Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Faith, Objective and Personal

A wise rabbi once advised me that I would have to choose between “rabbinic social work” and a more intellectual rabbinate. The more I see, though, the more I understand how the two depend on each other, and how the former is, for most people, far more important than the latter. The intellectual is indispensable, but the Torah's address to the personal is far more crucial and makes a far greater impact on our lives – not only in terms of 'feeling good,' but in terms of addressing core matters of Emunah (faith).

For many people, objective intellectual questions like, “How old is the universe - really?” and “Did yetziat mitzrayim happen as theTorah describes it?” are not inherently important. They bother many of us only when we are troubled by more subjective, personal issues.

For many people: When we are spiritually “positive”, when we perceive purpose in life and its pursuits, many of us experience little difficulty in accepting traditional views on these matters of rational analysis.

On the other hand: When we have felt spiritually unsettled, when we have sought Gd and not found, when theodicy and its associated issues have occupied our minds, when we have not seen our meaning and place, then no intellectual answers have sufficed, and these questions have loomed large as challenges to our basic belief in Gd and Torah.

I write these thoughts because I recently came across a great compendium published by the Rabbi J.B. Soloveitchik Institute a few years back, on what would have been the Rav's 100th birthday. It's entitled, “A Study and Program Guide to the Teachings of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik.”

On Page 14, in Michael A. Bierman's biographical essay on the Rav, the author cites an insight from R' Reuven Ziegler, into the Rav's approach:
Thus, the Rav chose to address primarily issues related to the human existential situation: the possibility of experiencing faith within contemporary society, the relationship between the fundamental attitudes of modernity and religiosity, and the experiential crisis of the contemporary believer.
He states clearly at the outset of “The Lonely Man of Faith” that he does not want to deal with the abstract, intellectual side of the problem of faith and reason, but rather with its existential dimension: “Theory is not my concern at the moment. I want instead to focus attention on a human life situation in which the man of faith as an individual concrete being, with his cares and hopes, concerns and needs, joys and sad moments, is entangled...”

That's exactly “it” for me – the experiential crisis, the cares and hopes, concerns and needs, etc. Those are the engines driving my own faith – and, from what I have seen, that of others.

In eleven years in the rabbinate, I have answered many times over the questions of evolution and the like, and I have watched others do so as well, but regardless of how the answers were offered and to what type of audience, I have never seen them as well-received as a strong, well-developed and well-delivered approach to personal spirituality, to prayer, to theodicy, to life.

Lives don't change, in my experience, from insights into the Oneness of Gd or Divine incorporeality, or analyses of the historical and biblical Plishtim, or derashot on Avraham's openness to guests, or pilpul on who is obligated to sit in a Succah. Rather, lives change – and I have seen it – from the way Judaism addresses “ a human life situation in which the man of faith as an individual concrete being, with his cares and hopes, concerns and needs, joys and sad moments, is entangled.”

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