Why Faith Matters

Abraham’s centrality for Western civilization has been debated ever since the earliest Christians described him as the paradigmatic “man of faith.” Salvation, they concluded, arises through “faith” (what we believe) not through “works” (what we do). The Rabbis, by contrast, emphasized works over faith.

But Abraham as a paragon of faith is part of Jewish tradition too. Only through faith in a God who summons him does Abraham leaves home and family altogether. Rav Soloveitchik has provided an entire treatise entitled ”The Lonely Man of Faith.” Faith matters in Judaism.

How could it not — faith is inherent to being human! It takes faith to imagine that anything we do at all has importance in the long run. We have little or no control over our personal fate; we cannot predict what will happen to those we love; when we die, we take nothing with us; and, frankly, how much do we remember about even our grandparents, not to mention their grandparents? The entropy of time washes memories away.

It is also not clear that what we do has any long-term impact on history, which we wish we could control but, obviously, cannot. It takes faith to act as if life is worthwhile despite regular personal setbacks and in the face of traumatic global events we never expected and have trouble controlling now that they are here.

Soloveitchik traces the human experience of faith to the Bible’s very beginning. He links the Bible’s two separate accounts of creation (Genesis 1:1-2:4; and 2:5-2:24) to parallel aspects of human nature. The first story addresses the need to be creative. “Fill the earth and master it,” God says (1:28) — in other words, “Be productive; do something.” The second narrative, however, focuses on God’s giving us “the breath of life” (2:7). Its concern is life itself: not what we fill our lives with doing but what the point of all that “doing” really is. This deeper question addresses what we mean by redemption, or (as Christians prefer saying) salvation. Story One highlights accomplishment; Story Two underscores redemption.

From childhood on we are trained to value accomplishments but, eventually, accomplishments pale. That is the message of Ecclesiastes: “Utter futility! All is futile. What real value is there in all the gains we make beneath the sun?” If that sounds jaded, just consider how history is filled with accomplishments that do not matter anymore. We go to school to get a job, get a job to build a career, build a career to get ahead, get ahead to get further ahead, and so on. But to what end? “Accomplishment” is simply what we do; “redemption“ is the certain sense of why we do it. Redemption derives from faith in a transcendent purpose, a higher ideal to which we owe allegiance. Judaism calls that God.

We are back to asking whether we are saved by works or by faith — by accomplishments, that is, or by redemption. Accomplishments satisfy the human thirst for creativity, but will not suffice at moments when we are forced to wonder why creativity matters in the first place. Faith alone can tell us we amount to something, even when we feel like failures; when devastating illness interrupts our plans; and when we die so poor as to have little sense of material accomplishment or so young as to be unable even to conceive of a lifelong project, let alone to see it through. Only faith provides the redemptive certainty that we matter regardless of how our accomplishments turn out. And only faith can measure our accomplishments in the first place.

The Bible introduces Abraham as someone of no accomplishments at all; we get no biography of him whatsoever (the Rabbis have to make all that up). Abraham’s single claim to fame is that he responds to God’s call to undertake a journey in faith. He will face disappointment after disappointment; struggle with the land to which he is summoned; lose the battle to save Lot; banish his first son Ishmael; prematurely bury his beloved wife Sarah; and die virtually alone, far away from Isaac whom he once almost sacrificed. But his faith in a God whom he never sees will not flag.

Why are Jews so heavily invested in accomplishment, but not redemption or faith? Why are we so ready to dismiss the possibility of God, of being called, and of measuring ourselves without accomplishment as our center? The challenge is hardly to be like Abraham the great accomplisher. It is to face the possibility that we are called, like Abraham, to have faith in redemption, no matter what we manage to accomplish.

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9 responses to “Why Faith Matters

  1. I’ve been devoting much thought to the nature of Faith and what it means to me: partly it is that “faith without works is…” Faith.
    I’m often nervous when my conclusions lead me outside seemingly traditional jewish teachings. But even more than Avram’s geographic destination, my striving to understand Faith is the land I’m being shown, is the land which calls me to Return.
    Thank you Rabbi for your encouraging perspective.
    P.s. Yea Adam 2!!

    • Well, yes,but what counts as “seemingly traditional Jewish teachings”? How would you know one when you see one without already deciding in advance, in which case, when you come across it, knowing it in advance, you haven’t learned anything. That is something of an overstatement, because one can have a Jewish teaching in mind and still learn something more about it. But then, the same question arises philosophically: when you learn the “more” how do you know that it is Jewish, without already knowing it in advance, and so forth.

      The question is how open we want to be. I more or less trust Jewish tradition. It seems to me that we need openness, boldness, courage, and faith that our faith will not carry us away beyond whatever land God is showing us. without that faith, the rabbis would’ve stuck by the literal Bible; Maimonides would never have written his philosophy; our various mystical sects would have gotten nowhere; and none of the modern movements would exist.

      • In using “seemingly”, I am being a bit backhandedly dispairaging of “traditional”, and this probably reflects a negative experiencial bias. If I restate the subject as “traditional sources of”, it might provide a more accurate description of the basis of my discomfort of where my musings lead me.
        I was going to challenge your logic regarding the correlation between “deciding” beforehand and learning, how can we decide until we’ve received the teaching, but I’m afraid I’ve reframed to a degree our discussion.

      • The difficulty I’m having is the idea of faith expressed as action predicated on eliciting a response from God, and the reinforcement of this understanding of faith by the proofs of results.
        How do you understand faith, Rabbi?
        What suggestions would you make to broaden my understanding of “belief without proof”?
        Shabbat Shalom

  2. Why is it necessary to predicate a “response by God” that “reinforces this understanding by results?” if you demand a response that reinforces the understanding, you are in the realm of science not faith. That is precisely what science is: an experiment that predicts certain results and gets them or not, thus confirming or falsifying the hypothesis out of which the experiment arose. Faith operates precisely in the realm where no confirmatory response is in fact possible.

    • Your question and conclusion are as mine, though your’s are more succinctly stated.
      Beginning with Jacob’s contract with God at Beth El my learning experience has been that your view of Faith is not typical within our faith, but this may be more a statement of my ignorance of sources than a dearth of “atypical” exposition. I appreciate you taking the time to help me clarify some of my own thinking about how I think.
      I look forward to more of your offerings here.

  3. I’m wondering if Torah taught faith as cause-and-effect as an introduction monotheism?
    If this is the case, might the S’hma be the bridge to faith sans accomplishment?

  4. Yaakov (Joel) Beasley

    Dear Rabbi Hoffman

    Thank you for your thoughtful remarks. I am wondering about the ideass you raised, and having edited Soloveichik’s work on Abraham, I know that these issues influenced his thinking as well. I have one concern with the presentation you suggest – faith emanates from man upwards, redemption/salvation emanate from God downwards. It appears that the two terms are conflated, when it seems that Abraham’s greatness is faith without the promise of redemption …

    • dear mr. beasley,
      I felt the distinction here made between redemption and salvation was clear enough, so please describe how you would delineate them in so far as atonement (jewish) and deliverance (christian) are fused as seems you. thank you.

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