Vayishlach: What is Jewish Faith?

I grew up in a town in Texas. Having Christian friends and going to their houses, sharing in their family life and even attending church as a guest was part of growing up in that wider culture. I always found delight in the joy of their practices, but it never felt exactly like mine. As I grew and started learning more, there was this word that kept coming up that made feel, well, a little uncomfortable.  


Living in a wider Christian culture, faith is incredibly important. As I watched TV and movies and spoke with friends, faith, it seemed to me, was a kind of a leap beyond reason. To have faith was to believe in something without questioning it, testing it and challenging it. Faith was to set a foundation beyond your life experience that informs your experience of life. It’s almost like a guarantee at the end of life. To those for whom this is a spiritual path, I don’t mean to put it down or to say it’s wrong, because it works for you and your soul. It’s very noble; faith for me just doesn’t work that way. 

For Jews, faith is something else entirely. Perhaps with our cultural background of oppression and landlessness, Jews have had a harder time expressing outward faith. When studies are taken of the American faithful, Jews always score last. In the now famous book, American Grace, by Robert Putnam and David E. Campbell, Jews consistently score the “lowest” when it comes to attendance to worship. The 2013 Pew Study shows that two-thirds of Jews say, “you don’t have to believe in God to be Jewish,” making Judaism a somewhat atheistic religion. So what is faith in Jewish life and how does one become faithful, if at all?

In this week’s Torah portion, Vayishlach, we see one of the patriarchs of Judaism, Jacob, struggle with this very question. Jacob is no theist. He does not follow God’s command like Noah or Abraham, nor is he quietly following the faith of his father, like Isaac. While many of the ancient Rabbis wanted to color over Jacob’s tensions, saying that from the moment of his birth he wanted to go to synagogue, (Bereishit Rabba 63:6) the plain sense of the text teaches us that Jacob takes after his mother Rebekah, who questioned faith during her pregnancy, or even his grandmother Sarah, who laughed at God. Jacob was skeptical of faith, while always living in conflict. In the twenty-eighth chapter of Genesis, Jacob’s journey through faith includes a test of God, saying, “If God is with me on my journey…then the LORD shall be my God.” (Genesis 28:20-21) But nothing ever came easy, no guarantee was ever found. In his youth Jacob was in conflict with his brother Esau over their birthright.  In his emerging adulthood, with his father-in-law Laban. With his wives, Leah and Rachel, through the struggles of love. Later in life with his children, whose near murderous rivalry brought the whole family into hundreds of years of exile in Egypt. There was never a moment in Jacob’s life that was free of tension and uncertainty. In Judaism, spirituality does not come easy and faith is no leap across an abyss. 

Faith is struggle.  

The struggle with an unknown future, with fraught relationships and against the human proclivity for violence and injustice. It is the kind of faith that guarantees nothing in this life or the next, and whose greatest reward for mitzvot, the acts of religion, are the mitzvot themselves. Pirke Avot 4:2)  

Judaism is a religion for the searcher and the struggler. Jacob struggles with an angel on the banks of the Jabbok and is renamed “Israel,” meaning those who struggle with God. (Genesis 32:29) Jacob later receives the name again, this time from God’s own voice and not through an angel. (Genesis 35:10) We take our name and our faith from him. We are the “Children of Israel” – not of Abraham, Moses, David, or anyone else. Judaism finds joy and meaning in the immortal questions of life. We pour over them day and night repeatedly in learning and conversations in pushing for a more just and redeemed world, something that can and has kept a proud and chuckling God smiling at us from the background. 

Living a Jewish life is to never be complacent, to always question and push and test. If we have faith in anything, it is faith in each other to keep the conversation going.  

Shabbat Shalom

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