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Anxieties of Faith and Faithlessness
Post-Yom Kippur meditations
Wednesday was Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish calendar, and I spent most of the period from Tuesday evening at sundown through Wednesday evening after dark at my synagogue, praying my heart out. I mean that; this was a pretty good year for fervency on my part. I’m not sure what I’ve actually repented of, to what extent I’ve actually “returned” (which is what the Hebrew word, teshuvah, usually translated as “repentance” literally means) or, inasmuch as I have, what it is that I’ve returned to. But man, it was definitely an experience.
In the absence of any certainty about its object, though, it’s worth asking what it was an experience of. Was it in any meaningful sense “religious” if it can be reduced to the experience of singing in an enthusiastic group and feeling a bunch of feels? If I was talking to God, much less if I thought God was talking back, wouldn’t I know it, and be changed? And if I’m not clear that I was, then what was I doing?
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Shortly before the holiday began, a rabbinic friend of mine posted on Facebook about an interaction he’d had with a colleague. What, the colleague asked, did he think about faith—that ubiquitous word in American religious discourse? As a rabbi or as a person, what was his attitude toward the concept? My friend was a bit flummoxed by the question. Faith in what he wanted to know? Faith in God? In the coming of the messiah? In the physical resurrection? He could relate to, and potentially answer, a question about the extent of his belief in any of Judaism’s traditional teachings. But faith as such? How could he answer a question about that?
His colleague dismissively said that, if my friend had no settled views, he would ask somebody else, which left my friend suspecting he was missing something in the question, which is why he put it out there on social media. Is there an “as such” to faith that Judaism has views on? If so, what might those views be?
I’ve been meditating on that question, and here’s my answer.
First, let’s consider it not as a noun, but as a verb. When we say “ani ma’amin”—the first words of a Jewish declaration of faith: “I believe with perfect faith in the coming of the messiah, and even though he tarry, every day I wait for him that he should come”—what action are we describing? How is the experience of believing or, perhaps better, trusting, different from the experience of knowing, or, on the other hand, of hoping? The word isn’t only relevant in a religious context. One can have—or lose—faith in one’s parents, one’s spouse, one’s government, one’s employer. It’s an inherently relational word, but it describes a quality or kind of relation towards some object that can be discussed in the abstract, irrespective of the object.
To further clarify the significance of this quality of relation, consider what it’s like for a relationship to lack this quality, for one not to have this feeling. Someone else in my friend’s thread suggested that despair was faith’s opposite, but I don’t think that’s right; despair is the opposite of hope, the conviction that everything will get worse and that one is powerless to effect any improvement. I think what you get without faith isn’t despair but anxiety, a constant need for reassurance. I think of my grandmother, who lost her whole family in the Holocaust, and the way she was anxious from then on whenever anyone was slightly late—who knew what could have happened to them? She wasn’t despairing; it’s not that she had given up hope. Rather, she had lost the ability to trust that things would probably be ok. Because she couldn’t believe, she needed to know, for sure.
The paragon of faith in the biblical text is Abraham, who passed the test of the akedah, the binding of Isaac. It’s a text that we read on the second day Rosh Hashanah, and our new rabbi did a wonderful drash on it, reframing it not only as test but as a punishment imposed in the wake of Abraham’s banishment of Hagar and Ishmael (the text we read on the first day of Rosh Hashanah). He had cruelly banished Ishamael on the reassurance that his line would continue through Isaac, so now he would be suffer having to lose Isaac. But what I noticed this year is something a bit different. Far from having been a consistent paragon of faith, the text shows Abraham constantly fretting that God won’t fulfill his promises, and shows God repeatedly reassuring him, over and over, that He will.
Most prominently, in Genesis 15 God promises Abram (he hasn’t had his name changed yet) that his reward will be very great, and Abram replies that it hardly matters since he has no children and his slave, Eliezer, will be his heir. God’s promises are insufficient to assure him, so God commands Abram to slaughter animals and divide them in half, and gives him a vision of a flaming brazier passing between the pieces and promising Abram his inheritance. This is an ancient Near Eastern formula for covenant-making, in which the swearer is saying: if I break this covenant, may what has been done to these animals be done to me. The command to sacrifice Isaac would appear to abrogate that explicit covenant—meaning that if the penalty is to be applied, God would be split in two. This is Abraham’s crisis of faith. It’s not about the teleological suspension of the ethical (God testing whether he places his own sense of right and wrong above God’s commands) but about a contradiction in God’s own nature. Will Abraham will believe that God will fulfill his covenant even as he commands Abraham to take an action that will abrogate it? I think the answer is in Abraham’s answer to Isaac: “God will provide the ram.” Christians interpret this as a foreshadowing of the crucifixion, but what I see is that decades of doubt that God will fulfill His promises, and decades of reassurance, in the crux when no reassurance is possible, Abraham believes that God is God, one and indivisible, and therefore believes God won’t make him go through with it.
If you think of faith as I’m describing it, then it should be clear that it is a feeling that can be cultivated. You can learn to be more or less trusting, need less and less reassurance. I’m not sure I’d recommend testing it the way God tested Abraham, but be that as it may. So if it is a virtue, a good Aristotelean would probably argue that it lies between two vices, that an appropriate level of faith lies somewhere between credulity and skepticism. But as Abraham’s example makes clear, moderation is not the hallmark of this particular virtue in the biblical text. We especially need to believe in the crux, in extremis. That being the case, is faith something we’re supposed to cultivate as such?
What strikes me most of all about Judaism’s attitude toward faith is the extreme importance attached to not misplacing it. Jews are enjoined to trust in God absolutely. At Sinai, the people say na’aseh v’nishmah, “we will do and we will hear,” meaning that we will obey (do) God’s commands first and come to understand (hear) them after. And as Joshua prepared to enter the land of Israel, Moses reminded him repeatedly rak hazak ve’ematz—just be strong and of good courage—because God would fight on their side. But we are simultaneously and repeatedly enjoined not to have any faith in false gods—in human creations, things of wood and stone that have no power, and, implicitly, inter analogs in the realm of ideas. We’re not supposed to have faith in human beings either—al tivt'chu bin’divim, b’ven adam she’ein lo teshuah—”put not your trust in princes, in a son of man who cannot save.” The biblical text uses marital metaphors (ultimately deriving from Hosea) to bring home what it means to be faithful, but conceiving of God as a jealous husband does more to illustrate the problem I’m pointing to than to resolve it. If you’re trying to answer a question about Judaism’s attitude toward faith as such, then, it’s not moderate but conflicted. It’s a terribly important feeling to have. It’s also terribly important to be sure you’re feeling it about the right object. I can’t help but suspect that it’s a combination that is also conducive to anxiety, albeit of a different kind that lack of faith engenders.
I emphasize the idea that what we’re describing is a feeling, because I think that’s the right category. It’s an emotional experience; faith, I think, is more like love than like knowledge. And a feeling is what I experienced on Yom Kippur, the kind of ecstatic and even to an extent oceanic feeling, the sense of both communing and of communicating, that is one way people describe religious experiences. So would I say I had a religious experience? Well . . . that depends what you mean by a religious experience. I felt that I was praying my heart out. But do I believe there was some kind of interchange, that God was present in some special way in that place, at that time, that the gates of heaven were literally closing at ne’ilah and that this was my last chance for these penitential prayers to rise? Whatever was special about that moment, I think we did it, by reaching out to each other and towards the divine. Whatever God was doing, He was going to do anyway.
Let me clarify that this formulation isn’t that strange from a Jewish perspective. The traditional understanding is that whatever work Yom Kippur does in the calculus of salvation it does on its own; it’s a gift of grace from God that the day itself atones for us. And Yom Kippur doesn’t fix anything mundane anyway; if you need to ask someone’s forgiveness, or need to forgive someone, Yom Kippur won’t do that for you. You have to do that yourself. Yom Kippur just squares you with God.
But I keep coming back to the question: if I believe we did what happened in that room, and I don’t know precisely what it is that we did, then what did I think I was doing, and why? I was praying my heart out not because I think Yom Kippur is some kind of religious perihelion with respect to God, but because it’s when we’re in that state with respect to each other and, even more so, ourselves. That’s our own human creation, and I don’t see a problem with that. I do believe in God, and so I believe I was heard. That’s the line I draw between someone who is in any sense religious and someone who isn’t: do you believe there is a consciousness responsible for the fact of existence itself, and that this consciousness is listening. That’s why the laws of physics aren’t God, even if they are responsible, in some sense, for the fact of existence itself: because they aren’t listening. But I didn’t need to do anything to be heard. I would be heard even if I never spoke a word (and that’s in the liturgy too). Meanwhile, everything else, the whole corpus of scripture and interpretation and so forth, and all the practices of religion, it’s all a human attempt to make sense of the fact of existence and the sense, the feeling, that whoever is responsible for creation is mindful of it. And that is, in the end, nothing more—or less—than a feeling.
I’m a Jew, if a mostly lousy one who habitually violates all sorts of commandments. That’s a matter of identity and affiliation, and it implies that my wrestling with these questions takes place within a Jewish context; even when I go outside it, which I do often enough, my ultimate goal isn’t to leave but to understand better when I come home. (I suppose you could call that being true in my fashion.) But if you ask me “was the world really created in six days?” or “did the Exodus really happen as described in the Bible?” or even “is God especially attentive to our prayers on Yom Kippur?” I’d reply: why are you asking these kinds of questions? Are you reading the Bible as a geology textbook, or a historical record? Are you conducting a scientific investigation of the relative efficacy of prayer at different times of the year? Those feel like category mistakes to me, attempts to turn the record of existential experience into something more like knowledge, less like faith.
I understand what Freddie deBoer is getting at with his criticisms of post-modern religion, but I think his objections are quintessentially modernist in their desire for things to make sense. And yet here we are in post-modernity. Pragmatically, modernism’s demands that religion be true or false in terms that come from outside the religion itself have simply not been met, and people have just gone on being religious anyway. No, I don’t think you can worship a “God-shaped hole” but you can perfectly well worship God while making the same unsatisfying (to a modernist) answers I did above. Because I do; I did.
And yet, here’s the rub.
Not having a problem with what I’m describing does mean being a little soft on the “don’t place your faith wrongly” front. It does mean saying that cultivating that feeling of faith matters more than getting the object exactly right. The exemplar of faithlessness in the biblical text is the sin of the golden calf, but what was the nature of that sin? The Israelites were anxious, a manifestation of lack of faith. Moses—their intercessor—had been gone for a long time, far longer than he could plausibly have survived by other than miraculous means. They needed a replacement, someone—some thing—that could reassure them that they were still connected to God. So they begged Aaron, the high priest, to provide them with one, and Aaron did: the golden calf. Calling this “idolatry” obscures more than it reveals; the calf was a divine throne not materially different from the cherubim that would be placed in the holy of holies. The difference was only that it was out in the open where all the people could see it and be reassured. The difference was that it was there for reassurance, to mollify a people whose lack of faith was demonstrated by the fact that they asked for anything at all.
And they were reassured. They danced and sang in joyful gratitude. They felt they were reaching out to the divine. And in return, they got this:
Then Moses stood in the gate of the camp, and said: 'Whoso is on the LORD'S side, let him come unto me.' And all the sons of Levi gathered themselves together unto him. And he said unto them: 'Thus saith the LORD, the God of Israel: Put ye every man his sword upon his thigh, and go to and fro from gate to gate throughout the camp, and slay every man his brother, and every man his companion, and every man his neighbour. And the sons of Levi did according to the word of Moses; and there fell of the people that day about three thousand men. [Exodus 32:26-28]
I feel like I was reaching out toward the divine. On whose authority can I rest in feeling that way? Only my own. I can try to be the kind of person who deserves that kind of trust, that kind of faith in his own judgment in such matters, but that’s just a recursive process—it’s still up to me to trust that I’ve become trustworthy. Contra Alasdair McIntyre, I think it has always been thus, but it does make a difference to know it to be thus rather than to believe it to be otherwise, just as it makes a difference to know that there are other religions with their own conceptions of truth that can be neither proven nor refuted, as opposed to believing that all other religions are either demonic tricks or human folly.
Because knowing makes a difference, I don’t think traditionalism is the same thing as living in a premodern world. We’re all living in postmodernity; there’s nowhere else to live. You don’t get to live without anxiety; you only get to choose what to be anxious about. I used to be anxious about doing it right. Now I’m not so anxious about that; instead, I’m anxious about what it means.
Or at least that’s how it feels to me. Which, once again, is all that I believe I have to go on.
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