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Jewish World Review
What is faith?
By Rabbi Yonason Goldson
Our master educator explores misconceptions that may well be causing the abandonment of belief
PRINT AND FORWARD
Every night, most of us go to bed without questioning whether we'll wake up the next morning or whether the sun will rise in the east. Every morning, most of us go to our front doors confident that our cars will start, that the trains will run, that our coworkers and customers will be respectively friendly, or sour, or aloof, each according to our expectation based upon experience.
Is this faith? Or is it rather the reasoned projection of logical extrapolation? Or is there a difference?
Over the past two decades, 50% more tornados have swept through the state of Illinois than the state of Alabama. Nevertheless, Alabama has suffered many more fatalities. An article in the journal Science has suggested the following explanation: Because people in Alabama tend to share the religious conviction that their destiny is in the hands of G-d, they resign themselves to the inevitability of Divine Providence. In contrast, people in Illinois more commonly believe that they are in control of their own destiny and masters of their own fate; consequently, they are more inclined to take action toward ensuring their own safety and welfare.
If correct, this analysis might imply that faith is vastly over-rated. If dependence upon the Almighty increases the likelihood of an early demise, perhaps we should all reject the notion of faith and conclude that G-d really does help those who help themselves.
Alternatively, we might re-evaluate our understanding of faith.
The Hebrew word emunah commonly translated as faith is more accurately translated at faithfulness. It is less descriptive of our internal beliefs and more descriptive of our external behaviors. It describes not our feelings but the degree to which our commitment translates into concrete actions. Most significantly, it expresses our conviction that the Almighty keeps faith with us, even when we may fail to keep faith with Him.
Consider the husband on a business trip a thousand miles from home who resists the overtures of an attractive young woman in the hotel lounge, the teenager away at college who leaves a party when hard drugs start being passed around, the lowly private who doggedly advances according to orders even when he is cut off from the rest of his company all these are examples of faithfulness that endures even when human logic and fear of consequences offer no objection, even when peer-pressure urges us to abandon duty and loyalty. These are the truly unsung heroes, who set aside the relentless calling of self-interest and immediate gratification for nothing but the commitment to another person, to a code of honor, or to an ideal.
According to Jewish philosophy, our trust in the Almighty is not the "leap of faith" that comes from believing without logic or reason, but the confidence that comes from knowing that the Almighty has proven His faithfulness to His people again and again over 3,300 years of uniquely supernatural history. It derives not from our faith that everything will turn out the way we want all of the time, but our certainty that everything is guided by Providence, and that the logic behind every divine edict is true and just even when it is unfathomable to human understanding.
Finally, faithfulness does not require us, nor even advise us, to sit by passively and await the Divine Will to reveal itself before us. Rather, it requires us to act in our own best interest while adhering to the moral laws of G-d and man.
Almost everyone has heard the story of the clergyman forced to seek refuge on his rooftop by the rising waters of a flood. One boat comes and offers to save him, but he replies, "I have faith in G-d." Another boat comes, then another, and finally a helicopter drops down a ladder and warns that they are the last of the rescuers. But the man of the cloth declares, "I have faith in G-d."
The floodwaters continue to rise, and the clergyman drowns.
Upon arriving in the next world, the clergyman asks why, in spite of his devout faith, the Almighty did not save him. And G-d replies: "What did you want from Me? I sent you three boats and a helicopter."
G-d does indeed help those who help themselves. But He ultimately rewards those who remain faithful, who recognize that there is both a time for taking matters into our own hands and a way to do so without compromising our faithfulness to the Master of the Universe. There is a time to live through determined effort, with honor and dignity and self-respect. There is also a time to die when the cost of personal integrity becomes too great.
Learning to strike the perfect balance between determined effort and principled resignation is the work of a lifetime. It is also the key to achieving true faithfulness to both G-d and one's fellow man.
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JWR contributor Rabbi Yonason Goldson teaches at Block Yeshiva High School in St. Louis, MO, where he also writes and lectures. Visit him at http://torahideals.wordpress.com .
© 2009, Rabbi Yonason Goldson