Faith means striving for faith. It is never an arrival. It can only burst forth at singular moments. It does not arise out of logical deduction, but out of uncertainty, which is its natural breeding ground.
To have faith is to live with unresolved doubts, prepared to rise above ourselves and our wisdom. Looking into the Jewish tradition with its many debates, one clearly understands that those who deny themselves the comfort of certainty are much more authentic than those who are sure.
Faith means that we worship and praise God before we affirm His existence; we respond before we question. Man can die for something even as he is unsure of its true existence, because his inner faith tells him it is right to do so. This honest admission of doubt is not only the very reason why it is possible to be religious in modern times; it is the actual stimulus to do so.
We need to understand that faith is “the art of drawing sufficient conclusions from insufficient premises” (1), and “we can be absolutely certain only about things we do not understand” (2).
To believe is not to prove, not to explain, but to yield to a vision.
Of course belief cannot be credo quia absurdum est. It has to make sense and have a lot to say for itself in terms of knowledge and wisdom. Still, just as no building stands on rock-bottom, but on unsure pillars deeply driven into the ground so as to resist an earthquake, so must belief have enough strength to prove its worth without ever reaching absolute certainty.
Faith is like music. It is true because of its beauty not because of its intellectual certainty. Is it not created from impossible paradoxes, as well as a great deal of imagination that surpasses rationality and scientific or historical facts?
The truly great need no synthesis. They absorb whatever experience offers them. Their intensely creative personalities act like a fiery furnace, melting away contradictions. What emerges is either a harmonious whole or a creative parallelism with parts that mutually fructify and supplement each other. The truly great do not need to trim edges, as it were, to make genuine experiences fit with each other. They preserve them intact. And if their experiences appear contradictory, they build an emotional bridge spanning them allowing both the landscape and the water to be seen. Lesser mortals resort to logical means of harmonization (3).
The aim of halacha is to teach us the art of living with uncertainty. Halacha was not meant for those who are sure, because nobody can act out of certainty.
The most challenging question in all of life is what do you do and what do you believe when you are not sure. It is that notion that moves the scientist, the philosopher, and most of all the religious personality. We must destroy the security of all conventional knowledge and undo the normalcy of all that is ordinary. To be religious is to realize that no final conclusions have ever been reached or can ever be reached.
Halacha is the upshot of un-finalized beliefs, a practical way of living while remaining in theological suspense. In that way, Judaism doesn’t turn into a religion that either becomes paralyzed in awe of a rigid tradition, or evaporates into a utopian reverie. This dynamic can only come about when Jewish beliefs consist of fluid matter, which halacha then turns into a solid substance. The purpose of halacha is to chill the heated steel of exalted beliefs and turn them into pragmatic deeds without allowing the inner heat to be cooled off entirely. Jewish beliefs are like arrows, which dart hither and thither, wavering as though shot into the air from a slackened bowstring, while halacha must be straight and unswerving but still adaptable.
Indeed, we should be careful not to make faith into an intellectual issue. It is much more than that. The moment we look down on those who continue to have unshakable faith, considering them primitive in face of the many challenges, we have overlooked an important dimension of real faith. Besides the fact that such an attitude reflects arrogance, it also misses an important point: Faith is always more than just thinking about faith. Yes, those people who have lost their faith yet still hold on to it, honestly attempting by way of discussion and study to give their lost faith a new shape, should be deeply respected. At the same time, we should not forget that they are searching for something that the “simple” believer already has.
When we place the reflection on faith higher than the direct experience of faith, we are involved in a purely intellectual endeavor. The search for faith can only be genuine when it is personal, deep, and emotional, and the intellect only plays a small part. The accompanying qualities must be humility, the notion of inadequacy, and a strong urge to find authentic faith. Genuine belief is a way of living, not an academic undertaking. It is an experience in which the whole of the human being is engaged.
Doubt only appeals to the intellect. The intellectual approach to faith is always a barer form of existence than faith itself. The reason is obvious. Besides our critical assessment, the other human faculties remain idle. Trust, hope, love and the notion that one is part of something bigger no longer play a role. Instead, life becomes nothing more than only itself. When doubt and skepticism are no longer the most important faculties through which one seeks religious faith, only then is it possible to actually find it. Skepticism, though it has its place, should not be at the center of one’s search. In today’s climate there is a certain gratification in going to the extremes of genius and brilliance until one nearly loses that which one would like to discover. Intellectual thought and scientific discovery can never cover the sum total of the inner life of man. When one prays, one is involved in something that the intellect can never reach. When one studies Torah and hears its divine voice, it becomes something different than what academic study can ever achieve. It is in a separate category, which is closed to the solely scientific mind.
It is crucial that we see these facts for what they are. Only when we realize that intellectual certainty is not the primary path toward finding religious truth, will we be able to deal with our new awareness that the transitional phase we now experience has great purpose and has to be part of our religious struggle and identity. It won’t be easy. Novelty, as always, carries with it a sense of violation, a kind of sacrilege. Most people are more at home with that which is common than with that which is different. But go it must.
1. Samuel Butler and Francis Hackett, The Note-Books of Samuel Butler (Nabu Press, 2010)
2. Eric Hoffer, The True Believer (Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2010) p. 81.
3. Rabbi Professor David Weiss Halivni, “Professor Saul Lieberman z.l.,” Conservative
Judaism, vol. 38, (Spring 1986) pp. 6-7.