Faith without works is… a good start

Poor Noah.  The rabbis give him such a hard time. The famous Rashi teaches that he wasn’t REALLY righteous, he was just righteous in his own generation.  He never stood up to God to defend his contemporaries from the flood.  As Avivah Gottleib Zornberg argues in her book Genesis: The Beginnings of Desire, it is Noah’s lack of outrage that shows his (poor) character and his tremendous cowardice.

If we are in any doubt about who Noah is, we have only to consider the central fact of his silence.  From beginning to end of the Flood narrative, Noah says not a word… the impact of Noah’s silent acquiescence in the destruction of the world is devastating.  (p.58)

What a wake up call to modern readers!  I’m starting to ask myself if I might have a bit of the Noah syndrome. Too often, I choose silence over action or rightful moral outrage.  These past few weeks, when news of clergy abuse hit the headlines, I had to ask myself: what would I have done if I had heard the reports?  Would I have come forward with difficult reports about a leader I admired, or would I have defended him to his victims, saying “well, you must have misunderstood him,” or “he’s really such a good man.  He didn’t mean it.”  Would I have stood up for justice, risking my reputation or relationships to speak difficult truths?  Or would I, like Noah, have stood by in silence and allowed destruction to continue without a word?

The title of this blog, Shameless Judaism, is only aspirational so far. I want to be someone who speaks up when necessary and who refuses to let important truths get clouded with other concerns.  But too often, fear gets in the way.

How comforting to know that even Abram, the great champion of justice, had some fear of his own.

Just imagine what kind of courage it took for Abram to begin a new nation, or to bring his own son to the altar, or (gasp!) to challenge God about God’s plan to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah.  Surely, this was not a man who had to conquer his own fear.  And yet, as God presented the covenant and a series of promises for Abram’s future, it’s almost as if God predicted that Abram might have some mixed emotions. “Al Tira Avram Anochi Magein Lach.” “Do not fear, Abram. I am your protector.” (Genesis 15:1)  God showed Abram the stars of the sky, saying “I will make your descendants as numerous as the stars.”  If you’re going to be the leader of a great nation, God seems to be saying, you have to start with no fear.  I know you may feel fear, but I’m committing to you:  abundance is in your future.

What happens next is powerful, and it’s good news for those of us who want to stand up for justice, but aren’t always ready to do so.

V’he’emin b’Adonai, vayachsheveha lo l’tzedakah.   “And [Abram] believed in God, and [God] counted it for him as tzedakah (righteousness, or justice).” (15:6) Or, to translate it slightly differently, Abram believed in God, and God gave him credit for acting justly.

What a surprising moment!  God gives Abram credit for acting justly because Abram believed?? How is that enough? Shouldn’t faith be combined with action, through the work that we do to stand up for others?

The Christian Bible teaches that “faith without works Is dead.” (James 2:14)  But here, in fact, the Torah seems to teach otherwise.  Of course, faith WITH works may be better.  It is true; behavior trumps belief in Jewish thought.  What we do defines us, not what we think.  But action can be hard, especially when it comes to things that require courage and commitment.  That’s why it’s good to know that sometimes God (or the God I choose to believe in) gives us credit for faith, even before we’ve done the action.  Harachaman, the Merciful One. knows how hard it can be for us to take action. God knows that perhaps the first step is simply to believe:  to believe that we CAN take action, to trust that we will be guided to justice, to know that the right will always win out.  And isn’t that a good beginning to any act of justice?

What a relief to know that Abram got points just for having a little belief.  We may think we’re not courageous enough to be true leaders.  We may wonder if we would take the right actions when called upon to act justly.  We may worry that we will be penned in by fear at just the wrong moment.  But the Torah reminds us: it’s okay to be a beginner.  The way out of the Noah syndrome is, perhaps, simply to BEGIN with a bit of faith.  Sometimes the work inside leads to the work outside.  After all, the rest of Abram’s story is filled with acts of courage.  So may ours be, as well.

V’lo nevosh l’olam va’ed: let us never be ashamed.

It’s so extraordinary that the tradition recognizes the human propensity for embarrassment.  The rabbis knew that we would need God’s help not to be ashamed, putting the line “v’lo nevosh” into our prayers TWICE each morning.  First, it appears in the paragraph before the Shma.

V’ha’eir eineinu b’toratecha, v’dabek libeinu b’mitzvotecha, v‘lo nevosh l’olam va’ed.

Lighten our eyes with your Torah, GLUE our hearts to your commandments, and let us  never be ashamed.

The tradition predicts that we may get stuck in our desire to be close to Torah, because we’ll be ASHAMED.  Ashamed of what?  Looking foolish?  Seeming too righteous?  Showing that we care?  There is no explanation given, and yet each of us could find our own reasons for potential embarrassment.  Each of us approaches Torah with our own blocks, and we ask God to help us leave behind whatever stops us from living in the “light” of Torah.

The second time these words appear is in the center of the Amidah, in the blessing for Tzaddikim, when we pray for the righteous, and for the Gerei Hatzedek, righteous converts.  Sim chelkeinu imahem, we ask, v’lo nevosh ki vecha batachnu.  Place our portion among them, we pray, and we will not be ashamed for we trust in You. Amazingly, the tradition knows that there is a chance we might shrink from our responsibilities, that we might be embarrassed to do what we know we are meant to do.  And the prayerbook gets us to ask God for help.  God, help us not to be ashamed.  Help us to trust in You so we can live among the righteous.

It’s almost as if the Siddur, the prayerbook, is telling us what Marianne Williamson’s oft-quoted lines have been telling us.

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, and fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people will not feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It is not just in some of us; it is in everyone and as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give others permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.– Marianne Williamson

Taken out of the Siddur, the concept is an important one for all of us to embrace.  We have to show up for our lives, to be the people God wants us to be, without embarrassment or shame.  “Who are we NOT to be?”  V’lo nevosh l’olam va’ed.

So I’m trying it. I’ve always wanted to be a writer. And rocket scientist that I am, I have finally recognized that if I want to be a “writer,” then I actually have to, um, write. At times, it might feel embarrassing or imperfect or, for that matter, not particularly remarkable, but that has to be okay. It’s just one blog post at a time.

I once bought my dad an empty sefer (a religious book, with a crimson binding and painted edges), entitled “chiddushim,” new ideas.  It was a journal for learning religious teachings, meant to contain the writer’s innovative ideas on Torah or Talmudic passages. Of course, my dad, one of the most humble men I know, never wrote in it, thinking it would be “yuhara“–arrogance– to consider his own musings “chiddushim.” But now that I think about it, it was a pretty silly gift. There’s no such thing as a “chiddush,” as all the ideas in the world are taken and woven from the ideas of others. As we read last week in the book of Ecclesiastes, “ein chadash tachat hashamesh:” there is nothing new under the sun.  So if we are going to accomplish anything, we can’t begin with the idea that it must be perfect, or NEW, or completely innovative, because we will never achieve anything.

Breishit Bara Elohim… We usually read this as “in the beginning, God created.”  But Rav Dov Ber Pinson explains that for the kabbalists, Breishit is one of God’s names. Read this way, these three words suggest that in the beginning Breishit– the Infinite Presence of God– so unfathomable, whom we could never ever possibly even relate to– created a gift for humans, Elohim–a more manageable, imminent presence of God– a divine presence that human beings could strive to reach.  If we want to create anything in our lives, we can’t start with the unreachable, but we must begin with something attainable, something that we might at least feel we can try to reach.

So hineni, he’aniyah mima’as.  I’m starting with something attainable:  a blog post.  Welcome to Shameless Judaism: Adventures in Spiritual Refinement.  V’lo nevosh l’olam va’ed.  See you next week.