You Gotta Have Faith, Faith, Faith: Why Emunah Is A Choice And Not A Leap
The other day, upon returning from a trip to the supermarket, groceries in tow (or rather in hand), I realized that I had left my keys at home. But just then, wouldn’t you know, one of our neighbors walked through the lobby at the exact right moment to catch my flailing arms in his peripheral vision. “Hashgacha prutis” (Divine Providence) I thought to myself as he opened the door. But then I laughed to myself because, you see, if my neighbor hadn’t been there, and I was locked outside, stuck for hours, rained on, poured on, I still would have said that it was “hashgacha prutis”!
I know I have it both ways, and I’m OK with that. I believe that all aspects of life – no matter how challenging or incomprehensible they are – come from a Higher place. But can she prove it, you may wonder? No, she can’t, and she’s OK with that too. A rabbi of mine once said that in Judaism, we don’t believe in “blind faith.” For us, emunah is better translated as conviction. It’s related to the word “emet,” which means “truth,” but there’s a slight difference between the two words.
Both begin with the letter “aleph,” which is the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet. “Mem,” the middle letter of the alphabet, comes next in both words. But “emet” ends with the final letter of the alphabet (“taf“) because when we have truth we know the beginning, middle, and end. Emunah, on the other hand, in its root form “amen” ends with another middle letter,“nun” (in the 26 character Hebrew alphabet there are two of them). That’s because when it comes to emunah we get most of the story, but not all of it. Emunah gives us a foundation to believe, but the last step we must choose to make (or not make).
If reason and discernment are necessary in guiding our emunah, what pushes me towards belief (and trust) in God? When I look at the complexity of nature and cosmology; when I see certain events in my life fitting together in a perfect harmony; when I witness an exceptional act of kindness by another human being, I detect Godliness in it all.
What compels me to believe in the Divinity of the Torah? When I look at the illogical history of the Jewish people and the odds we’ve overcome, including the modern day wars in Israel; when I see that no other religion claims to have experienced national revelation but us; when I delve into the Torah and find myself moved by its complexity and depth like nothing else I’ve ever studied; when I see how observant Jews who truly embody Torah values are like no other people I’ve ever met, something tells me that this book we have is like no other.
But since I won’t know if these convictions are true until the day I die, I have a decision to make in the meantime, and the Torah has a pretty strong view about what I should do. At the end of the Torah, in sefer Devarim (the book of Deuteronomy) God tells the Jewish people: “I have placed life and death before you, blessing and curse – choose life, so that you will live.” Although the simple understanding of this verse is that “life” and “blessing” are Torah and mitzvos, while death and curse are a result of straying from them, the only way a person can be guaranteed life and blessing is through emunah.
That’s because according to Jewish thought, blessing is much more a state of mind than it is a state of being. In Pirkei Avos (Ethics of the Fathers), when our sages ask “who is rich?” – i.e. “who’s the one who’s been blessed with wealth?” – the answer is not the guy who won the lottery or landed the great paying job. It’s the guy who’s happy with his portion, no matter how much, or how little of it, there is. Why is he happy with his portion? Because he has trust and emunah that he’s been given exactly what he needs, even if it isn’t necessarily what he wants. So the Torah is telling us to choose emunah if we want blessing and (eternal) life, but since we said earlier that emunah itself is ultimately a choice, what we’re essentially being told is to “choose positivity.”
I think that people are largely broken up into two groups: those who are positive and hope that the craziness in the world ultimately makes sense as Something Greater has a plan and a purpose for it all, and those who are cynical and believe that the universe is nothing more than a bunch of random, haphazard (and often cruel) events leading up to nothing but death with complete finality. (Now just to clarify, I’m not talking simply about those who believe in God verses those who deny God’s existence, since not all people who believe in God trust in God. Likewise, there are many people who call themselves “athiests,” yet they detect a harmony of the Universe. I would argue that the “athiests” who believe in a Unified Force have a more in common with the Jewish concept of God than the “believers” who view God as a Being who’s disconnected from the world.)
What differentiates the one who hopes from the one who scoffs? Life experience, in large part. The more a child is raised with faith and trust in God, the more he’s made to feel secure and nurtured by his parents, the more likely he’ll grow up with a positive view of the world and a trust in a God who’s running it. But even upbringings filled with hope and trust can be trampled on by an unfortunate turn of events – a tragedy, a loss, some sort of abuse. If the abuse comes from someone (or some institution) that claims to be religious, the effects can be especially devastating for one’s emunah. (I can’t tell you how saddened I am by the number of negative blogs that are out there written by formerly Orthodox Jews who were in some way mistreated, pressured, or flat out abused by a “religious” person or institution.)
So what if you weren’t raised with positivity and trust in God, or worse, once had emunah that was violated by a bad person(s)? Well, there is always an opportunity to choose emunah and strive towards achieving it despite the setbacks you’ve faced. Emunah is not something that can (or should) be faked, but it is something that can be honed.
The first step towards working on emunah is strengthening the rational foundation of your belief. This can be done through Torah study and learning about Jewish history and archeology. The rational component is not enough, though. A choice must also be made to reach out to the Almighty through prayer (“Hey, God, not sure if You’re out there, but if You are, I’d like to connect with You.”); through mitzvah observance which, according to Jewish thought, is meant to be a vehicle for creating a relationship between man and God; and finally, through looking for the Hand of God in everyday life.
The cynic will think, “how foolish is the pious man who believes in and serves a God he cannot prove exists,” but I don’t think it’s foolish at all. Neither of us will know the final outcome in our lifetimes, but I’d rather spend mine choosing positivity, hope, and purposefulness over despair, negativity, and randomness.
What will you choose?