Faith in Daily Action – the Meaning of Jewish Religious Praxis

February 23, 2015

by Rabbi David Rosen
Kings College, London, Ontario – February 28, 2013
I would like to open this presentation with a famous quote from Blessed John Paul II’s address at the great synagogue in Rome in 1986
“The Jewish religion is not extrinsic to us, but in a certain way is intrinsic to our own religion. With Judaism therefore we have a relationship which we do not have with any other religion. You are our dearly beloved brothers and, in a certain way, it could be said that you are our elder brothers.”
That statement and the many dramatic gestures of Pope John Paul II many of which have been repeated by his successor Pope Benedict XVI, testify to the remarkable revolution in Catholic-Jewish relations ushered in by the Second Vatican Council some fifty years ago.
But my main reason for emphasizing this, is so that my following comments are not misunderstood or heard out of the above context.
Martin Buber said that what unites Jews and Christians is “a book and a hope – and that is no small thing.” But as it has been noted, it is precisely that which unites Jews and Christians that divides them.
This is not only because we read our shared Scripture differently in light of our own religious affirmations; and not only that the precise character of the hope we share is in dispute between us; but that because of these differences, we use similar language and terms, but often mean very different things. The word Messiah, is one of those obvious examples, where we use a term common to our shared patrimony, but mean things profoundly different, due to our respective religious traditions and belief systems.
It appears to me that the word “faith” is another such example.
For Christians, as Pope Benedict XVI has declared, the concept is inextricably bound up with the person of Jesus of Nazareth. Moreover, it is born out of a perception that the human individual has to be saved – perhaps from his own very nature; but that it is essential for human salvation to be linked in some manner to an event of mysterious power that delivers the human person from otherwise inevitable tragic consequences. Of course I am fully aware that the degree of this emphasis differs within various Christian denominations; but surely this perception is central to Christian faith itself.
For Judaism, the concept of t’shuvah, inadequately translated as repentance, but more correctly as “returning to God”, means that the human person is seen as created with the capacity for constant religious ethical rehabilitation and rejuvenation; and therefore is never completely condemned and never in need of any intercession or vicarious act of deliverance. Thus this latter meaning or significance of the term “faith” as widely used in Christianity, does not feature in the Jewish lexicon or mind set.
The Hebrew words emunah and bitachon correspond to the English “confidence” and the original Latin source of the word faith, fidem, the accusative of fidēs , meaning trust (similar to the Greek verb πιστεύω (pisteuo), meaning “to trust, to have confidence, to be reliable.)
Of course I fully realize that these meanings are no less integral and relevant to Christianity itself. However any student of Christianity let alone a Christian believer, will acknowledge that there is more to Christian faith than just these meanings.
But for the Jewish mind and for Jewish understanding of Scripture, these concepts simply relate to practical experience. It is one’s experience of another’s trustworthiness, that leads one to place one’s trust in another; and thus it is in relation to God. Indeed as the 11th century Jewish philosopher Yehudah Halevi points out; not for nothing does the Decalogue begin with the words:- “I am the Lord your God who brought you out from the Land of Egypt from the house of bondage.” Not only does it not say “You shall believe in Me”; but it identifies God as the Force behind the Israelite experience of liberation from slavery. In other words God is there in your historic and daily experience – His presence should be as obvious to you as the air you breathe. It should be experienced in the daily gift of life itself; but especially evident in those major events that demonstrate the triumph of good over evil. Such experience gives one the confidence and trust, i.e. faith, in Divine goodness, in the Divine Presence. Halevi reiterates the traditional Jewish conviction that it is the collective experience of the people at Sinai that is the ultimate confirmation and manifestation of the Divine Covenant with Israel. But the Pentateuch and the Prophets affirm that God’s fidelity to Israel is constantly manifest; and it was the faith in that fidelity that sustained the people in adversity. Yet it required a deeper understanding of God’s ways to make religious sense out of a tragic history. The Babylonian Talmud, the repository of Jewish interpretation of Scripture and the oral Tradition over the centuries until its redaction around the fifth century of the common era (the Jerusalem or Palestinian Talmud was redacted a century or two earlier), contains a fascinating passage in this regard, in tractate Yoma, folio 69 b. The text asks why the religious leadership body of the Jewish people in the Land of Israel, (established after the period of the prophets and as the precursor of the Sanhedrin) was known as the ‘Men of the Great Assembly’? It explains that this was as tribute to them:- “because they returned the crown (of God’s glory) to its original state. Moses had come and said (describing God): He is God, Great, Might, and Awesome (Deut.10:17). Then Jeremiah came and said: Aliens are destroying His Temple! Where then, are His awesome deeds? He did not say ‘Awesome’ (in Chapter 32:17, Jeremiah describes God as ‘The Lord who is great and mighty…’). Then Daniel came and said: ‘Aliens are enslaving his children! Where are his mighty deeds? He did not say ‘Mighty’. (In chapter 9:4, Daniel describes God as: ‘O Lord, The Great and Awesome God, (who keeps the Covenant and Loving kindness for those who love Him and who keep His commandments.) (But then the ‘Men of the Great Assembly’,) they came and said: ‘On the contrary! Therein lie His Mighty deeds; that He suppresses His wrath and tolerates the wicked. Therein lie his Awesome acts. For but for the awe of him, how could one people continue among the nations? ”
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