Is the concept of “faith” sensible?

My answer is no. Ever since I was a child, I heard about faith and understood that it makes no sense. One day when I was still young my father Rabbi Dr. Nathan Drazin took me to hear a lecture by the famous Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. Heschel said the faith is not a Jewish concept and that if we want to use the word, we should understand it as “faithful,” meaning: we should faithfully do what the Torah teaches us to do. It is good behavior that the Torah demands, not misguided ideas. I was so impressed that I asked Rabbi Heschel for his autograph and bought his book.

Faith is the acceptance by a person that an idea is true even though the person’s reasoning is unable to support its truthfulness. It is that which science and one’s senses say is untrue. The American satirist Ambrose Bierce (1842–c. 1913) defined faith in his humorous The Devil’s Dictionary as, “belief without evidence in what is told by one who speaks without knowledge of things without parallel.” Bierce defined religion based on faith sarcastically as, “A daughter of hope or fear, explaining to ignorance the nature of the unknowable.”

An unknown source wrote similarly, “Faith is believing what you know ain’t so.”

Mishnah, Pirke Avot 2:6, reports that Hillel said that an individual who acts without reason is not pious.

One can find other cynical comments in other sources. Each highlights the absence of any reasonable basis to faith and the difficulty that a person of faith has in making an informed decision. Unfortunately, most people resolve the decision difficulty by not thinking at all and by relying instead on the opinion of others.

 

Faith not mentioned in the Hebrew Bible

The term “faith” does not appear in the Hebrew Bible. Instead, the Bible frequently encourages one to think and to act reasonably. The biblical word that some mistakenly translate as “faith,” emunah, actually means “steadfast” or “steady.” Thus Moses held up his hands “steadily,” without letting them fall. The current meaning of emunah as “faith” is a new idea.

 

Maimonides

Moses Maimonides (1138–1204) repeatedly stressed that people should not accept ideas that people tell them that they are unable to verify, even if the person is an authority, but they should use their reason. In his medical book Aphorisms, he wrote: If anyone tells you that he has an idea that he wants you to accept and claims he proof from his personal experience of that confirms his idea, even though he is recognized as a man of great authority and truthfulness – religious, sincere, and moral – yet because he is so anxious for you to believe his notion, do not accept it. Do not allow yourself to be swayed by the novelties that he tells you. Examine his theory and belief carefully…. Look into the matter. Don’t let yourself be persuaded.

 

Some other comments about the reliance on faith

Faith may be defined briefly as an illogical belief in the occurrence of the impossible. (H. L. Mencken, Prejudices: series III)

In the affairs of this world, men are not saved by faith, but by avoiding and surpassing it. (Benjamin Franklin, Poor Richard’s Almanac)

He wears his faith but as the fashion of his hat. (Shakespeare, Much Ado About Nothing 1:1)

Faith must have adequate evidence; else it is mere superstition. (Archibald Alexander Hodge)

Faith can stifle all science. (Henri Frederic Amiel: Journal)

To me, faith means not worrying. (John Dewey)

Faith is not reason’s labor, but repose. (Edward Young)

 

The classic story about relying on faith

The Synagogue officials were united. Even the rabbi agreed. They had all seen that the poor man was suffering. So they gathered at the east wing of the Synagogue and prayed in unison, “Please God, please allow the poor man to win the lottery so that he can eat!” When Wednesday came and his name was not announced, the group gathered again at the east wing.

Again they prayed, full of faith, “Please God, please let this poor man win the lottery so that he can eat!” When the next Wednesday came and they saw the same result, they prayed again. After the third failure, the rabbi addressed God, “Why Lord, why didn’t he win?” A voice came from heaven, “He never bought a ticket.”

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