Open Letter to My Students 19: How’s Your Faith?

“How’s your faith,” a woman asked me just before my daughter underwent her first brain surgery for epilepsy. She was the mother of the patient down the hall, a hulking teenager, multiply disabled beyond his epilepsy, who spent each day watching cartoons and repetitively stuffing a nerf ball into a basketball net affixed to the foot of his bed. “If I didn’t have faith that he will someday sit at the right hand of God, I don’t know how I could get through each day,” the mother explained. “But I figure, if he is good enough for God to love, then I can love him too.” 

“That’s real faith,” I thought to myself. “I wish I had it.” But I didn’t. I didn’t know any Jews who did. In five years of rabbinical school, faith was rarely discussed, never expected, and frequently disparaged. 

Faith had been a major topic in medieval Jewish philosophy, however. Maimonides himself (1138-1204) established thirteen principles of faith; Joseph Albo (1380-1444) emphasized three. But modern scholarship tended to dismiss their efforts, as if faith was just for Christians, not for Jews. Back when I went to school, for example, we were assigned two turgid philosophical textbooks, one by Isaac Husik (from 1916) and one by Julius Guttmann (from 1933). Both authors went out of their way to downplay faith: Maimonides (they pointed out) never included his principles in his philosophy; Albo was portrayed as a dogmatic anti-intellectual. Husik’s Index, does not even list “Faith” as a topic. 

To this day, that modern scholarly bias has hampered Jewish discussions of faith. Faith has indeed been more central to Christians than to Jews, but it is not as if Jews never had it or do not want it. 

 We are so deeply biased against it that discussions of faith are awkward, unproductive, and rare. Do you believe in God? In prayer? In an afterlife? If we answer “Yes,” we risk being judged as people of faith, but quaintly antediluvian, like the Cheshire cat of Alice in Wonderland, who practiced believing six impossible things before breakfast.  

Faith need not imply dogmatic belief, however. The word “faith” has many other meanings as well. We can putour faith in someone; we can have faith that something will happen; we can show good faith of our own. “In faith” says Shakespeare (Sonnet 141), meaning just “In truth.” We can be “faithful” and believe nothing whatever. If our conversations about faith are to get us anywhere, we need a new way of talking about it.

When I say, therefore, that my journey home to the State of Wellbeing was helped along by faith, you should properly ask me what in the world I am talking about. That, at least, is what I have been asking myself, and I have come to the following conclusion. Faith is not something you have; it is a strategy you follow. 

Life vacillates between hardship and comfort, disappointment and elation, trauma and healing. Mostly, it is none of the above, neither highs nor lows. It is usually just suiting up and showing up: to work, to family, to responsibility, to exercise, to dinner with friends. None of this happens without strategies in place, usually those we adopt unconsciously as children, and then modify as adults. Faith is such a strategy, a counter-strategy to the less helpful ones, a strategy we can elect, if we wish. 

The “election” process is more complicated than it looks, however, because it is not the case that I see a strategy out there called faith, and then decide to adopt it. It is the other way around. Having experimented with various strategies for life, I look at the one that has proved to be most promising, and then I decide what to name it. I find optimism better than pessimism; trust better than suspicion; truth better than falsity; kindness better than cruelty. The world is a glass, half full and half empty, but I customarily do better when I live with the half-full part. “Faith” seems to me an eminently apt name for all of this. 

Among the many accepted meanings of “faith,” the Oxford English Dictionary lists these: “The quality of fulfilling one’s trust or promise; fidelity, loyalty, trustworthiness; the duty of fulfilling one’s trust; firm trust or belief in or reliance upon something; a set of firmly held principles, ideals, or beliefs; in truth, really, truly.” All of that is a pretty apt description of how I try to manage my way through life. 

More importantly, perhaps, it is how I want to manage my way through life. Like everyone, I have tried other strategies too: anger at the world, despair at feeling powerless to fix it; distrust of others, when too many people fail me; guardedness when vulnerability proves hurtful. But overall, I have found those strategies disastrous. When I descend into them, I try to remember the benefit of faith. 

I have been guided by William James, who says words have cash value; Thomas Dewey, who thinks words are utilitarian; and Ludwig Wittgenstein, who likens words to tools in a toolbox. The name I adopt for my strategy must have value and utility as a tool to help me lead a better life.  

I have rejected the more secular word “hope,” for example, because as a tool for handling the world, it is too modest, hardly the same cash value as “faith.” The Judaism of the Rabbis is hopeful, of course, just as I am hopeful, but rabbinic hope, and my own, are rooted in the much richer approach that is better captured by the word “faith.” Faith is more robust; it points me toward a greater possibility of certainty; it opens the door for my Jewish heritage in ways that mere hope does not. And it allows me to name the things of my experience with religious language that elevates the conversation and myself, as I do the conversing. I name things “godly.” I look at friendship, beauty, love, and kindness, and say, “That’s what I mean by God.” I love what Elizabeth Barrett Browning says in Aurora Leigh

                Earth’s crammed with heaven;

and every common bush afire with God;

But only he who sees takes off his shoes,

The rest sit round it, and pluck blackberries.

So many States in the existential Map of Being (the State of Grief, the State of Despair, the State of Anger, and more) depend ultimately on whether you think we are alone on the narrow bridge of life. Through pure, sheer, regularized use, I have memorized Psalm 23:4, “Even while walking through a valley of deepest darkness, I fear no harm, for You are with me; Your rod and Your staff – they comfort me”; and from Adon Olam, “In God’s hand I put my soul, when I’m awake and when I sleep; and with my soul, my body too. God is with me. I need not fear.” I pray each night (from Hashkiveinu): “May God lay me down in peace and wake me up to life,” — a full life; in my case now, a life renewed. I wait each year for Yom Kippur’s concluding service (N’ilah) and its most important prayer: “You [God] reach out your hand to sinners.” 

And if to sinners, then all the more so, to sufferers, those against whom the world and its ways have sinned. The premature death of my wife Gayle, by a rare cancer that we do not as yet know how to cure, was a sin committed by nature. In my State of Grief, I walked through that valley of deep darkness, but somehow remembered an outstretched hand of God, the image our prayerbook offers for the assurance that we are never alone. Without that helping hand, I would never have picked up the oars to start rowing home to Wellbeing in the first place. I almost never believe literally in the stuff that popular culture considers matters of faith. But the strategy of faith has invariably saved me.

7 responses to “Open Letter to My Students 19: How’s Your Faith?

  1. Gary Bretton-Granatoor

    As usual, beautifully written and provocative. When I have taught about the difference between Judaism and Christianity (overly broad, I know) I use the terms Emunah and Avodah. In the Christian world these are discreet and Emunah (as in faith that Jesus is one’s personal messiah) is always weighted more heavily than Avodah (as in acts of loving kindness). The opposite is the case in Judaism and there is something else, I have asserted: that Emunah and Avodah are not discreet but reliant on each other. Emunah compels some form of action. Avodah requires some level of intentionality. And in Jewish life, Avodah is weighted more heavily than Emunah. Perhaps that is due to our reticence to engage in dialogue about Emunah – we haven’t even created a vocabulary. You have started that. And perhaps as we ask ourselves how we can create a more engaged Judaism in what seems to be a “post-synagogal” world we will need that vocabulary- and the willingness to employ it with amcha. Your blogs (musings? Thought-pieces? – I hate the term blog) have touched me deeply, and as always, I am grateful for all you taught me, and your friendship. B’yedidut, Gary

    Gary M. Bretton-Granatoor (he, him, his) garymbg@gmail.com 917-941-3256 Skype: gary.bretton-granatoor Check out my website: garybrettongranatoor.com

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    • Thank you Gary: very thoughtful, as usual with you, and informed by your extensive interfaith work, about which you have so much to teach us. I differ from you only in this: I am not yet ready to throw in the towel on synagogue. I do not think we are in a post-synagogal world, not yet anyway, although we might be, if synagogues do not respond creatively and wholeheartedly to our time. Were we to reach a post-synagogal world, we would have forfeited a great deal, Judaism itself, potentially. We need some institutionalization to retain anything worth while, and if the synagogue goes because it fails this challenge, I see no other institution that can keep it alive.

  2. oh larry. your words moved me again. after a very difficult week which ended in the funeral today – which means another week now begins- I find your words comforting. the ring I wear every day of lauren’s, has the last words of adon olam – Gd is with me I shall not fear. those words have always given me (& lauren) peace and comfort. good shabbos friend. mim

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    • I think of Lauren all the time. So tragic. I didn’t know you wore that ring. And you told me something about this week. Tragic again. I told my students yesterday that life is itself a narrow bridge, where we meet one another and help each other not fall off. Gut shabbos indeed.

  3. LARRY, REGARDS AND GOOD MEMORIES OF THE PAST WILL HELP US IN THE FUTURE

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  4. “Faith” as a noun, as typically implied by the question “Do you have faith?” seems incomplete, needing to be followed by “in ____” (fill in the blank). Otherwise, the question you have posed is, in our current society, assumed to imply the ideas you mention, e.g., “faith in a god that can miraculously heal,” or “faith in an afterlife free of the pain and suffering of this life.” “In” something is necessary to complete the question/thought. Rather, I hear you proposing “faith” as a verb.

    • Thanks for a very important question. My answer is — Not necessarily. Faith can still be a noun, a collective noun representing a strategy of moving forward in life. What we have to rid ourselves of is the habit of having to add the phrase “in X.” You say the sentence sounds incomplete without “in X” and you are right — it does SOUND incomplete, but only because of habitual usage assuming faith has to be in something nameable. At times, we can still say “faith in,” as in “I have faith in you.” But what that actually means is, “I can exercise my strategy of moving ahead in life because you and I have a certain relationship, a relationship of trust, of truth, of mutuality, etc.” But “trust, truth mutuality” are still just components of the strategy I name. The fact that we share them is captured by the sentence, “I have faith in you and you have faith in me.”

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