Why Faith (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?

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  • Avatar photo Eileen Feder says on July 22, 2012


    I just wanted to let you know how moved I was reading your post. I am planning on converting and, even though my husband is a Conservative Jew, I feel such a tug in my Neshama that Conservative is not right for me, Orthodox is.

    I have a daughter, who will be 3 in the fall, and I cried when I started to think about how I loved G-d as a child and how connected I felt to him – I attended a Lutheran church with my mother and sister – father not religious at all, and I want that for her minus the losing it part. Yes, I want it for me as well.

    Thank you for stirring my Emuna soup inside of me…. You made a difference in my life.


  • Avatar photo Tuvia says on September 7, 2012

    Dear Jew in the City:

    One of the things that really challenged what I’d learned (or been indoctrinated into) in kiruv was the orthodox academics who see Judaism, Jewish history, and Jewish fundamental belief very differently than I was taught in kiruv.

    To go to a lecture by a professor who looks and acts and dresses like a card carrying kiruv rabbi and hear him give example after example of how the masorah hides and fabricates evidence in order to keep emuna high I nearly fell out of my chair.

    Another Frum Jew Professor begins the conversation (a big conversation) on how the Torah rationally appears to be the work of many hands over centuries. Hundreds of academics over one hundred and fifty years and lots of disagreements – but they all agree that it is not one author, but many, and not one time, but centuries.

    Another professor wears a kipah and makes the argument (as do other frum academics) that the Rambam did not believe his own ikkurim.

    I’m sincerely interested in your response. I want to commend you also on your interesting blog.


    • Avatar photo Allison says on September 9, 2012

      Thanks for your comment, Tuvia. From what I can surmise, you were brought into observance by an outreach organization that promised you complete “proof” that the Torah is true and that there is 100% proof to God’s existence, and that’s just not how the world was set up or really what emunah is supposed to be about.

      Emunah, as I explained in the post, is meant to leave us with a choice. So if you once believed in the “proof” perspective, and then met these professors who could show there’s reasons to doubt the Torah’s divinity, no wonder you felt disappointed and disenchanted.

      Here’s how I see it – you can make arguments on both sides. You can make good arguments for why there are multiple authors, but then you can make good arguments for how the style of writing is One Author trying to teach us deeper meanings. Academics have lots of theories about lots of things and the truth about academics is that the way they stay “in business” is by coming up with unique ideas to write about.

      It doesn’t matter to me how these professors are dressed or how “frum” they look – emunah is about how your live your life, and I live my life clinging to Hashem. When I look at Jewish history – both how we’ve been irrationally hated and yet how we’ve irrationally survived, when I delve into Torah learning and it’s like no other learning I’ve ever done before including at my ivy league university, when I meet people who are like walking sifrei Torah – whose character traits are so refined that I feel Godliness emanating from them, when I sit at my Shabbos table on Friday night and the candles are glowing and we’re singing and blessing our children – doing something our people have done for millennia, when I visit the Land of Israel and something is different about it – different and more special than any other place on earth – I know that this stuff is more than just a “theory” or an “argument.”

      None of it is proof-based. But it’s real. And it’s my people and it’s my history and it will be my legacy, God willing. Far too many enemies have tried to destroy us. Sure, maybe the theories that the rabbis were all a bunch of liars are true. If you feel that present day rabbis were dishonest with you I can understand why you’d have such a feeling, but there’s something very real and true about all of this for me, and I’ve been fortunate enough to be exposed to many great rabbis who I very much admire and trust and so this is the life that I lead and the heritage that I pass on to my children.

  • Avatar photo Tuvia says on September 10, 2012

    Sounds like you are saying the beauty of Torah means it is true. Sort of a version of “beauty is truth and truth beauty.”

    That twelve million Mormons (up from six members in the 1830s) find Mormonism beautiful doesn’t make its creation story true – does it?

    If you haven’t yet, you should read about how the Church of Latter Day Saints (Mormons) came about.

    I think you will agree with me that beauty is actually a lousy indicator of truth.


    • Avatar photo Allison says on September 11, 2012

      I never said that beauty = truth, although I do believe that there is *something* to this idea. I don’t believe that any other religions are *true*, though I am quite sure that many of them have elements of truth within them, because they include principles which we would agree at universal truths.

      But why do I believe that Judaism is 100% true – many reasons, but the top ones include: Jewish history is illogical – our people have been illogically hated and have illogically survived despite everything that’s been done to us, but not only survived – *thrived.* I’m sure you’re familiar with Mark Twain’s famous quote about the Jews. Also, returning to our homeland – ingathering of exiles. What we’ve been praying for for 2000 years. Also the Jewish and Israeli wars. Our victories don’t make too much sense. And archaeology around the Temple Mount seems to indicate that what we say was there was in fact there. That doesn’t put us all the way back to Mt. Sinai, but it takes us back into a world from a very long time ago.

      The beauty stuff I mentioned is that stuff inside me that is stirred in a very deep place. This other stuff I mention is hard to understand. NONE of it is 100% proof. But I’m OK with that. As I said – I have the choices before me – a universe full of purposefulness or randomness with no meaning. I choose purpose.

      • Avatar photo Shragi says on April 5, 2013

        That quote from Mark Twain about the extraordinary nature of Jewish survival through the ages is part of a larger essay concerning the Jews, wherein he also says that the hatred towards Jews is not illogical at all; he blames it on the Jewish ability to outsmart the non-Jews and make more money than them while they are under oppression. He goes all the way back to the story of Joseph in Egypt to prove his point, before Joseph was done he owned everything and everyone in the entire Egypt.
        He continues on through history showing how Jews have always continued to do the same thing.
        In fact there were even Rishonim who wrote that Jews should be careful about practicing usury because that is what caused them to be kicked out of England.

        Additionally, you find the ingathering of exiles into Israel to be miraculous (I know you didn’t use that word, correct me if you meant something else by pointing out this fact). I wonder what you would say to all the Orthodox rabbis who thought – and many still do – that the return to Israel was a heretical act?

        The point is; I think you’re picking and choosing among our beautiful and wide-ranging culture, history and literature to create an argument for Orthodoxy where it’s just as likely that none exists.

        • Avatar photo Allison says on April 8, 2013

          Thanks for your comment, Shragi, but I didn’t quote Mark Twain. The Jews have not always been rich – in some cases we’ve been poor. The Jews have been everything throughout history and we seem to get faulted for all of it. When we assimilate too much we are faulted and when we isolate too much we are faulted. We’re faulted for being too rich and too poor.

          I also did not use the word “miracle” for the ingathering of exiles. You seem to be putting a lot of words in my mouth! It is not a miracle in the open miracle sense and yet it is peculiar. Nothing like that has ever happened before. Nothing like the Jewish people have ever happened before. We are an anomaly in so many ways. What do I have to say to the rabbis who think returning to Israel is heretical?! I say I disagree! And the ones who say it’s heretical believe many other things that I disagree with.

          I don’t think I’m picking and choosing anything. I stated clearly that there are reasons to believe and that there are reasons to doubt and that I choose belief and hope. And I want to see our people continue to survive and thrive.

        • Avatar photo Shragi says on April 8, 2013

          I’ll try once more:
          You didn’t quote Mark Twain? What was this? “Jewish history is illogical – our people have been illogically hated and have illogically survived despite everything that’s been done to us, but not only survived – *thrived.* I’m sure you’re familiar with Mark Twain’s famous quote about the Jews.”
          Seems like you were alluding to the quote which I then spelled out. My point wasn’t about their richness or poorness throughout history, it was about the fact, which, as I mentioned, Mark Twain and even some rishonim have written about, that Jews have taken advantage of their gentile neighbors.
          Will you respond to that point?

          Please don’t get so excited about my putting words into your mouth, you didn’t conclude what you meant by pointing out the ingathering of the exiles, I assumed you meant that it’s a miracle and I asked you to correct me if I’m wrong and tell me what you did in fact mean.
          So you mean it’s not a miracle, it’s “peculiar”, ok, and that’s a compelling reason to make the choice to have Emunah? If so, good.

          You say that you disagree with the rabbis who believe that returning to Israel before moshiach comes is heretical. But on what basis do you disagree with them? Based on the interpretation of other rabbis? I would call that picking and choosing. What would you call it?

          • Avatar photo Allison says on April 23, 2013

            Oh, I apologize. I didn’t realize you were referring to my comment, I thought you were referencing the original article. I had made that comment a couple years ago and didn’t remember. From my understanding of history, Jews were money-lenders because their gentile neighbors weren’t allowed to handle money, so they forced the Jews into it.

            The thing is that Jews weren’t always rich and Jews weren’t always money lenders. Anti-Semitism seems to occur in every society for many different reasons. There is something unusual and unique about the Jewish people. If you won’t admit that then you’re not being intellectually honest. And no – ingathering of exiles is not a miracle in the “revealed miracle” sense, but the prophecy was that the land would lay fallow, and then the Jews would gather from the four corners of the earth, return, and then the land would bloom and that’s exactly what happened.

            It’s not outside of nature, but it certainly is interesting when something not likely to happen is prophesied thousands of years ago and then it happens.

            In terms of my disagreeing with the rabbis who believe that settling in Israel before moshiach is heretical being “picking and choosing,” it is not at all “picking and choosing.” I also disagree with the rabbis who say you can’t go to college and that you must eat chalav yisrael, and many other things. We have a concept of elu v’elu – that there’s more than one right opinion. So I accept no Israel before moshiach, no college, and chalav yisrael as Torah opinions – as valid approaches within the spectrum of Torah – but those things are not MY approach.

  • Avatar photo Tuvia says on September 11, 2012

    I think halachic living is fine. I have very halachic people in my life. But when people run around thinking there is “nothing” to modern biblical criticism – and are proud of their ignorance – well, something is up there. And it’s not something I admire.

    It is like Soviet era communism – the leaders trumpet the obvious truth and superiority of communism. They say the west is decadent, materialistic, classist. But it only works as long as no one takes a look for themselves. And you can’t do that because you can’t leave the Soviet Union.

    It all works really well if you hide things from people. Why is that cool with you?


    • Avatar photo Allison says on September 12, 2012

      Who said I’m into hiding stuff? for every argument the skeptic makes the believer can make an argument back. Biblical critisicm isn’t proof. It’s theories. For the aforementioned reasons my faith is based on conviction and reason but ultimately it’s not provable so it’s something I choose to live with.

  • Avatar photo Flora says on April 4, 2013

    I just wanted to say that I think your conversation with Tuvia is beautiful and that just by having this conversation together, you are engaging in a Jewish act. In my mind, one of the most beautiful and also true things about Judaism is the place at the table which is created for skepticism and debate.

    I also love and appreciate your work at this site.

    Oh — and also: as a parent I sometimes devise ways to tend and educate and sometimes just to bring pleasure to my child. Sometimes I do things behind the scenes and sometimes more obviously. Sometimes I do them all at once and all in one way and sometimes I do them in pieces, over time, and employing different methods and even different support people. What I personally choose is G-d as he presents through Judaism and whatever Jewishness in any form that he brings towards me in this life. And in so doing, I feel that someone is tending me, educating me, and setting me up for joy. I don’t even really think of it in terms of belief or whether its “true.” Its just a non-issue for me. I would no more question it than a child with a good parent would question their love and worthiness. I don’t even need to know if we are “the only or the real truth.” I am on a “need to know basis.” and that’s just fine with me. (Now I don’t blindly use this state of being to go and do things that seem wrong to me! And I do wish we could have a future full of stories of joy and companionship with each other and the rest of the world, rather than all this uproot and fighting and killing and dying and overcoming) I just know that Judasim in some form is true for me and that I relish being with others for whom it is also true or at least worthy of exploration. I had a deeply Jewish childhood and as a young adult i thought “well, that must have been the peak of it, being Jewish as a kid.” Yet the older I get (i am 42) the more amazed I am at the depth of what all the different facets of Jewishness offer to my life. Amazed. And grateful. To me, being fascinated is such a great state of being. Does anyone not find the Jewish experience, in particular at this time in history, fascinating?

  • Avatar photo Kathy Kaplan OAM says on April 4, 2013

    I always love your posts, Allison.
    May I please take this conversation on a tangent just for a moment?

    Just the other day I was listening to Robbie Berman from the Halachic Organ Donor Society when he was in Australia for a short visit and he gave another, different yet very beautiful teaching on Devarim’s “I have placed life and death before you, blessing and curse – choose life, so that you will live.”

    His father, whilst on his deathbed, taught him, “When you can no longer choose life for yourself, choose life for another.”

    Allison, may the work of your hands continue to grow from strength to strength – I look forward to your next post.

  • Avatar photo Rella says on April 4, 2013

    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.

    Theres something about this line which really speaks to all, from whatever background, faith and culture. It is so inspiring, and despite being from a non religious background it has given me a real sense of calmness and openness of what we all should aim to achieve, and that we can all use in everyday life. So thank you 🙂

  • Avatar photo Dovid K says on April 5, 2013

    The root of the word “emunah” has the (exact) same root as the word for “artist” – aleph, mem, nun.

    Therefore, when a person ‘has’ emunah, his/her actions and words portray what is on his/her inside.

    The Torah commands us to “know” God (interesting – that’s kind of taken for granted), but to live a live characterized by emunah.

  • Avatar photo Shragi says on April 5, 2013

    You’re saddened by the blogs of formerly Orthodox Jews who were mistreated or abused?
    How about those formerly Orthodox Jews who don’t talk about it on blogs, does that sadden you too?
    How about non-Jews who were mistreated or abused?

    • Avatar photo Allison says on April 8, 2013

      Thanks for your comment, Shragi. I’m saddened by MANY things I didn’t mention: like when babies die and how much cancer is out there and child sex trafficking and yes – I am saddened by everything you mentioned as well. Why did I specifically mention the formerly Orthodox Jews who were mistreated or abused in this particular post? Because it’s a post about emunah and the people who were hurt were not only harmed physically and emotionally. In many cases, their chances for having emunah were severely crushed and as a person who always looks to the end of the story, I often think about how this world ends. All the things we can lose suddenly, how our time on this planet is over in a flash. And living with emunah gives me a lot of hope that this whole thing we’re doing here isn’t completely pointless and painful and I feel for the people who are not able to hold on to that hope so easily.

  • Avatar photo jonah says on April 7, 2013

    if overcoming odds the proof that jews are special then what about everyone else who overcomes the odds? what about gamblers?
    and yes it’s a choice it’s a choice to leap unless you weren’t given that chance by your parents who decided for you.
    to have faith means to take a leap… even rational scientists do take leaps of logic.

    • Avatar photo Allison says on April 8, 2013

      Thanks for your comment, Jonah, but I don’t really understand your point. I didn’t use the word “proof,” I said “compels me to believe.” And it’s not just that the Jews are special because we “beat the odds.” It’s that we first have been illogically hated and THEN have continued to thrive nevertheless. A gambler wins some and loses some. The Jewish people keep on going.

      And even a kid who was raised religious needs to decide for herself if she’s going to carry it on. When I use the word “leap,” I mean it in the sense of doing something blindly. I don’t think Judaism requires blind faith like that. The choice that I discuss, in my mind is a “step of faith,” not a “leap of faith.”

  • Avatar photo Flora says on April 8, 2013

    Grapes are grapes. They are delicious off the vine and so is life in its raw form. But Judaism is like a fine wine, so long and so lovingly tended. And we are lucky enough to be here now when its so beautifully aged.
    I don’t even drink ligour! But I find Judaism intoxicating. Even the restrictions within it seem to be leading me into a wild yet tended garden that is perhaps even more beautiful than the nature left on its own. Yes, Judaism has been involved in some nasty stuff (my family too), but really, come on, Judaism is an attempt — perhaps by G-d — to nurture us towards wellbeing in its deepest sense. And if we are lucky — or perhaps if G-d wills it — this will be part of the healing of the world. I am tired of Jews being angry at Judaism like I am tired of my middle aged friends who are still mad at their seemingly flawed yet did-the-best-they-could parents. Isn’t it time to make the most of every single piece of anything nurturing that comes our way and get on with celebrating this life that — perhaps G-d — gave us. Judaism nurtures, if you let it.

  • Avatar photo Aaron L says on August 17, 2013

    Hi I’ve been following the conversation between the skeptics and the non-skeptics and I figured this would be an appropriate place to post some resources that may be of value to those who find it difficult to implement emunah in their lives. This first link will bring you to Rabbi Dr. Dovid Gottlieb’s essay “Living Up to the Truth,” an almost 50 page essay that brings together evidence for the Torah’s Divine Origin. Second, the link includes his responses to a gentleman who tried to counter the arguments put forth in the essay. This next link will bring you to an essay that discusses biblical criticism and its counter arguments. http://www.simpletoremember.com/articles/a/Bible_Criticism_and_Its_Counterarguments/
    Finally, this link will bring you to a video of Rabbi Lawrence Kelemen’s arguments for the Torah’s Divine Origin.
    All the best,
    P.S. This website is an amazing resource!


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