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.

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