Deed, not Creed?

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?

Yep.

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…

… 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.

Zvi Kolitz (1912-2002), ‘Survival For What?’, p. 7

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.


The crux

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.

48 thoughts on “Deed, not Creed?”

  1. Thank you David for sharing from your heart what is clearly a deep subject at your core being. Thank you for your honesty on the veracity of faith and belief. Great share. Much peace to you.

  2. It must be one of the big plusses of belonging to a church (any church) – that feeling of spiritual togetherness. But ultimately, we all need to convince ourselves.
    If you find yourself continually breaking the law, it seems valid to ask whether it is you who is wrong, or the law.

      1. Well, if you imagine a political context, politicians are always tweaking some law or other because it does not work as desired. So why should that not apply to wider contexts?

        1. Yes, I agree with this for sure.

          But at a certain point, everything seems to fall apart because when I take that attitude towards some traditions, then I naturally ask myself – why not reconsider these other traditions too? and on, and on, and on… you see?

          And then what am I left with?

        2. That sounds like a worthwhile task, if only to work out your own mind. It is daunting, but you are able to take the rest of your life!
          I meant to ask – I have never heard of the significance of wool and linen before. Could you elaborate one day pls?

        3. Only the High Priest in the Holy Temple had a garment made of wool and linen.

          In Jewish tradition, there are different categories of “laws” – and one of the categories is “hok” (singular) “hukim” (plural), which the Sages explain as being deliberately inexplicable – these are commands that make no earthly sense so that following such laws is only done out of love for God – since there is no ulterior motivation behind it, it’s purely an opportunity to show one’s faith. That’s the standard religious response.

        4. I’d find that very unsatisfactory – I’d want every law to be explicable. If I am supposed to behave in a certain way, I would want to know why.

        5. Makes sense to me, Pete.

          But this is one of the theoretical differences between the laws of humans (governments, etc.), and the laws of “God” (which is what most of their adherents consider to them to be).

  3. I really love your blog. I feel your approach to things, especially matters of faith & skepticism, are insightful. I am not Jewish, but I still find much to relate to when it comes to struggles with my own faith & religion when I read your posts. Both subjects I feel are complicated & personal when it comes to individual belief. I find it difficult to discuss much with fellow “followers” of my faith when I have questions. My story’s even more complicated because of my culture & the many issues that existed & still exist involving my people & the church. But anyway, I just wanted you to know I appreciate the intellectual approach you have, & the honesty of your words. I also learn more about Judaism. So, thank you!

  4. One of the first Psalms to draw me (about 8 years ago), was, ‘I have set the LORD always before me.’ In that mindset my eyes always return to his, despite my shortcomings. ‘Jesus Christ is come in the flesh.’

    About 4 years ago it was Paul’s, ‘Work out your own salvation.. for it is God which works in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure.’ In everyday living I consciously work out in deeds what he works in me.

      1. David- to me creeds are for people and deeds for a Person.

        The Lord told Ezekiel, ‘I will put my spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes.’ Creeds and deeds become one.

        Jesus told his disciples, ‘You know him, for he dwells with you, and shall be in you.’ Christ and his disciples become one.

        Thanks for listening, God bless you. -Arnold

  5. Very good post. I wouldn’t try to convince a sceptic (unless they wanted me to try); I have too much respect for them and am too aware of my own deficiencies of faith.

    In a curious way, I can empathise with you. Although I think I have the “core” Orthodox beliefs, there are a lot of what I call “sociological beliefs” in the Orthodox community that I struggle with. By “sociological beliefs” I mean something that is not an explicit article of faith, but which is so deep-rooted in a particular community that you stand out if you don’t believe. Examples in the Orthodox (Haredi, but also sometimes Modern Orthodox) community would be believing that the Zohar was written by Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai; believing that Midrashim are authentic traditions passed on since biblical times; and believing that there are a range of practices that the living can do to benefit the dead. I am sceptical of all of these beliefs, but I know they are so deep-rooted that I don’t dare to publicise the fact for fear of being thought a heretic.

    1. LM-

      I don’t find that curious at all – I totally get what you’re saying, and it’s almost the same as what I’m saying, although you are more certain of certain basic beliefs that I am – but the social pressure is more or less the same, I think, to conform in one’s thinking. Thank you 🙂

      BTW, I don’t know if we’ll ever get a chance to meet in person (do you ever come to Israel?) but if we do, I’m happy to speak with you about theology!

      -David

  6. Great post, Ben. I am not Jewish, but I can relate to having skeptical faith. I was deeply involved in the AA 12 step community for years but have since drifted.

    For the most part, I drifted from that community because I felt members were too dogmatic and rigid. It’s funny, because AA is not a religious group, but it certainly felt like one at times.

    Nowadays, I simply consider myself a spiritual seeker without any ties to an organized system. My girlfriend is Jewish and I was raised Catholic. I love my God, but I do not like systems that aim to speak for him.

    I have been reading a lot of Christian mystics lately and I like the way they talk of God. If he is who he is, he is unknowable and ineffable. He simply is. I suppose this could sound heretical to some, but it’s the way I’ve been coming to believe lately.

    Great blog by the way. You are a terrific poet!

    1. Nick –

      Actually, in Jewish thought, there was a great rabbi called Maimonides who espoused a very similar version of God as what you are suggesting (and what I also feel most comfortable with). The basic idea is that God is entirely unknowable, and human beings cannot even ascribe labels to him because any label that human beings can comprehend would limit God, which is impossible because God is without limits.

      If I wasn’t so attached to my people (the Jews) as I am, I would be in the very same camp as you, friend. I’ve written about that attachment here, if you’re curious at all: https://skepticskaddish.com/2020/10/19/to-india-and-others-with-love/

      Thank you so much for commenting and sharing!

      Sincerely,
      David

  7. Fascinating. You, David, have successfully challenged my thinking–and even my intent–on a number of occasions. I first began sharing my thoughts and verses here, hoping to connect with thinkers and poets, but with no more specific intent than that. And yet I continue to learn–which is still the highest prominence of my life, this desire to learn–about so many subjects. I am learning more and more about the diversity of experience and faith among Hebrew communities and individuals. And I thank you for that. It also still strikes me deeply, my friend, how often reading your thoughts and experiences compels me back through memories of my own. Almost like I have a distant brother in Israel of whom I knew nothing for 56 years of life. So many years ago, while living in San Francisco, my dearest friend then, Keith, wisely introduced me to a number of writers, and one of them was Nikos Kazantzakis. Whose works I quickly devoured. And while I am sure I have forgotten much, one thing he wrote in particular remains with me still, “The ultimate most holy form of theory is action.” … I wish I had believed this back then. So many of the mistakes I have made in life were evoked by my insistent assumptions about how smart I was, and if you’re really that smart, how can you possibly go wrong? And so I used my ability to “intelligently” justify myself and the worst of my actions. I’m still making mistakes, of course. And hopefully still learning. And trying harder to go beyond thinking and faith to actually live a good life. Thank you, David, for being so inspiring to me.

    1. George, I feel like doing true justice to your profound comment would take another blog post, but for what it’s worth, it is precisely meaningful human connections such as the one we are continuing to form that make this WP experience so special for me. Honestly, if we can connect as strongly as we do via this medium, that is more than enough reason for me to feel invested in continuing this project. Thank you, Friend.

      Yours,
      David

  8. Thanks for that post, Ben. I was raised a Catholic but have been an atheist for many years now. Lately I have begun to question everything again. I find myself agreeing with Nick, above there. If there is a supreme power, surely it is unknowable, and not a person you can relate to as many people think. In fact, when I said that recently I was called a blasphemer. What can you do? Many people get very defensive, insulted, annoyed when you question them. I always want to know exactly what people mean when they say they believe in God and heaven but it’s very hard to get a straight answer.

    1. Elizabeth, I’m totally with you on this – 100%

      surely it is unknowable, and not a person you can relate to as many people think.

      What you wrote here, in a nutshell, reflects my feelings as well!

      Yours,
      David

  9. I find the statement ‘I can continue practicing the law, regardless of what I happen to believe at any given moment.’ intriguing.
    We do that in life. When we question our own beliefs, we turn to what is accepted and it feels like relief. I do too. Practice the law, tradition, customs…. its an easier path. But I do think that whatever my belief may be…at any point of time…I find it better to struggle with the questions and move towards faith. It’s complicated. I wonder whether the law gives us solace or does faith.
    I may have wandered off with my mind. But that’s exactly why I want to thank you David for sharing your writing.

    1. Sangeetha, I can’t tell you how much I enjoyed reading your reflection on these matters… it makes writing the blog post completely worthwhile – I love having discussions like these because I find that they energize me ⚡

      Yours,
      David

  10. Is Rabbi Witty your Rabbi’s real name or a pseudonym? Either way, I love it.
    My childhood Rabbi taught us the same concept, albeit without the nifty rhyme. I get it, and I think there is something positive about the focus on action because belief can be much more challenging to control (although I still believe for me, that my belief is a choice, but agree that it is much easier to affect actions).
    But I also find a lot of elements of traditional Jewish practice become particularly unappealing without belief. I know self-identified Orthoprax – Orthodox in practice, but not in belief. It doesn’t speak to me personally, but then again, I am not Orthodox in practice or belief.

  11. A very sensitive topic, yet so well addressed. I have learned alot about Judaism from you, want to thank you for that, David. Stay blessed.

  12. Terrific post. So much to ponder here. As I slowly plod through conversion, I am so totally, frustratingly aware of things I will never know and experience coming to Judaism from the outside. No Jewish high school for me! No shared experiences of those, or so many other things. As much as I enjoy the Shabbat services, that so much is done in Hebrew, which can be quite meditative at times, is well also at times kinda prompting my mind to wander on less devout things… like what’s for lunch.

    I have heard the saying of deed not creed. I did not hear it in terms of following everything like keeping kosher in diet, and all of that. I thought it meant more like acting “right” in the world. Doing more things like mishnahs, to improve and repair the world. ??? Thoughts on that take?

    1. I thought it meant more like acting “right” in the world.

      Hi, M.

      From a traditional (read: halakhic) Jewish perspective, there is no difference between acting “right” and following “God’s law”.

      The Reform movement, Reconstructionist movement, and others do not consider halakha (“God’s law”) to be binding so from the perspective of these liberal movements, acting “right” in the world, as you put it, would indeed be equivalent to “deed” in this context!

      I hope that helps 🙂

      Yours,
      David

  13. Thank you for sharing your thoughts, David. Your post is informative and interesting. Though I am not religious, my ethics and personal philosophy are important to me. I like learning about religions from a cultural perspective and appreciate the honest discussion of beliefs and ideas. 🙂 Have a great day!

  14. Ben,

    Please do not see me as condescending, I speak within the limit of my intellect and experience, and have only read this one post of yours.

    I see religion as being a lot to do with identity, I am in a kind of self imposed exile from my own Anglican Catholic church. The reason for this is an obsession with the human spoiling of our spherical Garden of Eden, and how my church community shows so little interest. I do not denounce my belief, but I don’t like to ask myself too severely about it, as I fear the answer. What troubles me is how everyone seems so sure of themselves.

    I like this idea of following a spiritual law regardless of belief, and in the hope of belief, but I feel this works better if one is able to live within one’s spiritual community. Penge, in South London, is perhaps home to a thousand communities and I could probably choose from many of them, but it would be a great effort, and I choose instead the modern mainstream of seclusion, with my own fragile religion.

    I enjoyed your considered, and candid explanation.

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