A Three Part Guide to Jewish Life – Part One – Belief
By Rabbi Jeremy Gordon
This is what I don’t mean by belief. There is now evidence gravity waves exist. Physicists are relieved, they no longer have to believe, they now have evidence. In science beliefs are provisional theories which exist only to be superseded by data. That’s fine, but nothing to do with belief as I understand it.
‘What is finite to the understanding,’ said the German philosopher of religion, Ludwig Feuerbach, ‘is nothing to the heart.’ Belief is the realm of that infinite to the understanding. It’s not a provisional theory, it’s a spiritual, emotional reality which doesn’t respond to laboratory testing.
There is something wilful about this kind of belief. One has to open one’s heart to the possibility of meaning in places beyond science. One has to believe, as it were, in the possibility of belief; in a realm which makes calls on who I am and how I should live.
At the opening of the Mishneh Torah, Rambam expressed this belief as follows; The base of belief and the pillar of wisdom is to know that there is a First Cause which is the causation of all causation from heaven to earth and everything in between. (Yesodei HaTorah 1:1)
When Rambam built all Jewish life from a belief statement it was a radical departure for Judaism. The Torah never explicitly commands to belief, but Rambam is surely right; without some reference to something, ‘beyond,’ Judaism collapses into a grab-bag of cultural peculiarities. But if there is something beyond humanity, beyond calculation then there might be a purpose to our existence as humans and as Jews.
In the rabbinic imagination Abraham, rejects the nonsense idolatrous world of his childhood and embarks on a search. Abraham wandered from place to place when he saw a bira doleket – a castle in flames. He wondered: “Is it possible that the palace has no owner?” The owner of the palace looked out and said, “I am the owner of the palace.” So Abraham our father said, “Is it possible that the world lacks a ruler?” Gd looked out and said to him, “I am the ruler, the Sovereign of the Universe.” (Bereishit Rabba 39:1).
The experience of wondering about the purpose of existence allows for an encounter with that purpose. Belief arises from a quest; why we are here, who shall we be? Belief provides a framework for understanding our lives as something other than a decaying atomic dust.
Of course, to the atheist, we are just this collection of meaningless dust. But my call is that we should open our heart to the other possibility. This is a little circular – in order to find meaning we need to will ourselves to believe that there is meaning. But that doesn’t worry me. If I live my life as if there is a purpose I might stumble on that purpose. If I live my life as if there is no purpose, I won’t. I (perhaps like Pascal) will take that gamble. I’m also a fan of people who live their lives with this kind of belief. The religious fundamentalists scare me and nihilists, too often, strike me as selfish, boring even.
Belief has gone out of fashion these past years, atheists are winning the PR battle, but let me share two exercises to help us feel easier with this notion of belief.
The first is borrowed from the writings of Abraham Joshua Heschel, probably my most significant Jewish teacher. We should, wrote Heschel; live life in radical amazement. ….get up in the morning and look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted. Everything is phenomenal; everything is incredible; never treat life casually. To be spiritual is to be amazed.
Radical amazement is the single key to unlock a life infused by belief. To live life amazed is not a retreat into ignorance, in fact quite the reverse. The more I understand about evolution or quantum physics the more I am amazed at the beauty of the world.
The more we develop a sense of finding humdrum life
remarkable and miraculous – breath, smiles, the ability to put one foot in front of the other – the more we can inculcate a willingness to find belief and meaning. Developing a sense of radical amazement in our lives also, I believe, makes it easier for us to complete the next spiritual exercise.
Develop the practice of gratitude
In so many ways gratitude is integral to a Jewish existence. The very Hebrew term for Jew – Yehudi – comes from the same root as the word for gratitude. We should say thank you more often, place ourselves in a position of grace – how much we receive. Heschel again, ‘The cure for the soul begins with a sense of embarrassment.’ How can we be worthy of our lives? The more we pause to show our gratitude the more we open to the possibilities of feeling in our souls that which is beyond scientific measurement, that which is beyond the rational.
In next month’s reflection I will attempt to join the dots between this kind of belief and the doctrines of Jewish day-to-day existence.
Those who can’t wait are directed to http://tinyurl.com/threepartjudaism
Jeremy Gordon is Rabbi of New London Synagogue.
This piece is part of a three part guide to Jewish Life. The next piece will be in a copy of August’s Reflections.