebrew Bible, one will see, shockingly, that the Hebrew term faith or belief hardly appears in the Torah (the 5 Books of Moses), as a constitution of the Jewish people, and the few places where the term does appear are not passages that stand out as being of great importance.  The term faith or belief in God is absent from the story of the binding of Isaac in which Abraham is described as a God fearing person (Genesis 22, 12), and not as person of faith or belief.  The concept of fear of God in the Bible is orthoprax (behavioral) rather than orthodox (theological) in nature, and is a feeling of the heart (a moral character trait) expressing itself in moral behavior as reflected in the verse from the Book of Proverbs (8, 12) – “the fear of the Lord is to hate evil”.  The term faith or belief is likewise absent from the ten statements – and the term ten commandments is a misnomer as the term in the Bible is ten statements (Deuteronomy 4, 13).  The religious terms that appear in the ten statements (Exodus 20, 5) are orthoprax (behavioral) in nature rather than orthodox (theological) – to serve and to bow down (or to worship).

The Torah and Hebrew Bible are completely absent of any systematic theological and philosophic analysis and argument.  This is not to say that the Torah and Bible do not present theological and philosophic ideas.  The Torah and Bible present us with many important and remarkable theological and philosophical ideas and conceptions; however, the ideas and conceptions of the Torah and Bible are not presented as part of, or as the result of, systematic philosophic analysis and argument.  The ideas and conceptions of the Torah and Bible are presented poetically and literarily – in the main, as reflected in stories, or in other non-philosophic material of the Biblical literature (and even reflected in legal material as well).  Even the two books of the Bible that stand out as seemingly responding to philosophic questions – the Book of Job and the Book of Ecclesiastes – do not contain any systematic, philosophic analysis and argument whatsoever, and are strikingly similar to modern existentialist literature in this regard.  The Book of Job is written in the form of a long, extended poem, probably the worst form that could be chosen for clarifying and analyzing philosophic questions and issues.  Similarly, the Book of Ecclesiastes, containing no systematic analysis or argument, is written in an artistic rather than philosophic form (filled with internal contradictions, the antithesis of systematic philosophic analysis and clarification).

The Torah and Hebrew Bible present us with no arguments of a philosophic nature attempting to demonstrate or prove the existence of God, nor philosophic analysis concerning the nature of God – and, there is no binding theological dogma in the Hebrew Bible (and the Talmudic rabbis did not codify a binding dogma).  Maimonides (the great legal scholar and philosopher of the 12th century), who is the first and only thinker in the Jewish tradition to codify a binding theological dogma as a matter of law (in codifying his “13 Principles of Faith”), opens his law code with arguments attempting to demonstrate, or provide support for, the existence of God because his conception of faith is philosophic and propositional – and thus the philosophic proposition that God exists must be demonstrated or supported by philosophic arguments attempting to prove or suggest the existence of God.  By contrast, in the Biblical conception, the existence of God in a theological or philosophic sense is simply not a concern, and philosophic arguments demonstrating the existence of God are superfluous – for, the essence of Biblical religion is not the demonstration or teaching of philosophic propositions, but moral character and moral action that is seen as the fulfillment of the moral will of God (whether or not God actually exists from a philosophic or metaphysical point of view).  Philosophic knowledge or belief is simply not an essential element of a religious life in the Biblical conception.

The term faith appears as a central, religious concept in the Hebrew Bible only in the Book of Psalms (where the term is used along with other synonyms such as trust).  Yet, in the Book of Psalms, characteristic of the Bible in general, the concept of faith in God is used in a psychological, anti-theological and behavioral (orthoprax) sense (in which faith is a matter of moral character necessarily expressing itself in proper behavior, or in an optimistic attitude) as opposed to a theological (orthodox) conception (in which faith is in the sense of philosophic belief abstract and divorced from behavior).

It is thus a misconception that the concept of faith is unimportant in an orthoprax conception of religion, such as that of the Hebrew Bible.  In an orthoprax conception of religion, such as that of the Bible, the essence of religion is moral character and moral behavior as reflected in the verse – “You shall do that which is right and good in the eyes of the Lord”(Deuteronomy 6, 18).  Faith is not the essence of Biblical religion, but the concept is nevertheless important and, as I have indicated, a central concept in the Book of Psalms.

I want to distinguish between two kinds of faith – faith in an orthodox (correct belief) sense, characteristic of the ancient Greek culture that so emphasized reason and intellect; and, faith in an orthoprax (correct deeds) sense, characteristic of the Hebrew Bible that so emphasizes moral character and moral action.  Faith in an orthodox sense is philosophical or propositional in nature, such as Maimonides’ codification of a binding theological dogma.  Philosophic or propositional (orthodox) faith is expressed in the adoption of philosophic propositions that are held, known or believed to be true, implying a conception of religion in which the essence of religion is knowledge or belief in an abstract intellectual sense, as opposed to action.  By contrast, faith in an orthoprax sense is psychological or experiential in nature, such as the Biblical conception.  In the Biblical conception, God is conceived not only as a God of creation but most importantly as a moral God who demands morality; and, faith in the Biblical conception is in the psychological sense of trust, loyalty and commitment (matters of the heart rather than reason), which expresses itself in good deeds (constituting the service of God) implying that the essence of religion is moral character and moral action.

Faith, in a philosophic (orthodox) sense, is an end in itself divorced from action in that the adoption of correct propositions does not necessarily express itself in proper behavior.  One may know (be convinced) or believe that God exists and yet act in an immoral manner; conversely, one may know (be convinced) or believe that God does not exist and yet act in a righteous manner.  Psychological (orthoprax) faith, by contrast, is not an end but a means to achieve the greater goal of proper behavior.  Such faith necessarily expresses itself in the greater goal of proper actions revealing psychological and moral character.  Thus, if one declares that he or she believes in God, and yet acts immorally, the immoral actions are testimony that such a person does not truly believe in God in an experiential and psychological sense of the heart.  Such a person may declare philosophically that he or she believes in God, but moral character (in distinction to philosophic knowledge or belief) constituting faith in a psychological sense of the heart is truly revealed only in actions and not philosophic declarations.  Conversely, if one declares that he or she does not believe in God, and yet acts morally, the moral actions are testimony that such a person does truly believe in God in an experiential and psychological sense of the heart.  Such a person may declare philosophically that he or she does not believe in God, but moral character (faith in a psychological sense of the heart) is truly revealed in actions and not philosophic declarations.

For example, in the story of the midwives in the Book of Exodus, the righteous behavior of the midwives in refusing to carry out the immoral command of Pharaoh, King of Egypt to murder Israelite male children, makes them worthy of being described by the Torah (Exodus 1, 17) as displaying fear of God.  The concept of fear of God (a feeling or moral character trait of the heart), a central religious concept of the Bible, reflects the very same Biblical paradigm of religion as the concept of faith in God – a psychological-behavioral (orthoprax) paradigm in which the essence of religion is moral character and moral action.  Therefore, the midwives in displaying fear of God can likewise be seen as displaying true faith in God (in a psychological sense of the heart) as well.  Their theological and philosophic beliefs are simply not a concern in the passage.  It is clear that it is their righteous behavior, in spite of whatever philosophic beliefs they held (even if they believed in a pantheon of gods from a philosophic point of view), that provides the testimony, according to the Torah, that they are truly religious people in displaying the fear of God – and true faith in God in a psychological and experiential sense as well (regardless of their theological beliefs).

I once sat next to a retired judge in Israel at a wedding, who was a survivor of the Nazi Holocaust.  We struck up a conversation, and when I told him that I was a student and teacher in a Yeshiva (study academy) although I grew up without basic Jewish education divorced from Jewish tradition, he responded by emphasizing the differences between us in telling me that he came from a religious background of observance of Jewish law and traditional ritual practice, but that he had abandoned a traditional religious lifestyle and is no longer religious.  He explained that following the Nazi Holocaust he could no longer believe in God.

Rather than focusing upon differences between us (in terms of lifestyle and philosophic outlook) I attempted to bridge the gap between us in telling him that although I respect his defining of himself as not religious, and defining of himself as lacking faith in God, I respectfully disagree with his conception of what it means to be religious as well as his conception of faith.  I explained that while I understand that according to his own conception of being religious he may not consider himself to be religious; nonetheless, in my eyes, as a judge (contributing so much to Israeli society), as a morally upstanding person and in maintaining an optimistic attitude allowing him to not only to continue living but to contribute so much to others after all that he suffered and witnessed during the Holocaust he (even though not observant of Jewish law or traditional ritual practice, and even though not believing in the existence of God) exemplifies what it means to be truly religious in the Biblical conception – and, in explaining to him such a conception, I pointed out that in the Biblical conception he not only is not lacking faith in God but that he exemplifies (in his moral character, moral life and optimistic attitude) what it means to truly believe (in the heart) in God experientially (and to truly be religious) regardless of his philosophic beliefs (and even though he is not observant of Jewish law or traditional ritual practice).

Note – I am the author of a recently published book on the nature of the Hebrew Bible and Biblical theology, Reconciling a Contradictory Abraham – .

About the Author
Jeffrey Radon is a teacher of Jewish studies and the author of the internet site - - a site devoted to Jewish studies in a democratic spirit. He studied over 10 years in yeshivot in Israel. He has a teaching degree as a teacher of Jewish studies from Achva (brotherhood) College, a small secular teachers' college in Israel, and a master's degree in Jewish philosophy (from Bar Illan University in Israel). He also has a master's degree in educational psychology (from the Israeli branch of Northeastern University in the United States), as well as certification as a marriage counselor and mediator.
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