During this excruciatingly difficult time for our brothers and sisters in the Holy Land and Jews around the world, we are reminded of the historical fact, that, while our enemies can try to annihilate us, ultimately, as we read in Hagaddah text, "In each generation there are those who rise up to kill us, but G‑d Almighty saves us from their hands." In this week's Word of the Week, we explore the powerful spiritual practice and power of Faith.

In Judaism, faith is not a binary, yes or no proposition.

While according to Jewish law, the minimum requirement of faith is the belief in a singular, omnipresent, omnipotent Being Who is the cause of all existence,1 to truly live with faith means much more than that.

Interestingly, the Hebrew word for faith, emunah, is derived from the same root as uman, which means an artisan, craftsman, or practitioner.2 While becoming an artist often begins with the identification of an inborn talent, that talent, if not exercised, can remain undeveloped.

Real artistry depends on constant cultivation through regular expression and nurturing. To be proficient in a craft, one needs to devote time, effort, and practice to develop their skills. Likewise, faith is an ongoing pursuit, an artistry of sorts that gets better with time and practice.

In fact, in modern Hebrew, imunim means exercises. Just as one needs to keep up an exercise routine to maintain a fit body, the soul, too, needs regular nurturing to keep its faith vibrant.

Faith is therefore not a static noun, something one possesses and never loses; rather, it is a dynamic verb, an active pursuit and process that requires constant cultivation.

On the intellectual plane, the journey of faith is one that requires us to understand as much as we can about G‑d, Torah, and the soul, and what we cannot grasp or prove we then subscribe to in faith.

Nevertheless, we are bidden by our Sages to constantly deepen and upgrade our understanding.3 As we do, the ceiling of our faith is raised, so that what once was taken on faith alone is now arrived at through understanding and knowledge. This dialectic dance between faith and intellect is one of the primary expressions of the perpetual journey of faith.

However, despite its common caricature, faith isn’t just a stubborn conviction in the absence of reason; faith is a way of knowing that is rooted in experience. We learn by doing, and from within the context of action emerges an insight that could never be accessed through words and thoughts alone. It’s like trying to explain the flavor of a strawberry to someone who never ate one before. No amount or manner of words and metaphors could ever do it justice. Such an experience can only be fully appreciated by putting a strawberry into your mouth and biting into it.

Similarly, when it comes to faith, there is a degree of understanding and identification that comes only through the performance of mitzvot, the sacred acts and practices prescribed by the Torah.

This is the meaning of the statement of the Israelites at Sinai when they accepted the Torah with the exclamation, We will do and [and through doing] we will understand.4 Herein lies a paradigm shift at the heart of the Jewish understanding of faith. It is not that the more we understand and believe, the more we will do; rather, the more we do, the more we come to understand and believe.5

Judaism, therefore, asks of its adherents to take a leap of action, not just a leap of faith. In this light, the mitzvot are revealed not only as the fruits of faith, but as its nourishing roots as well.

Ultimately, faith is a lifelong journey that nourishes and is nourished by perpetual intellectual and experiential advancement.

Significantly, in Judaism, a person of faith is not referred to as a “good Jew but as a “practicing” Jew. To be engaged in the art and act of faith is thus to practice each day and continuously strive to perfect this spiritual craft so that our connection to both Creator and creation expands and deepens with each passing day.

The Big Idea

Faith is not static and fixed but dynamic and fluid. Like the body, the soul needs constant nourishment and exercise in order to flourish.

It Happened Once

In his memoirs, Mr. Gordon Zacks, a prominent Jewish activist, writes about an audience he once had with the Lubavitcher Rebbe:

“Do you believe in revelation, Mr. Zacks?” the Rebbe asked me.

“I believe in G‑d, and I believe he inspires... but I don’t believe he writes,” I answered.

“You mean, Mr. Zacks, that there is this vast structure G‑d has created of plants, animals, food chains, stars, and planets. And that the only creature in all of creation that doesn’t understand how to fit in and live their life purposefully is the human?”

I told him yes.

“What about the complexity of the human body? What about the jewel of the human cell? How does the body ingest food and renew itself with absolute consistency?”

I could only shrug my shoulders, but my respect for him deepened by the moment.

“And how can you account for the brain and the mind? How do they steer this remarkable system in a purposeful and precise way? And what about how we fit into the earth’s ecosystem, where we inhale the oxygen that plants so wonderfully manufacture for us? Could this all be accidental?”

How could I answer him?

“And beyond what happens on earth, what about all the heavenly bodies in the sky that seem to follow such a perfect order and don’t collide with each other? Is man the only creature on the planet without guidelines for living its life? Should man ignore the Torah given to us by G‑d as a roadmap to guide us? This is the missing link that connects us to the complexity of nature!”

So it went. Comment after comment. More times than not, I could not begin to answer his points.

He quoted Kazantzakis’ book Zorba the Greek to me during our conversation. “Do you remember the young man talking with Zorba on the beach, when Zorba asks what the purpose of life is? The young fellow admits he doesn’t know. And Zorba comments, ‘Well, all those books you read—what good are they? Why do you read them?’ Zorba’s friend says he doesn’t know. Zorba can see his friend doesn’t have an answer to the most fundamental question. That’s the trouble with you. ‘A man’s head is like a grocer,’ Zorba says, ‘it keeps accounts.... The head’s a careful little shopkeeper; it never risks all it has, always keeps something in reserve. It never breaks the string.’ Wise men and grocers weigh everything. They can never cut the cord and be free. Your problem, Mr. Zacks, is that you are trying to find G‑d’s map through your head. You are unlikely to find it that way. You have to experience before you can truly feel and then be free to learn. Let me send a teacher to live with you for a year and teach you how to be Jewish. You will unleash a whole new dimension to your life. If you really want to change the world, change yourself! It’s like dropping a stone into a pool of water and watching the concentric circles radiate to the shore. You will influence all the people around you, and they will influence others in turn. That’s how you bring about improvement in the world.”

* * *

Kalman Cowl, a music professor at Columbia University, became friendly with some Chasidim and would often visit them at the central Chabad synagogue located at 770 Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn.

Once, he was persuaded by his friends to request a meeting with the Lubavitcher Rebbe.

He was apprehensive about the meeting, though, because, in his own words, “Although I felt fiercely Jewish, I didn’t believe in G‑d.”

At their meeting, after exchanging pleasantries, Kalman told the Rebbe, “I appreciate the privilege of being taught more about my heritage here in 770, but I don’t want to be here under false pretenses. I have no faith.”

The Rebbe thought for a few moments and said simply, “As long as you are concerned about that, I’m not worried.”