Faith

September 29, 2014 § Leave a comment

Faith is not a constant thing: life can be wounding when you least expect it: an unforeseen tragedy, an unforgivable betrayal, or an unwelcome diagnosis can waylay the best of us.

And when that happens, we find ourselves doubting the existence of God.

That’s when we stop coming to services, when we stop participating in the holiday celebrations, when we let go of what we thought was important.

I remember, for example, going on a youth group trip with my home congregation in California. We visited Fremont, in northern California, and enjoyed home hospitality among the congregants there. I was staying with a woman who had all sorts of questions for me, once she heard I was about to go study to become a rabbi.

She explained to me that she no longer lit the Shabbat candles every Friday night because her mother had died. So long as her mother was living, she could believe that God loved her and cared for her. But when her mother died, her closeness to God died as well: how could God love her yet take her mother from her?

And, newbie that I was, I did not know precisely what I could say to her that would make everything okay again for her.

‘How can we believe in God when bad things happen to us?’ I wondered. ‘And what can I tell her that will restore her faith.’ Yet there is no magic formula that makes faith possible. Rather, faith is the product of a long process of wrestling.

What I learned in rabbinical school, in fact, is that faith is a very old paradox, one that every generation has faced at one point or another.

For example, we each find that we would like to make the following assertions regarding God:

1. God is good
2. God is all-powerful
3. Evil is real

But those three assertions, taken together, simply do not work. Any two of them together are fine; it’s when you put all three side-by-side that you run into trouble.

Most of the attempts at working on the problem of evil will deny one of those three. Usually, the denial will be that God is all-powerful, or that evil is real – though some will deny the ‘God is good’ but reinterpreting what is meant by ‘good.’

For example, in the wake of the Holocaust, there has been a line of thought that God is perhaps not all-powerful. We find images of God suffering alongside us in the rabbinical literature – the idea that God went into exile with the Jewish people, suffering from the destruction of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem. One could argue, therefore, that (for whatever reason) God cannot prevent these tragedies from happening. That is one possibility.

Or we affirm that God is all-powerful but deny the reality of evil. Much of Hasidic thought, such as CHABAD, takes the position that evil is merely an illusion. The world is a veil that obscures the view of the Divine. The suffering we experience is not actually real.

Except that it feels real.

I have a friend who lost her child to cancer this year. I am not about to tell her that her suffering is not real, that it is merely an illusion obscuring the view of the Divine.

When you are in acute mourning, it is the pain that feels real; it is the rest of your life that appears to be a dream.

Another response is to interpret tragedy as God’s will. God is punishing us, or God is teaching us a lesson. For example, there are folks who will say, in response to a tragedy, ‘God only gives us what we can handle.’

The rabbis like this line of thought: they argue that the many difficulties that Abraham faced were tests, God-given tests, to demonstrate his character and faithfulness.

Except, of course, that one of those tests was the near-sacrifice of his son. Was that a test of his son, too? And did God already know that he would succeed?

The problem with these kinds of frameworks is that it makes God out to be quite cruel. This point, in fact, is the force of the story of Job: God makes an idle bet with ha-Satan, the accuser, and lets ha-Satan ruin Job’s life just to prove a point. They take away his fortune and his children and his livelihood and his house and his health, just to settle a bet. It is breathtaking in its cruelty, if you think about it.

Another problem with this God-concept is that it makes cruelty seem to be okay. If God does it, then we should be allowed to be cruel too. And I don’t think that helps our basic problem in any way. If anything, it makes it worse.

Maimonides has his own answer, of course. Ever the rationalist, he has an explanation.

In Maimonides’ view, there are three types of evil that befall humanity, some of which is in our control and some of which is not:

1. The first is the evil associated with being made of matter, which is changeable and subject to decay. This evil is inherent in the way humanity is made, and cannot be overcome.

2. The second kind of evil is the result of “tyrannical domination” of some people over others. Usually, it is limited to an isolated individual outrage rather than a constant threat, except in times of war.

3. The third kind of evil is that which an individual brings on himself or herself. These are our bad habits and personal vices, large and small, which account for much of our misfortune. This third kind of evil (i.e., the most common kind) is the product of our own doing.

I like this framework because it allows for the possibility of randomness in the system. But this answer is only partially satisfactory, in my view. He has a confidence that it all works out neatly, a confidence that I don’t quite share.

Specifically, he believes that if we’re smart enough we can transcend much of the evil of this world. We can, ultimately, become like the stars, ageless and contemplating.

That structure does not quite work, however, not just because the science behind his assumptions is suspect.

We often blame ourselves for not being smart enough to see trouble coming, but the reality is that it can blindside us. The illusion that our intelligence will protect us from most things is a comfort to us, but it does not work in practice.

Rather, I believe that God created a world that allows for chaos. It is what allows for change and growth, for new species and new traits to arise, for artistic expression and for new ideas. But that same chaotic space also allows for unwanted mutations, cancerous tumors, destructive events, and natural catastrophes. It is built into the very structure of this world, which is why God does not intervene to change it.

It means that we live in a world where 8-year-olds can die of cancer.

It also means that we live in a world where there are 8-year-olds.

We are given no guarantees: we are all vulnerable, all of us. None of us know the bounds of our life or the bounds of the lives of our loved ones.

In the context of this realm of chaos, the laws of science reign; we can use the laws of cause and effect to predict what might happen next.

There are, of course, novelties: there can be new mutations or new ideas that develop that change the very notion of what’s possible. But it still takes place within a basic framework.

Beyond that framework is a kind of energy that we are able to feel, even if we are not able to name it. It is the energy that is present at weddings and ball games, the electricity that you find in group events and some kinds of prayerful encounters.

It is present in the hospital room of a dying person when you hold his or her hand and sing. It is the divine energy, the same energy that makes you cry at weddings and marvel at the fine sweet scent of babies. When we sing the mi sheberach prayer, it is precisely that kind of energy that we are trying to harness.

Belief in that source of energy takes a leap of courage, because it is the belief that these events have real meaning. It is the belief that they are connected in a deep sense.

This is what I want to say: things can be better than what you have known, what you have grown up with, what you might believe to be the case. In that sense, then, hope is real, and necessary and good.

Having worked with people across the spectrum of practice and belief, I can also tell you this: Life can be exceedingly difficult at times, even overwhelming. And we all know that, objectively speaking. It offers no guarantees. Nonetheless, those times when you feel the least religious are also the ones when you need religion most.

Somehow life is better – even the awful parts – when it is shared.

In other words, you don’t need perfect faith. What you need is the courage to try, and the support of a group willing to make the journey with you, step by step.

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