What is true faith?

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I think that it would be fair to say that in the western world the concept most associated with religion would be the concept of faith or belief in God.  However, if one takes a concordance (index) of the Hebrew Bible, one will see, shockingly, that the Hebrew term faith or belief hardly appears in the Torah (the 5 Books of Moses), as a constitution of the Jewish people, and the few places where the term does appear are not passages that stand out as being of great importance.  The term faith or belief in God is absent from the story of the binding of Isaac in which Abraham is described as a God fearing person (Genesis 22, 12), and not as person of faith or belief.  The concept of fear of God in the Bible is orthoprax (behavioral) rather than orthodox (theological) in nature, and is a feeling of the heart (a moral character trait) expressing itself in moral behavior as reflected in the verse from the Book of Proverbs (8, 12) – “the fear of the Lord is to hate evil”.  The term faith or belief is likewise absent from the ten statements – and the term ten commandments is a misnomer as the term in the Bible is ten statements (Deuteronomy 4, 13).  The religious terms that appear in the ten statements (Exodus 20, 5) are orthoprax (behavioral) in nature rather than orthodox (theological) – to serve and to bow down (or to worship).

The Torah and Hebrew Bible are completely absent of any systematic theological and philosophic analysis and argument.  This is not to say that the Torah and Bible do not present theological and philosophic ideas.  The Torah and Bible present us with many important and remarkable theological and philosophical ideas and conceptions; however, the ideas and conceptions of the Torah and Bible are not presented as part of, or as the result of, systematic philosophic analysis and argument.  The ideas and conceptions of the Torah and Bible are presented poetically and literarily – in the main, as reflected in stories, or in other non-philosophic material of the Biblical literature (and even reflected in legal material as well).  Even the two books of the Bible that stand out as seemingly responding to philosophic questions – the Book of Job and the Book of Ecclesiastes – do not contain any systematic, philosophic analysis and argument whatsoever, and are strikingly similar to modern existentialist literature in this regard.  The Book of Job is written in the form of a long, extended poem, probably the worst form that could be chosen for clarifying and analyzing philosophic questions and issues.  Similarly, the Book of Ecclesiastes, containing no systematic analysis or argument, is written in an artistic rather than philosophic form (filled with internal contradictions, the antithesis of systematic philosophic analysis and clarification).

The Torah and Hebrew Bible present us with no arguments of a philosophic nature attempting to demonstrate or prove the existence of God, nor philosophic analysis concerning the nature of God – and, there is no binding theological dogma in the Hebrew Bible (and the Talmudic rabbis did not codify a binding dogma).  Maimonides (the great legal scholar and philosopher of the 12th century), who is the first and only thinker in the Jewish tradition to codify a binding theological dogma as a matter of law (in codifying his “13 Principles of Faith”), opens his law code with arguments attempting to demonstrate, or provide support for, the existence of God because his conception of faith is philosophic and propositional – and thus the philosophic proposition that God exists must be demonstrated or supported by philosophic arguments attempting to prove or suggest the existence of God.  By contrast, in the Biblical conception, the existence of God in a theological or philosophic sense is simply not a concern, and philosophic arguments demonstrating the existence of God are superfluous – for, the essence of Biblical religion is not the demonstration or teaching of philosophic propositions, but moral character and moral action that is seen as the fulfillment of the moral will of God (whether or not God actually exists from a philosophic or metaphysical point of view).  Philosophic knowledge or belief is simply not an essential element of a religious life in the Biblical conception.

The term faith appears as a central, religious concept in the Hebrew Bible only in the Book of Psalms (where the term is used along with other synonyms such as trust).  Yet, in the Book of Psalms, characteristic of the Bible in general, the concept of faith in God is used in a psychological, anti-theological and behavioral (orthoprax) sense (in which faith is a matter of moral character necessarily expressing itself in proper behavior, or in an optimistic attitude) as opposed to a theological (orthodox) conception (in which faith is in the sense of philosophic belief abstract and divorced from behavior).

It is thus a misconception that the concept of faith is unimportant in an orthoprax conception of religion, such as that of the Hebrew Bible.  In an orthoprax conception of religion, such as that of the Bible, the essence of religion is moral character and moral behavior as reflected in the verse – “You shall do that which is right and good in the eyes of the Lord”(Deuteronomy 6, 18).  Faith is not the essence of Biblical religion, but the concept is nevertheless important and, as I have indicated, a central concept in the Book of Psalms.

I want to distinguish between two kinds of faith – faith in an orthodox (correct belief) sense, characteristic of the ancient Greek culture that so emphasized reason and intellect; and, faith in an orthoprax (correct deeds) sense, characteristic of the Hebrew Bible that so emphasizes moral character and moral action.  Faith in an orthodox sense is philosophical or propositional in nature, such as Maimonides’ codification of a binding theological dogma.  Philosophic or propositional (orthodox) faith is expressed in the adoption of philosophic propositions that are held, known or believed to be true, implying a conception of religion in which the essence of religion is knowledge or belief in an abstract intellectual sense, as opposed to action.  By contrast, faith in an orthoprax sense is psychological or experiential in nature, such as the Biblical conception.  In the Biblical conception, God is conceived not only as a God of creation but most importantly as a moral God who demands morality; and, faith in the Biblical conception is in the psychological sense of trust, loyalty and commitment (matters of the heart rather than reason), which expresses itself in good deeds (constituting the service of God) implying that the essence of religion is moral character and moral action.

Faith, in a philosophic (orthodox) sense, is an end in itself divorced from action in that the adoption of correct propositions does not necessarily express itself in proper behavior.  One may know (be convinced) or believe that God exists and yet act in an immoral manner; conversely, one may know (be convinced) or believe that God does not exist and yet act in a righteous manner.  Psychological (orthoprax) faith, by contrast, is not an end but a means to achieve the greater goal of proper behavior.  Such faith necessarily expresses itself in the greater goal of proper actions revealing psychological and moral character.  Thus, if one declares that he or she believes in God, and yet acts immorally, the immoral actions are testimony that such a person does not truly believe in God in an experiential and psychological sense of the heart.  Such a person may declare philosophically that he or she believes in God, but moral character (in distinction to philosophic knowledge or belief) constituting faith in a psychological sense of the heart is truly revealed only in actions and not philosophic declarations.  Conversely, if one declares that he or she does not believe in God, and yet acts morally, the moral actions are testimony that such a person does truly believe in God in an experiential and psychological sense of the heart.  Such a person may declare philosophically that he or she does not believe in God, but moral character (faith in a psychological sense of the heart) is truly revealed in actions and not philosophic declarations.

For example, in the story of the midwives in the Book of Exodus, the righteous behavior of the midwives in refusing to carry out the immoral command of Pharaoh, King of Egypt to murder Israelite male children, makes them worthy of being described by the Torah (Exodus 1, 17) as displaying fear of God.  The concept of fear of God (a feeling or moral character trait of the heart), a central religious concept of the Bible, reflects the very same Biblical paradigm of religion as the concept of faith in God – a psychological-behavioral (orthoprax) paradigm in which the essence of religion is moral character and moral action.  Therefore, the midwives in displaying fear of God can likewise be seen as displaying true faith in God (in a psychological sense of the heart) as well.  Their theological and philosophic beliefs are simply not a concern in the passage.  It is clear that it is their righteous behavior, in spite of whatever philosophic beliefs they held (even if they believed in a pantheon of gods from a philosophic point of view), that provides the testimony, according to the Torah, that they are truly religious people in displaying the fear of God – and true faith in God in a psychological and experiential sense as well (regardless of their theological beliefs).

I once sat next to a retired judge in Israel at a wedding, who was a survivor of the Nazi Holocaust.  We struck up a conversation, and when I told him that I was a student and teacher in a Yeshiva (study academy) although I grew up without basic Jewish education divorced from Jewish tradition, he responded by emphasizing the differences between us in telling me that he came from a religious background of observance of Jewish law and traditional ritual practice, but that he had abandoned a traditional religious lifestyle and is no longer religious.  He explained that following the Nazi Holocaust he could no longer believe in God.

Rather than focusing upon differences between us (in terms of lifestyle and philosophic outlook) I attempted to bridge the gap between us in telling him that although I respect his defining of himself as not religious, and defining of himself as lacking faith in God, I respectfully disagree with his conception of what it means to be religious as well as his conception of faith.  I explained that while I understand that according to his own conception of being religious he may not consider himself to be religious; nonetheless, in my eyes, as a judge (contributing so much to Israeli society), as a morally upstanding person and in maintaining an optimistic attitude allowing him to not only to continue living but to contribute so much to others after all that he suffered and witnessed during the Holocaust he (even though not observant of Jewish law or traditional ritual practice, and even though not believing in the existence of God) exemplifies what it means to be truly religious in the Biblical conception – and, in explaining to him such a conception, I pointed out that in the Biblical conception he not only is not lacking faith in God but that he exemplifies (in his moral character, moral life and optimistic attitude) what it means to truly believe (in the heart) in God experientially (and to truly be religious) regardless of his philosophic beliefs (and even though he is not observant of Jewish law or traditional ritual practice).

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Jeffrey Radon

Author of orthopraxjudaism.com

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Excellent post (and nice site). I wonder what the judge’s reaction was.

    I acknowledge that you’re right, the Bible doesn’t waste time arguing about the existence of God. But in those days, to conceive of a world without God or gods was, we are told by scholars, more or less unheard of. The closest people came to atheism was to claim that God was simply not involved in the world anymore (and even this outlook seems a product of later Antiquity).

    So sure, the Bible isn’t concerned with telling us to believe in God’s existence. But one could argue that it doesn’t necessarily follow that the Bible considers this belief unimportant. The belief is assumed as part of a narrative in which God is a main participant. Plus, there wasn’t any godless cosmogony to compete with this worldview, so why bother belaboring the point or arguing it?

    But if they could see us now, and speak to us now, isn’t it possible the prophets and sages would be concerned about lack of belief in the existence of God (as well as lack of emuna in its aspect of faithfulness and trust, as you stress)? I don’t know the answer, but curious about your take.

    1. Hello Michael, thank you so much for your comment here.

      First as far as the judge, we had a very interesting discussion about religion, and his reaction was typical of those who hear my viewpoints – that he had never heard such views before and that I had broadened his horizons. This is my most important goal as a teacher – I am far less concerned with whether others agree or disagree with me, and much more concerned with causing people to think and broadening horizons.

      Second, in my view, it is not possible from a literary point of view in attempting to understand what the Bible is teaching us (rather than twisting it to teach what we would like it to teach us) to argue that theological or philosophic belief is important despite the absence of theological and philosophic analysis and argument in the Bible. To argue that theological or philosophic belief is important in the Biblical conception despite it s absence from the Bible is to read into the Bible theology and philosophy as if important when the Bible omits theology and philosophy – and theology and philosophy are simply foreign to the Bible. If theological or philosophic belief were important, then the Bible would need to present arguments supporting such belief as does Maimonides in his law code – Maimonides presents philosophic arguments to support belief in the existence of God at the beginning of his law code because he considers belief in the existence of God to be of fundamental importance and a fundamental principle of religion. The reason, from a literary point of view, that the Bible is entirely absent of theological or philosophic analysis and argument, and entirely absent of any demand to believe in any theological or philosophic proposition, is that theological or philosophic belief is irrelevant to religion, and not important, in the Biblical conception of religion. The essence of Biblical religion is morality regardless of theological belief – and theological or philosophic belief is simply foreign to the orthoprax and pragmatic spirit of the Bible.

      Third, belief in the existence of God is not assumed despite the absence of any theological or philosophic analysis and argument in the Bible – rather, the opposite, theological and philosophic belief is assumed to be unimportant and irrelevant to a religious life, and the evidence that this is so is such a passage as the midwives who display fear of God in the Biblical conception regardless of their theological beliefs and even though in all likelihood they believed from a theological point of view in the existence of a pantheon of Gods. Abraham (Genesis 14, 22) refers to God (YHVH) as the most high God, which very clearly means that from a theological point of view Abraham believed in the existence of a pantheon of gods of whom YHVH is the greatest among them – and, in the Bible Abraham’s theological beliefs are not elaborated upon at all other than this one statement, and the Bible elaborates upon and emphasizes instead Abraham’s moral character traits.

      Last, the Talmudic rabbis faithful to the Biblical conception and faithful to the great prophets of the Bible were not concerned with theological or philosophic belief. Hillel and Rabbi Akiva, the two greatest of the Talmudic rabbis, both formulate the essence of religion as moral decency – Hillel formulates the essence of Judaism as “what is hateful unto you do not do unto others” and Rabbi Akiva cites the Biblical verse “love your neighbor as yourself” as the essence of Judaism. Notice that both omit God from their entirely secular, anti-theological and orthoprax formulations. There is a famous midrash according to which God says “better to abandon Me than My Torah” – meaning that to deny the existence of God theologically (to abandon Me) is not an essential element of religion, and the essence of Judaism and religion is observance of Torah (good deeds).

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