Simple Words: Thinking About What Really Matters in Life

Simple Words: Thinking About What Really Matters in Life


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780684869186
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Publication date: 10/28/2001
Pages: 224
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Adin Steinsaltz is internationally regarded as one of the leading scholars and rabbis of the modern era. His well-known multivolume translation and commentary to the Talmud is currently being published in Hebrew, English, and other languages. He has been a resident scholar at academic institutions in Europe and the United States, among them Yale University and the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, and is a recipient of the Israel Prize.

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Chapter Five: Faith

For many people, among them those who either regret or boast about their being nonbelievers, the word "Faith," written with a very capital F, is a very big block. In reality, however, faith is related not only to Great Things; it has to do just as much, if not more, with the myriad of little things that are a part of everybody's daily life.

There are, obviously, many people who are credulous, and some others who are much less so, but nearly everyone is a believer to some degree. Belief exists even in the most hardheaded, rational nonbelievers. Many of us take pride in our rationality -- we think we base our actions and thoughts on accurate knowledge, verified facts, and an orderly sorting and sifting of opinions. The truth, however, is that nobody is a total nonbeliever; all of us accept almost everything on faith.

Faith, in the everyday, common sense of the word, is so ingrained in our lives that we cannot do anything without it. We accept what we are taught in school and what we learn in the street. Most of these things are not only unverified, they are unverifiable, yet they are still a huge part of our lives. It is practically impossible to do any real checking about most basic things. We do not have the time, the facilities, or the talents to find out for ourselves about most things that we say we know. We accept the facts about the height of Mount Everest -- even most of the people who climb it do not bother to double-check the measurements -- just as we accept facts about cars and electricity, signing contracts, and walking in the street. We take so much for granted because we have faith -- to some degree -- in the car dealer and the electrician, and in the normal, even decent, behavior of those people we encounter.

What we perceive as the dichotomy between "matters of faith" and "indisputable facts" has less to do with rationality than with what is socially accepted within our particular society, social group, and historical era. What "everybody knows" is something that we do not feel obligated to prove for ourselves. For the same reason, those things that are not a part of our accepted wisdom are left to the believer.

A microbiologist who did research in Africa used a very bright young local boy to run errands. He once tried to explain his research to the boy, describing the very tiny, invisible microbes that are all over the room, adding that they are liable to make a person ill, or even to kill him. To that, the child, who was educated by missionaries, retorted, "But sir, we Christians surely do not believe in that!" In some places, the existence of devils is an accepted fact, and everyone knows for sure that they exist; in other places, for the same frivolous reasons, no one believes in them. Thus, while our sets of belief are contextual, the underlying nature of faith is the same all around the world.

A crisis of faith, whether personal or general, is the result of cultural changes, both large and small. It is a matter of luck, of course, in what age one is born. There are ages in which faith is à la mode, and ages in which it is not fashionable to be a believer. Cultural fashions change no less than those of clothing. Just as there are fashion designers who set the style for women's dresses and men's ties, there are also people who create the intellectual fashion of the times, and decide what people should and should not believe. Yet, while we know who makes the rules about women's dresses, we usually do not know who is behind the intellectual fashions.

In an age of faith, people do not air their doubts and misgivings; most of them will never even have any doubts, because it is the social norm to believe. In other eras, it is just the opposite: skepticism is fashionable, and everyone joins in, following the admonition of the proverbial modern mother, "Why can't you be a nonconformist, like everybody else?" Thus, everyone adheres to an idea that seems understandable and reasonable in their period in history; later, people may look back and wonder how they could possibly have held such an absurd belief.

For instance, not so long ago, in "the Red decades" of European and American history, it was commonly thought that everyone of any account was a Communist, or at least a sympathizer -- including intellectuals, trend-setters, people who should have known better, and people who should have been far more critical. It was a period in which people were obstinate believers, persisting in their belief and ignoring any evidence to the contrary. Then the fad passed; now, believing in Communism seems out of step with the times. For the same wrong reasons that people once believed, they now have ceased to believe. Nothing intrinsic has changed -- only the fashion shifted.

Cultural fashions influence not only opinions about art, morality, and politics, they affect almost every facet of life. Fashion creates things that people buy, wear, use, and hang on the walls, and we are trained not only to buy them, but also to enjoy them. The same law of fashion also changes our outlook and attitude about matters that seem to be merely utilitarian. From furniture to architecture, things are chosen not because it is sensible to do so, but because they are fashionable. Think, for instance, how bizarre and unnatural skyscrapers look. There may be good reasons why they are built in certain places or in certain ways; in others, they make no sense at all. We build huge glass structures in order to let the light in, and then we fill those structures with curtains, to block the light. Since glass buildings have become fashionable, we have glass buildings, even though they are neither useful nor beautiful.

In our times, the cultural rules allow for a certain amount of freedom -- although quite limited -- in our choice of what we consider to be beautiful. In other periods, society was more decisive. There would not even be disputes about beauty, since there was only one acceptable style, and all other styles were unacceptable. In ancient Egyptian paintings, all the faces are in profile, regardless of the stance of the body. If we did not know better, we would think that the Egyptians just did not know how to draw; they were too primitive. However, their drawings of animals are very realistic -- only the human beings look stiff and unnatural. When Egyptian artists were allowed to make natural drawings, they were very good at it. Apparently, certain poses were just a fashion of art, and those poor artists were obligated to depict people according to the convention.

This adherence to fashion can also be found in architecture. There are no arches in ancient Egyptian buildings. It seems strange that people who were quite technologically advanced would not utilize such a functional structure. As it turns out, the Egyptians did know about arches, but they used them for sewage canals; they thought it beneath their dignity to construct dwellings with arches. It was not the fashion, so it did not exist.

Cultural fashion -- or, as it has been called, "the spirit of the times" -- has such tremendous power that it not only influences philosophy, beauty, and the like; even modern exact sciences are under its rule. In all sciences, including mathematics, there are periods in which certain questions become important and tempting, followed by periods in which these same subjects or methods lie dormant, until a new period comes. For example, the furious growth of physics -- especially atomic and subatomic physics -- in the first half of the twentieth century, compared to its development in the second half of this century; the enormous growth of biology, biochemistry, and biophysics in the second half of this century; the recent flourishing -- in popular interest, as well as in scientific work -- of ecology; the ups and downs of space research; or the changes of interest and development in synthetic geometry versus analytical geometry. Many books have tried to explain these changes, and why they happen in the ways they do. However, all these explanations -- regardless of whether they are right or wrong -- do not contradict the most obvious fact: the change itself.

The decades or centuries of belief come and go, to be replaced by periods of skepticism or indifference, and then, by a profound change in the attitude toward faith. In an age of faith, it is easy to believe. In fact, in such an age, faith does not even require any belief. In certain times and places, one could not even speak about belief in God; it was a simple, self-evident fact. Not believing in God was a little more bizarre than doubting that the earth is round.

Generally, we accept the dictates of society almost without noticing. We take things for granted, we jump to conclusions, and we accept common knowledge and everyday realities unchallenged. None but the most abstract philosopher would doubt the existence of his own nose. However, when it comes to Faith with a capital F, things become more difficult; many people just cannot accept it.

Our times are clearly different. Our fin de siècle is not an age of Faith. Incidentally, we are not in an age of rationality or skepticism either, but rather in a time of credulity. We do indeed believe, or half-believe, in thousands of things -- some of them pure nonsense -- but not in Faith, in the capital F sense. There is a Jewish anecdote about two students who went for a walk in the woods, and happened to be in the line of fire of a hunter. When the shots whizzed over their heads, they were frightened and fell down, imagining that they were hit. After some time, one of them raised his head cautiously, saying, "It seems that we are still alive." To which his friend responded, "And what is the basis for this assumption?" Surely, most people would not go that far.

The difference between the two levels of faith -- faith in conventional wisdom, and faith in God -- is not grounded in any psychological disparity, but rather in societal norms. When a person says that he is a nonbeliever, it is not a very accurate statement. A real nonbeliever would not get out of bed. If he did get out of bed, he would not take a step, because almost everything that we do depends on hundreds or thousands of beliefs, from believing that the sun will rise tomorrow to believing that salt is still salty.

Organized religions dictate the doctrines of faith that people are to believe; at the same time, they also set out what is heretical, what is not to be believed. When organized religion went out of style, and its nineteenth-century substitute, science, became far less dogmatic and self-assured, that opened the way for superstition. Especially for the intellectuals and pseudo-intellectuals, this was not a mishap, but a rather natural consequence.

A true agnostic is actually open to belief in every possible faith or superstition, because nothing is completely impossible, and there are no prescribed or proscribed beliefs. Thus, he is fair game for every movement, every "ism," and every possibility. Everything is possible for a person who wants proof, especially negative proof, and who will accept or deny claims based only on proof. In a way, that stance leaves the poor agnostic in a position in which he never fully believes anything, but he half-believes everything, because the possibilities are endless.

Someone came to visit Niels Bohr, one of the greatest physicists of the century. To his great astonishment, the visitor saw a horseshoe hanging on the doorway. After some time, when they had become friendly, he asked, "Professor Bohr, do you believe in horseshoes?" Bohr said, "Absolutely not." So the visitor asked, "Then why is one hanging in your doorway?" Bohr answered, "People say that it helps even if you do not believe in it."

We all know sane, intelligent people who will not go to synagogue or church because there is no proof for the existence of God, but who will talk about vibrations, or who use crystals to heal themselves, who avoid the unlucky number 13, or who consult an astrologer. To be sure, not all intelligent people in our era are prone to all of the New Age superstitions; some people prefer to adhere to slightly older ones, so they firmly believe in New York Times headlines, in the wisdom of the theater reviewer, or in psychoanalysis. The fountain of Faith is clearly gushing there.

This abundance of belief, however, does not include faith in God. Even opening oneself to the possibility of faith in God requires an effort. Modern societal norms are almost like a religion, compelling everybody to belong, to acquire, to look a certain way, to act a certain way. Society dictates, "Intelligent people don't do, or say, or believe in these things." Remember the expression, "It is un-American to do something like that"? In order to extricate oneself from that compelling societal web, a person has to use a fair amount of disbelief, an ability to fight, to move against the stream. It takes learning and choice not to comply.

Although the ability to believe has not diminished, there is a deep mental gap between the things that people believe in, and faith in God. The distinction is not really rational; rather, it is one of perception. Those thousands of things that people normally accept with unquestioning trust are not perceived as requiring faith; they are considered "knowledge," or "common sense," while "faith" is required for things that are beyond the accepted norm of the time or society. Faith requires a jump, the proverbial leap of faith. There comes a point at which we have to jump to a conclusion that is not part of accepted knowledge.

This leap of faith is not easy. Faith, in the capital letter sense, is much harder than belief in everyday banalities, because it has so many mental and practical consequences. Many things are accepted without question because they are not considered important enough. For example, if I ask when Alexander the Great lived, people who remember history will give me the dates. Nobody doubts the existence of Alexander the Great. Why not? The actual proof is, in fact, quite scanty: some stories in books, and some antiquities that have been identified as belonging to the era of Alexander the Great. There is circumstantial evidence that may support a belief in the existence of Alexander the Great, but it is surely not as plain as the nose on my face.

Why is it, then, that people have no problem having faith in the existence of Alexander the Great? The reason is very simple: what do they care? If Alexander the Great did not exist, but rather was invented by somebody, so what? He is just one more figure in the world that is not entirely true. The existence or nonexistence of Alexander the Great has no real consequence in our lives. In the same way, we accept facts about the area of the Pacific Ocean, or about the wives of a sultan. These beliefs have no consequences, so it does not matter much whether we believe them or not.

Other beliefs are very demanding. Real Faith in important matters has consequences in one's life; it affects one's worldview and behavior, what one sees as right or wrong, one's values in life. This is not simple, unimportant knowledge that one can take or leave at will. If God exists, there are obviously vast implications. As long as people do not know what they believe, or are hazy about their beliefs (which is the way most people are), they can do whatever they want without thinking too much. People avoid thinking; it is easier that way.

Accepting a tenet of faith is not difficult; the hard part is accepting the attendant consequences. There are certain facts that we do not know from our own experience, but they are certainties. When a person becomes aware of them, that changes his life. Take, for example, mortality. We do not know about mortality from firsthand experience; we know about it from other people, but they do not count. We are alive, and we do not acknowledge our own mortality. When we become aware of this fact -- whether at the age of two or at the age of sixty-two -- then of course life is affected. Plans change, expectations change, priorities change. The belief that death exists is not, in itself, startling; accepting it, and coping with the implications, is always important and may sometimes be painful.

The second difficulty in making the leap of faith is that it is indeed a leap. One must be willing to decide to make the jump, and people do not make that leap unless they are compelled to do so. The compulsion is usually an inner drive triggered by questions that will not go away. Some people have philosophical-existential questions; Descartes' Discourse on Method and Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland use two different styles to deal with the same question, "What is real existence?" The prophet Isaiah (40:26) starts out from an entirely different point of departure, saying, "Lift up your eyes to Heaven and see who created these: He who brings out the starry host and calls each one by name."

However, these big questions -- about existence, and about who created the universe and is responsible for the order of the world -- are compelling for just a few. Most people, especially city dwellers, never see the stars. They have hardly any interest in lifting up their eyes, and when they do, what they see is lighted billboards. The questions which bring most people to Faith are, in the very simplest words, "What is the meaning of all this? What is the purpose?" These are questions that, basically, do not have answers -- unless one makes the leap of faith. Each of us asks our own question in our own way, at our own time. Sometimes, questions are asked in a moment of crisis, but often, in the midst of ordinary life, a person will say to himself, "I have a busy life; I do things, I run from place to place, I live, I eat, I go through the motions, but where am I running to? What is the meaning and purpose of all this?" Then the search for an answer begins.

Walking through life is like wandering in a labyrinth, constantly probing and searching for the opening, the answer to that riddle. It is depressing enough when we feel that we are not getting anywhere, but the deepest despair is when one knows that the labyrinth has no way out, that one will wander aimlessly from corridor to corridor until death. We do not always think about meaning and purpose, but when this question does come to awareness, it becomes a haunting, gnawing pain. We want a response to our deep existential questions, and we want a nontrivial answer. We have trivial, temporary answers -- too many of them. "I am here to make money" and "I am here to devour as many hamburgers as possible" may be purposes, but they are not fulfilling ones.

The very concept of purpose is essentially a religious statement, and the quest for purpose is a spiritual journey. This may be an unpleasant revelation for some people, who vehemently claim that they are atheists or agnostics, that they do not believe in anything. Even people who see themselves as living in a labyrinth without an opening can nevertheless see life as a very dignified existence -- an adventure filled with danger, challenge, and beauty, with opportunity to love, to pursue justice, to raise a family, and to care for others in the world. The grandeur and the challenge of that kind of existence do not seem trivial at all, even for people who believe that when they die, that is the end of it. That sense of the beauty, the grandeur, and the adventure give meaning and purpose to life. Without using God's name, that person is really a very believing person, with a deep faith that there is transcendental meaning in living the adventure of life in a dignified way.

That is the essence of faith. It is deep belief in things that cannot be proved. I cannot prove beauty, dignity, honesty, or integrity, yet I may live a life filled with all these things. A person who has nontrivial answers to these questions of purpose and meaning is, in one way or another, speaking about God -- even if, for some inexplicable reason, he does not want to call it that. The atheist who is living a dignified, ethical, and spiritual life is an unconscious believer. If he were not fighting it so hard, he would realize that he has a formulation for his Faith, and if he put it in slightly different words, and arranged it slightly differently, it might almost be a well-organized religion. A rose, by any name, is still a rose; likewise God, by any name, is still God.

People may say that any question about purpose is an unscientific question. That is indeed so. Science deals with only one part, one kind of pertinent human question; by its very definition, it does not, and cannot, address others. Scientific questions, mathematical questions, legal questions, and shoemaking questions each address different aspects of reality. The fact that our Faith questions cannot be answered with scientific, mathematical, legal, or shoemaking answers does not mean that they are irrelevant, unimportant, or not compelling. When someone falls in love, the question "Does he/she love me?" becomes a very important, all-consuming question, which one may ponder for hours, for days. It is not a scientific question, but it is a very important question for the people involved. In the same way, the question "What is the meaning of my running, my rushing, of all the small things and big things that I do?" is an important question.

Questions of Faith are not philosophical, sociological, or psychological; they are intensely personal. Everyone has to find his or her own way of dealing with them. The point at which a person is ready for a change, for a jump, is when that person becomes aware of the existence of the question. Once we become aware of the questions, this awareness pushes us toward the brink at which we have to leap. To put it in a parable, if you find yourself stranded in a place with ditches all around and no bridges, you must jump -- or you will die in your little place. That jump becomes a necessity, not because people tell you or ask you to jump, but because there you are, in position. When one comes to that point, one can say, "I must make a choice: to jump or not to jump." Is it a matter of free will? Of course, we always have free choice. We do not always deserve great credit for what we do with our free will, but at some point, we do make choices.

This point of choice, the leap of faith, is made in a variety of ways. For some people, the moment of the leap to faith is an overwhelming, unforgettable experience; William James describes many such conversion experiences. Many more people, however, never have an epiphany, but they still have faith. In the real life of both sinners and saints, faith is not always such a tremendous, overpowering emotional experience. Some people do not even know that they made the leap; they just take a step without even noticing, and then they find themselves on the other side. Only if they are introspective can they, perhaps, pinpoint the moment of change by retracing their personal history.

There are also quite a number of unconscious believers: very deep believers who just do not like the language, the way in which faith is commonly expressed. It is much easier for people in certain circumstances, or within a given social group, to give faith another name. They are not always Marranos (converts under coercion); nobody is forcing them to believe one way or another, but they are unconscious of their faith. They live their lives without ever knowing that they belong to the "flock of the believers," because they do not define themselves as such.

For some of these unconscious believers, the realization "I have faith, I have always had faith, perhaps I have never ceased believing since I was two years old" comes as a shock. They are not accustomed to the idea, and therefore they feel that there is something wrong with them. Nevertheless, although they may be going against the grain of society, they are acknowledging a part of themselves that is a very natural aspect of existence.

In many cases, it is also a matter of probing. There may be more believers outside the houses of prayer than inside them. Some people with very deep Faith either do not take to organized prayer, or do not agree with any particular theology, so they never participate in religious groups or become members of an organized religion. With all that, Faith is neither remote nor absolute. Rather, to quote a Biblical passage: "It is not in Heaven....Neither is it beyond the sea, but it is very near to you, in your mouth and in your heart, that you may do it" (Deuteronomy 30:12-14).

Copyright © 1999 by Adin Steinsaltz

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Spirit and Matter53
Good Deeds85

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