It’s not all that unusual to run across something in the Talmud that comes as a complete surprise, the type of thing that makes the student wonder how on earth it got in there. We have already seen one of these with the debate between the students of Hillel and Shammai about whether human beings are better off being created than not being created. Some stories may come up that seem to paint a rabbi or some holy personality of the Bible in a rather negative light. These anomalies are usually dealt with by the commentaries, to either the satisfaction or the frustration of future Talmud students.
One of these oddities comes up at the end of the tractate called Makkot, which deals with a variety of issues related to punishment for certain crimes. On the last page of the tractate we find a statement of a Rabbi Simlai beginning with the well-known fact that there are 613 commandments in the Torah. No surprises so far. But he goes on and says that King David took this large number of commandments and boiled them to 11 more fundamental principles. He doesn’t stop there. He next says that Isaiah came and knocked them down to 6. He’s on a roll. He says that Micah came and got them down to 3. Not to be outdone, Isaiah came back and said there were only 2 basic things. Finally, Amos, another somewhat obscure prophet of the 12 Minor Prophets came and boiled the whole thing down to one basic idea: ‘Seek Me (God) and live’. The Talmud interjects the question that maybe Amos meant to seek God through the entire Torah, in which case we’re back to 613. So they settle on the prophet Habakkuk (that really was his name) establishing the entire Torah on one absolute fundamental – ‘The righteous lives by his faith’.
Going into the 613, the 11, the 6, the 3, and even the 2, is too cumbersome, so we’ll focus on the two versions of 1. This Rabbi Simlai apparently held that these two somewhat innocuous verses in two somewhat minor works of prophecy expressed the core essence of what the Torah had to say. These two phrases, in some profound manner, were everything. They were stated independently of each other, of course, so they must be analyzed separately. One talks about searching and the other about faith. These two pursuits, faith and searching, speak to us in way that conveys the essence of Judaism, and, more importantly, they point us towards the meaning of life. It is ironic that in this little section of the Talmud, which is the only time the Talmud lays it all out like this in stating the fundamental idea to which it all boils down, the two final candidates are diametrically opposed to each other. Isn’t searching the use of the mind, of logic, of knowledge, to get to the truth? Isn’t faith throwing in the towel on searching and just letting things be? How is one to reconcile these two fundamentals?
The fact is that Judaism, perhaps more than any other religion, lives and breathes this conflict. Judaism is a highly cerebral religion, to the distaste of most non-Jews and many Jews. Yet, at the same time, its underpinnings are purely based on faith. For some, the intense, unforgiving logic of the Talmud, and the rather dry philosophy of monotheism, are what keeps them fervently Jewish. For others, these things are a turnoff. They prefer a religion in which faith in a God who may be invisible to the eye but is more real than the air they breathe to the soul; a religion where one can experience God through a storm or an emotional battle, as well as through singing praises and doing acts of charity. Every believer has to find their own spiritual line – the point at which the searching stops and the faith begins.
Faith. Habakkuk did not say that the righteous lives by his knowledge, or his wisdom, or his philosophy. Those things are important for anybody, let alone for somebody who wants to be righteous. But even knowledge, wisdom, and philosophy do not guarantee that a person will be righteous. Nor do they guarantee that a person, even a righteous person, will be able to make it through all the trials and tribulations that life throws their way. The only 100% money-back guarantee out there is faith.
The word in Hebrew is 'emunah'. It’s a word with two meanings in Hebrew – faith and belief. The two are slightly different in English, but are identical in Hebrew. One could make the argument that belief is knowledge-based whereas faith is just wishful thinking, but in the end, all belief comes down to personal articles of faith. Somewhere down the road a person is going to have to cut away the rational veneer and recognize that there are certain things in life that one simply accepts because it’s impossible to live without them.
Habakkuk was not talking about faith in just anything, like faith in the stock market or one’s innate abilities to get the job done. These, in a sense, are the opposite of Habakkuk’s brand of faith. These are a faith that assures the faithful that he, or she, or ‘the system’ is firmly in control of the situation. Habakkuk’s faith is a relinquishing of control, and handing it over to God. It is recognizing that whatever direction God wants to steer things - that’s the way things will be and should be.
Faith, belief, trust – whatever name one chooses to give to this psychological/spiritual state of mind, is every bit as powerful as the logic of a rationalist which is firmly embedded in the world of science and technology. It may not have equations or other bells and whistles to back it up, but, then again, those things don’t do much against the news that one is terminally ill or faced with financial ruin. Emotions don’t care too much about scientific theories. They work under a different set of rules. At the end of the day, it is only a somewhat irrational faith in the ultimate goodness of whatever deity one places their trust in that enables the mind to weather those emotional storms. Whether it is a holocaust or a disease, a war or hunger, God is above it all and somehow intending or allowing for all this to happen. The righteous person remains righteous, not complaining or giving up, not faltering or casting doubt, because, and only because, he or she has faith.
Searching. ‘Seek Me and live’. Search, but search for God. Although Judaism has contributed well more than its share of great scientists, doctors, creators, and discoverers of all sorts, it really only seeks one thing – God. All those other things may be great accomplishments, major steps in human knowledge, and they may help out the world in some vital manner, but they aren’t what Amos said. He said, ‘Seek Me’. Searching for God is a difficult task. It is not just a hobby, or even a project. It is a lifelong journey. It means looking in the most unlikely places, like underneath anger or frustration; like in the middle of a crowded marketplace; like in the stark emptiness of a desert. It means searching for meaning in the face of death and hopelessness. It means contemplating the mystery of life instead of surfing the net. It means finding God as the impassionate ground of being, or the passionate source of love. There is no place empty of God and no time devoid of God’s will.
Yet God is frustratingly difficult to find. There is always some doubt, some obstacle, that gets in the way. It’s the bland mechanical laws of nature obscuring the mysterious beauty of nature. It’s the restrictions of the ego shutting out the boundless reaches of the soul. These are the ever-present veils that keep us from experiencing God, even in those moments and places that we feel ready. They must be penetrated, or seen through. God lurks behind those veils, even in the veils themselves. But finding always entails a search. There is no easy way out.
This is where faith enters the picture. Faith supplies the G-d-seeker with the necessary assurance that the search is not in vain. Every search has an element of faith in it – faith that one will find whatever it is that one is searching for. Otherwise it wouldn’t be a search at all. In fact, the true person of faith is always searching for ways to validate their faith. Furthermore, faith itself is a path to search down. Searching for God need not be limited to theological arguments or spiritual retreats or discovering the oneness behind it all. God can and must be sought in that hidden sector of the mind that works passively rather than actively. Sometimes this endless search, this great quest, needs to be let go of, and allowed to run its own course. This is the path of faith, a path in which God is found not by searching in the usual sense but by waiting and trusting that whatever happens will somehow reveal the hand of God working behind the scenes.
How does one develop faith? The best way to start is to just try it out. Next time you find yourself in a jam of some sort and there’s not a thing you can do to get out of it, try leaving it up to God. It may make no sense to you. In fact, it should make no sense to you. But on the other hand, there’s really nothing you can do about the situation anyhow, so you have nothing to lose by placing it in God’s hand. Whatever God means to you – just let God know somehow, either through talking out loud or using your mind to channel it over. Be sure to really mean it when you communicate that it’s entirely up to God to deal with whatever the problem is. There is even an easy-to-use internal gauge to know if your faith is sincere or not: if you can honestly say that however the situation turns out is fine with you – you won’t complain that God let you down, etc., then you’re already half way there. The rest is just acclimating to this state of mind so that it becomes almost second nature. It’s not easy, but hey, it’s what the entire Torah boils down to.
What about searching? How’s one supposed to get going on the search for God? Start with the easy ones – beautiful sunsets, quiet walks in the woods, the feeling that comes after a random act of kindness. Once you feel you’ve got that down, try something a little tougher, like finding some spiritual meaning in deep friendship or a loving relationship. It’s not necessarily so intuitively obvious that the presence of God lurks within those feelings. Usually it is easier to see God in nature, than to let God into one’s personal feelings. But if this bridge can be crossed, vast possibilities open up. God can be present in other people, in all people. You may find that God permeates your very self. From here, the sky is the limit. Look everywhere – in your daily life, in your food, in the flow of time, in the pleasure of a warm bath. God can be found in all of life’s experiences, from the glory of a rainbow to the subtle experience of being. Seek Me and live.
Food for Thought
Judaism is generally thought of as a religion of ‘doing’. Why did the Talmud emphasize faith and searching, paths of the heart and the mind, as the core goals?
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