The Source of Faith is Faith Alone

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David Wolkenfeld

We used to tell visitors that the only kosher restaurant in Princeton was our kitchen. As such, during the five years that my wife and I directed the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus at Princeton University we developed a tradition of hosting the graduating seniors and their parents for a BBQ dinner the evening prior to graduation. Since the campus kosher dining hall was already closed at that time of year, the students and their parents needed someplace to eat. These dinners became a very special time in our lives each spring. It was a chance for us to say goodbye to cherished students and to thank parents for lending us their children for four years.

There were two groups of families who stood out at these meals. One group was made up of parents who never anticipated that they would be eating a kosher dinner at the home of the Orthodox rabbinic couple on the eve of their children’s Princeton graduation. They did not raise their children with Kashrut, perhaps they did not raise their children as Jews at all, and here they were eating a kosher BBQ dinner because of the religious and social choices their children had made at college. And there were also families who came to dinner whose children we did not recognize; they were not involved in campus Jewish life and we never had a chance to meet them, but their parents needed a kosher meal and so they came to our home.

I think of those two groups of families frequently because our Modern Orthodox community is fixated on questions of religious commitments and how to transmit them. And we are fixated on questions of religious faith and how it is cultivated, preserved, or lost. Rabbi Chaim Jachter’s recent book, Reason to Believe: Rational Explanations of Orthodox Jewish Faith gave me further opportunity to reflect on these questions.

In the book’s introduction, Rabbi Jachter shares a passage from one of the posthumously published books by Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik that presents a powerful and compelling metaphor for the recognition of God (Abraham’s Journey 29-31). A lost object can be claimed by its rightful owner through one of two methods. If the owner can identify simanim, distinguishing features of the lost object, she can combine enough of those simanim, to infer that the object is the one that she has lost. Alternatively, an owner may be able to recognize the object holistically through “teviat ayin,” a general recognition of the form and shape of the object. Teviat ayin is a superior form of recognition because it is an instantaneous, spontaneous, and certain identification of an object all at once. Rabbi Soloveitchik suggested that these two approaches to identification of lost objects can be used to describe religious faith as well.

Simanim are akin to the arguments and proofs that suggest God’s existence or God’s role in history. Teviat Ayin is akin to an encounter with God that creates recognition instantly, prior to, and really independent of, any specific argument, proof, or issue.

This distinction was the basis for a powerful essay written by my teacher Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein z’l called “The Source of Faith is Faith Itself.” Rav Lichtenstein, in this short essay originally published in 1992, describes the impact of his parents and of his teachers on his religious life, but concludes that his direct encounters with God, the moments of his life in which God was apparent, meant more to his faith than any specific arguments or educational messages he received. Teviat Ayin, recognizing something all at once for what it is, provides stronger grounds for correct identification than using simanim to make an identification.

This prioritization notwithstanding, Rabbi Jachter’s book consists mostly of a collection of simanim, logical arguments in support of the various faith commitments that undergird Orthodox Judaism. Some of the arguments were quite compelling, convincing, and even exciting to me, whereas some of the arguments were less compelling or convincing. But, perhaps ironically, I found the experience of reading the book to be a religiously inspiring experience, not because of any one of its arguments, but because of the warm and embracing personality of its author, which permeates each page of the book, and invites its readers to share Rabbi Jachter’s love for Judaism.

This dynamic is most clear in Rabbi Jachter’s chapter on responses to the challenge to faith posed by science and scientific understandings of the origin of the universe, of human life, and human evolution. The chapter is striking in the diversity of approaches that Rabbi Jachter presents to his readers as useful options to choose among as a way to support faith in the face of scientific challenges.

Rabbi Jachter presents the theory proposed (in one way or another) both by Rabbi Moshe Meiselman and the late Lubavitcher Rebbe, which maintains that scientific theories, the product of flawed human reason, can never undermine or influence the knowledge gained by tradition and revelation. Since our Orthodox way of life presumes that the Torah is Divine and eternal, and since scientists themselves acknowledge that all of their theories are tentative and subject to revision, it is never necessary, appropriate, or even wise to revise any truth claim of Jewish tradition in light of a scientific theory.

And then, Rabbi Jachter presents the theories and approach of Rabbi Natan Slifkin which emerge from theories first explicated in the medieval period by Maimonides and his son Rabbi Avraham ben ha-Rambam. According to this line of thinking, truths that can be proven by logical deduction and truths that have been given to humanity through revelation and then lovingly passed down through an authentic transmission of tradition can never be in conflict with one another. Therefore, if a certain understanding of the Biblical narrative or a literal interpretation of a Talmudic legend cannot be reconciled with reason, then we are called upon to reinterpret the Biblical narrative or Talmudic legend so that it corresponds to our sense of what is possible. The Talmudic Sages were not scientists, they based their analysis of reality based on the best information available to them and we should do the same based on the best information available to us.

And yet it might escape the attention of many readers that these two approaches by which an Orthodox Jew can reconcile faith and reason, represented polar opposite positions in a fierce Orthodox polemic that raged ten and fifteen years ago. Rabbi Natan Slifkin’s books were attacked and even banned by influential Haredi rabbis. Rabbi Meiselman’s books were derided as obscurantist and unsophisticated. Rabbi Jachter has replaced a bitter religious polemic with a loving presentation of helpful strategies to navigate the tension between faith and reason. In the world of Orthodox polemics, the question of reconciling faith and reason represents a prime example of how an argument about religion can so quickly escalate into mutual recrimination and delegitimization. In Rabbi Jachter’s book, both paths are legitimate and therefore sincere and faithful Jews are invited to make use of them as they see fit.

This move away from divisive argumentation towards a loving presentation of different tactics and strategies within which to ground a love of Torah and mitzvot exemplifies each chapter of Reason to Believe and turns the book into a holistic experience that is far greater than the sum of its various parts. That holistic experience, whether by design or by fortuitous accident makes Reason to Believe a book that is quite compelling and even important. I do not know if there is a thirst for logical arguments on behalf of faith, but there is a great need for the sort of warm, non-judgemental, and embracing invitation into the world of Jewish faith that Rabbi Jachter provides in Reason to Believe.

We saw this at our end-of year BBQ dinners.

Those meals were proof, if any proof was necessary, that college is a time of great religious flux. It is to be expected that college would be a time of religious exploration alongside the intellectual exploration that occurs at any great university. What I had not expected was the disconnect between the intense arguments and debates about elements of religious faith on the one hand, and any actual changes in religious practice.

Our students were deeply interested in all of the questions and answers that thinking people ask about God and the Torah. How was the Torah written? Does archaeology discredit or reinforce the Biblical narrative? Can Judaism become consistent with Feminism while preserving its continuity with the past? And so many students shift their relationship to Torah and mitzvot dramatically while they are in college. But I can’t recall a single student who changed his or her relationship to Torah and mitzvot because of a question or an answer to a question.

One helpful description of the nature of contemporary religious faith was provided by the recently deceased philosopher of religion Peter Berger. Berger argued that religious commitments are built on the ability to live within a “sacred canopy” that provides meaning and orientation to our lives. Communities enable their membership to live under a sacred canopy by constructing what he calls a “plausibility structure” in which religious commitments can still make sense and be reinforced by something outside ourselves.

It is extremely uncommon for someone to abandon a faith commitment because of a question he cannot answer or an argument that she cannot countenance. But it is so common for faith to be undermined by an unfriendly or unwelcoming visit to a shul, or by a religious leader whose serious ethical lapses are exposed. From one perspective, acceptance of a religious worldview shouldn’t depend on whether people are nice in shul! Either the Torah is true or it is not true! But, Berger’s paradigm helps us understand this common phenomenon. Faith is maintained by the communities and relationships that sustain a plausibility structure. When those relationships are strained or those communities shut us out, or we can no longer find religious leadership that is ethically compelling to us, faith itself can be lost or undermined.

And, the corollary is equally true. Religious commitments are reinforced by religious leaders whose good will and good character helps us see the world through their eyes and motivates us to want to.

For this reason, I found the experience of reading Reason to Believe to be one that affirmed and strengthened my own love of Torah and mitzvot. Although the book is erudite and displays its author’s prodigious knowledge, I do not recall finding any one answer to any particular question that had challenged my faith. Instead, through reading the book I was invited into the beit midrash of its author and was invited to share in his love of Torah and love of God.

David Wolkenfeld serves as the rabbi of Anshe Sholom B'nai Israel Congregation in the Lakeview neighborhood of Chicago. Prior to that he and his wife Sara directed the OU's JLIC program at Princeton University.