I recently had the misfortune of reading a best-seller entitled God is not Great. True to the negative and judgmental nature of the title, I was treated to a sprawling condescension of all things faithful and religious.
The author characterized religion in the most fundamentalist, anti-intellectual, stupid and brutal manner possible. He denied any significant refinement of belief over time, and seemed oblivious to the reality that the vast majority of religious people in the world are made more peaceful, more thoughtful, more educated and more social through their engagement with the religion of their upbringing or choice.
What is Faith, and what is Religion? In Hebrew, we have two words: Emunah (Faith) and Da’at (religion). They are not the same, and having both is the ideal in Jewish tradition. One is an attitude which includes any of a variety of beliefs. The other is the system of norms and behaviors which we hold in common with our co-religionists.
Dermot A. Lane, a Christian theologian and author, once wrote that secular and religious people are often equally faithful. Disbelief or doubt in God does not require one to be devoid of any faith. “Primordial faith is an attitude of trust and confidence and acceptance that is brought to bear on the value and worthwhileness of human existence… Faith allows us to live in community.”
The truth is that no human – rabbi or otherwise – has the ability to comprehend and describe God accurately. God is, to put it simply, far beyond the limits of my comprehension. Each of our attempts to describe God is equally valid, because it is equally flawed. Our faith in Judaism is not a dogma or creed which describes God. Rather, it most basically asserts God.
After Shema Yisrael: Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Ehad. Heed, O Israel: The Lord our God, The Lord is One, the remaining paragraph of the Shema does not contain beliefs. Rather, it prescribes actions. Love, teach, speak, and write these words for the Lord your God… Succinctly, “God IS, so ACT.” Faith, and Religion.
Emunah is related to the word “amen” which we say whenever we hear another person recite a formal berakhah (blessing) in our tradition. Saying “amen” asserts feelings of affirmation, hope, and gratitude, in an implied relationship between God and our fellow Jew who is fulfilling the obligation to perform that particular mitzvah or to say that particular prayer. It does not have to mean “I absolutely agree with every dogmatic detail of what you just said.”
Each morning, we sing to our children modeh ani lifaneikha, … rabbah emunatekha. I acknowledge before you… great is your faith. God must have faith in us as well. Faith is an expression of hope which makes today a day of profound potential meaning rather than a trial of survival or conquest.
Da’at, on the other hand, is “Religion.” Da’at comprises both specific creeds, and specific behaviors. Da’at is where love becomes real. A husband, wife, friend or family member who professes love but never shows it in deed will not be believed for long. Our Jewish identities and love of God are no different. “Religion” is how we love God, Torah and our Jewish community everywhere. We are demonstrably different from other religions or atheists in that we actually do things that others do not do. This does not necessarily make us better, but it does ennoble, uplift, renew and identify us within a Covenant of sacred ancestry and heritage which is immeasurably precious.
In the end, our common commitment to be, live, and hope within the realm of Jewish emunah and Jewish da’at is what we are all about when we enter Jewish life and Jewish community. Each of us has our own touchstones, our own journey, our own hopes and doubts to wrestle with in the lives that God has granted us. John A. T. Robinson, a former Bishop of Woolrich, England, once wrote, “All I can do is to try to be honest… honest to God and honest about God.” Our tradition requires the same of each of us.
Rabbi Robert L. Tobin