The Unexamined Faith

Last week my daughter Liav leapt off our bed when I wasn’t looking and landed head-first on the floor. She had a big bump on her forehead and she was bleeding from both nostrils for quite a long time. I took her to Terem, the emergency clinic, and after an hour of waiting to be seen, the doctor announced that she was fine. “Thank God, thank God,” I said instinctively – these were the only words I could manage at that moment. The doctor told me to sit in the waiting room for an hour so they could make sure that she did not vomit or lose consciousness in the aftermath of her injury, but I knew by then that she was going to be okay. I sat in the waiting room reciting all the psalms I knew by heart — not because this is what I thought Judaism demanded of me, but because I was so full of relief and gratitude that the words of Psalms were, at that moment, the language of my heart.
            In moments of extreme emotion, I have always turned to God. I don’t think of myself as a person of deep faith, because it seems less a matter of credo than a manner of speaking: Religious language is the way I give voice to feelings too powerful to contain. When I am too anguished or depressed to do anything else, I open the siddur and pray. When something wonderful happens or I am miraculously spared from disaster, I instinctively thank God. “But how do you know God exists? How can you be sure?” In college my hallmates and I would stay up late engaged in long discussions about Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and whether agnosticism is indeed the most intellectually honest stance. I suppose that is the luxury that college affords – endless nights to engage with ideas on a purely theoretical level, without worrying about waking up for a job or being awoken by a baby who was dropped on her head when her mother was surely distracted by similar musings. These days I rarely think about what I believe and why – not just because I do not have the time, but because such thoughts seem irrelevant to my daily Jewish practice.
            It is commonly thought that Judaism cares less about what Jews believe than about what they do. This is the oft-cited dichotomy between Judaism and Christianity, a religion based on faith rather than works, at least as it was originally conceived. But tractate Sanhedrin shows that what we believe is very much relevant, and certain beliefs can place us beyond the pale. The question arises in the broader context of the tractate as a whole, as well as the two tractates that follow, Makkot and Shevuot, all of which are concerned with courtroom procedure. After discussing the types of courts and the basics of judicial proceedings, the Talmud turns to the four forms of capital punishment—stoning, strangling, execution (by sword), and burning—and the sins that would render the individual liable for each. The final chapter discusses those sins that are so grave that they deny the individual a place in the world to come. These sins are primarily lapses of faith. Thus a place in the world to come is denied to anyone who denies the divinity of Torah, or denies that the dead will be revived (90a).
            These are both fundamental tenets of my own faith, however unexamined that faith may be. (And the unexamined faith, I maintain, is still worth having.) I believe that Torah is divine. For me this does not mean that God handed the entire written and oral Torah to Moses on Mount Sinai, as some more “traditional” Jews would have it. Or perhaps I should say that to the extent that God handed the written and oral Torah to Moses, that act was a metaphor for the way our tradition developed. I believe that Sinai is the human record of an encounter with God. As a human record, this document is historically contingent: It was written at a particular historical moment, and reflects the biases of its time. This record had to be adapted to later generations, both in terms of changing historical circumstances and in terms of changing theological understandings. Those adaptations are known as midrash – the creative reworking and retelling of Biblical law and narrative so as to render it ever-relevant. I remember learning in fifth grade about the difference between natural numbers and rational numbers. (I apologize to any mathematicians reading this essay, since I recognize that the terms may have changed in the last thirty years, but this is how it was explained to me in fifth grade.) Natural numbers are integers: 1,2,3… Rational numbers are all the decimal points in between, including 1.1, 1.12, 1.23378. Both sets are infinite, but only the rational numbers are infinitely dense, meaning that there are an infinite number of rational numbers between any two rational numbers. I think of Torah and midrash in similar terms. Between any two words—or occasionally even letters—in the Torah, there are an infinite number of midrashim, or reinterpretations, that are possible. The letters or the written Torah are fixed and unchanging, but new midrashim are written every day, and Torah resonates anew with each human encounter, each sermon, each d’var Torah, each academic article in Jewish studies. The Talmud famously states that the sage Nahum Ish Gamzu  could come up with a midrash on every “et” in the Torah. The word “et” is so insignificant that it is untranslatable; it is more a grammatical placeholder than a signifier of meaning.  And yet even the most minor word in the Torah can be adorned with crowns upon crowns of midrashic elaboration.
            The Talmud in Sanhedrin (99a) explains that it is not just someone who denies the divinity of Torah who is not granted a place in the world to come, but even someone who denies the divinity of any single verse in the Torah. I can identify with the impulse to deny certain verses; obviously there are parts of the Torah that are more problematic to my modern, egalitarian, pluralistic self. But I see no reason to excise particular verses because midrash offers us such a ready “way out.” Yes, there is an ancient and respected midrashic tradition that must be taken into account. But Torah is “infinitely dense,” and I have faith in our creative reading strategies. There is a fine line, I recognize, between extolling the creative possibilities of midrash and declaring that Torah can say anything we want it to say. But I believe too much in the former to allow the fear of the latter hold me back.
            The other lapse of faith identified in Sanhedrin as being so grave as to deny a person a place in the world to come is the sin of saying that there is no basis in the Torah for the notion of the revival of the dead. As the Talmud explains, this is a case of the punishment fitting the crime; surely any person who does not believe in an afterlife in which the dead will be revived should be denied a place in that afterlife. Even so, the Talmudic rabbis are hard-pressed to prove that there is mention of the afterlife in the Torah, since it is nowhere explicitly stated. One of several far-fetched proofs cited is the verse in which God tells Moses, “And I will fulfill my promise to them [the forefathers] to give them the land of Canaan” (Exodus 6:4). Since it says “to them” it must be that God will revive the forefathers after death so as to give them the land of Canaan. This is one of those cases when I raise my eyebrows while learning daf yomi and shrug, in awe once again at the ability of the midrashic imagination to find new ways of reading Biblical verses.
For me, the revival of the dead is simply another way of saying that this world is not all there is. What we see is not all of what we get. Or, as Herman Hesse wrote in Steppenwolf, “All we who think too much and have a dimension too many could not contend to live at all if there were not another world, if there were not eternity in the back of time.” Given all the injustice and oppression in our world–given all the bad things that happen to good people, to paraphrase the title of a book that my father always seemed to be reading when we were growing up–I must believe that there is another realm in which the scales of justice are recalibrated. This does not absolve me of the responsibility to pursue justice in this world, and indeed, I regard the messianic era as more of a challenge to humanity to pursue our ideals than as a divine promise that these ideals will someday be realized. And it seems that the Talmud does not disagree, at least according to one famous story in tractate Sanhedrin (98a).
The Talmud tells of Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi who once asked the prophet Elijah when the Messiah would arrive. “Ask him,” said Elijah, and he directed Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi to the gates of Rome, where the Messiah sat among the sick and wretched changing the bindings of his wounds. Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi set off to Rome to meet the Messiah and ask him when he would come. The Messiah responded, “Today.” Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi returned to Elijah and told him that the Messiah had promised to come that day, but had not held true to his promise. Elijah explained that the Messiah was in fact quoting a verse from Psalms: “Today, if you will heed His voice” (Psalms 95:7). That is, the Messiah will come the very same day that people do God’s work in the world. This work seems to involve sitting among the sick and wretched at the gates of the city and the margins of society, helping them find healing. The notion of the Messiah, then, is a metaphor for the redeemed world to which we aspire. The world will not be redeemed when the Messiah comes; rather, the Messiah will come when we redeem the world.
And so I believe in the messianic era and in the divinity of Torah, at least according to my midrashic understanding of these fundamental tenets of faith. But at the same time, I do not subject my faith to the rigorous scrutiny of the philosopher or the theologian – or the intellectually precocious teenager. I spent three summers teaching in an elite high school program for North American Jewish teenagers visiting Israel. The students would stay up all night unweaving the rainbow, asking the same questions about agnosticism and faith that had preoccupied me during my late nights in the college dorm. In the morning, when they came to class, they would press me to help them tease out the answers for themselves: “If the Torah is not divine, then why do we bother keeping the commandments?” Or: “How can I live my life by the Torah when the Torah calls my sexual practice an abomination?” Or: “How can I believe in Biblical miracles given our modern scientific understanding of the world?” These are all good questions, but how could I explain to my earnest and deeply troubled students that these questions no longer plague me? It is not that when we grow up, we stop thinking critically, or that we miraculously find all the answers. But on some level, as Rilke puts it, we learn to live our way into the answers in a way that does not stop us from going on with the rest of our lives.
Does religion contract science? Are the miracles of the Bible scientifically impossible? To my mind, these questions reflect a categorical mistake, because religion and science belong to two completely separate realms. I look to science to answer how the world was created, and to religion to answer why the world was created. Science can tell me if the universe is expanding or contracting, but only religion can inspire me to connect to other people in meaningful ways so that the universe does not seem so vast and lonely. I do not question my faith or subject it to rigorous scientific analysis because the proof is in the pudding, or in the Shabbat kugel: My life is richer and more meaningful because I am in an ongoing relationship with God. I perform mitzvot because they are my way of engaging in that relationship. A mitzvah, as articulated by theologian Arthur Green, is a man-made opportunity to encounter the divine: Saying a blessing before eating is a way of involving God in the meal, and praying in the morning is a way of infusing the day with holiness. Whenever possible, I try not to pass up those opportunities. Granted, not every mitzvah offers an obvious path to God, but I have enough faith in the system as a whole to suspend my doubt about some of its particulars. I believe that the more I live my life in accordance with God’s commandments, the more I will feel God’s presence in my life. Conversely, the more I doubt and question and run away from the tradition, the farther away God will seem. And so just as each morning I wake up and lift up the shades to let the sun stream in to my bedroom, I also try, each day, to open the gates of my heart and let God in.
And I try, too, to seek out the spark of God in others. One of the greatest gifts that Judaism gave to the world is the notion that human beings are created in the image of God. This is lesson I first learned at a very young age by witnessing my father’s interactions with the synagogue custodian. The custodian, whose name was Moses, was a slight Hispanic man who spoke broken English. Each Shabbat after the last congregants lingering over the remaining stale cookies and plastic cups of grape juice had gone home, my father would ask Moses about his family, his week, his health. He would remember what Moses had told him the previous week and ask follow-up questions, a sign that he had cared enough truly to listen. I was impatient to get home to the roasted chicken and warm challah that my mother had prepared for lunch, and I’m sure my father was hungry too. But he always took the time to chat with Moses before we left the building, treating the custodian with the same dignity with which he engaged his congregants.  The Mishnah in Sanhedrin (37a) teaches that coins are all minted using a single stamp and come out identical to one another; but human beings are all created according to the same template as Adam, and yet no two human beings are identical to one another. For this reason, says the Mishnah, every human being can say, “The world was created for me.” Each person alone is sufficient grounds to create the world, and no one can say, as we learn later in Sanhedrin, “My blood is redder than yours” (74a). We are all created in the divine image, though some of us spend our lives leading congregations or countries, and others clean synagogue floors.
When I was in elementary school we used to take class pictures every year. The photographer would first take a picture of the class, and then each student would be called in for an individual portrait. Before taking the individual shot, the photographer would direct his assistant to try out various backgrounds to achieve the ideal contrast. First they hung up a white curtain behind me, but I looked too pale. Next they tried red, but that clashed with my pink dress. Then they tried a pale blue, and the photographer decided that yes, this was the best background for me. This strikes me as an appropriate metaphor for what it means to view all people as created in the divine image. Not everyone looks beautiful against every background, and not everyone shines in every context. But I believe that each person contains a spark of the divine, and so I remain confident that for each person there is a context in which he would stand out. Even if I never see that person in the context that would make him shine—even if I know the custodian only as the custodian—I treat him with respect and dignity because I am confident that such a context exists. My belief in the divine spark in every human being is a direct corollary of my belief in God, and it is just as fundamental to my faith.
One of my favorite children’s book authors, Madeline L’Engle, wrote in her memoir, “I believe in God because I cannot live my life as though I did not believe in God.” This is true for me as well. I cannot prove to the existence of God in a way that would satisfy Richard Dawkins or my teenage summer students. Likewise, I cannot explain why following each and every commandment has the effect of making me a better person and the world a better place. But the totality of living a life infused with fear of God and obedience to God’s laws has enriched me in ways I can only begin to fathom, and in moments of wonder and awe it seems impossible to conceive of a world without God. I do not know if this is sufficient to merit me a place in the world to come, but it is certainly sufficient to inspire me each day anew to make a place for God in this world.
הדרן עלך מסכת סנהדרין

3 thoughts on “The Unexamined Faith

  1. Maggie Anton says:

    That was an awesome post, in both or maybe more, senses of the word. I'm glad to hear that your baby is all right and that even with 3 small children you have the time to think about such deep subjects and then write so compellingly about them.


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