Thursday, April 7, 2011

"Oh, That I May Believe!"

Yom chamishi, 3 Nisan 5771.

A few years ago, our Baltimore kehilla lost a teenager to a car accident.  My sons were his friends.  Of course, all of this young man's friends were devastated; and they closed ranks in a tight circle of pain that parents and love and logic could not penetrate for a time.  Like soldiers who've seen combat, no one could possibly understand them, except for others who'd "been there."

One boy struggled for longer than the others with his doubt in a G-d that could let such a thing happen.  He showed his anger and contempt for G-d by decreasing his observance of the mitzvot.  First he stopped wearing his kipa and his tzitzit.  After a time, receiving no apparent answer from Hashem, he stopped keeping Shabbat.  His parents were beside themselves.  But they loved him, and they understood that this was his argument with G-d, not their argument with their son.  They reasoned, they drew firm but gentle boundaries for his behavior in their home.  They waited.

He is still struggling to find answers.  But, baruch Hashem, he has witnessed enough miracles since then, and been willing to see them as miracles, that he is little by little allowing G-d back into his life.

I can't know what Rabbi Cardozo was thinking about when he wrote this beautiful essay.  But I dedicate it to this fine young Jew, and to all other Jews like him, who want so desperately to believe, or to believe again.



Thought to Ponder

by

Rabbi Dr. Nathan Lopes Cardozo



Once, a young man approached a Jew in the street and told him that his synagogue needed a tenth man to make up a minyan for mincha, the afternoon prayer. The man responded, “I am an apikores (heretic)!” To this the young man answered, “Since when does an apikores not have to pray mincha?” (1)

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Once, when Rabbi Noach (of Lekhovitz) was in his room, he heard one of his disciples beginning to recite Maimonides’ Principles of Faith in the House of Study, next door.  The student stopped immediately after the words “I believe with perfect faith,” and whispered to himself, “I don’t understand!” And then once more: “I don’t understand!” “What is it that you do not understand?” Rabbi Noach asked him. “I don’t understand what it is all about,” said the man. “I say ‘I believe’. If I really do believe, then how can I possibly sin? But if I really don’t believe, why am I telling lies?” “You do not understand,” said the Rabbi “The words ‘I believe with perfect faith’ are a prayer meaning “Oh, that I may believe!” The Hassid was then suffused with a glow within.  “That is right,” he cried. “That is right. Oh, that I may believe, Lord of the world, oh, that I may believe!” (2)

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We are living in one of the most difficult times in Jewish history. Since the days of emancipation, Judaism has come under constant attack from within and from without, and many have left the fold. This has had a devastating effect on the future of the Jewish people.

It is clear that there is a desperate need to turn the tide and bring Judaism back to our young people.  This call comes not only from religious circles but even from some of the most secular Jews who realize that without proper Jewish education there is no hope for a Jewish future, neither in Israel nor in the diaspora.

Many have argued that belief in God and observance of rituals should no longer be central to Jewish education but should be replaced with cultural events and the study of Jewish history.  These would serve as a means to encouraging Jewish identity and pride as well as cultivating a sense of belonging. This, they say, should go hand in hand with regular visits to Israel and an intensification of the Zionist enterprise.

Advocates of this proposal feel that belief in God is no longer relevant in an age in which science has replaced religion, and Jewish observance no longer speaks to the majority of our young people.  Therefore, these two factors do not serve as enough of an incentive to remain Jewish.  

But this theory is highly problematic. To argue that belief in God is outdated is not only a gross misreading of the truth but also what people are in need of.  When vital values become obsolete, and many are overwhelmed with every kind of pleasure and comfort, man feels increasingly like a stranger in his own skin. The overall picture is: since he has nearly everything, he is nearly nothing. Much of man’s life is surrounded with existential emptiness, and little to live for. It becomes clearer and clearer that personal meaning is hollow unless it relates to what is transpersonal; man, more and more, is looking for meaning that transcends the smaller objectives. A loyalty that is ultimate.

The question eventually becomes: Is there anything to die for? This is the only reason why man wants and is able to live and endure life. And it is this need that has become most urgent in modern times. Only when we will offer our young people a way to experience an ultimate calling will their souls be recaptured.       

When we have a careful look at our world we realize that many false gods and ideologies are crumbling. Man is hungry for the voice of God because only that can make him feel that there is indeed something to die for. The problem is that this voice has been stifled, and there is an urgent need to recapture its echo.

What has caused great harm is that in nearly all religious circles God is taken for granted and never contemplated. People fail to understand the difference between creed and faith. Maimonides did a great disservice to the Jewish tradition by introducing articles of faith, although he may have seen a need for it in his time. (3) Judaism and belief in God have become dogmatized and sterile.

But Jewish faith is not a dogma. It is neither an easy or secure achievement, nor an attitude acquired immediately for once and for all.

It takes an instant to trust an idol but ages to attach to God. It requires effort, stirring, and preparation.  It means growing in prayer, in selfless deeds, and in the realization of the mystery of all existence. Faith means striving for faith. It is never an arrival. It is a constant journey and can only burst forth at single moments. In no way can it be commanded.

Faith is not born from logical deduction. It is born from doubt, which is its natural breeding ground.   To believe that all doubts must be resolved before we attain faith is a mistaken notion. Avraham, Moshe, the many prophets, and Iyov all lived with implacable perplexities many of which were never solved.

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 gets a clear understanding that those who deny themselves the comfort of certainty are much more authentic than those who are sure. The famous Chassidic sage Rabbi Mendel of Kotzk was once told about a great rabbi who claimed that during the seven days of Succoth his eyes would see Avraham, Yitzchak, Yaacov, Yoseph, Moshe, Aaron and David enter his Sukkah. The Kotzker Rebbe responded: “I do not see the heavenly guests; I only have faith that they are present, and to have faith is greater than to see.”     

Faith means that we worship God before we affirm His existence. We praise before we are certain; we respond before we question. (4) The great art is to live a life of religious devotion before we are sure about what we believe. Man can die for something even while 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, but it is the actual stimulus to do so.

Young people look for a life of commitment without having to be certain or buy into dogmas. They want to take an existential risk, to be able to say:  I am prepared to risk my life for something ultimate in which I believe. 

To argue that Judaism would be better served by cultural events, social gatherings in Hillel houses, or even trips to Israel is to badly misread the existential situation of the Jewish people today. In the long run, these activities will simply add to the problem if they are not accompanied by a strong spiritual component. Only an ultimate value can shape a fully committed soul. The question is not whether God exists, or whether the observance of rituals is divine.  The question is: Do we realize that Jewish identity and Judaism is doomed to fail without the postulation that there is a God and an inner need to observe?

Our first concern must be to bring God back into the lives of young people, to teach them that the ultimate call is to re-engage with Judaism, and to encourage them to take the risk and become religiously inclined even if they cannot be sure. Studying the beauty of Jewish ritual, with its rich colors, deep wisdom and healthy outlook on life, is enough of a compelling reason to commit oneself to its lifestyle whether or not one is convinced of its absolute truth. What needs to be understood is that life is the art of drawing sufficient conclusions from insufficient premises, and we can be absolutely certain only of things we do not fully understand.     

To believe is not to prove, not to explain, but to accede to a vision. It is for that reason that even an apikores should pray mincha. 

Oh, that I may believe!

(1) Heard from Professor Menachem Kellner.
(2) See Martin Buber, Tales of the Hasssidim, NY, 1948, vol. 2, p.158.
(3) There are many reasons to believe that Maimonides wrote these articles for the common man to give him some anchorage. It is also possible that he never believed in them in a dogmatic way. Others opine that he abandoned them later in his life. See: Marc B Shapiro: The Limits of Orthodox Theology, Maimonides Thirteen Principles Reappraised, The Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 2004, Introduction.
(4) See the famous hymn “Ein K’elo-henu” in the Jewish morning service.

Please see more of  the writing and teaching of Rabbi Dr. Nathan Lopes Cardozo here.
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