Va-ethannan: The "Jewish Faith."

Do you have faith in G-d above if the Bible tells you so?  

American songwriter Don MacLean posed this question in his 1971 rock music ballad “American Pie.”  

For many, perhaps most, Jews, this question does not resonate as a Jewish one.  Generally, Christians talk about faith; Jews don’t.  Christians sometimes refer to themselves as “believers,” “seekers,” and “pilgrims,” while I've never heard Jews do so. Similarly, while I’ve heard Christians respectfully refer to Judaism as the “Jewish faith,” I don’t recall ever hearing a Jew use that phrase.  And I'm not just talking semantics; when was the last time you heard a synagogue rabbi give a D’var Torah on Jewish faith or belief in G-d – if ever?  

We think of and refer to ourselves mainly as a people, not as followers of a religion. There is no prescribed Jewish “faith test,” nor any agreed upon “articles of faith.” Rabbi Moses ben Maimon, aka Maimonides (1135-1204), wrote his Shloshah Asar Ikkarim, his 13 fundamental principles stressing belief in G-d, early in his life and began his monumental work, Mishneh Torah with the subject of faith/belief, not halachah. Other Jewish philosophers have also tried their hand at formulating fundamentals of Jewish belief.  None of their products, though, has been incorporated into our standard liturgy.  In fact, I can’t think of the words “faith” or “belief” – both usually translated as אמונה (Emunah) – appearing anywhere in the daily or Shabbat Jewish prayer service.

So, does it not seem correct that Judaism isn’t a “faith”?  

And yet … if you ask just about any Jew for Judaism’s most important statement of principle – so central and important that, according to our tradition, one should utter it as one’s last words of life, if possible, they will almost certainly reply that it’s the Sh’ma: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our G-d, the Lord is One!”  

How ironic!  We discount or even deny the "faith" aspect of Judaism, but how do we commonly refer to the Sh'ma, which appears is this week’s Torah portion? (Deuteronomy 6:4). We call it: “The Watchword of our Faith.”  
Moreover, this “Watchword of our Faith” is immediately followed in Torah, and almost immediately in our liturgy, by the v’ahavtah: “You shall love the Lord your G-d, with all of your heart…” And, earlier in the parasha, the Ten Statements (“Commandments”) from Exodus are reprised, starting with, “I am the Lord your G-d who took you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage; you shall have no other gods before Me.”   

Although the Shema, V’ahavtah, and “Ten Commandments” do not expressly mandate “faith” or “belief” in G-d, doing so seems to be entirely unnecessary, akin to mandating “faith” or “belief” in gravity.  G-d’s existence is presented as fact.  Although the Bible repeatedly portrays the Israelite/Jewish people as turning away from G-d’s commandments, I can’t think of anyone in Tanakh actually denying G-d’s existence.  

Similarly, both in the Bible – classically, in Job, and in later rabbinic and other Jewish literature, including the moving piyutim poetry we just read during Tisha B’av, and in post-Holocaust writings, G-d’s actions and inactions are sharply questioned and criticized.  G-d is taken to task for not behaving “G-dly,” as when Abraham asks, at Sodom and Gomorrah, “Will not the Judge of All the World Act Justly?”  But G-d is never “delegitimized.”  

So, faith is axiomatic in Judaism.  Although I pointed out that our liturgy (unless I've overlooked it) doesn’t use the word אמונה (Emunah), this also may be regarded as completely unnecessary.  Again and again in our liturgy we say the word Amen – a declaratory affirmation of that very Hebrew word for faith/belief -- אמונה (Emunah). 

So, no, it does not seem correct to say that Judaism isn’t a “faith!”  It follows that we should not hesitate to describe our synagogues as “faith communities.” 

If you count yourself among the many Jews who describe themselves as “secular,” “cultural,” or “non-religious” and yet occasionally attend synagogue services and say the Sh’ma, V’ahavta, Aleinu, or indeed any of the prayers, or even say “Amen” to any of them, you might reconsider your self-description.  

Perhaps, like many Jews (and Israelites) throughout our history, you don’t actually mean “I don’t believe in G-d; I don’t have faith.”  Perhaps what you really mean is, “I don’t think about faith or belief” and/or “I don’t know what I believe or whether I have faith.”  Or, “I’m not denying that there is a ‘higher power’, I just don’t know.”  

If those or something similar are what you mean, then perhaps you are, or will become, a “seeker,” a “believer,” and/or a “pilgrim.”  These are very Jewish things to be!

Keep the faith.  And let us say, Amen!    

Shabbat shalom from Jerusalem. 

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A bird that you set free may be caught again, but a word that escapes your lips will not return.
Jewish Proverb