From Belief to Faith

Can the skeptic embark on a Jewish spiritual journey?

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It is not difficult to understand why religious traditions tend to catechism, why they often create rigorous definitions of what they believe. One reason has to do with public identifi­cation as part of a larger group. Without catechism, what de­fines a person as a member of that faith? If Judaism so validates skepticism and searching, if it is not illegitimate to be uncer­tain about God, then what defines a person as a member of the Jewish "faith community"? Surely it has to be more than birth. As we will see, Jewish tradition was not unaware of this question, but opted for some­thing very different than catechism.

There are also emotional reasons that explain why religions tend to enumerate distinct lists of beliefs. Many people--Jews as well as non-Jews--understandably find such certainty com­forting. The world can be a very frightening place, and for some people, absolute belief in God's existence and certainty that God has a plan for each and every human being makes it possible to find the strength to go on. When such theological structures and belief systems provide comfort, there may be nothing at all wrong with them.

Making Room for Skeptics

But not everyone reacts to the world in the same way. There are many other people for whom absolute religious certainty is simply not possible. Many people cannot assert with confi­dence that God exists, or that God has a plan for them, their people, or the universe. They cannot honestly recite Mai­monides' Thirteen Principles of Faith as reflections of their own belief. The world these people witness seems unfairly cruel, and they find it difficult to accept the notion that in a "world to come," good people will be rewarded and the wicked will be punished. How does Jewish tradition make room for them? Where do they begin their Jewish spiritual search?

As important a figure as Mai­monides was, Jewish tradition simply does not demand the sort of theological conviction that Maimonides espoused and that some Jews continue to find comforting. While it is true that many Jewish philosophers and some very important dimen­sions of Jewish tradition have long advocated precisely the cer­tainty that Maimonides sought--and that the Torah and much of rabbinic literature take God's existence for granted--those dimensions of Jewish thought are not the only way in which Jews have viewed the world.

Although Maimonides attempted to impose a catechism-like philosophic approach on Judaism, he was ultimately not successful. His Thirteen Principlesare still well known and to this day are found in many prayer books, but they never became a catechism in most Jewish communi­ties. They are studied and discussed, but personal acceptance of Maimonides' principles never became a sine qua non for Jewish legitimacy. Somehow, important streams of Jewish tradition resisted his approach. Those particular dimensions of Jewish thought may be especially helpful to Jews in modernity who still struggle with the whole idea of God.

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Rabbi Daniel Gordis

Rabbi Daniel H. Gordis is Director of the Jerusalem Fellows program and a member of the Senior Staff of the Mandel Foundation Sector on Jewish Education and Continuity. His most recent book, on the demise of peace in Israel, is entitled If a Place Can Make You Cry: Dispatches from an Anxious State; other books include God Was Not in the Fire: The Search for a Spiritual Judaism.