October 13, 2019

Torah portion: Do you believe?

Do you believe, or don’t you?  

When someone asks whether you are a “believer” in God, in Torah, in revelation, it is often a trap — whether intended that way or not. 

The question presumes two problematic things: First, it presumes that the answer is binary: a “yes” gives you a ticket to traditional Jewish life; a “no” puts you on the outside. Second, it presumes that Jewish belief is a belief “that” — as in, “I believe that God gave the Torah, word for word, at Sinai” — and not a belief “in,” as in the simpler and more open-ended “I believe in God.”  

Many Jews find it hard to identify with certain creedal statements about God, as their faith seems to knock hard against their intellect and their sense of science and history, whereas most Jews would be eager to lay claim to the latter, more open-ended approaches to belief, if they were just given that chance. If they were just told that such faith were acceptable and not flaccid. If they were just told that it was an embrace of, and not rejection of, traditional approaches to Jewish belief if they “believed in … ” even if they struggled to “believe that … ”

Personally and professionally, I am grateful to my teacher Biti Roi of the Shalom Hartman Institute for reawakening “belief in” as an elemental Jewish concept, through the study of medieval and biblical sources. Let me share two of them.  

When people want to support the creedal notion of Jewish belief, the name Maimonides (the Rambam) is aptly invoked. It is his 13 principles of Jewish faith, written as part of his commentary to the Mishnah, that became unofficially codified as the sine qua non of Jewish belief and officially canonized as the poetic Yigdal hymn. This list was heavy on “belief that.”  To be a Jew meant belief that God gave the Torah to Moshe; that God would resurrect the dead; and that God preceded all that was, among other statements.  When sung in services, Yigdal is a lively ditty. When confronted as doctrine, many Jews struggle with some or all of the 13 statements.  As a result, such Jews may feel, or be made to feel — unnecessarily — on the outside.

Yet Roi reminds us that whereas the Rambam wrote his 13 principles mostly in his 20s, his later work — The “Moreh Nevukhim”(Guide for the Perplexed) — was completed when he was 57 and reflected a more mature theology, one in which healthy doubt and wondering replace utter certainty as the most normative of approaches.  Micah Goodman, also of the Shalom Hartman Institute, calls this later work not a Guide for the Perplexed, but rather a Guide to Perplexity, suggesting that the entire work is not to resolve theological doubt and confusion but rather to sow healthy doubt and perplexity as the kernel of a mature faith.  By the time the Rambam was in his 50s, he seemed less to “believe that,” and more to “believe in.”

The second source comes from Parshat Beha’alotecha. We find Moshe in a fascinating self-description as he complains about the burden of his task. He reminds God that he, Moshe, did not seek this post.  Ultimately, God is responsible for the Israelites, not Moshe. After all, “Did I myself conceive this entire people, or did I myself give birth to it, that you should say to me, ‘Carry it in your bosom, like a nursing-parent carries a suckling child’?” (Numbers 11:12). 

Roi points out that Moshe, in rejecting utter responsibility in his role, characterizes that role as feminine and maternal. The “nursing-parent” stems from the Hebrew o-men, which is the same root that yields emunah, or belief. Roi even posits that emunah, which also is related to amen, is built from a shorter, more core Hebrew root of aleph-mem, or em, which means mother. The upshot is that — etymologically and conceptually — faith and belief stem from the feminine, maternal, nurturing qualities of the universe, rather than from the binary, clear-cut and exacting masculine qualities. 

To be a ma’amin, a believer, may originally have been to approach God and the ephemeral as a mother would her infant. To hold in an embrace. To expect nothing in return. To linger in the intimacy. To feel through the moment rather than to ideate throughout it. Biblical and rabbinic Hebrew discuss mostly faith using the language of ma’amin b’, believing in, whereas by the Middle Ages, the phrase had calcified, and masculinized, into ma’amin she’, belief that.

Perhaps it is time to reclaim the earliest and most traditional approaches to emunah. Let us reject the notion that religious belief should be wielded as a test, as a decisor of who is in and who is out. And let us embrace the em of emunah, and thus enter faith as an embrace itself.

Rabbi Adam Kligfeld is senior rabbi at Temple Beth Am, a Conservative congregation.