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Acquiring Faith

May 9, 2009 | by Rebbetzin Feige Twerski

I long for the comfort and certainty that believing in God would afford. But how can I make myself believe, when I don't?

Dear Rebbetzin,

As long as I can remember, I have had doubts about the existence of God, and confusion about how and whether the requirements of Judaism apply to me. If I knew for sure that God exists and that He wrote the Torah, obviously I would follow it. Unfortunately, as a person who isn't sure if there is a God, I cannot see any good reason for taking on all of the stringencies of Jewish observance. I keep a kosher kitchen, but cannot explain why, especially to my husband and stepchildren, who find it a nuisance and no more.

As the world has gotten to be a scarier and scarier place, especially for a Jewish American, I have felt envious of those who are sure of their faith in God. I long for the comfort and certainty about my path that believing in God would afford. But how can I make myself believe, when I don't? I want to believe, but I don't know how.


Rebbetzin Faige replies:

A young man, a congregant of our synagogue stood spellbound as he watched my brother-in-law Rabbi Shloime, of blessed memory, totally absorbed in and transported by the experience of prayer. At the conclusion of the services, he approached Rabbi Shloime and asked him how one can access the remarkable level of connection and faith that he had witnessed. Rabbi Shloime replied "with a lot of hard work."

Most of us erroneously assume that the most important things in life such as spirituality, love, creative inspiration, etc., should be spontaneous -- a flash, a gift, a bestowal. We are a culture that is paying dearly for the terribly misguided romantic notion that relationships can be engaged and based on the "love at first sight" premise. We believe that creative endeavor can be successfully negotiated by a mere flash of inspiration, without the requisite input of toil.

Determining the existence and nature of the Eternal Being requires time and effort to explore and learn.

Determining the existence and nature of the Eternal Being, who is the source of our life and all life, requires time and effort to explore and learn. Moreover as intelligent people who pride ourselves in making responsible choices in life, we owe it to ourselves that our metaphysics be a product of an educated, well-informed decision.

For starters, I would urge you to consider the following points:

1) The defining moment of Jewish history, the revelation of God at Mount Sinai when He chose us as His people, was a national experience. There is no other nation in the world that claims a prophetic experience witnessed by millions of people. All other religions are based on the testimony of a small group (or a single person) bearing a message to the masses. The Jewish people would never have accepted a God (and as you put it, "the stringencies of Jewish observance") had it not been for the indisputable certainty of their personal prophetic experience. [See: Did God Speak at Sinai?]

2) The tradition has been transmitted from generation to generation. There is no way that people who value their offspring more than their own lives would impose "the stringencies of Jewish observance" and the concomitant burden of being different, discriminated against and persecuted if God's existence was questionable. Despite personal doubts that invariably surface from time to time, the historical testimony transmitted from generation to generation is too powerful and compelling to break the chain of tradition.

3) Jews in all four corners of the world, whose paths have not crossed in centuries, share the same God concept and the same beliefs with only very slight variations in customs.

4) My husband has an impressive Jewish library. I often venture in to find him, sitting at his desk, surrounded by many treasures -- the thousand seforim (holy books) of Bible, Mishnah, Talmud, Midrash, Maimonides, Nachmanides, and responsa and philosophic works, both ancient and current. I think of all the brilliant minds throughout the ages represented in these works who have laboriously tackled the intricacies of an infinite Torah wisdom, who were transformed by it and proceeded to elucidate its teachings and illuminate Jewish learning.

They too must have struggled with faith, and yet their conclusions laid all doubt to rest.

And when doubts arise, as they invariably do in most people's lives, I think of our illustrious ancestors, the compilers of these magnificent works, of these minds that were far greater than my own. At given times, they too must have struggled with issues detracting from their faith, and yet their conclusions and resolutions laid all doubt to rest. When uncertainty takes hold, I defer to the wisdom of the ages that preceded me, and to the understanding of those whose connection and comprehension of the sublime far surpasses my own.

5) While very difficult, it is imperative to be intellectually honest. Maimonides (one of the greatest philosophers of all time) posits that idolatry, the rejecting of God and/or serving other deities, is not generally rooted in intellectual deliberation. It is emotionally driven. He explains that a person who wants relief from the confines of a disciplined life, or who desires to partake of pagan or secular practices (orgies or such), is loathe to admit these base desires. So the person will build an intellectual construct, an "ism" or belief system (or better said, "non-belief") that not only permits but supports or mandates the given behavior. These are often sophisticated rationalizations for relieving oneself of "the stringencies of observance."

Consider this variation of this theme:

Janet, a tall attractive 20-year-old came to see us. Despite the heartache she would cause her family and friends, she shared that she was seriously considering rejecting Jewish life. She had come to the conclusion that she could not believe in a God who would allow the Holocaust or 9/11 to happen. As the session progressed, it surfaced that Janet came from a terribly dysfunctional home and had been abused as a youngster. She was harboring a great deal of anger and an enormous amount of pain. Early in her life, everyone who should have been her advocates and protectors betrayed her. And most significantly, by extension, she was heartbroken that God did not protect her from her own personal holocaust.

Viewing life through the prism of pain and unresolved issues, one cannot possibly negotiate a reasonable path.

My husband invoked for her the image of a drunk thinking that he was walking a straight line, as he stumbled and wavered in and out. Similarly, a person making ultimate decisions about whether God exists, while viewing life through the prism of pain and unresolved issues, cannot possibly negotiate a reasonable path. The decision, if it is to be intellectually honest and consistent with reality, must come from a whole and emotionally healthy person. Janet was advised to seek intervention to help her heal. She was also encouraged to pursue a course of study in consultation with scholarly authorities.

6) Finally, dear reader, the assertion that you would take on the "stringencies of Jewish observance" if you knew for sure that there is a God, is reversed in its order. While all of us would wish to be the beneficiaries of a revelation or prophetic experience where God appears to us in living color, that is not the way faith is acquired. "If I will have faith, I will observe" would be better replaced by: "If I observe, I will have faith." Many Jewish sages have noted that the Hebrew words emunah (faith) and emun (training) are derived from the same root. This shows that the soul must train itself in order to be capable of achieving religious experience and a relationship with God.

The mitzvot comprise a communication, a response to a higher law that we cannot totally identify with or comprehend. Initially, the would-be believer cannot expect them to flow from within, because their source is above and beyond. But through observance, slowly but surely, a relationship is forged. Our souls, the eternal essence of our being, will resonate with a thirst-quenching validation of being connected with the Source -- much like the flower bud lifting its face to the sun for affirmation.

Our souls thirst-quenchingly connect with the Source -- much like the flower bud lifting its face to the sun for affirmation.

Tisha B'Av is the Jewish national day of mourning, marking the destruction of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. We fast and we recite the Book of Lamentations, describing the glory of old and that which is no longer ours. Realistically, comfortable, modern-day diaspora Jews can hardly relate to -- let a lone mourn for -- an era we never knew and perhaps, at least until recently, were much too complacent to have any use for. Still we mourn. The articulation and configuration of that mourning, the prayer that we recite is best expressed as: "God, I long to long. I yearn to yearn."

Similarly, your poignant longing for faith, as expressed by your words, "I want to believe, but I don't know how," is a wonderful and appropriate beginning for the journey toward faith.

I would suggest to you the following:

a) Take some quiet meditative time and address this yearning to God (even if initially it takes the form of "to whom it may concern"). Tell Him that you would like a palpable sense of His being with you.

b) Look around, with mindfulness, at your blessings, your husband, children, friends. Observe the magnificent beauty of nature -- the sun, trees, flowers in bloom, lakes, rivers, oceans, etc. Ultimately, you will begin to discern the hand of the Almighty (veiled though it might be) in everything that surrounds you.

c) Faith, by definition, precludes open, obvious, and clear manifestation. It speaks of hiddenness, searching deep, stripping the facade, and cutting away the layers that obstruct a clear view. One can only achieve this through learning Torah, God's expressed will for us. Avail yourself of classes, lectures, and behavioral experiences -- i.e. spending Shabbos and holidays with observant families, and networking with supportive communities of faith.

Good luck and may God bless your journey.

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