AN ANTHOLOGY OF THOUGHT & EMOTION... Un'antologia di pensieri & emozioni

Wednesday, 4 January 2017

EXPERIENCING FAITH

Question: Over time the trend has been to interpret the stories in the Torah as ahistroical beginning with Genesis as a creation story, then the flood and Tower of Babel stories, then the patriarchs, etc. Recently, even Sinai has been interpreted as ahistorical, but if revelation at Sinai is a myth, why should I be observant? In what can I still have faith?

Answer: Ma’amad har Sinai (standing at Sinai) has played a central part in our tradition.  It is part of Jewish doctrine that our ancestors stood at the foot of Sinai and received the word of God, and that our Torah, is a result of that encounter.  It is a spectacular event in which the divine speaks to the entire nation of Israel.  According to the Sages[1], even the souls of Jews not yet born were present at this singular event.

If we doubt that this event actually happened, but nevertheless treat it as an important religious narrative, what are the implications for our religious lives and our approach to Torah?  Do we lose all bases for a Jewish religious life?  Even if we claim that the Torah is result of a prophetic process, do we lose something distinct about Judaism, namely that it is based upon the grand historical experiences of our people and not just the claims to prophecy by individuals?
My own answer to these questions is that I esteem my intuitive religious experiences over doctrine.  Whether or not the specific event of Sinai happened does not undermine my own experiences of the sweetness and goodness of Torah, or my sense of their prophetic nature.  Moreover, just as I have a particular love for my own family and the community in which I live, I have an affinity for my Jewish family and its approach to serving God.
Religious life is not just one of external doctrine but internal experience.  Ta’amu ur’u ki tov Hashem Elokeinu… “Taste [2] and see that Hashem our God is good” (Psalms 34:9).  Rabbi Meir Leibush Wisser (Malbim) interprets “taste” and “sight” literally, as the senses that engage our experiences of pleasure and personal benefit.  He writes that our experience of God’s salvation brings us sweetness, benefit, and goodness. Malbim here bases an important theological principle namely God’s goodness, upon personal experience, rather than an external set of ideals.
We often use terms like emunah (faith) and hashkafa (world view) as if they refer to a list of static principles that we can check off in a box.  They easily appear as part of a package of beliefs in a self-contained system that is deemed external to the individual.  One can accept package A, which comes with its set of implications, or package B, C, and so on, or one can reject them in turn.    These package deals are often presented very neatly, and are set up like an elegant string of dominoes: knock one down, and they all fall.  Therefore, it appears as if we either accept the whole package, or reject it fully – no exchanges or substitutions allowed.
In my own experience, this is not reflective of the condition of belief. Rather, emunah is a complex personal and psychological process. Our world views are in a process of growth and decay, and subject to change.  In fact, some of the most important parts of our faith experiences cannot be easily or cleanly translated into words and principles.
I understand that there is a cost to taking an experiential view of faith rather than a dogmatic view. One of the advantages of static external doctrine is a feeling of solidity and objectivity, whether real or imagined. Nevertheless, I believe it is a mistake to dismiss the experiential as flimsy.  A relationship worth being in requires discipline, commitment, and love. To truly “taste and see that God is good,” requires dedication and openness.  This is also true in our approach to doctrine.  In order to develop a coherent system of belief with a strong foundation in both reason and our experiences of the sacred (kedusha), we cannot force or dismiss that which doesn’t fit.
Patience is a large part of inquiry.  We can search for a coherent picture with both the findings of biblical scholarship and our intuitive religious experiences, and even if we do not succeed right now, or in a lifetime, we may be comfortable with the paradox until new information is discovered.  If two discoveries seem to contradict, such as Relativity and Quantum Mechanics, we don’t simply undercut one of them. We continue our search and hopefully discover ideas such as string theory.

In sum, the intuitive, prophetic and ultimately sweet aspects of Torah are there to be experienced for those who are dedicated and open to it.  They are there regardless of where our studies in Bible scholarship currently stand.  Lo alecha hamlacha ligmor  – “it is not on you to finish the task”: struggle and work in the face of dissonance do not, in their own right, undermine our tradition.  Ve-lo ata ben chorin l’hibatel mimena – “but you are not free to desist from it” – we will continue to learn Torah using all the tools at our disposal, knowing that it is sweet in our mouths and hoping that one day we will have a clearer picture and a stronger Judaism as a result.

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Rabbi David Almog is currently pursuing a PhD in Talmud and Rabbinics at JTS. He received semikha in 2005 from YCT Rabbinical School and served as the campus rabbi for the Hillel at Columbia University and Barnard college until 2009, before leaving to embark on his academic career. Rabbi Dave continues to teach Torah in various venues and in more informal capacities. He currently resides in Riverdale with his wife Lisa and his two children.



NOTES:
[1] Exodus Rabbah Parshat Yitro 28:6
[2] I do not assume that ta’amu means taste in the simple meaning of the word.  Certainly, the opening of the mizmor uses the same root in a different fashion.  That being said, the Malbi”m here understands it as the sense of taste.

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