The rhyme that stuck
Judaism is a religion of deed – not creed.
When I first heard this said to me some 2½ decades ago, I had no idea what my Hebrew high school teacher Rabbi Witty meant by it, but the rhyme stuck with me.
Hebrew high school?
I attended public school throughout my childhood, and, like many of my American Jewish contemporaries, I was also enrolled in an afterschool program that met three times weekly at the synagogue. This is known as Hebrew school.
Now, most of the children who attended Hebrew school did so for one simple reason: the shul’s (synagogue’s) policy was that only those who attended Hebrew school until the date of their bar/bat mitzvahs could mark these events within the community. That’s why many Hebrew school students dropped out in the 7th grade; that’s why less than half remained for the Hebrew high school program, which began the following year.
Even in Hebrew high school, there were plenty of students attending against their wills. Their parents pressured them to go – so they went. My Papa, on the other hand, thought it was a total waste of time. “What are you learning there?” he would ask me; and my answers were always lacking. Still, I remained one of the few students who loved going to Hebrew school, and I continued attending until I left for college.
To a large extent, Papa was correct. Compared to what I would eventually learn about Judaism as an adult (once I began proactively seeking my own Jewish way), most of my takeaways from Hebrew school, even after those many years, were not much more than fluff. Upon graduation, my Hebrew was poor, and I remained incapable of navigating any of the foundational Jewish texts, such as the Torah, Mishnah, or Talmud.
Now, clearly, our Hebrew school teachers were well aware of this. They knew that the majority of their students came from fairly secular homes and were largely ignorant of Judaism. The sarcastic and dry Rabbi Witty (one of my favorite Hebrew high school teachers) understood his goal well: to plant the seeds of curiosity within his students. He knew that the substance of our Hebrew school studies left much to be desired; and he aimed, therefore, to plant germs of Jewish wisdom in our minds that would hopefully take root and sprout up at some point in the future.
“Remember, David,” said Rabbi Witty as he adjusted his belt buckle, “Judaism is a religion of deed – not creed.”
Huh? Deed? Not creed?
In fact, this saying actually encapsulates one of the major points of Christianity’s departure from Judaism, for Judaism, you see, has always been all about the Law.
[In Judaism] there are thus religious acts as well as religious knowledge. The religious acts… are disciplinary and educative. They train the soul to reverence. Religious knowledge tells us about the subject of that reverence, and inclines the mind to love. The sanctions of the law are thus for the purpose of spiritual education…–Zvi Kolitz (1912-2002), ‘Survival For What?’, p. 7
… St. Paul, too, believed that only with the coming of the Messiah will a change take place in human nature which will make the deterrent of the law superfluous, but since he believed that the Messiah has come already, that Jesus was the Messiah, the continuation of the practice of the law was regarded by him as a denial of Jesus’ messianity. It was either the law or Jesus.
In principle, you see, from the perspective of traditional Judaism, one is true to the Jewish faith if one practices Judaism. One must eat kosher food, pray thrice daily, observe the Sabbath, separate wool from linen, etc., etc., and these daily acts are the very building blocks of traditional Jewish life. In a certain sense, certainly from the perspective of Zvi Kolitz (above), traditional Judaism is designed for skeptics like me, for the law “trains the soul to reverence.”
Traditional Judaism does not assume that a human being inherently believes in God, let alone loves God. Rather, it assumes that one must be trained to do so. And – if one never comes to believe but continues adhering to the law, one remains, according to traditional Judaism, a member of the Jewish people in good standing.
Now, my own faith journey has been up, down, and all around. For some periods, I managed to convince myself that I believe in God, and at other times (like the last few years) I’ve had seemingly insurmountable difficulty believing in a supernatural force that is somehow involved in or even invested in the lives of human beings at all.
Still, in theory, if I were to somehow become convinced of a personal God’s existence again, that would be wonderful. I do remain open to that possibility, and therefore the traditional Jewish approach works well for me – I can continue practicing the law, regardless of what I happen to believe at any given moment.
The skeptic’s social problem
When it comes to my personal life, holding fast to the law, or at least holding it up as a standard to live by, works well. That’s not to say that I don’t break the law in multiple ways daily, but I am always keenly aware of it; I always think about it; I always ask myself if I couldn’t be more loyal to it. I always wish that I wanted to follow it more.
However, despite my earnest commitment to traditional Judaism, I have consistently found that expressing my religious skepticism regarding the possible existence of an involved, invested God in a communal setting in the Orthodox Jewish community inevitably results in awkwardness.
In private interpersonal interactions, it’s usually acceptable for me to express my beliefs honestly, in the sense that people don’t tend to take offense; but more often than not my fellow interlocutors will either attempt to convince me of their beliefs in God, or else they will suggest that I should continue along the traditional religious path and will eventually discover God for myself. In both such cases, I feel unheard and intellectually disrespected.
Online, I participate in several very respectful, intellectual, and active discussion forums for Jews who are skeptics; Jews who were once religious and left the fold; Jews who are religious both in outlook and in practice; and Jews who have come to believe in God over time. These forums are much more accepting and intellectually engaging than anything I have encountered in the real world. Through them, I have discovered some amazing Jewish bloggers who write about their struggles with faith, many of whom are anonymous for fear of being ostracized in their real lives.
For example, I came across an ultra-Orthodox blogger who calls himself ‘A Jew With Questions’ who continues to reside in the ultra-Orthodox community in Israel, but harbors theological doubts. He writes:
I am an American Charedi Jew living in Israel who is going through a crisis of faith. In short, I have a hard time believing in Orthodox Judaism due to the many questions that I have…
The purpose of this blog is to express these doubts and hopefully get some answers or at least conversation from commenters. One of the biggest problems that I have is that I have no one to talk to. In many ways I am very lonely. My wife is a true believer in Hashem, and she constantly talks about emuna. My children go to Charedi schools and have been brainwashed by the Charedi educational system. My friends, chavrusas etc. are all true believers and would not listen or understand if I talked to them…– ‘A Jew With Questions’, June 13, 2016
Now, I affiliate with the more religiously liberal and intellectually open end of the spectrum of Orthodox Judaism, but despite the modern-mindedness of most such communities, I find serious, respectful discussions about my deep skepticism in God’s involvement not so easy to come by without uncomfortable looks and pregnant pauses.
A friend of mine has asked me on more than occasion why it matters to me what the members of my extended community believe. In part, it’s a matter of loneliness, just as it is for ‘A Jew With Questions’.
However, among other things, it’s also a matter of my deep disillusionment with traditional Judaism in lived experience. I’ve already written a blog post titled ‘Because God’, which I won’t rehash here, but it comes down to the following:
‘Because God’ is the most unarguable, compelling rejoinder – it’s no wonder that religious Jewish communities and their leaderships are so invested in perpetuating this ancient axiom…-Me, ‘Because God’, May 22, 2020
Upon reflection, I find the irony of humanity’s limitations in this context to be quite stinging.
Whereas I believe that Jewish law should be a means to “train the soul to reverence”, as Zvi Kolitz suggested (and therefore its practitioners should have no reason whatsoever to be threatened by a broad range of levels of belief within their communities), instead, most of its adherents seem to want/need to approach the system from exactly the opposite direction.
Namely: if those who follow the law cannot convince themselves that Hashem exists; that God is involved in their lives; that God wants them to observe the law… then it may turn out that they lack the motivation to follow Jewish law… and… well, frankly, I think they are afraid to face that possibility.