Religious Maturity, Or The Atheist Avrech and You (Part Three)

[Part I, Part II]

OK, so what’s your answer to the question of last post, smart guy? Why should one go through the effort of finding a way to believe?

Well, the simplest answer, and one given by the O post-modernists, is that it is a matter of identity. As part of a religious community, it is incumbent upon the religious adolescent to reconcile themselves to the ideals of the community. Of course, all this depends on whether or not the adolescent wishes to remain part of the community. However, we will assume for the sake of argument that he will want to remain part of a religious community, even if it’s not the one he grew up in.

Still, this solution is often rather superficial and does not carry with it the promise of religious growth this faith stage contains. Indeed, one can answer the first question – what do I believe – with nothing and still retain the religious “identity”. Indeed, Orthopraxy is pretty much that. The reason for this is that the commitment is almost entirely to the practitioners, not the object of that practice – God.

Faith and Faithfullness

In a fascinating article, Rav Yoel Bin Nun traces the meaning of the word emunah (faith) in Jewish sources, from the Bible through the medieval philosophers to the present day. We understand emunah as belief in a factual statement(s), whether it’s the minimum 13 ikarim or beyond.

Rav Bin Nun demonstrated that this was not always the case. In the time of the Tanach, the word was used to mean faithfulness (the medievals would use the word fidelity). The connection to God was one of commitment and loyalty, of adhering to Him. Factual proofs and philosophical arguments were at most a minor part of this relationship. Indeed, denials of aspects of God (such as his role as Judge), were often merely a byproduct of a betrayal of that loyalty. For the God of Tanach, he wanted Jews to simply affirm, as did Herman Wouk in the title of his book that “This is my God” and I will worship Him.

This is the best reason to my mind to make the effort – This is my God. To be sure, this is also a matter of identity, but with a twist. The previous identity answer involved an emotional and personal attachment only to people. The existence of God and His attributes are a side issue at most, a precondition for being the community and nothing more. God is merely a secondary byproduct of being in a community.

In this instance, the sides are reversed. God is the one to whom I pledge my loyalty and emotional and personal attachment and belonging to the community is a byproduct of that attachment. Of course, it is also possible to make a dual covenant with God and His people. However, what’s important is that God is a present and clear Party to the treaty, not a mere symbol to which we simply pay homage. This is why we must understand that God is an independent party with His own will and agenda. Otherwise the idea of a covenant is a farce, basically a deal with oneself. We must understand, like Levinas, that God is an Other, the ultimate one.

In his monumental Al Hateshuva, Rav Soloveitchik describes the ultimate form of repentance. This is one where the sinner doesn’t merely try to repent for his sins, but takes advantage of the situation to reforge his covenant with God. The religious adolescent that wishes to rise must do the same. It is an intensely personal and intimate interaction, and one that can lead to greater faith and power than any “rational” proof or argument can provide.

Wrestling With The Angels

Oh, so you don’t want people to become mature, do you? You just want them to replenish their childish energies! Hypocrite!

Not at all. The covenant we remake with God at this stage, much like the making of the second tablets, is a mature one. Both sides are shorn of their previous illusions; we both know there are issues we need to work out or deal with. But just as the negative issues are now in play, so are the positive. When we enter the covenant knowingly, for reasons of our choosing, it leads to a more real, more authentic attachment. We worship God knowingly, not because we’re told to by others.

So, yes, we have criticisms, both of Him and His representatives. Many are trenchant, and they must be addressed. However, there is a critical difference between the criticism of a mature believer and that of an atheist or a hard skeptic. The latter doesn’t care and is often hostile; he criticizes to destroy faith or at least undermine it. He is not a part, so he has no stake. The mature believer does so from a point of view of one who is involved, who cares deeply. He does it to build, not to destroy.

To Reforge The Bond

Religious adolescence is a natural stage. It is not something to fear. Like any stage in life, it can lead to greatness or abandonment. We should see them as an opportunity and a challenge – not a disaster to be avoided at all costs. If we stop seeing it as a disease and understand that it is merely growing pains, then we can create a true community of the committed, not just a bunch of children and skeptics.


Hi, my name is Avi Woolf. I'm an American-Israeli MO Jew living in Israel. I have a background in Israeli (as in Land of Israel) and Jewish History and an insatiable need for knowledge. I also have professional experience as an editor, translator and indexer. Enjoy the ride! If you are interested in using my services or just want to drop me a line, contact me at:
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