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Jewish World Review Nov. 15, 2002/ 10 Kislevv, 5763


Rabbi Hillel Goldberg

A powerful voice for faith



http://www.jewishworldreview.com | "Faith comes naturally to all people. Every person bases his life on faith and trust. Otherwise, how would he step onto a plane or take a morsel of food into his mouth? How does he know that the pilot is properly trained to fly the plane? How does he know that all parts of the plane are in working order? How does he know the food in his mouth is not poisoned? Obviously, a person could not exist without faith. The question is where he invests his natural faith. Does he have faith in other people? Does he have faith in his own abilities? Or does he have faith in G-d?"

                        —   Rabbi Mattisyahu Salomon

"I
n popular culture, "faith" often connotes simplemindedness or suspension of reason. The pertinent Hebrew terms emunah ("faith in G-d") and bitachon ("trust in G-d") open a different perspective. These Hebrew terms are not simple and do benefit from rational examination. The finest Jewish minds ponder Hebrew faith, its many definitions, levels and implications. Rabbi Mattisyahu Salomon, spiritual guide of the famed yeshiva in Lakewood, New Jersey, makes an informed and passionate contribution to the subject.

Rabbi Salomon's native tongue is English (or perhaps we should say British). His recent book, With Hearts Full of Faith (Mesorah, 2002), does not suffer from maladies that often plague English presentations of Hebrew works. The speeches of Rabbi Salomon, which make up the chapters of this book, began in English (not Yiddish or Hebrew). Their editing was only a technical and literary task; the full force of their ideas is retained, minus a translator's mediating lens, which rarely captures the original in its full power. Perhaps for this reason, the sustained power of Rabbi Salomon's book transcends many time-honored Hebrew works on faith, at least for the native English speaker.

Rabbi Salomon does not comfort; he challenges. He does not offer simple solutions that strengthen one's faith; he opens up vistas, compelling the reader to examine the gaps in his own faith. Rabbi Salomon offers news ideas, or new twists on old ideas. He does so by commenting on Scripture or other sacred texts without, however, getting sidetracked. His use of texts, while full of rich interpretation, never wavers from the agenda: the illumination of faith. Along the way, the reader may cull perceptive readings of Biblical and Talmudic passages. Rabbi Salomon is both exegete and theologian - and both, as we shall see, he grounds in his responsibilities as de facto psychologist.

T
he book opens with a chapter entitled "Faith and Faithfulness." Immediately the reader is put on notice that faith is a pregnant concept and a cognate term. Faith, faithfulness, what's the difference?

The reader of Hebrew immediately senses a layer of Jewish thought that "faith" cannot and does not capture. This layer is ne'emanus ("faithfulness"), clearly related to emunah or "faith," but just as clearly not the same as it.

To be ne'eman ("faithful), to quote Rabbi Salomon, is to be "steadfast as a rock, unwavering, unfaltering, unswerving." Ne'eman means "trustworthy, faithful, loyal, reliable, responsible, firm, honest." G-d is described in the Talmud as a "Ne'eman" ("Faithful one"). Divine faithfulness emerges as important as human belief. In fact, it is Divine faithfulness that is the ultimate object of human belief. Belief affirms not just the existence of G-d, but the faithfulness, the trustworthiness, of G-d's every word. Faith, faithfulness: the difference between the two is the difference between a human attitude (belief in G-d's existence) and a Divine attribute (Divine faithfulness).


TO ORDER

With Hearts Full of Faith.

By Rabbi Mattisyahu Salomon with
Rabbi Yaakov Yosef Reinman
Hardcover, 274 pages
Mesorah Publications, Ltd.

-- Purchasing this book by clicking on title helps fund JWR

So much for theology. What about psychology? What about human faithfulness - and its relation to Divine faithfulness? "How," asks Rabbi Salomon, "do we take the intellectual belief in the trustworthiness of G-d's word and implant it so deeply in our hearts that it becomes an absolute reality for us?"

In answering this question, Rabbi Salomon moves beyond theology. He does not want his readers merely to understand faith, but to embrace it with their whole being. The experiential dimension occupies him as much as the theological. Aptly, it is precisely the human dimension that makes the reality of Divine faithfulness possible.

"Only a faithful person whose word is an absolute guarantee can accept someone else's word with a confident and serene heart," Rabbi Salomon observes.

He posits that the way human beings understand each other conditions the way they understand G-d. If a person "does not know the meaning of true faithfulness from his own experience, how can he have faith in G-d's faithfulness?" Human existence is the ground of human faith. While faith was revealed by G-d through the Torah, the capacity to accept the Torah begins with the ethical understanding of human responsibilities.

What, then, about the flagrant challenge to faith - the fact that G-d's faithfulness or reliability often seems deficient? Again, the question reflects not just a philosophical point, but a personal inadequacy.

"While he waits for the fulfillment of G-d's promise, he cannot help but feel apprehensive. He may sing Ani maamin (Maimonides' 'I believe with perfect faith') with the most beautiful inspirational melody, 'Ani maamin! I believe with perfect faith that the Messiah will come!' But deep down, he is not so sure. He does not know the meaning of faithfulness as an absolute reality. He does not feel it. It is not part of his experience."

Rabbi Salomon teases all of this out of a few verses in the beginning of Exodus (2:11-14).

"Moses . . . saw an Egyptian man striking a Hebrew man, of his brethren. He turned this way and that and saw that there was no man, so he struck down the Egyptian and hid him in the sand. He went out the next day and behold! two Hebrew men were fighting. He said to the wicked one, 'Why would you strike your fellow?' He replied, 'Who appointed you as a dignitary, a ruler, and a judge over us? Do you propose to murder me, as you murdered the Egyptian?' Moses was frightened and he thought, 'Indeed, the matter is known!'"

Rashi notes that Moses' lethal defense of a Jew became "known" in the sense that Jewish informers would surely make known Moses' act of murder to the authorities. Based on Hebrews' willingness to squeal on each other, Moses concludes that the Jewish people are unworthy of redemption from Egypt.

Why? Rabbi Solomon observes: People who are not faithful to each other cannot be faithful to G-d; people who are not faithful to G-d cannot expect to be redeemed. Willing to inform on each other, the Hebrew slaves were unfaithful to their word of honor. Incapable of faithfulness to each other, they were not yet capable of grasping G-d's faithfulness, of entering into an everlasting covenant with Him.

"U
nanswered Prayers" - a compelling, in- escapable, indeed universal topic within faith - is the sixth chapter of Rabbi Salomon's book. He uses a Talmudic text (Rosh Hashanah 18a) to make his point:

"Rabbi Meir used to say, 'Two people took to bed with the same illness, and similarly, two people were brought to the gallows for the same punishment; one recovered and the other didn't, one was saved and the other wasn't. Why should one recover and the other not? Why should one be saved and the other not? This one prayed and was answered. The other one prayed and was not answered. And why was this one answered and the other not? This one prayed a complete prayer and the other didn't."

What is a "complete prayer" - the prayer, according to the Talmud, that elicits salvation from G-d?

Rabbi Salomon offers the following explanation based on an exegesis of Rashi offered by his late teacher, Rabbi Elya Lopian: "They didn't believe in the effectiveness of their prayers. They did not believe that their prayers would be answered. They did not expect to succeed."

Belief in the efficacy of prayer is not, says Rabbi Salomon, what it might seem. It means, of course, sincerity and confidence. But deception about sincerity is great.

"Sometimes," writes Rabbi Salomon, "you see people saying Psalms for a sick person, and you see that one of them has tears streaming down his face as he cries out the verses. And you are impressed by the depth of this person praying so powerfully that he is moved to tears. But this may be a mistake. He may be crying because he really doesn't believe the patient will recover - and he is already imagining the funeral!"

What, then, is confidence in prayer?

"A real prayer, a 'complete prayer,' is said with faith and confidence that prayer can heal just as effectively as the latest medication, and even more so. A 'complete prayer' . . . is said with faith and confidence that the entire world is in G-d's hands, that He can do whatever He wants to do. G-d is not restrained by statistics and medical reports. Prayer has the power to accomplish anything, but only as long as the one praying is convinced of it."

Still, even this is not enough to make a prayer "complete." For that, a prayer must not be routine, even if sincerely believed in. Prayer is not a system, a formula, "like putting a coin into a vending machine, pressing the button and waiting for a can to pop out." Prayer, rather, is a plea for mercy and favor before G-d. It is offered like a beggar standing at the door, making "a plea for mercy and favor." Says Rabbi Salomon, "A person always has to beg for his life, because he is assured of nothing. Who is so righteous that he can say he is guaranteed life and good fortune? No one. . . . nothing I can do will ever earn me all the good You have given me. G-d, I am a miserable beggar standing at Your door."

Still more. A complete prayer must be based on teshuvah, repentance. Why? "Because when we get ready to pray, if we want our prayers to be effective, we must first clear our record." Among the sins to be repented: "We must express our regret for offering up 'incomplete prayers' devoid of faith and confidence that G-d listens to our prayers and responds to them. . . . And we also have to express our determination to improve in the future. Our repentance is not expedient. It is not meant just to make today's prayers effective. It has to be a full repentance." In short: no bargains with G-d.

A "complete prayer" (tefillah shelemah) is, indeed, complete.

I
barely summarize two chapters, which are far richer than space allows me to indicate. Space also constrains me merely to mention some of the other major challenges to faith that Rabbi Salomon addresses. Suffice to say that he ducks no challenge to faith. For example, he addresses the childless couple, the deaths of Sept. 11, 2001, the temptations of decadence, the seemingly recalcitrant reality that some face in making a living and the very different world in which women express their faith today. Pungently, he addresses the seemingly pious man who prays with great care and intensity, yet treats people ruthlessly in his business. He also addresses the philosophical quandary of G-d changing his mind in response to prayer.

Rabbi Salomon's style flows, yet his book is difficult to read. The obstacle is not the language; it is the author's power to cut behind your defenses, to make you listen to what he actually says - and more. He makes you stop, and think, and examine the obstacles to faith you have implanted in your own life. This book is like a teacher of Torah who knows your soul, knows your history, and makes very specific comments that make you face yourself. In this sense, With Hearts Full of Faith. is like the classic mussar shmuez, the penetrating talk by the psychological master in the yeshiva, who loves and knows you well enough to point out exactly what is holding you back from growing in spirituality and observance.

If you are unafraid to face yourself, pick up a copy of With Hearts Full of Faith.

"I was once walking in Switzerland with Rabbi Moshe Soloveitchik. We were talking about the mountains, and the conversation turned to King David's question and answer. 'I lift my eyes to the mountains, from where will my help arrive? My help is from G-d, the Maker of heaven and earth.' "The sequence of the verses had always puzzled me. The speaker of these lines is obviously King David himself. But what about the next lines? 'He will not allow your feet to falter, your Guardian will not slumber. Behold, He will not slumber nor sleep, the Guardian of Israel.' Who is the speaker of these lines?

"The speaker of these lines, Rabbi Moshe told me, is the entire world. Once a person reaches the realization that his 'help is from G-d, the Maker of heaven and earth,' the entire world calls out to him, 'He will not let your feet lead you to ruin.' The mountains set his thought processes in motion, but once he recognizes that his security comes only from G-d, he sees signs of it everywhere."

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JWR contributor Rabbi Hillel Goldberg is Executive Editor of the Intermountain Jewish News. To comment, click here.



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© 2002, Rabbi Hillel Goldberg