On Belief

Earlier this year, in my Medieval Jewish Philosophy class, we were assigned to fashion our own tenets of faith, a la Maimonides. What a daunting and audacious task! Of course, it also included a critical examination of Maimonides’ philosophy, and a consideration of the role of dogma in Jewish life. Here’s a look at what I put together… a fairly accurate portrayal of how I think of Judaism and Jewish life right now.

I started off by wondering what it must have been like for Rambam’s contemporaries to confront his articulated principles of faith. Could one have intellectually overcome the radical formulation of a formalized statement of Jewish belief? Were the articles an accurate reflection of mainstream Jewish beliefs? Would they have spiritual resonance for the masses? Or were they merely dogmatic representations of what was otherwise taken as “fact”?

In my imagination – while the abundance of legal codes and philosophical treatises prove otherwise – Jews of the past are often manifest as unquestioning believers in the reality of God and God’s presence in their lives. While I know this is a romantic fantasy, it is reflective of the depressed status of religious dogma in contemporary liberal civilization.

In today’s world – constructed upon extreme individualism and human domination of the natural world – it is no wonder that some (myself included) look nostalgically to the past with a modicum of historical revisionism as a time when it was easier to believe.

And yet, while the motivation behind and the exact form of belief espoused by Maimonides’ thirteen articles likely do not resonate with most Jews today, the idea of a personal manifesto of belief is not so foreign. Faith – in the sense of unquestioning religious belief – may not be palatable for most people, however the quest for authenticity, spirituality, and personal meaning are indeed resonant goals. In this milieu, is there, perhaps, a place for a contemporary affirmation of faith?

Could a contemporary approach to statements of faith, built on the quest for authenticity, spirituality, and personal meaning, remedy this anxiety?

Today, many of the so-called “Jews-of-no-religion” are apprehensive of blanket statements of belief; skeptical of those who attempt to proclaim what is true and absolute. But we also live in a time of great desire for connection beyond the superficial, for spirituality, and to unlock the secrets of the universe. Life in 2015 is simultaneously interconnected like never before, yet remarkably alienating. We have instantaneous access to the entire repository of human knowledge, yet we still have not answered the ultimate questions of the source of our existence or higher purpose. For those who do not believe that human existence is random, this can cause a Sartre-like nausea. Could a contemporary approach to statements of faith, built on the quest for authenticity, spirituality, and personal meaning, remedy this anxiety?

Daniel C. Petter-Lipstein, Chief Love Officer of The Jewish Montessori Society, describes the impact that this paradigm shift has had on contemporary Jewish life:

Now more than ever perhaps in the history of the Jewish people, the decision to live a life infused with religious purpose is very much derived from the intrinsic motivations and satisfactions that one believes comes from such religious commitment. Even if such motivation stems from a belief in divine commandment or historical or tribal fidelity, being religious (however one may define that term) is more than ever derived from a person’s inner life rather than outer force or influence.[1]

It is against this backdrop that non-Orthodox Judaism is evolving away from ideologies that seek to answer the question, “What do Jews do?” and towards those which seek to answer the inner question, “Why be Jewish?” So perhaps faith and belief – as inner faculties – are not antithetical to the current zeitgeist.

What is faith, if not a sense of being in relationship to something else – a social contract, built on the trust that we do not act only out of random, self-interest, but out of a sense of being in covenant?

In truth, the concepts of faith and belief are not dissimilar from the contemporary ideas of vision, aspiration, and responsibility – ideas with great relevance and potential for meaning. Aspiring to something greater is a basic characteristic of humanity – it is what separates us from other living creatures. And what is faith, if not the belief in or desire for something that is not yet realized? What is faith, if not the aspiration for what could be? What is faith, if not a sense of being in relationship to something else – a social contract, built on the trust that we do not act only out of random, self-interest, but out of a sense of being in covenant?

Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, while an eminent rationalist, was far from Maimonidean in his religiosity. Nonetheless, over a century ago, he presented an understanding of faith that reverberates with Maimonidean philosophy:

“Vision looks inwards and becomes duty. Vision looks outwards and becomes aspiration. Vision looks upwards and becomes faith.”[2]

With this framework in mind, I present my own tenets of faith that represent my understanding of Judaism, and my vision of contemporary progressive Jewish life. Like Rambam and Rabbi Wise, they encompass duty, aspiration, and faith. They are directed inward, with a sense of spirituality and personal obligation; outward, with a sense of fellowship and responsibility to other Jews; and upward, with a sense of being in covenant with God.

1. I believe that God is like infinity. There is very little we can say with certainty about God. Like infinity, it is sometimes difficult for me to think about God, but like a mathematician’s relationship to the integral idea of infinity, it is even more difficult for me to think about a world without God. I am moved by Buber’s notion of the distinction between thinking or talking about God – something that is nearly impossible, and speaking to God – something which we can all do without restriction.

2. I believe that God’s presence can be found anywhere, and as a result – especially given my blessed and privileged place in society – I believe in expressing gratitude to God on a daily basis. I believe that – as one of God’s creations – God has an interest in me. I believe that I matter, and that all humanity matters to God.

3. I believe that a Judaism without God is absent something. But because each person is an individual who experiences the world differently, and the nature of Judaism itself is not monolithic, I believe it is possible to be Jewish and to express oneself in Jewish ways without believing in God, but I believe that this is missing the essence of Judaism.

4. I believe in the particularism and universalism of Judaism. Judaism is not merely one arbitrary option among many to understand the world – it exists for a particular reason, and all of the particular “accoutrements” of Jewish life are how we attempt to understand that particular reason. But the world is not and should not be monolithic; diversity exists for a reason – even Judaism understands this (cf. Tower of Babel). It is on the foundation of our own particular truths that we can share universal understandings and wisdom with the world. As such, Judaism and Jews must also engage in and with the rest of the world.

5. I believe that study is not merely about learning ethics or historical criticism; that the meaning of Judaism is found in a thick, deep, seriously engaged approach to learning and ritual. More does not always equal better, but I am not content with a pediatric approach to Judaism as a gloss on top of western liberal values. Just as we demand rigour, growth, and seriousness in secular studies, so too should we in Judaism.

6. At the same time, Judaism is not just something we do on our own in our heads – I believe that ritual is not merely symbolic, and that Judaism must be “done” to be understood. Judaism is like Shakespeare – you can read it in a book, but you cannot fully understand or appreciate its beauty unless you experience it in action, in a theatre.

7. Shakespeare’s plays have integrity in and of themselves – they might become more palatable, meaningful, or exciting when updated with a contemporary setting (precisely due to their ability to capture the human experience in beautiful poetry and prose), but they also must be understood in context. Likewise, I believe in the holiness and integrity of our texts – whether we believe they were divinely authored, divinely inspired, or human creations. I believe that in trying to understand our textual heritage, we must first get closer to the texts, without trying to force them to get closer to us. We should not begin by pigeonholing the meaning of the texts into our pre-conceived desires. This also means not ignoring or trying to expunge difficult sections of our textual history. Built on this foundation, we can then work to find the contemporary relevance and ongoing meaning of our texts.

8. I believe in the power of language, and that the words we choose should be not arbitrary when speaking to God. We should approach our prayers and study with the same respect, modesty, and honour that we would use in speaking to, writing to, or reading the words of a prime minister, president, or queen. While I believe that God does not selectively listen to the words of only one language, I believe in the importance of learning and using Hebrew. There is little wonder that so many Jews feel a sense of alienation, shame, or confusion when approaching prayer and study. Without an understanding of Hebrew, so much of Judaism is literally foreign, and a wealth of knowledge is out of reach for most Jews. Translation is acceptable, but as as Bialik wrote, it is like kissing through a veil.

9. I believe that an acquaintance with the rich, multi-faceted textures of Judaism will reveal that Judaism is not entirely rational – there are plenty of things we do that are seemingly irreconcilable with modern, rational thought, and a diversity of opinions and understandings of how to apply Judaism to daily life. The Talmud recognizes this, teaching that “Like the hammer that breaks the rock in pieces’ (Jer. 23:29) – just as [the rock] is split into many splinters, so may one Biblical verse convey many explanations” (BT Sanhedrin 34a). There are many contradictions and a pluralism of ideas about the essence of Judaism. That is acceptable, because also…

10. I believe in Klugkeit – the cleverness that lets us gets around these contradictions (both real and perceived). Klugkeit is “the magic preservative that lets religiousness and happiness coexist… It is what allows a human being of flesh and blood with a flawed personality and a beating heart full of love and fear live under the rule of an inanimate system of laws without going insane.”[3] As fallible, imperfect beings, we have the ability (indeed the charge) to figure out how to make Judaism work each day.

11. I believe that free will and autonomy are not the same thing. I believe I have free will, and as a citizen of a modern, western country, the freedom to express my will. But I am not fully autonomous. I exist in relationship to God and those around me, and my choices – religious or otherwise – are not made without significant consideration as to their impact on what others expect and demand of me, and what I expect and demand of them.

12. I believe that all Jews are responsible to one another (BT Shevuot 39a). The endgame for me is not one where Jews do whatever makes sense to them at any given time. I am not naïve – I know that Judaism is often fragmented, and that there are Jews who understand their sense of Judaism and Jewishness in ways that are significantly different from how I do. But I do not envision a Jewish world where small pockets of Jews build walls around themselves, defined by their religious or cultural red lines, blind as to how their choices impact others. This paradigm can be thought of through the term “citizenship” – a description of the relationship between individual Jews, between groups of Jews, and between individual Jews and the collective Jewish people. As Edward Hamburg writes:

The term captures the reciprocal nature of this relationship, how it involves having rights and responsibilities that are understood and exercised very differently, with very different degrees of efficacy and intensity, by each of us, just like the rights and responsibilities we have as citizens of conventional polities. When we become Jewish citizens by birth or election, we are presented with the rights to share a collective identity as well as participate in a liturgy, a host of traditions and conventions, a history, and a multitude of stories. How we decide to exercise the rights and accept the associated responsibilities of this legacy determines our position within the kaleidoscopic Jewish world. [4]

This idea is captured close to the very beginning of the Talmud: “Our Rabbis taught: If one sees a multitude of Jews, they say: ‘Blessed is He who discerns secrets’ — for the mind of each is different from that of the other, and the face of each is different from that of the other.” (BT Berakhot 58a)

13. This leads one to Anavut – humility. I believe that we must approach learning, practice, and our relationships with anavut. This is not an abstract value; it has real world implications. Laszlo Bock, the Senior VP of People Operations for Google, aptly teaches that a successful movement requires “the humility to step back and embrace the better ideas of others. Your end goal is what can we do together… Without humility, you are unable to learn.”[5] Predating Google by a millennia and a half, the Talmud implores us to recognize the same idea: “For this reason was man created single… that there should be peace among human beings: one cannot say to his neighbor, my ancestor was nobler than thine” (BT Sanhedrin 37a).


[1] Petter-Lipstein, Daniel. “Autonomy, Mastery and Religious Purposefulness in Jewish Education.” Jewish Philanthropy. n.p. October 24, 2013. http://bit.ly/11NySJJ

[2] Wise, Rabbi Stephen S. Sermons and Addresses. June 11, 1905, 72

[3] Kilov, Tzvi. “Judaism is Crazy, And that’s a Good Thing.” HevriaHsfasf

[4] Hamburg, Edward. “Thoughts on Saying Amen.” Jewish Philanthropy. n.p. December 12, 2014. http://bit.ly/1PdPY9f

[5] Friedman, Thomas. “How to Get a Job at Google.” New York Times. February 22, 2014.

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