Reasonable Doubts Blog

Poker anyone? (some thoughts for Rosh Hashanah)

Posted in Defining faith, holidays by Cheryl Berman on the September 6th, 2010

I’ll never forget the college paper I wrote on Kant’s critique of the Ontological Argument. St. Anselm conceived of the argument after much contemplation and prayer and it was based completely on reason. It went something like this: If I can conceive of a being than which no greater being can be conceived then this being must exist – because if it did not exist then another being than which no greater being can be conceived and which did exist – can be conceived – but this would be absurd. Nothing can be greater than a being than which nothing greater can be conceived! (Read it over a couple of times. It took me a few minutes too!) Technicalities aside, The Ontological argument was to become the subject of extensive debate over the course of the next few centuries as were the other proofs for the existence of God: the Argument from Design, Cosmological argument, Moral argument etc. The end result was a draw. Nobody can prove the existence of God, but nobody can disprove the existence of God either as Gutting pointed out a few weeks ago in the New York Times with his rebuttals of Dawkin’s attempts . The fact is religion was simply not meant to be decided over in a debate.

This point is brought out beautifully in an essay by Professor Nathan Aviezer (physics professor at Bar Illan). The essay is about the Anthropic Principle, a modern version of the argument from design which states that “1) very slight changes in the laws of nature would have made it impossible for life to exist, and 2) human life would not have been possible were it not for the occurrence in the past of a large number of highly improbable events. “ Professor Aviezer provides three examples of the Anthropic theory: A) If the nuclear force of nature would be only slightly weaker or slightly stronger the sun would either not shine or would explode. B) The earth is the perfect distance from the sun to support life. If it would have been slightly closer or slightly farther life would not have been possible. c)The fact that a meteor destroyed the dinosaurs by seemingly random luck allowed for mammal life to survive. What’s more, apparently the impact of the meteor had to be of a very specific strength to cause the exact amount of damage necessary to allow for life as we know it today.

Professor Aviezer sheds some light on the significance of these facts with a metaphor. He says suppose you were playing a game of five card poker. In this game a` straight flush is a dream come true. It is the type of event that a person will talk about for the rest of his life. But suppose the same person is playing bridge. He is dealt his 13 cards and the first 5 cards in his hands spell out the very same straight flush. He will probably not even notice. The event will be valueless to him because he is judging things differently – by the rules of bridge not the rules of poker. “In other words,” Professor Aviezer writes, “the same rare event can be either wondrous or meaningless: it all depends on the importance that one attributes to the event itself.

Scientists all agree that the events that contribute to the existence of the planet and human beings are exceedingly rare. But whether or not they attribute meaning to this fact depends on how they value the human being. Is a human being simply another species, another card in a hand of a bridge game? Or is a human being something more, the most significant of all creations, the straight flush in a game of poker? It all depends on your perspective, on which card game you chose to play.

For many of us this is our job this Rosh Hashana – to decide which card game to play. Which perspective are we going to view the world from? Is there deeper meaning to human life? Can I sense some purpose in my own life? If so, what or who is it that has endowed my life with that value? Is there indeed something miraculous about the unlikely existence of the human race? So many of us get stuck on the question St. Anselm meditated on for so long, so many centuries ago: Trying to come up with an intellectual proof for the existence of God. But perhaps that’s not where the answer lies. Perhaps the answer is hidden in the card game we chose to play.

Here is the link to Prof. Aviezer’s article :

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Rav Soloveitchik on Akedat Yitchak

Posted in Defining faith by Cheryl Berman on the August 18th, 2010

In many ways, of all the stories in the Tanach the Akedah stands out as one of the most perplexing.  Particularly in light of Sefer Devorim which we are currently reading, where the Jews are implored over and over again not to follow in the ways of pagan worship, how could God  request of Abraham to sacrifice Isaac?  And what could Abraham have been thinking when he unquestioningly saddled his donkey and led his party to the unknown mountain?

The Midrash sheds light on some of the inner workings of the mind of Abraham as he made his way to the dreaded mountain.  Chazal records a conversation he had with the angel Samuel in which he had to defend his actions against difficult assaults.  The opening of Kierkegard’s Fear and Trembling is dedicated to the various possible scenarios that were going through the mind of Abraham during this impossible time.  All seem to agree: he must have been brutally conflicted.

But in a footnote on pages 156-157 of  The Emergence of Ethical Man, Rav Soloveitchik disagrees with this account of the state of Abraham’s mind during the Akedah, and his description sheds some fascinating light on the nature of faith.  Rav Soloveitchik describes Abraham, whom he considers an example of the Charismatic Personality, as someone who discovered morality on his own and met God later and joined up with Him.  God helped Abraham develop morally but did not impose Himself.  Rather their relationship was a friendship, a bilateral covenant.  Rav Soloveitchik stresses the point that in this covenantal relationship, which also characterizes the Jewish people’s relationship with God, God is a freely elected king as opposed to a self inflicted monarch.  And yet the Akedah seems to be a break in this theme.  Here, God appeared to Abraham  not as a friend but as a terrifying master demanding an ultimate price.  It was contradictory to every previous interaction and yet how did Abraham react?  According to Rav Soloveitchik (and this reading is in consonance with the pesukin) he didn’t even flinch.  In the words of Rav Soloveitchik: “He was not cognizant that by requesting Isaac, God actually annulled everything, including the fellowship between him and Abraham. Naively, almost irrationally, did he conceive the demand as somehow compatible with the whole.  He carried it out as if it were another means leading to the realization of the eternal covenant. … By acting the way he did, Abraham unconsciously relieved the tension and reconciled himself with God.”

Somehow Abraham managed to do the impossible.  Without even having to convince himself, he simply believed the absurd. And in doing this his covenant with God took on a new form.  Before it was simply like any other treaty between two parties, now it became a covenant of an “existential community” where “man sacrificed himself to God” and “God dedicated Himself to man”.  But the Akedah  became more than that.  It became the act that would serve as the future model for a life of faith. According to Rav Soloveitchik “faith represents this peculiar attitude of leading a life fraught with realities which contradict the very ideal for which the faithful suffer.”

I don’t think I ever appreciated the full  significance of the Akedah before I read this footnote.  I always knew that for various reasons  it represented a high point in Jewish history but I never realized that it signified nothing less than the sum of what it means to live a life of faith.  The Akedah is an acknowledgement of the ironies, the tragedies, the intellectual, emotional and physical challenges of a life of faith.  The journey of the faithful was never meant to be paved in rose petals.  People of faith were meant to be forced to stand up to impossible challenges and inner contradictions.  The Akedah was God’s way of  pointing this out and at the same time assuring Abraham and future generations that while the life of the faithful promises to be a difficult one it would ultimately be  rewarding.  It would be the only one that incorporates a singular relationship with God.

Let’s face it.  When most of us are faced with challenges to our faith,  intellectual, emotional or otherwise, we don’t respond like Abraham – we do flinch.  But we need to keep in mind that for whatever reason these challenges are part in parcel of the faith package as God has packaged it.  And if we flinch, it’s all part of achieving a unique relationship with God.  That is the message of the Akedah.

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Philosophy and Faith Together Again

Posted in Defining faith by Cheryl Berman on the August 8th, 2010

There is little more satisfying in life than watching two of your greatest loves meet:  Brown mustard on a barbecued hot dog.  Salted butter on a steaming cob of corn. Or even the first meeting between your parents and your husband-to-be.  I think this is one reason I was so disappointed when my two loves – philosophy and faith- seemed to part so irrevocably with the various discussions and critiques surrounding the proofs for existence of God. Let’s face it.  The medieval rationalists had it easy on this front.  They believed these proofs worked technically so for them philosophy spoke volumes about religion and faith.  But when the proofs were shot down and the metaphysics was shown to be beyond our logical minds, philosophy and faith seemed to part ways.  Religion was thought to be based solely on a blind faith. What more could philosophy possible have to say?

A recent article in the New York Times by Gary Gutting, professor of philosophy at Notre Dame rejects this view of the relationship between philosophy and faith. Gutting offers philosophy a second chance at faith by using ideas from philosophers like Hume, Wittgenstein and Platinga.  The three philosophers claim that everyday life is based on “basic beliefs” that we have no good arguments for.  For example we can’t prove that the past is often a good guide to the future, our memories are reliable, or that other people have a conscious inner life.  These are beliefs that we have adopted based on our life experiences.  They can’t really be proven technically. Faith can be viewed as one of these types of beliefs.  We have all experienced the deep beauty of nature, moral obligation, a sense of love and being loved, and through these life experiences we can  speak about a belief in an all good and powerful Being who cares for us.

Gary Gutting admits that this type of belief is far from the specifics of Christianity, Islam, and Judaism, but his point remains.  Philosophy and religion do not abide on separate islands.  They can still speak to and of each other, and they should.

While there are flaws to his theory I still think Gutting’s point is valid.   Philosophy and religion should not disengage.  There are branches of philosophy like existentialism that can uncover vast treasures of religious ideology (as has been demonstrated by Rav Soloveitchik and others) exposing new elements of the phenomenon of faith. Even the outdated medieval philosophers have something to offer religious thinkers today and they should not be discounted. I admit that not all of philosophy is amenable to religion, but where would we be without Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling, Buber’s I and Thou, or Rav Soloveitchik’s Lonely Man of Faith?

Faith is one of those of those mysterious human qualities that begs to be explored in order to be deepened. And as people who either experience faith or search to rediscover a lost faith we need to understand it. Philosophy is one of our best tools with which we can do so.

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A Lesson in Faith from the Writer of “Friends”

Posted in Defining faith by Cheryl Berman on the July 9th, 2010

About a year ago my family went to my parent’s apartment in Jerusalem for Shabbat. They had two guests for lunch – one was a pediatric surgeon and the other a Hollywood script writer. I’ll never forget my sister-in-law’s remark to me as we all sat drinking in every comment the script writer made. She pointed out how interesting it was that one man saved the lives of children, the other wrote for shows like Friends and we are all in awe of the one that worked with Joey and Monica. At the time I laughed at the irony.

You can imagine my surprise at finding an article about this script writer in Jewish Action one year later. Apparently there was a reason to be in awe of him, but it had nothing to do with Joey or Monica.  Michael Borkow had a lot to teach us about faith.

Borkow grew up in a secular home, and was first introduced to Judaism in a class his friend urged him to take. That class coupled with a week long trip to Israel convinced him that it was time to look further into Judaism. He organized a Saturday “Jewish Book Club” in which Jews of every variety came together to discuss the weekly parsha. Eventually Borkow decided to keep Shabbat.

When it was time to take a break from script writing (he had just come off the sitcom Joey) he decided to study in Israel. He focused on Talmud study, but at some point it was time to face a dilemma that had plagued him from the start. He didn’t understand how anybody could be certain there was a God. Clearly we can’t see, hear, or feel God. He thought agnosticism was the best position, but it was difficult to remain an agnostic in Yeshiva. He explained that in a secular environment truth was considered to be relative. But this did not coincide with the world of religious Judaism that asserts the existence of a God and the validity of the Torah.

But he explains, “Through my study of Chazal on this topic I learned a believer isn’t necessarily someone who is 100 percent certain there is a God. He can be someone who strives for the courage to act and think faithfully despite living in a world that doesn’t offer absolute scientific proof.”

Borkow continues to explain that the fact that God cannot be proved scientifically is not a “glitch in God’s plan.” “It isn’t a challenge to faith; it’s the essential starting point for faith. If one is having doubts, that can, in fact, be a reason to practice faith. It doesn’t make sense to say ‘I’m not going to pray because I am not sure there is a God,’ just as it wouldn’t make sense to say ‘I’m not going to the gym because I’m out of shape’ The same way the gym is designed to get you into shape – prayer and mitzvot are tools for strengthening one’s belief.”

I think Borkow makes two very important points about faith. Firstly, many faith crisis sufferers spend their time looking for scientific proof for the existence of God. They feel that a life of belief is predicated on the absolute knowledge that God exists. But Borkow has pointed out that the life of a believer is much more complex and dynamic. It is not predicated on absolute knowledge of anything. It is predicated on a commitment to a life of faith. Belief is essentially the journey in which one strives to fulfill his commitment to a life of faith.

Borkow’s second point is equally important, and one that I have pointed out in previous posts. If someone finds himself entangled in a crisis of faith the worst thing he can do is to stop praying and keeping mitzvot. Prayer can be used as the forum for his doubts. A person can pray to God that he has lost the ability to pray. Just keep the dialogue alive. Religion is about a relationship and once you stop speaking to your partner you have severed that relationship. Some of my most powerful religious experiences have come within a prayer to the God I wasn’t sure existed. I have learned that if you keep speaking to Him, you will become religiously sensitive enough to hear Him speaking back to you.

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A Fresh Look At Doubt

Posted in Defining faith by Cheryl Berman on the July 6th, 2010

Last night I attended an interesting lecture given by Prof. Howard Wettstein, professor of philosophy at University of California. When I first walked into the room I was struck by the audience.  The first person I saw was a tall middle-aged man with a long gray beard, misshapen black hat, dusty black suit, and Crocs with no socks. I thought I might be in the wrong room but he indicated to me that this was indeed the room designated for the lecture. The crowd that would eventually fill the room was diverse, Some men wore black suits and black hats, others were in jeans and tee shirts. Some women were in shorts and flip flops, others in long skirts and hair coverings.  The subject of the lecture, “Doubt – A mode of religious life,” was clearly a subject that crossed religious sociological boundaries.

Dr. Wettstein was a middle-aged man, balding head, white mustache and beard, and a kind face. He explained that while his teaching formerly focused on technical philosophy, he recently began to focus on philosophy of religion. He opened his lecture by telling us a bit about his background. He grew up in a secular Jewish home, but decided to attend Yeshiva University which is where he received his first exposure to religious Judaism. He fell in love with the learning and the lifestyle and he graduated from Rav Moshe Besdin’s starter’s shiur to Rav Aharom Lichtenstein’s shiur and eventually he studied briefly under Rav Soloveitchik. But while he was enamored with the learning he always entertained doubts. He never quite understood how he could prove that Orthodox Judaism was more true than any other way of life. He met with his rabbanim often but eventually decided that he needed to leave orthodoxy.

He studied philosophy and became an academician. When he reached his forties he went through a transformation. He explains that a certain sentence in Heschel caught his attention. Heschel says that the word “belief” is not found in the Tanach. The concept is prominent in both Christianity and Islam, but does not exist in classical Judaism. The Torah speaks of Fear of God and Love of God, but not belief. This led him to ask himself – if religious Judaism is not a system of beliefs, what is it? He explained that for thinkers like Martin Buber and Abraham Joshua Heschel religion is an “affective attitude” – it’s a stance or responsiveness one has to life and to God. It’s a relationship.

Dr. Wettstein explained this theory further by comparing it to a Greek model. He said that loving God in medieval rationalism, which is largely based on Greek philosophy, means something very different from loving God in the Torah. In medieval rationalism God is the most perfect being. How can you love something so perfect and beyond you? Loving God for medieval rationalists means worshiping perfection. This type of love has no reciprocity.

The Torah portrays love of God very differently. If we look in Shir Ha’Shirim we see love of God is modeled on human love. It involves a relationship. Dr. Wettstein’s point is that when we look at religion from the viewpoint of medieval rationalism (as most people do) we see a very different portrait of religion from the one actually portrayed in the Torah. And the viewpoint of the rationalists which makes God into the omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent being, makes God into something we can’t have a relationship with.  Dr. Wettstein’s proposal is that in order to understand religious Judaism we must abandon the widely accepted views of the medievals like the Rambam and embrace the anthropomorphic language of the the Torah.

Dr. Wettstein went on to explain that often the most passionate part of a relationship is when you try to fix a rift in it. Doubt is the rift in our relationship with God and ironically it might be the most dynamic part of a person’s religious life. Perhaps this is what God truly seeks.

Dr. Wettstein provided me with a unique perspective on doubt. We generally view doubt as a negative experience. It is something we need to conquer, to resolve. But Dr. Wettstein’s point is a good one. Our most passionate exploration of religion and God emerges from doubt. Our deepest sense of desire for God emerges from the fact that we aren’t sure there is a God. So often in Judaism as in every relationship things stop sizzling. They become rote and unfeeling. Doubt shakes things up. It forces you to perceive God from a different perspective. It forces you to accept what you couldn’t accept before – the paradox of faith. Accepting paradoxes in life is an uncomfortable thing to do. But maybe it’s good to be uncomfortable with religion so that you don’t become too comfortable with it.

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The Six Stages of Faith

Posted in Defining faith by Cheryl Berman on the June 30th, 2010

I’ll never forget the day my then six-year -old son used his chubby little fingers to show me that “Pharaoh was this big” indicating that he was about one inch in height. Apparently, this was something his first grade teacher had taught him. I looked into my son’s bright blue eyes and noted the innocence and pure reliance on his teacher’s words and decided not to contradict him. “Really?” I said, “wow!”

According to James Fowler, developmental psychologist, my son fit perfectly into the first stage of the “stages of faith”. It is the intuitive-projective stage, for children ages 2-7, where the child’s imagination is uninhibited by logic. The child is strongly influenced by those around him who give him cues via stories, moods and examples.

In the second stage, the mythic literal stage, for children around age 10, the child begins to sort out the real from the make-believe. It would clearly account for my ten-year old’s response to my first grader’s claim that Pharaoh was “this big.” She looked at me hard, clearly trying to sustain a giggle. Beliefs are adopted at this stage but are taken very literally. There is also a very literal understanding of the concept of justice and the world is perceived as running on a strictly reciprocal model (if I do something wrong I get punished immediately).

Stage three, synthetic-conventional faith, is when adolescence kicks in. Unfortunately many adults stop progressing at this stage accounting for the immature perspectives of religion that some people maintain. (This is generally the model that is ridiculed by people like Hitchens and other outspoken athiests.) In this stage beliefs and values are deeply felt but are not evaluated, It is a stage of conformity, where a person’s faith helps them to understand their environments around them. People of different faiths, at this stage, are perceived as “other”.

Stage four is the individuative-Reflective stage. This is the stage where a person begins to think critically about their beliefs. It is the stage that we have come to know as the “faith crisis” which as you can see is a very important stage in the process of developing a mature faith. In this stage symbols and rituals are questioned. It is a difficult time. A person becomes disillusioned and recognizes that the world is far more complex than originally perceived. He seeks a more multileveled approach to truth.

Stage five, conjunctive faith, is the stage where one can begin to grasp the paradox of transcendence. He develops a deeper understanding of the symbols and beliefs of his faith because he can begin to grasp the depth of reality they refer to. One senses his own depth and inner contradictions and he can reclaim the faith of his past with a more mature understanding of it. The walls he has constructed against people of other faiths begin to disintegrate as he begins to appreciate that they too seek holiness. And yet the person of stage five who is redeemed faces a largely unredeemed world. This reality can at times (but not usually) leads to stage six.

Stage six is the stage of universalizing faith. It is a rare stage to reach, in which the person forces the world the question their own values. Fowler uses Martin Luther King Jr. as an example of someone who reached this stage.

The stages of faith that James Fowler sets out in his aptly titled book “Stages of Faith; The Psychology of Human Development and the Quest for Meaning” rang very true to me. Not only have I recognized the earlier stages in my children, I have recognized stage 4 and 5 in myself. If you are stuck in stage three it might be time to reconsider your feelings towards people of other beliefs. And if you are in stage 4 – keep pushing. Ask questions of those that can answer them – often your local rabbi has been through this stage himself and can offer you some insight. Read books by people who can help (for me it was Rav Soloveitchik, Henry Bergson, Jonathan Sacks, Abraham Joshua Heschel, and others). It important not to give up, even if at times you find yourself bouncing between stages 4 and 5.

Despite what some people argue religion is not essentially racist, it doesn’t conflict with science, and it is not about accepting things without subjecting them to intellectual speculation. But it is important to go through stage four so that you can discover this for yourself.

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The Blue Danube and a basket full of eggs

Posted in Defining faith by Cheryl Berman on the June 24th, 2010

Apparently scientific tests on the effects of music on chickens show that the Blue Danube helps hens lay more eggs. It has also aided cows in producing more milk. Wheat has been shown to grow faster when exposed to music. And plants have been shown to “like” Jazz, country, and Bach (by growing towards the source of music) over modern and Rock music.

The power of music has been widely accepted since ancient times. While I’m not sure if they serenaded livestock (it would take the advanced scientific mind of the twenty-first century to come up with that idea), the ancients were acutely aware of the effects of music on humans. During the time of the Temple the Leviim accompanied certain karbanot (sacrifices) with music in order to set the mind of the person bringing the sacrifice on God and repentance.

We have all experienced music’s profound capabilities. Haven’t all of us been changed by music to some extent? Recently my ten year old daughter told me that she is thinking of giving up piano lessons because the music she has been playing makes her sad. But why? What is it that gives music this eery power of us? Scientifically it is just organized sound, traveling waves of pressure through the air. But scientific definitions rarely encapsulate the true essence of a thing. Artists often consider music a language, a method of communicating what can’t be stated in words. Some listeners perceive it as a subjective experience – the same music that made my daughter sad actually lifted my spirits on depressing days.

Judaism senses this supra-rational aspect of music. Rav Nachmun of Breslov writes, “the nigun is found on the borderline of physicality, at the point of connection with the spiritual. Therefore the nigun is bestowed with the power to raise us from the material and the physical to the realm of spirituality; to enable the ascent from the level of the beast to the level of human. (Likutei Moharan, part 2 para, 63)”

Prophecy was known to involve music because prophecy is a bridge between our wold and the world of the Divine. Prayer also involves music as it too seeks to be a bridge of the same sort.

Music is similar to faith.  Both have a strong rational base – music theory and the study of theology, but in the end both require a certain suspension of the intellect; they both require a type of leap into the unknown. When you make music too rational, when you break it into its components, tie it to the notes on a page or a scientific definition of sound you have lost it. Similarly, when you make faith too rational, when you tie it to propositions on a page or some scientific concept of religion and God – you have lost it. In order to appreciate music you must live inside of it, you must intuit it.  In order to experience faith you must live inside it,  intuit it.

Music is an important component in recovering a lost faith because it reminds us of how to let go. It gives us a few moments when the consciousness of our intellectual brains are suspended and we can just feel…  Perhaps one reason music was put in this world is to teach us about the experience of  faith.

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Challenging God

Posted in Defining faith by Cheryl Berman on the June 17th, 2010

In Israel on Yom Ha’Zikaron regular television programming is canceled and clips about families who lost loved ones in Israel’s wars are televised. There was one clip from this past Yom Ha’Zikaron that stands out in my mind. It was a clip about a religious family who lost a child in the recent battle in Lebanon. The sister, who must have been in her twenties, explained that when she first found out that her brother was killed she was unable to mourn. She didn’t know how to react. She was frozen. She said that after the funeral she went to parents home and found her mother in the kitchen looking at the ceiling cursing at God. Her mother was screaming profanities and the sister was terrified. She said, “Mommy stop! What are you doing?” She said that she thought lightening would strike her mother. And the mother heard her, turned around, and gave her daughter the most powerful lesson in faith a mother could give her child. She said, “God is all-powerful. He created this entire universe. He is all-knowing. There is nothing that escapes God. He can take a little bit of my anger.”  The sister explained that from that moment she was able to mourn.

I think there many powerful lessons we can learn from this mother’s remarkable statement. But what stands out to me was that this woman recognized the most important aspect of faith: she sensed that faith is a relationship. She probably wouldn’t spell it out that way (or perhaps she would) but she clearly sensed it very deeply. Think about your most intense relationship (spouse? Child? Parent? Friend?) You could be furious with your parent. You could yell at your spouse. You could be disappointed with your child. It doesn’t imply a severing of that relationship. It means you need to work on the relationship. Self-reflect. Communicate your feelings. Challenges to a relationship speak to it’s complexity.

It is the same with God. You might experience suffering. You might want to challenge God. You might want to question His wisdom, His justice, His power. Go ahead. Faith is a relationship. When suffering hits it could be a very confusing time and doubt might ensue. But challenging God doesn’t mean your relationship is false. And doubt doesn’t mean you never truly had a relationship. It means you need to self-reflect. Communicate. Work to re-establish what has been broken.

It is also important to note that if faith is a relationship it is not  intellectual assent. Relationships are rarely intellectual. Sometimes they are even completely irrational. You could love someone despite his snoring or her neuroses. The fact that your love is irrational doesn’t make it untrue. Relationships are not judged that way. Similarly a relationship with God, faith, is not determined by intellectual arguments or counter-arguments. It is a connection that lies somewhere beyond the propositional claims of our right brain. The trick is how to relocate it when it is lost.  Communicating your doubts is a good first step.

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Can Doubt be Part of Faith?

Posted in Defining faith by Cheryl Berman on the June 7th, 2010

In my last blog I spoke of an interview that I came across in the Bilblical Archaeological Review. I found a few interesting statements within the interview but one that stands out was made by James F. Strange an archaeologist and a Baptist minister. I admit that when I first read his statement I didn’t quite understand what he was getting at. He said, “I think I would say that faith/unfaith is a false dichotomy. I think faith always contains elements of unfaith and vice versa..” It wasn’t until I read an article by Dr. Norman Lamm, former president of Yeshiva University, that I began to comprehend what Strange was getting at.

Dr. Lamm’s article entitled “Faith and Doubt” deals with the subject of faith crisis in Judaism. In one section he explores the concept of doubt in halakhah. He quotes a Gemara from Shabbat 31A which tells the story of a non-Jew who approached Shammai and declared that he only believed in the Written Law, not the Oral. When he asked Shammai to convert him and teach him Written Law, Shammai refused. But when he approached Hillel with the same request Hillel accepted. Hillel converted this non-Jew and then convinced him of the veracity of the Oral Law by getting the non-Jew to rely on him.

According to Rashi, Shamai rejected the non-Jew’s proposal because of the law that if a proselyte wants to be converted and he accepts the whole Torah with the exclusion of one item he is not accepted. But Hillel viewed this non-Jew differently. Hillels saw this non-Jew as someone who did not deny the validity if the Oral Law, just it’s Divine origin. And Hillel was sure that he could convince this non-Jew of the Divine Origin of the Oral Law by getting him to rely on Hillel.

Rabbi Lamm reads this gemara as distinguishing between one who denies and one who doubts. Someone who outright denies has incorrect convictions; one who doubts has no strong conviction and is willing to be taught. One who denies is an apikores and cannot be converted; one who doubts is searching for the Truth and is welcomed into klal yisrael.. Rabbi Lamm incorporates doubt into an acceptable halakhic category and then goes one step further and says, “faith, in its cognitive sense, is the tension between itself and doubt.”

Incorporating doubt into the definition of faith is an important step. It speaks to the dichotomies of faith, the tensions that are so often aroused within a person of faith. Abraham doubted God’s justice when God wished to destroy Sodom. Moshe doubted God’s wisdom when He chose Moshe to be the leader of the nation. Iyov doubted God’s existence when his property, children, and health were taken from him. These are all very human reactions to very human events. These are all a natural part of a life of faith.

As an integral part of faith, doubt serves the purpose of defining and refining the concept of faith for the individual. When Abraham doubted God’s justice God gave him a mini-course in the workings of His justice. Questions often lead to new revelations and doubt becomes the means through which one ultimately strengthens his faith.  Faith and Doubt it seems are actually two sides of the same coin.

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The Process of Faith

Posted in Defining faith by Cheryl Berman on the June 1st, 2010

While researching for my book I came across a fascinating interview in the Biblical Archaeological Review.  Apparently a leading expert on the apocryphal gospels, Bart Ehrman, had lost his faith as a result of his studies and the Biblical Archaeological Review decided to interview him and three other scholars about the effect of their studies on their faith. The three scholars who joined Bart Ehrman were James F. Strange, an archaeologist and a Baptist minister, Lawrence Schiffman, a Dead Sea Scroll scholar and an Orthodox Jew, and William G. Dever, an archaeologist who had once been an evangelical preacher, lost his faith, and is now an agnostic Reform Jew (you heard me right).

The conversation was interesting and I will give you pieces of it in coming blogs, but for this blog I want to focus on the end of the interview where the scholars summarize their views of faith.  Lawrence Schiffman (the Orthodox Jewish scholar) says that he sees faith as a lifelong quest.  He doesn’t believe a person can be labeled a “believer” or a “non-believer” because people’s life experiences are complex and believing in God is a challenge. “Faith is a process.”

I think Schiffman is making a critical point about the concept of faith.  Faith is not a given, as some might think. Often it’s a struggle.  Schiffman points out that in Judaism there is a commandment to believe in God.  If it were a simple thing, there would be no need for a commandment.   Judaism is aware that life has it’s complexities and that people encounter some real challenges to their faith.  The commandment to believe in God (the first of the Ten Commandments)  testifies to this struggle.

So often we judge others, and ourselves for that matter, based on our religious positions at a given moment.  We ignore the larger picture.    If you are struggling with faith that does not make you a heretic.   It makes you an individual in the midst of a confusing process.  Sometimes it is difficult to see an end when you are in the middle of a difficult process.  But I think there is something comforting about knowing that you aren’t there yet.

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