(From Fear to Faith)

Rabbi Janet Marder – Erev Yom Kippur 5765 – September 24, 2004

Belief comes hard to many contemporary Jews. We have good reasons to be disenchanted with religion, and profoundly distrustful of religion. For we Jews know the dangers of religious zealotry and fanaticism, and we have first-hand knowledge that the world is not a sunny place, guided by some benevolent master plan. We know that those who once believed in such a master plan were mowed down by the Nazis; nine out of ten rabbis alive in the world were murdered in the Holocaust, along with millions of their faithful and pious followers.

So it’s understandable that many Jews have given up faith in God. What’s more, I would say that some kinds of faith deserve to be given up, deserve to be grown out of –or, better yet, we should not inflict such faith on children in the first place. But there’s also the kind of faith that Alvin Fine is talking about – the faith which we can grow into, the faith that comes with wisdom, with maturity, as a sign of inner strength. The kind of faith that can help us face our fears.

A story about faith from the 18th century, the early days of the Hasidim. Once there was a learned man, a man who prided himself on his education, and who boasted of being modern and “enlightened.” He made a practice of going from one rabbi to another to debate with them about their faith and refute all their claims and arguments, which he considered hopelessly old-fashioned.

Finally he came to Levi Yitzhak, the rabbi of Berdichev, hoping to prove him wrong, as well. When he entered the rabbi’s room, he saw him pacing back and forth, a book in his hand, immersed in ecstatic thought. The rabbi took no notice of his visitor. But after a while the rabbi stopped, looked into the man’s eyes and said, “Perhaps it is true after all!”

The man was shaken; he could not speak. Then Rabbi Levi Yitzhak spoke gently to his guest: “My son, the great Torah scholars with whom you argued wasted their words on you. After you left them, you only laughed at what they had said. They could not place God on the table before you, they could not show you God’s reality, and neither can I. But think, my son. Just think! Perhaps it is true. Perhaps it is true after all.”

The enlightened man made the utmost effort to reply, but the word “perhaps” beat on his ears again and again, and he departed in silence.

Why would a person go from rabbi to rabbi, from one person of faith to another, in order to challenge and prove them wrong? If he was really certain that religion was utter foolishness, why not just ignore it? I think the man in our story keeps coming to argue because he himself wants to be convinced. Maybe we want to be convinced, as well. Maybe something in us yearns for a faith that can make sense to people like us – modern, sensible, enlightened.

How does Rabbi Levi Yitzhak respond to his visitor? He doesn’t reject him or attack him for his doubts. He doesn’t debate with him either, but states flat out that he can’t offer definitive proof that God is real. He offers him, instead, just one word: “perhaps.”

It doesn’t sound like much, at first. You’d think that a great religious leader should be able to come up with more than “perhaps.” But Rabbi Levi understands that “perhaps” is irrefutable. It simply opens the door to the possibility that God is, and that there may be something to religion, after all. [See “Perhaps” – sermon by Rabbi Jan Urbach, Rh 5762]

Immature faith is rooted in certainty, a conviction that it alone possesses the truth. It cannot tolerate ambiguity or doubt; it is threatened by opposing views. Far stronger is a Jewish faith that is rooted in “perhaps.”

Mature faith understands that all thoughtful people have doubts and must live with uncertainty. It is gentle, modest and humble in its assertions. It does not make grandiose pronouncements or give absolute assurances. Mature faith respects the world’s complexity; it acknowledges that there are many paths to truth; it does not seek to denigrate or dominate others through dogma.