Questions about faith go much further than: Does God exist


Genesis 12:1-17:27

Isaiah 40:27-41:16

The language of faith sometimes makes me uncomfortable. Partly, the English language in its literary references generally belongs to another religion, so I am challenged to sound authentically Jewish. Translating Jewish spiritual concepts into English can be very difficult.  For example, charity and tzedakah are different concepts. Charity is a movement of the heart, something we do out of love. Tzedakah is an act of righteousness, done regardless of inner feeling.

There is a second, fundamental issue. Faith, belief in God, means a belief that motivates and inspires. It means a belief in a God who matters in our lives on a daily basis. For me, it means also a belief in a God who cares about me and cares about the choices I make. God’s mitzvot are an expression of God’s love for me and are commands.

A third problem is the lack of appropriate models. The Bible gives us a theology that, as sophisticated intellectually advanced moderns, is hard to swallow. If you will observe My laws, says the Torah, then you will receive blessings. If you fail to observe, you shall be cursed.

There are Jews strongly committed to this idea of belief in God. The ultra-Orthodox refer to themselves as haredim, meaning ones terrified of God. They do all they can to obey God’s will lest they be punished. In many cases they are inspiring examples of Jewish commitment. Yet their beliefs, powerfully held though they are, do little for me. That is not what I believe about God.

I see other examples of deep faith commitments in other religions. I again respect what those people of faith add to their communities. I am moved by what their faith inspires in them. My faith is different. Their example can only inspire me to examine the depths of my own faith. It cannot create a direct response in me.

Finally, as I struggle with my own faith, I look at our community and feel sheepish to talk about God too much. After all, I want to continue to engage people. I want to speak to people as God does to Ishamel, where they are. And I am afraid that most of the people with whom I interact on a daily basis are only somewhat interested in God.

In most cases, I suspect people believe in God. I just doubt whether that belief takes the additional step of a God who cares about us. I believe in a God who commands us out of love and therefore compels from us a loving response of observance. That goes a lot further than merely existing.

For me, the motion from disbelief to belief never took the additional step of certainty. I am committed to certain Jewish values and beliefs but I struggle to feel those aspects of faith deeply in my heart. Sometimes my belief in a God who loves and commands us is strong and energizing, other times weak and a struggle.

In this week’s parshah,  Abraham is told by God to go forth, to leave behind a world of comfort and certainty. His faith, says Avivah Zornberg, is an unsettled one. Being out of place, being uncertain, also means being open, being ready to experience a God who is infinite and beyond our comprehension.

Abraham does something remarkably courageous and it changes everything for him and for the world. We resist that unsettled process because we fear where it will take us. It is frightening to leave the land of our ancestors and our family. It requires courage to begin a process that may bring us somewhere unanticipated that changes who we are in fundamental ways.

Is there a way for us to reclaim an Abrahamic faith that motivates and inspires? Can we live in the middle of this energetic and intellectually sophisticated but avidly secular culture while retaining enough faith to want to set limits on our behavior and observe God’s laws?

These are questions I ask myself on a regular basis, both as a rabbi and as a spiritual person wrestling with questions of faith. It is the question Abraham attempted to answer with his whole life, a life of moves and twists and turns and a life centered around faith. What do you think?

Rabbi David Booth is the spiritual leader at Congregation Kol Emeth in Palo Alto. He can be reached at [email protected].