Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Faith or something like it, Part II: Reconciling emunah

When I use a word, it means exactly what I choose it to mean.
-- Bob Edwards (my dad)
I want to start simply, and this week's parshah is pretty apropos for this conversation about faith. In the wilderness we have Moses conversing with G-d about the Israelites. Moses knows G-d exists, for he chats regularly with G-d. Moses needs not have faith in G-d because he knows G-d. Thus, G-d exists to Moses. And thereafter, with the knowledge of G-d, Moses has emunah (commonly translated as "faith"). Finally, Moses is faithful to G-d, whom he knows. The people, on the other hand, even knowing G-d fail in this last step of faithfulness. Is it because knowing results in no need for effort to be faithful? To know is the final frontier? This, unfortunately, is a discussion for a d'var Torah. But let's take a few steps back now that we have the premise of knowledge and emunah.

Tonight I sat down with several blog entries from A Simple Jew, as well as some text from Letters to a Buddhist Jew at the advice of a friend, David Gottlieb, who co-wrote the book with Rabbi Akiva Tatz. I'll admit reading through the four-part blog entry on ASJ was overwhelming. The comments in and of themselves were filled with a dozen or more Hebrew words and concepts of Judaism that I am unfamiliar with. But there were many gleanings from great sages that caught my eye, which I will include. It was within Letters to a Buddhist Jew, though, that I began to really understand what emunah means. Throughout this entry, I will purposely use the word emunah instead of faith, because I have come to realize that faith is a poor translation of what emunah means in and to Judaism.

From Letters to a Buddhist Jew, we read, "In Western usage, belief and faith relate essentially to the unknowable, they are necessarily blind ('blind faith'). You do not believe something you see or experience, you know it. Relating to that which you cannot know is called belief..."

This was my "aha!" moment. I began this adventure in exploring the topic because two friends at separate times in GChat conversations had expressed some form of "where's your faith?" or "you gotta have faith." My auto-response was that faith is a Christian concept, not a Jewish one. The reality is that I think many Jews would agree with me in this respect precisely because of the aforementioned text -- belief and faith are relegated to the unknown, the unseen, the might-be-there-but-not-sure-if-it-is. The culture of faith/belief circles around the idea that there is a group of people who want to end up in heaven and in order to do so, belief/faith is all that is necessary. It is a simple, easy out to a very complex issue.

Oftentimes when we say "you gotta have faith" I think that we mean hope. Hope being to expect something with confidence. When we say that we have faith that things will turn out alright, yes there is the unknowable of the outcome, but what we mean is that we are confident that things will come out as we expect them to. But, as my father has said, when we use words, we pretty much choose what we want them to mean, and perhaps that's the problem. As a copy editor, I prefer the black and white when it comes to specific words. Concepts can be multifaceted without question, but a word must be precise in its meaning. One well-known Jewish blogger recently posed the question as to whether the word "goy" was offensive and a lengthy conversation ensued and it drudged up, once again, the meanings of words and their colloquial versus dictionary versus historical versus accepted meanings. To the common person perhaps words are just words, but to me, well, they pack a very large punch.

Back in Letters to a Buddhist Jew, we read, "... if you have no evidence for a thing, why should you believe it?" and "If you can demonstrate or experience the existence of G-d, then we should talk only of the process of coming to know that existence. Belief would be the wrong direction here." This took me to a comment that someone on one of the many posts on A Simple Jew, where the writer said that it is enough that his father and grandfather told him of G-d, that their fathers did the same, and so on back to Sinai, that this was his proof, the demonstration (as it were) of the existence of G-d. From Letters:
What we mean by emuna is not belief. We do not commit ourselves to something that is the product of imagination. We have not committed ourselves to G-d throughout history because we decided subjectively and personally that such commitment was a good idea. Our commitment is based on knowledge. We assert that the object of our 'faith' can be established and known.
This takes us back to Moses. Moses' commitment to G-d was based on the knowledge that G-d exists and performed the miracles that took the Jews out of Egypt, parted the sea, etc. This was the first step -- knowledge -- that led to emunah.

I had to really look at this and compare it to what I was reading in the comments from the blogs on A Simple Jew, because the expression of emunah and knowledge is quite the opposite. On ASJ it is asserted that we must have faith in order to know. Someone in the comments suggests that "... one must accept premises before one can then use logic," and that "... one asserts his faith first, which allows him to then apply reason/logic." Thus it is belief/faith that comes first and knowledge is only an outcome of accepting unknown or unproven ideas. Unfortunately, I do not agree. This is simply blind faith -- in this you believe something merely to reap the benefits of having the knowledge. It simply cannot work in that manner. However, if you start with the knowledge that something is right, then you can deconstruct it from there and thus you are faithful to the knowledge in your deconstructing ... but I am getting ahead of myself.

Back to Letters, we read that "... clarity of knowledge is exactly what we are seeking." So this takes us back to what I was just talking about. We have the knowledge that G-d exists (think: the commenter whose father told him and his father before him, as well as other "proof" as a basic, central tenet of Judaism), and thus we are faithful to this knowledge and so what is the point of the faithfulness if we simply know? This is what the people in the wilderness didn't get that the text of Letters to a Buddhist Jew so simply puts forth: our effort, our souls are poured into seeking clarity of this knowledge. We seek to grow closer to G-d and to understand, and thus we have emunah. But we know very well that just because we understand how something is supposed to be -- the truth is known -- does not mean that we hold to it. Look at the laws we have which are broken day in and day out. People know what is right and what is wrong, but remaining faithful to what we know is right and true is difficult.
Here is the key: the correct translation of emuna is not faith but faithfulness, loyalty. The concept is this: when you have acquired spiritual knowledge, when you know clearly that what meets the eye is not all there is, the question then is will you be loyal to that knowledge? Will you live up to it? The problem of emuna is not how to gain knowledge of the spiritual world, it is the challenge of being faithful to that knowledge.
The way that Letters to a Buddhist Jew is written is such that the concept is laid out and then we are given the definition, which follows.
Emuna derives from the same root as ne'eman, meaning faithful or loyal. Even the most superficial examination of the word in Torah will show that it cannot be translated as faith in the sense of belief. [The author gives examples, which I will not add here for the sake of brevity.]
The author more or less concluded the argument with that which I have said, but perhaps is more eloquently detailed here:
Understanding a thing and all its consequences clearly does not guarantee that you will live in accord with your understanding, that you will be loyal to it. Not at all. It takes work to live up to the truth. That work is emuna.
At this point, I want to back track for a few moments to some things I read on the ASJ blogs. In Genesis 15:6 we read "Our father Abraham did not earn both This World and the World to Come except in the merit of faith; as it is written, 'And he believed in G-d ...' " The truth of it is that we are not a religion or people or community where simply believing flies. ASJ asserts that simple faith does have a place in Judaism, and while I do not disagree, there is more to this. Abraham did not merely believe, but he lived a life faithful to G-d. It was not pure faith and belief, it was an existence devoted to loyalty to the one G-d, right?

On ASJ's blog, in a guest post by Rabbi Dovid Sears, he says "As Reb Noson says in explaining one of Rabbi Nachman's teachings, 'Faith only applies when something can't be understood. Where one can understand something rationally, faith is not relevant.' (Likkutei Eitzos, 'Emes ve-Emunah,' 4)." I think that this is accurate, but perhaps misconstrued because of the Western meaning of faith. Indeed, faith -- a belief in the unknown, blind belief -- is applied in such instances, and indeed when we understand (as rationally as is possible) that G-d exists, such belief in an unknown is both unnecessary and irrelevant. But I don't know that this is what Rabbi Sears, Reb Noson or Rabbi Nachman are saying.

I do have to say that I did read something absolutely brilliant on the ASJ blogs that highlights Rabbi Nachman quoting from Sefer Bechinas Olam:
The ultimate knowledge is 'not-knowing' (Likkutei Moharan I, 24:8 and elsewhere).
Yes, this might seem contradictory to everything I've laid out so far as my understanding of emunah, but in reality it is perfectly in line. How? Well, I acknowledge that G-d exists. I have this knowledge, and I am faithful to this knowledge and pursue the understanding of this. However, I do not know all there is to know, and it is difficult even in a lifetime to absorb everything and to come to a complete and full understanding. And in truth, is this not only achieved after death or -- if you're inclined to believe -- at the coming of the Messiah?

Often, when people ask me if I think that my beliefs system, if my way, Judaism, is the one true and right way, I respond similarly: "For me, yes. For you, who is to say? Not me." Perhaps this is where the whole muddled Western idea of faith comes in. I know that G-d exists, even with the occasional doubting and questions, but that's part of the process. But the at the most basic level, this I know. But it's just me, right? I can't speak for the masses or the thousands of questioning Jews. I know what I know from my heart and mind and understanding, and thus I am faithful.

Am I making sense here? The essence of emunah, in a nutshell, is that emunah truly means faithfulness and/or loyalty, or as Merriam-Webster (my old pal) says, "true to the facts." We believe, therefore we cleave to the knowledge, thus we are faithful to the knowledge, thus we pursue understanding of the knowledge. To know something is only half the battle. I know that G-d exists, thus I have emunah. I can stray, indeed, for it is difficult to stay true. But it is the pursuit of understanding that keeps me on this path. If only those in the wilderness had kept their emunah intact, eh? But the lesson in that is that even with the truth, the knowledge of something, it is completely feasible to walk astray. Staying faithful is the difficult part, perhaps the true test.

So please, readers, let me know if any of this made sense or resonated or remotely sounded coherent. I had a lot of thoughts that I tried to put together, and I've spent about an hour trying to write this up. I thank David Gottlieb and A Simple Jew and all the commenters for their thoughts and quips and ideas. I'd like to keep the conversation going, so please, get your kvetch on.