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With Perfect Trust and Doubt: A Yom Kippur Reflection on the Dynamics of Faith

10/05/2011 04:17 pm ET | Updated Dec 05, 2011

During my 20 years as a pulpit rabbi, I knew that the largest number of my congregants would attend services on Yom Kippur. Many times as I looked out on the Yom Kippur crowds, I would ask myself, "Why are they all here?" There were some obvious answers to this question. Some came out of a sense of religious obligation to follow the tradition or from a sense of loyalty to their parents' faith; some out of a sense of connection to the Jewish people; some came to be with family and/or community; some undoubtedly came out of a kind of superstitious fear that God would "smite" them if they did not pray for forgiveness. I also eventually understood that even if all of these reasons were behind the large attendance, there must be something more for many of them: a kind of faith that impels them to sit for many hours in synagogue at least once a year. So the real question is: what kind of faith?

Today the word "faith" is often understood in the popular mind with something that I consider a caricature of real faith. Faith is supposed to be simple (and therefore, in some sense, "pure" or "innocent"); irrational in the face of (often scientific) facts that might contradict it; and static, unchanging and therefore solid and sure.

This, however, is not a picture of my faith or the faith of so many others. Real faith, in my opinion, is complex, transformative and dynamic.

It is dynamic because it evolves in the life of an individual and in the history of their faith community. In the life of an individual, faith has numerous stages. In Protestant theologian James Fowler's book "Stages of Faith" (following the models of psychiatrists' Jean Piaget's theory of cognitive development and Lawrence Kohlberg's stages of moral development)b he demonstrated that faith changes throughout one's life to different levels of understanding and personal integration. In the history of a whole faith community many essential beliefs and practices can also evolve, find different characteristics and even "die" if they no longer serve a community's needs. The community helps to shape and maintain faith of its adherents. It is usually "conservative" in the sense of preserving traditional theology, values and rituals, while reinterpreting them in light of changing conditions. "Tradition" therefore means constant renewal. The dynamism of a living faith tradition is creative.

Real faith is transformative in that it should change people to a greater observance and understanding of their community's value systems. Real faith does not keep people where they are; it becomes a lens through which their lives are affected every day. Real faith not only should change an individual but a community and, in some way, the whole world.

Finally, real faith is complex. I don't believe that there is such a thing as a "simple faith." Real faith is an ongoing process that includes doubt. Here it is important to distinguish between "belief that" and "believe in." When one says, "I believe that God exists," it means that the person is stating their position on the existence of God based on whatever reasons and evidence they have brought together. When one says "I believe in God," they are expressing trust in the actions of God in the world; what is usually called divine providence. In the complexity of real faith there is a process of both trust and doubt in God and in the idea of a world of meaning and order.

This is not an "irrational" process. It is, however, "non-rational" in the sense that it may be very personal, emotional and existential -- a different kind of truth from the process of seeking objective universal truth.

There are times when I awake in the morning and the whole world is filled with the Glory of God; a world of divine beauty and order. Then, I read the news and I feel like Jeremiah: Why does the way of the wicked prosper? Why are the workers of treachery at ease? (Jeremiah 12:1b). As a person of faith, every day I am faced with the same question: Is there order and goodness in the world or is the world chaotic, unjust and meaningless?

Rabbi Irving (Yitz) Greenberg once wrote that after the Holocaust faith is:

...living life in the presence of the Redeemer, even when the world is unredeemed. After Auschwitz faith means there are times when faith is overcome. ... We now have to speak of "moment faiths," moments when Redeemer and vision of redemption are present, interspersed with time when the flames and smoke of the burning children blot out faith--though it flickers again ... faith is a life response of the whole person to the Presence in life and history. Like life, this response ebbs and flows. (From "Cloud of Smoke, Pillar of Fire: Judaism, Christianity and Modernity after the Holocaust" in "Auschwitz: Beginning of a New Era," edited by Eva Fleischner, p.27)

The High Holiday liturgy calls on us time and time again to have trust in divine mercy, to trust that our sins will be forgiven and to trust that the world really does have meaning, beauty and order. It calls on us to repent and to change because each one of us can make the world a little closer to the vision of Redemption where only justice and mercy will prevail. So among the many reasons that people go to synagogue on Yom Kippur is that it is a time for the whole community to reaffirm that the world makes sense; together it is easier to maintain that trust.

Even if the texts sometime seem alien to our lives, many more times they have recharged me with deep trust and at the end of Yom Kippur I feel renewed, refreshed, cleansed and ready to face another year.

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