A question of faith
Jew in the Christian world
Jewish Family Education with Candace R. Kwiatek, The Dayton Jewish Observer
Behind them, a hostile army. Before them, an impassable sea. Moses calls upon God, who reprimands him, “Why do you cry to me? Tell the Children of Israel to journey forth.”
According to ancient midrash (rabbinic commentary on the Jewish Bible), Nachshon, the tribal prince of Judah, strode into the sea and the people followed.
Was Nachshon a man of faith? According to the early 20th century minister Oswald Chambers, “Faith is deliberate confidence in the character of God whose ways you may not understand at the time.” By Chambers’ description, Nachshon appears to have been a man of faith.
But is faith an immutable system of belief or a situational choice? Orthodox Rabbi Irving Greenberg writes that after Auschwitz, “We now have to speak of ‘moment faiths’…The difference between the skeptic and the believer is frequency of faith and not certitude of position.”
If Nachshon lived today, would his boldness be described as a moment faith?
Exactly what does faith mean in Christian and Jewish traditions?
The New Testament Greek word pistis, translated as faith in English, connotes “knowing,” as in epistemology, the study of knowledge.
At the core of Christian tradition is the understanding that faith is a gift of unique insight from God to those who accept Jesus, an affirmation that is required to be considered a Christian.
Generally included in this acceptance is belief that Jesus is the messiah, and that through him the believer is absolved of guilt and the penalty of sin, is the recipient of holiness, and is promised eternal life after death.
“With pistis, you can talk about ‘having faith’ because there is a cognitive element of knowing to the word,” write Zalman Schachter-Shalomi and Netanel Miles-Ypez in A Heart Afire.
Thus, in Christian tradition, faith is a Divine gift, a personal knowledge of God resulting from the acceptance of Jesus.
However, the Hebrew Bible’s emunah, also translated as faith, more accurately expresses faithfulness or loyalty.
The connotation of emunah is action, as can be seen in words that share the same linguistic roots: amen, a response of confirmation or agreement; oman, artist; and immun, practice.
Emunah is something you do — “faith-ing” — rather than intellectual acceptance or Divine gift. In the Hebrew Bible, faith-ing is even ascribed to God, as in El Emunah, faithful God, and Melech Ne’eman, faithful King.
This biblical recognition of emunah’s active nature is echoed in the Talmud. The Sages were concerned almost exclusively with behavior as a demonstration of loyalty to God, to the point that not even a single Talmudic tractate was “dedicated to the topic of required beliefs,” notes Natan Slifkin in a commentary on Menachem Kellner’s Must a Jew Believe Anything?
During this classical era, there was no systematic theology; the focus was, “faith in God rather than…faith that particular propositions are true.”
Influenced by the rationalism of medieval and Muslim philosophy, Jewish scholars attempted to intellectually define Judaism by identifying the doctrines underlying emunah.
The most well known are the Thirteen Fundamental Principles (or Articles of Faith) codified by Moses Maimonides in the 12th century. They include belief in the Creator God — one, incorporeal, and eternal — Who knows all deeds and thoughts, Who justly rewards and punishes, and
Who alone is to be worshiped; the truth of the prophets and the foremost among them, Moses; the divinely-given, unchanging, and enduring Torah; and the coming of the messiah and resurrection.
“Almost every country where Jews lived has produced a poem or prayer based on these principles of faith,” writes Philip Birnbaum in A Book of Jewish Concepts, including the sacred hymn Yigdal and the song Ani Ma’amin, famously sung to a haunting Chasidic melody.
In keeping with the humorous adage “two Jews, three opinions,” later philosophers criticized Maimonides, variously reducing the doctrines to six, then three (the existence of God, revelation of the Torah, and future reward and punishment), and then one (the divine origin of the Torah).
However, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch argued that Judaism has no formal mandatory beliefs at all, only the 613 commandments found in the Torah, a view that is generally accepted today.
It’s incomprehensible to most Christians that a Jew without faith can still be a Jew.
But Judaism isn’t only a religion: it’s a people, a land, a history, and a culture.
Jewish identity is defined by birth or conversion; expressed through religious ritual and prayer; and affirmed whether living secular lives in Israel, engaging in tikun olam (repair of the world), affiliating with Jewish organizations or causes, and celebrating Jewish history, languages, traditions, and cultures.
For the Christian, identity is defined by faith. For the Jew, identity is a question of faith: How do you express your loyalty?
Literature to share
The Marriage of Opposites by Alice Hoffman: By the bestselling author of The Dovekeepers, this family saga traces the story of Inquisition refugees, whose new roots on the tropical island of St. Thomas become entwined with the family tree of impressionist painter Camille Pissarro. This historically accurate novel of unexpected friendships, family obligations, forbidden love and scandal is one that won’t soon be forgotten. Riveting.
The Misadventures of the Family Fletcher by Dana Levy: A contemporary version of Sydney Taylor’s All-of-a-Kind Family, Levy’s humorous and heartwarming story for the middle grades includes the Fletchers, with two dads and four adopted kids, a grumpy neighbor, and various real and imaginary friends and classmates. The joys and trials of family life are memorably (and messily) woven together with kindness, compassion, and loyalty. Engaging.
To read the complete September 2015 Dayton Jewish Observer, click here.