Faith Isn’t What?!

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Following is a letter of mine appearing in this week’s Forward (although not online) responding to an opinion piece there some weeks back by social psychologist Bethamie Horowitz. Some of the data contained in her essay, although not groundbreaking, are quite disturbing; perhaps I’ll comment on those at some point. This letter focuses on her view of the role of belief in Judaism. The mere fact that her assertion appears, unchallenged, in a place of prominence in a serious Jewish publication is highly instructive; that, too, will wait for another day.

Opinion columnist Bethamie Horowitz describes a recent Notre Dame retreat for Catholic and Jewish educators at which the Catholic teachers exhibited “fluency in speaking about their faith and its meaning in their work,” while the Jewish ones found motivation in “feelings of belonging to the Jewish people,” but not in faith and the divine.

The question, of course, is: why? Ms. Horowitz suggests two responses, and it is here that she moves, unannounced, from the role of social scientist to that of theologian, with disappointing results.

For one, she speculates, talk of faith remains difficult only 60 years after the Holocaust. Undoubtedly, the Shoah was a watershed in the religious lives of most, if not all, survivors; for some, it shook or eradicated their faith, others emerged with their commitment strengthened.

But to attribute the secularity of succeeding generations largely to the Shoah seems to be quite a stretch, even a bit of a dodge. In any event, there were large-scale Jewish defections from religion during the 19th century and the first half of the 20th, and there was no Nazi annihilation to impute that to. Clearly, then, any sophisticated analysis of Jewish religious disaffection must consider a host of factors, such as absence of Jewish education, the effects of upward mobility and the blandishments of secular society and the like.

Ms. Horowitz’ second conjecture is even more problematic. Why are Jews so alienated from faith? It’s because “faith isn’t a requirement for Jewish religious life.” She buttresses this startling claim by observing that “Judaism privileges actions over beliefs” and “a wide range of beliefs can fit legitimately within the Jewish spiritual umbrella.”

Now, Jews committed to tradition can agree with those latter statements, although, depending on where they stand on the religious spectrum, they’ll undoubtedly differ widely on just how expansive that “spiritual umbrella” can be. They will also surely concur in Ms. Horowitz’ assertion that “there is no such thing as a ‘lapsed Jew.’” But moving from those propositions to the view that faith isn’t an essential element of Judaism is a leap that anyone familiar with Jewish tradition cannot and will not make.

There’s an old Jewish tale about a man who approaches a hot dog cart outside a bank and asks the vendor, with whom he’s friendly, for a ten-dollar loan. The vendor begs off, pointing to the bank: “Listen, my friend, I have an understanding with the people in there – they don’t sell hot dogs, and I don’t make loans.” I think social scientists and theologians ought to strike a similar deal.

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3 Responses

  1. Nachum Lamm says:

    I’m afraid you’ll find most theologians will say the same. And have a point.

  2. Eliezer Barzilai says:

    You are absolutely right, and clearly Ms. Horowitz is misinformed. I also very much enjoyed your story about the hot dog vendor and the bank. But by definition, Ms. Horowitz cannot be wrong. She represents the vast majority of American Jews, the secularly enlightened and religiously naive majority. We Orthodox are a small minority. So while we certainly speak knowledgeably, it doesn’t negate the reality of the ‘facts on the ground’ that Ms. Horowitz represents. Moral or religious truth is never decided by a majority vote, but if you want to talk about what Judaism holds, you probably have to take into consideration what Jews, formed by millennia of being Jewish, hold. This reminds me of what a Jan L.A. van de Snepscheut is quoted as having said: “In theory, there is no difference between theory and practice. But, in practice, there is.” What Jews, the vast majority of the Jews, say, is by definition a valid expression of what Judaism is about. Yes, it’s inconsistent with our classic tradition. But it’s a true falsehood. It is what the Jews believe.

  3. Edvallace says:

    Very well done. YeYasher Kochachah for that. How sad that to most Jews this will come as news.