A Sabbath Message: Elul Jewel #3 – The Question of Faith

“Love models the intimacy of faith. God feels suddenly real, inexplicably present, in a flash of closeness, a sudden flush of love. Questions do not disappear, instead they come before One who receives them. In relationship, answers are not solutions, but the affirmation of worth and closeness.”
– Rabbi David Wolpe in “Why Faith Matters”

Halfway through our spiritual journey of the month of Elul toward the High Holidays – with a full moon over head – Sabbath arrives blissfully again. So, some musings on the idea of FAITH. This is a large and complex topic and I do not expect to address it completely, but perhaps offer a few ideas to ponder, and some from a personal place. One important point made by my old and very wise friend, Rabbi David Wolpe (quoted above), is that we need not see a firm choice of either a complete absence of God on the one hand or an over-zealous embrace of God on the other. As the theologian Paul Tillich wrote: “Doubt isn’t the opposite of faith – it is an element of faith.” That should be encouraging, as we all try and make sense of this life.

A personal story about faith, which changed the direction of my own life. It was about 35 years ago and I was on the 2nd or 3rd date with a very nice guy, who would eventually become my husband (still is, by the way, 31 years later). We both could tell that things were going well, so the conversation took a serious turn. He knew he was dating a committed Jew, with a Rabbi for a father and Jewish educator for a mother, so he said: “I want you to know that I don’t think I believe in God.” I had a feeling that this could be a pivotal moment in our relationship – and that how I answered was important – but I had no idea what to say. I didn’t want to scare him away, but wanted to be honest about what I felt about faith. From somewhere came the idea to answer him: “That’s ok. But the question is – do you believe in yourself?” From there, came many conversations and opportunities to find common ground, which have continued on to this very day.

In the Book of Isaiah, the prophet tells us in a beautiful passage that the Divine will remain ever unchanging, carrying us into our old age, remaining with us always. I love this passage, as I do the section in which the Torah describes how God will take care of Moses’ body after death and lovingly prepare him a final resting place. Their relationship is so sacred that only the Divine will do this for the great prophet of our people. The image from Isaiah of God carrying us reminds me of a quote I saw once which said that at times in our lives, we see two sets of footprints walking along the sand, as God walks with us throughout our lives. But often, during the most trying times, we see only one set of footprints – and instead of assuming that God has left us, it is the Divine spirit who is carrying us at those most difficult and challenging moments.

Faith is about our relationships – of course, with God (if that is our belief), but also how the Divine is manifested in our relationships with others and within ourselves. The great theologian Martin Buber taught us that religion and belief come not out of fear, and not even out of goodness, but out of a “yearning for closeness.” Our relationship with the Divine is the model and source of all relationships. For Buber and his “I-Thou” paradigm, we are all in relationship to others in our lives – even those no longer with us – none of us exist in isolation. I love what Rabbi Wolpe says in his book: “Religion is a phenomenon of community, but also of the individual seeking soul in relationship to God.” Thus, finding God can often be finding exactly what we are seeking most – the Divine spark – in others and in ourselves.

At this season, I encourage you to open your heart and mind to the idea of faith – maybe it can be broader than what you thought. Dip your toe in it – it may feel just right! I don’t mean to suggest that it is a simple proposition: one may have simple faith, but faith is not simple. But remember that we are a tradition which welcomes inquiry and doubt – and as we move along the journey of this month, keep in mind that the questions are part of the answers. For me, feeling that I’m never alone is a great comfort.

Wishing you a peaceful Shabbat – full of faith in yourself and in others,

Ruth Steinberg, LCSW, MAJCS
Director, Jewish Family Service