Reasonable Doubts Blog


The Atheist Rabbi: Has Judaism Lost its Soul?

Posted in Defining Judaism by Cheryl Berman on the July 2nd, 2010

A certain blog post has understandably received much attention from the blogosphere and I think it brings up some very important issues about contemporary Judaism. Here is the post:

I am the rabbi of a modern orthodox synagogue. I have traditional semikha, spent time studying in Israel, have written articles for various Torah journals, I am married (to the Orthoprax Rebbetzin) and have five kids (the Orthoprax Rabbi’s Kids). This is all pretty unremarkable. But, I figured I would let you all in on a little secret, while my congregants are all Orthodox, to varying degrees, I am not. I don’t believe in any of it. I am an atheist. I personally don’t keep much of any of Jewish law.

How then can I be an Orthodox Rabbi? Simple. A rabbi is a job like any other. No one asks the plumber if he believes in plumbing or the attorney if he truly believes in his client. Instead, everyone understands that many people go into different professions for many different reasons. Sure, there are those plumbers who view it as their calling or the attorney who only takes clients he can believe in. Most of us, however, aren’t that lucky. Instead, we take jobs that we think we can be good at, make money, get power or a host of other reasons. I took this job because I am a good speaker, personable and have a background in Jewish stuff. My congregants all like me – or at least it seems so, I just received a five-year contract extension and raise – so what’s wrong if I don’t believe. My belief doesn’t (for the most part, and I hope to explore some areas where it does) affect my job performance. I answer “she’elot” and give heartfelt dershot, officiate at weddings and funerals, and, as I said, people are generally satisfied. So do my beliefs matter?

Like many other bloggers I believe this is probably a hoax. While I think anyone can go through a crisis of faith (been through a few myself), and many fall victim to the crisis and lose their faith completely, I have a hard time believing that this “rabbi” would risk exposing himself and losing his beloved job. But perhaps, as some of the more psychologically astute bloggers have suggested, he is actually feeling guilty about the whole thing and this is his way of dealing with the guilt.

The question of the existence of this rabbi is almost moot at this point, he has become real in the consciousness of those who read his blog and his reality has posed many questions about the nature of the Rabbinate and the essence of Judaism itself. Is the Rabbinate simply a job like plumbing as this man has suggested or is it more of a calling? And is Judaism essentially a religion of practice (Orthoprax)or ideology (Orthodox)? Has orthodox Judaism become orthoprax? Many of the previously mentioned bloggers have responded to the first question. Most agree that the Rabbinate is a calling not a job and somebody who does not experience this calling has no place in the rabbinate. But I think the second question is equally important – perhaps too much emphasis has been placed on strict conformity of practice and not enough on ideology. I am not suggesting that practice is unimportant in Judaism, but I am suggesting that it has been stressed to such an extreme that it has begun to choke out the ideology. People have begun to consider Judaism bereft of a philosophy – a religion where pretty much anything goes (as the “rabbi” is really suggesting). Clearly Judaism is based on certain ideological propositions, and without those propositions the whole system collapses. What is the point of keeping Shabbat if you deny God’s creation and the notion of a personal God (Yetziat Mitzraim)? In some respects contemporary Judaism has lost sight of this.

I think, especially for the purposes of this blog, it is also important to distinguish between a person who is going through a faith crisis and a person who happily declares himself an atheist. A faith crisis, as I have tried to explain in earlier posts, is part in parcel of the faith process. A gleeful atheist has abandoned the process entirely and has no desire to pick it up again. We would expect a rabbi to go through a crises of faith in his lifetime, but once he firmly abandons the process he abandons Judaism. It would be hard to argue that someone who has abandoned Judaism can be part of the rabbinate. To use this man’s ridiculous metaphor: could a plumber who abandoned plumbing keep working as a plumber? It’s nonsensical.

This man’s post has clearly struck a very raw nerve with people. Perhaps it is time to deal with some of the issues the post has brought up.

I’d love to hear what you think of this man’s post and some of these issues.

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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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It’s the Struggle that Will Get You There

Posted in Defining Judaism by Cheryl Berman on the June 21st, 2010

I recently read Rabbi Sherlow’s book on Rav Kook “Ve’Ayrastich Li Le’Olam” .  One of the chapters deals with Rav Kook’s theory of characteristics.  We tend to think of certain characteristics as either good or bad. Our mothers all taught us that if we are shy we need to “break out of our shells” or if we are outspoken we need to “tone it down.”  But according to Rav Kook characteristics themselves are neither bad nor good, they are neutral.  A person is born with certain neutral personality traits and he can decide how he wants to utilize them.  Rav Kook  uses Jesus as an example.  He argues that Jesus was a person with great spiritual qualities.  He could have used these innate characteristics to spread the Torah but instead he used these traits to break off from Judaism.

Rav Kook speaks of the root characteristic versus it’s manifestations;  one root characteristic could have many opposing manifestations.  This is how he explains a very interesting Gemara in Yoma 69b.   The Gemara tells the story of the Anshei Knesset Ha’Gedola (the men of the Great Assembly) who fasted for three days and three nights until the yetzer (the drive) for idol worship was handed to them.  Something that appeared to be a pillar of fire escaped from the Kodesh Ha’kedoshim (Holy of Holies) and the prophet explained to them that this was the yetzer for idol worship.  But what was the root cause of idol worship doing in the Kodesh Ha’Kedoshim  – the holiest place in the Temple?

Rav Kook’s theory of  characteristics answers our question: the root cause of idol worship is the same root cause for worship of Hashem.  They both stem from the same character trait – spirituality.  When the Anshei Knesset Ha’Gedola rid the world of the drive for idol worship they also rid the world of a certain innate drive to serve Hashem.  A certain sense of mystery and holiness disappeared.   People no longer sensed transcendence as they used to. And People no longer loved serving God as they once had.  It must have been a difficult decision for the Anshei Knesset Hagedola to make.  How do you measure the value of such a drive over the value of ridding the world of idol  worship?  And I can’t help but to wonder if they made the right decision.

The truth is I think the Anshei Knesset Hagdola erred in a fundamental way.  They thought they could find a clean easy route to Go.  They felt that if they could just take away what seems to be standing in the way…

And God let them do it. Perhaps  God was trying to teach them a lesson – there are no easy paths.  Things that are easy to reach are generally not worth  reaching.  It’s the struggle that allows us the insight.  It’s the struggle that gets us there.

And now as people residing in a universe without this innate drive we are given a difficult task.  We need to discover this drive on our own using our other faculties: intellect, intuition, emotion, moral sensibilities, drive for human perfection.  We need to utilize all of these faculties in the proper ratio to get to the place the ancients were able to reach with no effort at all.  Idol worship might be gone but we all still struggle to reach God  because in the end it is the struggle that will get us there.

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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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Does Science Contradict Torah?

Posted in science and religion by Cheryl Berman on the June 14th, 2010

One issue faith crisis sufferers often find themselves dealing with is the issue of the conflict between science and the Torah. The debate between science and religion did not commence with the discovery of Darwinism as some might think. Part of the task of the medieval Jewish philosopher was to deal with the science of their time, Aristotelianism. Philosophers like Maimonides worked hard to come up with solutions to contradictions between science and Judaism. Maimonides’ rule was stated plainly in the Moreh Nevuchim: If Aristotelian science can come up with demonstrative proof for their scientific theories, we must translate the text of the Torah in a non-literal fashion because the Torah does not lie. Maimonides had to create this rule because the generally accepted principle of the medieval rationalists (like Maimonides) was that intellectual truth was the highest form of knowledge. Science and the Torah were speaking the same language for these medieval rationalists. They were asking the same questions and offering the same answers. And if they didn’t seem to fit, we need to delve deeper into the meaning of the text of the Torah and locate it’s true meaning.

Modern notions of the concept of truth make it a lot easier for faith crisis sufferers to approach the contradictions between science and Torah. When Kant limited the confines of reason (intellectual truth) he opened the door to allow other types of truths into the universal lexicon. There is aesthetic truth. There is ethical truth. There is personal truth. There is social truth. There is cultural truth. And there is religious truth. The concept of truth should embrace the entirety of the human experience, why should it be limited to one aspect of humanity, namely the intellect?

The main difference between intellectual truth and religious truth does not lie in the answers they propose. It lies in the questions they ask. In Lonely Man of Faith Rav Soloveitchik creates two prototypes: the scientist and the man of religion (Adam one and Adam two). He describes the scientist as one who seeks to understand the universe around him so that he can use it for his purposes. He asks the question: How? How can I utilize the earth for my needs? The religious man looks at the very same universe but asks completely different questions. He questions are metaphysical in nature: Why did the world come into being? What is the purpose and meaning behind it? And who is the giver of life that I can sense but cannot see?

The reason science and Torah propose different answers is that that they are responding to different questions. They are viewing the universe from completely different perspectives. The Torah is a book of theology not science. When the Torah tells us that God created the world in six days and rested on the seventh we are meant to explore the religious ramifications of that statement, not create a science lesson from it.

Many think that the intellect is the only road to truth. These people are stuck on a medieval model. This is not to say that the intellect does not reveal truth. It just means that the intellect is not the only means of grasping truth. The intellect even plays a critical role in understanding religion, but it does not play the only role. There are other aspects of the human being that contribute to our understanding of our place in this complex universe. Truth is way too big a notion to limit it to one avenue.

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Do You Have to Believe in God to be a Jew?

Posted in Defining Judaism by Cheryl Berman on the June 11th, 2010

The interview in the Biblical Archaelogy Review that I have spoken about in previous posts has proved itself to be rich in subject matter. William G. Dever was an evangelical preacher who lost his faith and eventually became a Reform Jew. His story is, as one would expect, fascinating. It was a statement that he read in a book by George Ernest Wright, a professor at Harvard, that ultimately led him to reject religion. Wright wrote “in biblical faith everything depends upon whether the original events actually happened.” Dever, an archaeologist began to work in Israel and started to doubt the historicity of the Bible. That marked the end of his faith. But his work in Israel did not mark his end to his religious life. Surrounded by Jews in Israel, Dever eventually converted to Reform Judaism because “you don’t have to be religious to be a Jew.” He explains “I think Judaism is about practices rather than a correct theology.” Later he clarifies that he is not an atheist, he is an agnostic. I think his estimation of Judaism leads one to an inevitable question: Do you have to believe in God to be a Jew or is Judaism exclusively about practice?

If you look in the Torah itself it seems clear that certain theological ideas are integral to Judaism. The notion of the existence of God is critical to the definition of a Jew. The very conception of Judaism is rooted in Abraham’s acceptance of God over the pagan gods of his time. The notion of God’s involvement in the world and revelation are also integral to the notion of a Jew. The Tanach is replete with stories in which God is involved with mankind and interacts with certain chosen individuals. And the importance of the concept of Divine Justice is apparent from even a brief glimpse of Tanach.

And yet Rabbinic Judaism does not make a list of dogma for Jews to embrace. In fact, The Rabbis of the Talmud seem to have agreed with Dever’s estimation of Judaism. It is essentially a religion of norms, of religious practices, as opposed to certain theological ideas. For Rabbinic Judaism you are considered a Jew if your mother is a Jew; Genetics speak louder than beliefs. So did beliefs play any role in Talmudic Judaism?

It is important to remember than in the time of the Talmud the notion of belief  was qualitatively different from the notion of belief  in medieval times.  If you remember Fowler’s distinction from our first post, belief in ancient times did not mean belief in certain propositions or lists of dogma, it meant a type of allegiance or trust.   A list of dogma would would not have suited the Rabbis concept of belief.  But despite their lack of specific list of ideologies we can see that the recognition of God was of primary importance to the Rabbis of the Mishna and the Talmud from their ruling regarding the recitation of Kriat Shema. While generally speaking the mitzvot (commandments) do not require intent, when one says Shema he is required to focus on accepting God’s rulership (for lengthier discussions on the laws on kavana (intent) during kriat Shema see http://vbm-torah.org/archive/tefila/67-13tefila.htm and http://www.torah.org/learning/rambam/kriatshema/ks2.1.html )

It wasn’t until the medieval times that Karaism and Islam incited the medievals to define Jewish Dogma. But the ideology expressed in those medieval lists was never  alien to Judaism. I think Lawrence Schiffman sums it up nicely in his response to Dever in the article I mentioned above:

“But I think modern Judaism goes too far with the notion that you don’t have to believe anything to be Jewish. You don’t in the sense that you’re part of the community even if you don’t believe. But the question is, doesn’t Judaism really have in mind that a person will have certain types of faith commitments that are then acted out in certain ways?”

It is easy to lose sight amidst of all the technical Halakhic (legal) discourse that Jews should observe the commandments in order to mold themselves into the type of people who can become closer to God and their fellow man. The mitzvot are not ends in themselves. This is a very important point particularly for sufferers of faith crises. I have had letters from faith crisis sufferers asking me if they should keep doing mitzvot despite the fact that they are struggling to believe. This is based on a general misconception of the concept of mitzvot. We do mitzvot precisely to come to closer to God. Stopping their performance is antithetical to the faith crisis sufferer’s goals. Keep doing the mitzvot. Keep learning Torah. Keep praying. (Even if it seems meaningless.) These are the things that might ultimately bring you back. Always keep in mind that faith is a process.

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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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What is Faith?

Posted in Welcome by Cheryl Berman on the May 16th, 2010

A while back I read a book about faith that I think is the perfect way to open this blog.  The book, “Stages of Faith” was written by James W. Fowler who works in the field of developmental psychology.  Fowler’s book analyzes the concept of faith from a few perspectives. In the second chapter of his book he distinguishes faith from belief.  He quotes his teacher, and later his colleague at Harvard, Wilfred Cantwell Smith, who explains belief as “the holding of certain ideas.”  Faith, however, “is deeper, richer, more personal.  It is engendered by a religious tradition, in some cases and to some degree by its doctrines; but it is a quality of the person not of the system.  It is an orientation of the personality… a capacity to live at more than a mundane level; to see, to act in terms of, a transcendent dimension.” (pg. 11)

Fowler goes on to discuss Smith’s analyses of the word faith through various religions and languages and concludes that faith is more of a statement of trust and allegiance than a belief in a certain proposition.  I think this analysis is crucial in understanding the concept of faith.  I will be giving a speech at Emunah Women in a few weeks on the topic of faith crisis in Judaism and one of the thinkers I will be discussing is the Esh Kodesh, the Rebbe of Piaseczno  who perished in Holocaust.  The Rebbe said quite a few shockingly penetrating things but one thing that really caught my eye was his definition of complete faith.  He told his Chassidim that in order to have pure faith they must relinquish their hopes or dread of the future and focus exclusively on the present moment.  They need to let go of the proposition “I believe that…” and concentrate on the moment when God is with them in their suffering.  The Rebbe focuses on faith as an existential awareness of God rather than faith as a belief in a certain proposition.

The danger of viewing faith as a belief in certain proposition is something I experienced first hand when those propositions were tested.  If your faith is contingent on certain propositions your faith needs to be worked on.  I am setting up this blog as someone who has been through a faith crisis who wants to help other through theirs.  I welcome all comments, suggestions, and discussions.

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