My friend, Dan, was the creative mind that moved me to invite others to present their Principles of Jewish Faith. He is a former Brooklyn Yeshiva bochur, who is a lifelong Jewish learner and deep thinker. I present his thoughts:
Principles of Incomplete Faith
Every weekday morning I recite the 13 principles of faith as codified by Maimonides. He being a philosopher where I am not, I imagine his learning and thinking led him to develop these principles as a way of articulating what it was a Jew was to believe. Reduce down to the essence what articles of faith a Jew requires to be a believing Jew. The hard part for me is the formulation in the siddur – “I believe with a complete faith” – I realized I don’t have complete faith.
As a historian I recognize not just his efforts on behalf of Judaism but what he was expressly contra – elements of certainly Christianity but also Islam, both of which would have surrounded him in his Spanish homeland and likely in Egypt of his later years. Historically this makes sense – if one has spent an intellectual life debating the wisdom of the three primary faiths of the medieval world, at a certain point it becomes important to document what it is you actually believe.
As a practicing and believing (mostly) Jew of the current age, it occurred to me that despite the daily repetition my faith is both weak and regularly questioned. Weak in the sense that as I get older I’m less certain of what I believe, and regularly questioned by me as I attempt to wrestle with faith. Outside influences question the faith as well, and while they lead me to challenge my own faith I believe a faith should not be subject to whim or trend, but should withstand social and communal pressures both to discard and to fossilize one’s belief systems.
I’m not looking to eat non-kosher food because “I’ve moved past old rules”; I still believe there was purpose and value to rules like those and without a firm halachic effort to change them, all I’d be doing is satisfying my own desires rather than establishing an acceptable form of Judaism. The rules are the rules – abide by them or don’t, they remain the rules and calling it all by another name doesn’t change it. I view Judaism and the Torah as the will of God, and while the devil is in the details, the essential truth of it remains.
The question must be asked, however – if I’m not completely comfortable with the Rambam’s principles, what do I believe? The low-grade epiphany I had a few days ago was that I need to develop or explore a set of imperfect beliefs – a vision of faith that allows for doubt & questioning without discarding the basic tenets of Judaism. I haven’t studied the Rambam in any depth at all, and perhaps there is flexibility there I’m not aware of, but eventually one has to come up with one’s own list, and this is a draft of mine, with annotations.
1) I believe that God exists
Not by itself revolutionary, or at all different than the Rambam, though he explained it more fully. But this is actually a major effort in a lot of ways for me, because there is no proof. Hints & allegations perhaps, but no proof. There’s no surer test of faith than the idea of believing in something despite the fact that you’ll never get concrete proof. In the world in which I grew up there was plenty of talk about bitachon and “everything is from God” but I’m a concrete person and frankly that isn’t good enough. But I accept at a base level that God exists, and that will have to do.
2) I believe that God loves us
Equally difficult to point #1, because again there is no proof. Many point to evil in the world as evidence that this is false; those I know who have suffered tremendously point to their ills and say it demonstrates that the opposite is true, that God is in fact evil. This is another essential leap of faith that I believe incompletely – the concept of a supreme being that either doesn’t care at all, or worse actively seeks to harm humanity is just more than I can live with. I’m also not sure which I think is worse – the caring but remote God or the angry, vindictive God; at least the latter has emotions where humanity is concerned.
3) I believe in the structure of organized religion
I’ve been angered by the behavior of so-called rabbinic leadership more times than I care to remember. They’re guilty of dereliction of duty at best, active evil at worst, especially when you consider the proliferation of sexual and abuse scandals over recent years. I’m also not comfortable with the movement of Orthodoxy to the extremes, including towards a more open form of it which I think of as intended to upset apple carts more than identify a halachic path. All that said, since I don’t really trust humanity to “just be a good person” since I think everyone has their own definition of what that means, I believe there is value in formalized, scripted religious behavior. Just don’t ask me to explain what that means.
4) I don’t believe in the immutability of religion
Call it contrarian, but while I’m not comfortable with open orthodoxy or reconstructing Judaism or whatever movement may be underway, I’m also not comfortable with the idea that previous interpretations are set in stone. My study of daf yomi recently made mention of the concept that once a formal court has established a rule, that rule stays even if circumstances have changed unless an equivalent court repeals it. Leaving aside that this is Artscroll Publishing and their heavy-handed mussar approach, this is a perspective I think many Jews hold. But since each generation is defined as lesser than those before it, no change is possible since we can’t meet those standards. So we’re left with rules in place despite changing circumstances, and that’s the old corporate standby of “we’ve always done it this way.” That path leads to sclerosis and an inflexibility that both chases people away from faith and prevents the occasional dynamism that keeps faith fresh. Don’t ask me where the limits of flexibility are – I can’t define them, but I know them when I see them.
5) I believe there are many paths to faith and God
This may be the one principle of complete faith I have. I was taught there was one way to be, and anything “off the derech” was a pathway to hell. As I’ve since come to understand, that particular path was itself headed towards hell, and other paths became clearer. It’s easy to define certain parts of Judaism – don’t murder is don’t murder, and there’s no room to wiggle there. But “I am the Lord thy God, thou shalt have no others before me” is actually a more open statement than I think I realized. To have a God, one has to understand Him as best one can; one has to define Him; one has to choose Him. Yes, I understand the heretical possibilities here. But God is infinite, therefore He has infinite aspects, and something to suit every ability and understanding. Shades of Buddhism perhaps, but I don’t see any other way to allow each person to find their way to God without allowing for multiple understandings of what He is.
6) I believe there is an essential truth
Somewhere there is truth. Lawyer talk and political correctness drive me crazy because at the end of the long obfuscations there is a truth that’s getting buried under piles of dreck. Opinion is cited as fact and fact derided as opinion and in the end all I can do is the best I can at sorting through it all. The faith part here is that I can come to truth somehow despite the noise and nonsense surrounding the discussions around topics of importance.
7) I don’t know what I believe about reward and punishment
Rambam writes his 11th principle as follows [per Wikipedia]: I believe with perfect faith that the Creator, Blessed be His Name, rewards those who keep His commandments and punishes those that transgress them.
I think I used to believe that, but I’m not sure about it anymore. There’s too much proof against this idea in human experience, so it requires an incredible level of faith to accept that there is genuine justice in the world with the good getting what they deserve and the same for the evil. Here’s one where Wikipedia claims and I imagine that there’s more depth than the simple formulation listed above. The punishment and reward are ill-defined as to time, nature of the reward and the specifics of delivery. This is a principle of the Rambam that requires one to completely ignore human experience and accept a divine scheme that is unintelligible and unverifiable. As a behavior modifier it lacks definition and frankly loses its potency quickly. The promise of an afterlife reward is a driver only for the most deeply faithful or the most gullible. I am neither, and so I’m left to muddle through life wondering if the whole thing is an exercise in futility. Which my favorite biblical work of Ecclesiastes would argue it is, so perhaps I’m on the right track.
8) I believe there is an afterlife or world-to-come of some sort
To me the great-granddaddy of the belief discussions and the one that has survived in all faiths. While I don’t think it’s entirely a red herring [opiate of the masses anyone?] in human existence it’s the reward hung just out of reach for all time. Call it Wimpy’s “I’ll gladly pay you Tuesday for a Hamburger today” approach, or the pyramid schemer’s promise that you’ll make quadruple your money if you just give him some more time concept. I don’t think God is fooling us here, but I do wonder if we’re fooling ourselves. Something happens when you die – I don’t think we fade into nothingness. But a world of perfection and “true reward” requires a hell of a lot of faith in the face of daily human struggle. I hate the idea of it all being pointless more than the idea that something happens after that makes it worth the time, but that’s not faith as much as a “choose one option” approach.
9) I believe in some kind of end-of-days scenario
If you listen to sports talk radio as I do, this is the ultimate in what-if mental exercises. The shut-ins who call up suggesting a four-way trade involving teams in different sports trading players who are either dead or retired is a staple of these shows. Certain hosts rip the callers apart and then spend half an hour explaining why it’s crazy talk. End of days conversations are very much like this – complete guesswork based on random speculation and selective interpretation (no matter how well-informed) of esoteric and impenetrable sources. It’s good for a laugh, but it’s not exactly hard science.
Practically speaking it’s an aspect of faith given to rote acknowledgement without much conviction. There’s not much to be gained or lost saying one believes in a messianic future since it’s to this point out of reach and practically asks very little of the believer. Chabad in particular has focused on the “We want Moshiach Now” mantra and that if we all just do everything perfectly an era of peace and perfection will descend on earth. It’s led them to wonderful works of kiruv, but as a matter of faith it depends on a level of hope I find nearly impossible to maintain.
10) I believe I can question
Complete faith here. God is strong enough to handle our quest for faith and understanding. We may not be, but He is. My yeshiva schooling demonstrated in word and deed that to question was to invite heresy and a sign of a bad Jew. They were wrong. To question is to seek to know, and perhaps find a way to understand. Ask in good faith and perhaps get rewarded with good faith.