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Miscellaneous thoughts and ramblings
Wednesday, November 30, 2005
Jews and Faith: Is Faith a Requirement?
So, here I am in Las Vegas, and I'm engaged in a heated debate with my dad on Judaism. My dad is a Christian, so his views come from that perspective.

The conversation began with me stating that my understanding of Judaism is that it is a religion of works; not faith... that faith is not a requirement. I went so far as to say that a person could be a devout Jew (through his actions and observances) without necessarily believing in the existence of G-d.

He told me I was full of it, and we argued for a while, with me telling him that I thought his opinion on the subject was colored by his Christian faith (faith is the foremost requirement in Christianity; works are secondary), and him not buying it.

This morning he printed out Maimonides 13 Principles of Faith. There are various wordings, but the first one is basically faith in the existence of G-d. I looked up Maimonides and pointed out that he was a 12th century Rabbi, and that his Principles were apparently both controversial, and widely ignored for a long while after he wrote them. I acknowledged though, that the Principles had eventually been integrated into the siddur, and are apparently widely held beliefs in "most of Orthodox Judaism".

So, we batted it around for a bit, but I kept coming back to the problem with the debate... neither of us is a Jew, so our limited understanding of Judaism is going to hinder a full understanding of the issue. So, I bring it to Kerckhoff, where I know there to be several well-informed Jews, in hopes for some light to be shed on the subject.

So, is faith in G-d a requirement for a Jew? For an Orthodox Jew? Can a person be an atheist, and still be a religious Jew?

Any links to authoritative stuff would be great.

This should be interesting.
I don't speak "authoritatively", but I can tell you that the debate is very much alive in Judaism, even Orthodox Judaism.

Rambam's 13 Principles of Faith are definitely part of the liturgy and taught in Jewish schools, and yet, people will still find their own private resolution to this issue.

Some Jewish bloggers have recently debated this point. See Jack's post on this.
Mirty - thanks for the link to Jack's post. I commented over there.

Nomad -

You'll notice in the comments to Jack's post that there might be a terminology issue here. You speak of "devout" and "religious." Many different types of people might describe themselves that way and yet have different levels of belief and practice. For the sake of argument, let's say we're speaking of Orthodox Jews (which also contains a variety of practices and beliefs, but work with me here).

But a step back first. Now, you don't have to believe in God or practice anything in order to be a Jew if you were born a Jew. To convert to Orthodox Judaism, you definitely have to display a knowledge of Jewish texts and practices, and state a commitment to certain practices (not that you're exempt from any necessarily, but I don't know what specifically comes up in such ceremonies). What I don't know, and what would be interesting to find out, is if you have to state a belief in God. That would go a long way to answering your question.

My guess is that you don't have to state anything like that. Not because belief isn't important, but, as I intimate in my comment on Jack's post, belief itself isn't necessarily the right paradigm. The existence of God is a given, it's the foundation of what we're doing. In Judaism we don't talk about "works," we talk about "commandments." If there is a command, there is by definition a commander.

So, as you ask, is faith in God a requirement for an Orthodox Jew? Let's put it this way. You could easily pass for an Orthodox Jew and do everything required of you, and not believe in God. You would fit in the community because, frankly, it just wouldn't come up if you didn't bring it up. Even if you announced "I don't believe in God," I don't imagine anyone would throw you out. They might wonder why you're doing all of these crazy things such as restricting yourself from perfectly yummy combinations of food and strapping leather boxes onto your head six days a week. And I don't think a rabbi who made such an announcement would hang on to his post for much longer.

And, if someone really did make such an announcement, I also doubt anyone would discourage him from keeping up all of the practices. Because at the end of the day, it is important to follow the commandments even for the wrong reasons. This is easy to understand when it comes to interpersonal relations, such as giving charity. The guy who needs a buck doesn't necessarily care why you're giving it to him. But, with ritual-type actions, I admit it doesn't make much sense, and frankly I don't know why someone would do it (other than as a step in trying to become more observant, or possibly just trying to fit into a community he feels comfortable with).

Also, there's an idea in Judaism that something done for the wrong reason will eventually be done for the right reason.
Hey Nomad. You just get to Vegas? I was in nearby Henderson over Thanksgiving weekend visiting my parents. It would be a terrible shame if I missed you.

Ralphie - What's up with the leather boxes? I don't think I've heard that before.
Mirty, thanks for the link. I'll check that out later on.

Ralphie, great answer! Thanks. Makes a lot of sense.

Oven, we got here on Sunday night, so we would have missed you anyway. We're seeing former Kerckhoff contributor Godby on Friday night!
Tefillin - aka phylacteries.
Judaism without a belief in G-d simply makes no sense. How could you read even one page of the Torah? It would all sound like so much mumble-jumble. And what then would keep you from just walking away? Your faith-or-works debate doesn't have any counterpart in Judaism. It's both, inseparable.
Another thing that occurs to me is "for what?"

What I mean by that, in Christianity, the "prize" is a one way ticket to eternal life in a blissful place called Heaven when you die. The price of this ticket is faith in Jesus Christ as G-d's only son who came to Earth and was killed in order to pay for the sins of man.

I don't know that the prize is the same in Judaism. I don't hear Jews talk much about the afterlife. I hear that there is a covenant with G-d to be earned by observance of G-d's Commandments. But, I'm not sure that this covenant equates to the same thing it does in Christianity.

So, another question is "what do you get in return for adhering to the Commandments?"

By extention, I return to my hypothetical atheist Jew. Say the atheist Jew believes that G-d might be (I guess that technically makes him an agnostic), but he is far from convinced, and even pretty cynical about it, but adheres to the Commandments because a) he thinks they're mostly a good way to live, irrespective of their source and b) the "just in case" principle... meaning "just in case G-d does exist, I'd better be a good boy."

What does the atheist Jew gain from this? Most Christians I know would say that this guy gets an all-expenses-paid eternal holiday with Satan, because without firm belief, the rest is meaningless. But I think the Jewish perspective might be different.

I guess then, the question is, ironically enough, "what does G-d think of the atheist Jew?" Is G-d willing to share His covenant with a man who doesn't believe in His existence, but who has adhered to His Commandments despite his lack of belief? As an auxillary, just what does the Covenant imply? What is the "reward" for adhering to G-d's Commandments?

I'm sure nobody here will presume to speak for G-d, but I'm interested to hear your thoughts.
Volumes and volumes and volumes written on this - so this comment will be woefully insufficient to the task of answering (also due in large part to dearth of knowledge of the commenter). I'm a little hesitant, in fact, and unsure where to start. It's sort of, well, a whole lotta stuff.

Okay, let's start with the concept of an afterlife. There are two concepts, really. First is the usual one you'd think of - where you go after you die. And, fine, let's call it Heaven. The Jewish tradition doesn't think of it as a place with pearly gates and a bunch of clouds, and you're an angel with wings and a harp when you're there.

In her book Remember My Soul, Lori Palatnik describes the concept as a sort of theater-in-the-round, where God is at the center and the best seats in the house are in the front row. Where you sit (and whether you get in at all) is determined by your actions in life (and by your descendants' actions after you die, to some extent, meaning that you can move forward). The term for Heaven, in this sense, in Hebrew, is Gan Eden - that is, the Garden of Eden. Paradise. Paradise is spending eternity in the shadow - or should I say in the light - of God.

So what actions get you in, get you close? Which actions count more than others? There are all kinds of answers, from "treat all of them equally" to "X is more important than Y." The point is, I think, to commit to doing them all and do your honest best.

This doesn't mean we can point to a person and know where he's going, either good or bad. There are plenty of rabbinic and chassidic stories - told by people who are certainly committed to observing the Torah in the most traditional way thinkable - that speak of non-observant people getting to a unique closeness of God in Heaven due to some unknown action or another. The idea is, in the end we don't know what God is thinking, so we shouldn't judge. No one of us should be presumptuous enough to think, "He hasn't done X or Y, so he has no chance!"

(So why bother, if we can't really know? Well, we have the Torah, God gave it to us for a reason, so we're gonna go with it. And even if we shouldn't presume that person X won't have a particular position in Heaven, doesn't mean that we don't wish he were following the commandments traditionally.)

Another thing we aspire to, by keeping the commandments, is the coming of the Messiah (or, Moshiach, as we say in Hebrew). Moshiach will usher in the era of eternal peace on Earth, when all people of the world will recognize and pay tribute to the singular and only God (which, by the way, doesn't mean they would become Jewish). Nation will not lift up sword against nation, etc. You know, all that prophetic stuff. Lions, lambs, the whole bit.

Which brings us to the second afterlife, or the after-after life. This is when the souls in Heaven are reunited with their earthly bodies (please don't ask for details here) to join in on that earthly peace. Many different opinions, traditions, etc., here, regarding timing and the like. But another thing to look forward to.

While there certainly is a large movement by some Jews to get non-observant Jews to observe mitzvot in order to bring Moshiach, I have never heard anyone specifically say that one should do so in order for the individual to get into Heaven. And, the bottom line for why Jews should follow God's commandments, for me anyway, is that this is what God wants us to do. The ultimate goal I think is to keep our end of the covenant because we love God, without regard to God's paying a reward (the mishnah in Ethics of the Fathers states specifically that one should not have the reward in mind when performing a commandment). We trust that the reward will be paid, but it isn't the point.

A note on earthly rewards. The Torah does state explicitly that if we keep the commandments, we will be rewarded on Earth. But we don't rely on that for a number of reasons. First, though I typed "explicitly," it might be in fact metaphorical and referring to the afterlife. Also, there's the idea that it's a collective deal, so unless everybody's doing it, no dice (which means, by the way, that any stated reward that we do get - rain when it's necessary, for example - is a sign of God's mercy). And then there's the whole issue of why bad things happen to good people, and vice versa. I prefer not to get into that in this thread, so I'll just loosely quote the mishnah again which says bluntly that we can't understand God's ways, especially in such matters.

Anyhow, a great topic, and there's just so much more out there. And yet of course we can never really know the scoop about the whole afterlife thing b/c no one so far has reported on it first-hand.
Very interesting, both the post and the dialogue.

I'd like to introduce a couple of theological words into the dialogue. Actually, "orthodoxy" has already been used a few times. The word really means adherence to the right doctrine: i.e., it places the emphasis on what one believes. Orthodoxy is a central concept within the Christian faith: e.g. the emphasis on creeds.

"Orthopraxy" is the other concept: it refers to the right practices, the right works or deeds. Judaism is usually understood to place the emphasis here.

A good Jew is someone who does the right things; a good Christian is someone who believes the right things.

But that's overly simple. Faith matters to Jews, too. Consider the Shema, for example: "Hear, O Israel, the LORD thy God, the LORD is one" is the way I know it. This is a doctrinal affirmation; a miniature creed, if you will.

Similarly, appropriate behaviour is important among Christians. Frankly, a lot of evangelical churches seem to place all their emphasis here, in particular on cataloguing other people's reprehensible sins.

Nonetheless, there is a real difference in emphasis. My own view is that Christians and Jews parted company in large part over this difference. Paul opened up membership to Gentiles by breaking with the law and placing all the emphasis on faith in Jesus. His abandonment of orthopraxy, particularly core practices like circumcision and the food laws, made it impossible for Christians to remain within the tent of Judaism.

The debate over whether Jesus was or was not the Messiah was a secondary issue at the time, though it is clearly a sore point today!

As for the other issue, of the afterlife … this comment is already too long. But, in brief, most of the Hebrew scriptures show little awareness of any such concept. Consider, for example, the Psalms that suggest no one can praise God from Sheol.

The first unequivocal affirmation of an afterlife is in Daniel 12, a very late text. The Christian scriptures suggest that the priestly party still denied any concept of a resurrection in the time of Jesus, although scholars question whether the information is historically accurate.

The Pharisees had accepted the idea of a resurrection by that date. But my impression is that the doctrine is much less developed in Judaism than in Christianity, even today.
Great stuff, Q. To further your point about the shema - the law is, while of course you should always pat attention and mean what you're saying, the Shema is the only line in the entire liturgy that must be repeated if said without concentration on its meaning. (Not to dilute the point, but the meaning that must be concentrated on is not necessarily available from a plain reading of the line - it's the concept of accepting the "yoke of the God's kingship.")

Resurrection is a solid concept in Judaism - of Jews, that is, not of God in any form. According to the aforementioned Maimonides (among others), the Messiah will be a man who is a great leader, but who will be mortal like any other man. If he is resurrected, it would be along with all the other souls, and without any special status. That's my understanding of his position, anyway.
I had an entire Hebrew School weekend devoted to this concept. I should clarify that the denomination of this after-school program was Conservative, not Orthodox. We actual recited this mantra all weekend, "Judaims is the religion of deed, Christianity is the religion of creed." On Sunday, we went to church where the Pastor (very nicely) told me that I was going to hell. I guess he didn't know the mantra. I didn't learn until much later (when I became more Orthodox) that this isn't entirely true, but I think it does state the position of the Conservative movement. Both sides, as Q points out leave something to be desired, but since Jews aren't required to make faith-statements (unless they convert) I guess Nomad's origin thoughts are mostly true.
Please excuse the typos. It's hard to type or think with a two-year-old screaming in your ear.
Point taken, Ralphie. I wasn't referring to the resurrection of Jesus, but to the general resurrection of the dead, just as you say.

For Christians, the resurrection of Jesus is a kind of first installment, a pledge from God, guaranteeing that the general resurrection will follow in due course. (Quite apart from its significance for christology.)

I certainly didn't mean to suggest that the resurrection is not a firm conviction of Jews. But the resurrection is arguably the central concept of the Christian faith, whereas the center of Judaism is elsewhere.
This is a great thread.

I have absolutely nothing to add, though. Everything Ralphie said I either didn't know, or agree with.

I once attended a lecture by Rabbi Brad Artson, the dean of the Rabbinic School at the University of Judaism on Maimonedes' 13 principles of faith. (He's a Conservative Rabbi and the UJ is a Conservative university, and he was speaking to a largely Conservative Jewish crowd.) His main point was that though Judaism's focus (as everyone above has stated) is clearly on works, Judaism does have dogma -- stuff that religious Jews should believe. We read each of the principles, and many are soberingly difficulty to assent to. (Some wouldn't be so difficult if they didn't begin with "I believe with perfect faith in...") Another principle states "All of the words of the Prophets are true." Well... some of the Prophets tell some pretty outlandish stories... He asked for a show of hands of anyone who can assent to all 13. I don't think a single hand went up. He also told a story of a church he knew of in which to become a member you had to initial a page of basic Christian beliefs. Meaning you had to affirm Christianity to join. He fantasized about a synagogue asking members to initial each of the 13 principles as a condition of enrollment. He said "wouldn't it be nice if there was a Conservative synagogue in which the members actually believed in Conservative Judaism?"
That is the most hilarious story! : D I'll have to think hard about that one...
Artson is a good guy, I like him a lot. I think that there is a bit of a crisis taking place at the moment, at least from a Conservative stance.

There is a question of what do we really believe. What do we accept as being truthful. That is not to suggest that there are outright lies being propagated, but IMO a fundamental question of what is the origin of halacha.

What I mean by that is the question is did G-d tell Moshe to take a letter and dictate every word or was it all divinely inspired. The distinction is pretty strong between those two and offers a lot of room to play with intepretation and intepretation is of major import here.

So if you are straddling the fence on which way you believe it makes it very difficult to take action.

Above and beyond that there is an issue of education that impacts this all. If you didn't grow up in a setting where you learned about the Rambam and what he says, if you are not familiar with learning Talmud then it is natural that you may not have even thought all that much about why you believe what you believe.

Want to see some funny looks on people, talk to those Jews who have a more limited education about Mechayeii Meytim. Ask them the dead coming back to life and you'll likely find that many of them have never heard about this being a Jewish concept too.

I like this thread. Not sure if I added anything other but...
Speaking of initialing or signing... a guy I knew was applying to a Conservative Rabbinical school (this was about 13 years ago). The application required him to sign (or maybe initial) a pledge that he would keep kosher and observe Shabbat (a pledge to action, not belief - go figure). Although I understood the reasoning behind the pledge, I found it so odd, even in my not-so-religious-at-the-time state. I mean, isn't there already a contract with those details in it, and with Someone a little more important than a seminary?

On the topic of hell and things many Jews don't know about Judaism - we've got a hell, too. Even a purgatory! I don't think hell is necessarily populated by devils and brimstone and whatnot - more like a complete absence of relationship with God. Doesn't sound hellish? That's the point - to educate that this is what it means to be in hell.

Purgatory - if you're not free of sin when you die, you get, um, "cleansed." Not really sure what this means but the gist is, it ain't pretty. On the bright side, you can't stay in for more than 12 lunar months. This is one reason, by the way, that the Kaddish prayer, the praise of God in honor of the recently departed, is recited for only 11 months after a relative's death. You wouldn't want to imply that said relative was so sinned-up that he needed a full 12 months!

And, speak of the devil - we have Satan, too. And while there are rabbinic stories that cast this Satan as an actual figure, it seems more like it is meant to be a "prosecuting angel" - the snitch who rats us out to the Big Guy when we do wrong. There's a bit of enticing us to sin, too - closer to the traditional-sounding red dude standing on your shoulder. It should be understood, however, that this is really an internal dynamic in each person.
Well, this is a nuanced issue, as I see it. The First Commandment is that G-d is the only G-d, the guy who took you out of Egypt. It's sort of central. At least to be believe in G-d is central.

Faith is another matter. In Christianity, faith is much more central; faith (correct me if I'm wrong) is placed on a par, even placed above, works. In Judaism, it's the works that are of primary importance. It's nice to have faith in G-d, but if you disregard all the commandment and go around killing people, it's not going to save you. If, on the other hand, you live a good life but you can't really get into the faith thing, I don't believe that will keep you out of heaven.

We're taught in Judaism to believe in G-d, but not to rely on miracles, and I thing that sums up pretty well how we view faith.
I don't know if I missed it in the comments, but you don't have to believe in Gd to be a Jew. If your mother is Jewish, you're a Jew.

And you can practice the religion of Judaism and not believe in Gd. We have a saying, Sheloh Lishma, bah lishma. Even if you don't do something with the right intention, if you keep doing it, you may get the right intention. You may not believe in the reasons for the Sabbath, but if you keep observing it, you may come to appreciate those reasons.
That's what I can't quite get? How's that possible?
Psychotoddler said, "you don't have to believe in Gd to be a Jew. If your mother is Jewish, you're a Jew.:

It is true that if your mother is a Jew, you're a Jew. It does not follow that anything a Jew believes, is ipso facto Judaism.
Now we're into the distinction between the Jewish race and the Jewish religion. What about a person whose mother is Jewish but who does not follow any of the required practices? I doubt that such a person is Jewish in the religious sense. (Not that it's any of my business.)
Q - Being born to a Jewish mother (or converting) makes one part of the Jewish people, or the Jewish nation, if you like (I'm not so big on the term "race" in regards to Jewishness but, hey, no real problem, either). A person whose mother is Jewish who eats bacon, steals, etc? He's Jewish. He's a Jew.
There is no concept of "Jewish in the religious sense" when it comes to people. The actions are what you could call Jewish, or not Jewish, in the religious sense.
Wow, nice discussion. Here are my two cents, influenced by a number of books that I highly recommend: two by Menachem(Marc) Kellner, professor at Haifa University, MUST A JEW BELIEVE ANYTHING, and DOGMA IN MIDIEVAL JEWISH THOUGHT. Also, Prof. Marc Shapiro's book on the Rambam's thirteen principles.

One of the commandments of Judaism is v'ahavta et Hashem Elokecha, you should love God. The first statement of the BIG TEN is 'I am the Lord your God'. It is expressed as a fact, not as a command for believe. Belief, from the viewpoint of the Torah, is taken for granted. We are then told not to have other gods, a directive against syncretism. So, you ask, am I ok not believing, as long as I dont have other gods?

As Prof. Kellner puts it, the role of dogma(beliefs) only is relevent in defining a group, or in relationship to reward and punishment. In other words, a set of beliefs can be a condition for joining a religious group, or can be a condition of recieving a religious reward, ie eternal life, admission to heaven, etc. Therefore, the first mention of dogma is in the Talmud, tractate Sanhedrin, where eternal life(life in the next world-olam haba) is denied to six categories of people. Interestingly, 4 of the six involve action, and only two involve belief.

R. Sa'adia Gaon in Emunot v'Deot was the first to formally list some dogma(possibly in response to Karai'ites- remember the two reasons for dogma listed above), but the most comprehensive and longest lasting is that of the Rambam, both in his commentary on Sanhedrin and also in his book of laws(Mishna Torah). The context of his list also needs to be kept in mind, as he was surrounded by Moslems(who were listing their own dogma at the time and may have influenced him) Karai'ites(who he was obviously trying to keep as far away as possible, therefore the wording chosen in such things as belief in Torah), and others. His list was not universally accepted, and there were other lists promulgated (Joseph Albo, sefer ha'ikkarim for example) and others who wanted no list.

By our time however, the Rambam's big thirteen have been accepted by orthodox Jews for the most part as binding, although it seems everyone has a different interpretation(see Prof. Shapiro's excellent book).

The bottom line therefore is that you can be Jewish and not believe, and certainly we put a major emphasis on action, and not on belief, but belief is also a fundamental part of Jedaism. You can be Jewish and not keep kosher, but you are violating one of the commandments. Belief obviously is a different sort of commandment. Certain beliefs put you out of the realm of being counted as a Jew, such as believing in other gods. However, lack of a belief in God is significantly different than having wrong beliefs. However, there are problems with no belief, beyond just being in violation of a particular commandment. There is a discussion in the codifiers(Talmud on down to shulchan aruch) as to if a Torah written by a non-beliver is kosher, if one should say 'amen' to the bracha of a non'believer, and this discussion unfortunately has been tinged by other considerations(see Amen and Amen, blessings by a heretic by R.J Karnofsky in the journal Judaism- available free via look smart)

As PT wrote, we do have the concept that even if you dont have the proper intent for a mitzva, you should do it, and eventually you will come to have the proper intent.

bottom line: You do have to believe something to fulfill all the commandments incumbent on a Jew. However, if you cant believe, at least do, and the Big Guy Above will sort it out later.
btw, the best definition I found of Jewish is by R. Emmanuel Rackman(what I believe) who said that Judaism is a legal order- a group of people who have the same legal obligations. Obviously some take up the obligations, some dont, but all of them have the same obligations. You can come into the order either voluntarily(conversion) or by birth. You can never leave. Even if you opt out, you are considered part of the group(maybe with less privlidges(sorry, cant spell that word))

Yisrael al pi sh'chata, Yisrael hu- Israel, even though they have sinned, are still Israel
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