How I Kept My Faith in Faith

Several years ago, some friends and I gathered for a “holiday season party” in the days between Hanukkah and Christmas. We ate latkes. We drank eggnog. And we talked about the Maccabees. Around the table went a debate, about the Maccabees and the Hellenists in the battle for cultural supremacy in ancient Judea.

I expressed some sympathy for the Maccabees, and declared Antiochus Epiphanes to have been no saint.

Our host — call her Lisa — fixed me a look.

“But you do agree the Greeks were right,” she said, daring me to say otherwise. In the dichotomous world of Athens vs. Jerusalem, she was suggesting, Athens surely must reign supreme.

“I do not agree,” I said, even as I wondered why. The Maccabees would — by modern standards —be considered religious extremists. While fighting a war for religious freedom against Antiochus’s restrictions on Jewish religious practice, the Maccabees and their descendants also performed forced circumcisions, brutally slaughtered their opponents and forcibly converted the entire population of Idumea to Judaism on pain of death.

Still, theirs was a fight for Jerusalem, a city, an idea, a symbol exerting upon me a mysterious force.

Lisa pressed me: Didn’t the Greeks give us philosophy and mathematics? Hadn’t they invented the very idea of rationalism? Didn’t they plant the seeds of democracy, leave us some of the greatest contributions in literature, art and architecture? Didn’t the Greeks, more than anyone, create Western civilization as we know it?

I had to admit that they did all those things.

And what did the Maccabees give us?

I couldn’t think of much — aside from a renewed temple with its cult of animal sacrifice, a corrupt and fratricidal Hasmonean dynasty and eight days with which to meekly compete with jolly old Christmas.

I had no reasoned argument to make that evening, and over the years that followed, especially when the month of Kislev came around, I would think about that debate and wonder: How could I, a materialist, a believer in no gods or spirits, who has discarded religious practice after accepting the supremacy of rationalism, still see merit in a group waging war against all I now believe in?

The answer, I have come to realize, is that Lisa and I were arguing not about Antiochus and the Maccabees, but of Athens and Jerusalem. It was the dichotomy that I rejected. Athens gave us much, but I cannot divest myself of Jerusalem.

Jerusalem, city of gold, city of light, of heroes and saints, sinners and madmen. But most of all, city of faith.

It is faith that Jerusalem gives me. Not religious faith, but faith nonetheless.

The last time I visited Jerusalem was during a time of personal crisis. It was October 2005, shortly after I was expelled from my Hasidic community. My belief system was shattered, the threads holding my family together fraying dangerously.

I was in Israel for work and visited with my mother, who lives in Jerusalem, for the weekend. On Shabbat afternoon, I made my way to the Western Wall. Inside the eerie crypt-like rooms adjacent to the Kotel plaza, I sat with a Book of Psalms and recited it from beginning to end. I didn’t know why — or what I wanted out of it. I suppose I wanted to feel uplifted. To feel connected. Or just to feel, something, anything.

“Why am I here?” I wondered, as psalm after psalm flowed easily from decades of fluency, though I no longer felt their import. “Why am I doing this?”

As night fell, I left the Kotel and took a cab to visit an old family friend: Rabbi Dr. Eliezer Shore. Raised in a secular Jewish family, Eliezer had, as a young man, come to study with my father, and when I was a teenager, after my father’s death, Eliezer and I would spend hours in study and conversation. Older and considerably wiser than I, Eliezer would share with me some of the deepest insights of his studies of Jewish mysticism and spirituality, and the depth of his thinking always stimulated and inspired me. Eventually, we drifted apart. Now, I hadn’t seen him in nearly a decade, but I was feeling so bereft that I was eager to speak with someone who would understand.

When we finally sat down over tea in Eliezer’s apartment in Jerusalem, where he had settled to raise his own family, something welled up inside me, and for the first time in my life I said the words “I am no longer religious.” With those words came a feeling of crushing grief, as if I’d shared the death of a loved one with someone for the first time.

Eliezer understood. We spoke at length that night, about faith and rationalism and the challenges of both, but one thing Eliezer said to me has stuck with me for years.

“There is historical truth,” Eliezer said. “And then there is mythic truth.” Reality, Eliezer suggested, could not be condensed to rationalism. To scientific facts. To history. There are areas of life that can only be addressed with myth.

I had gone to the Kotel and the Book of Psalms to seek the myth, but I was looking too far outside of myself. The myth, I would come to realize, had to be found inside me.

Over the years, as I made the transition from religious to secular life, I would come to appreciate that notion of mythic truth more fully. Yes, Athens had changed me — I had discovered science, rationalism and logical positivism, where empiricism was all that really mattered — but I could not let go of Jerusalem. Athens held scientific truth. Jerusalem held the mythic. I needed both.

What is mythic truth?

Eliezer, who now teaches Jewish thought and spirituality at Hebrew University, offered me some thoughts in a recent phone call.

“Living with mythic truth,” Eliezer told me, “is to live with the wisdom that cannot be spoken.” All those areas of life that transcend the rational: love and relationships and friendships and acts of kindness and generosity and seeking connections of all kinds; all those experiences that spill over into song and poetry and art and literature, because they are there, and they must come out, but they must be experienced to be understood, to be truly felt. Above all, to live with mythic truth is to live with faith.

I am not accustomed to speaking of faith, beckoning as it does to religious principles. Perhaps, though, a purely religious conception of faith is too narrow — secular people need faith, too. Not creed or dogma, but faith in ourselves, in our own ability to intuit what is meaningful within our own reality.

I remember hearing once that Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach would walk the streets of Manhattan and offer hugs to homeless people — an act I cannot imagine performing but which leaves me trembling with regret that I cannot. Recent tales of Pope Francis tell of his extraordinary gestures of kindness, of gentleness and humility. And I often wonder: Who is to be secularism’s Carlebach or Pope Francis? Why does it appear as if only religious figures are moved to the greatest acts of love and selflessness?

I believe it is so because secularism’s dominant mode of thinking today is rationalism, which has left little room for mythic truth, for faith in our deepest intuitions. Rationalism cannot tell us why to give a dollar to a homeless person or why to act kindly on a day we feel cranky. It cannot tell us why to go an extra step to make someone smile.

“The conviction that I must obey the ethical imperatives is not derived from logical arguments,” wrote Abraham Joshua Heschel, American Jewry’s 20th-century prophet, “but originates in an intuitive certitude, in a certitude of faith.”

Heschel’s was a God-focused faith, but faith strikes me as a more expansive notion, a principle of many hues and colors, with religious faith but one of them. Faith is not knowledge but experience, and a secular faith lets us believe that life matters even though it ends and we disappear into nothingness, even though all of life will likely cease to exist one day. It lets us believe that our actions matter even though the question of free will is scientifically inconclusive. We need faith to tell us that even though life is rationally meaningless — we are each but indiscernible specks within the cosmos and mere nothingness between the ends of time — it is still worth making it count, to live fully and deeply.

Like love, however, faith cannot be argued into or out of. It simply is.

“Faith,” Heschel wrote, “is…. not a deduction but an intuition, not a form of knowledge, of being convinced without proof, but the attitude of mind toward ideas whose scope is wider than its own capacity to grasp.”

Not a deduction but an intuition. When I feel moved to help a person in need, when I go to bed at night resolving to be a better person the next day, when I tell myself to be kind and loving and charitable even when I don’t feel so inclined, it is not from a rational place or a reflective position, but the simple feeling — the belief! — that doing so is good and right.

This, to me, is mythic truth. The narratives of and about our reality. To live with the wisdom that cannot be spoken. This, to me, is faith. And faith comes from Jerusalem.

Athens gave us Pythagoras and Aristotle, but Jerusalem remains the inspiration for righteous action. Socrates gave us critical thinking, but it is Isaiah who makes us care for the less fortunate. Jerusalem, city of prophets, ancient mad poets, calling for the hungry to be fed and the naked to be clothed. For justice to prevail. For goodness and kindness to reign supreme.

When Hanukkah comes around, it isn’t the Maccabees I celebrate, but Jerusalem and the enduring faith in the best of humanity’s intuitions that even I, godless heathen, cannot help but feel — and believe.

Shulem Deen’s column appears monthly. He is the author of “All Who Go Do Not Return.”

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