(I shared this vignette on the second day of Rosh HaShanah. I think of it as a coda to my first day of Rosh HaShanah sermon, which is available on this website. Shanah Tovah!)
Many years ago I was the guest teacher in a high school comparative religions course. Each semester the teacher asked me to answer questions about Judaism. He also asked me to present one particular idea about all religion that matters to me. So every semester I would explain to Mr. Mackling’s students that faith is not fact.
We spoke about the Bible, how it is not a record of what actually occurred, but rather a memory of what history means. What matters is not how Israel left Egypt, but what that narrative means for our lives and our world.
We spoke about faith. If tomorrow we discover a fact or situation contradictory to the tradition as we have it, our beliefs will endure while our understanding of their origin may grow and change. This religious trust in what we know and hope for keeps us engaged and involved in the on-going discovery and reality of being human.
We spoke about our different ancestors’ memories and beliefs through the ages. We trust in the insights and wisdom of their experiences as we seek the same from our own. We recognize that every individual, every family, every community, and every group, nation, or people carries their own particular and unique memories.
We spoke about faith having its limits. Ethics, conscience, history, common sense, human decency, science, these are all checks on the purposes and meanings we ascribe to what we believe. We commend such intellectual and religious integrity to others.
As the Orthodox scholar Rabbi Eliezer Berkowitz explained many years ago, “I cannot overlook the fact that, no matter how strongly I believe it, it is still only my personal belief.” Or as the character of recent fiction, Professor Robert Langdon observes in Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol, “Wide acceptance of an idea is not proof of its validity.”
We wondered how many conflicts between individuals, within families or between peoples and nations would be more easily resolved if this humility attached to what everyone believes. Whatever truths or values our experiences may teach us, we are each privileged to glimpse but a small aspect of the whole truth. Faith is the confidence to live our ideals. Faith is not fact.
At the end of every semester the students had to take a final exam that included this question. “Who said, ‘Faith is not fact?’ Answer choices were: Moses, Jesus, Buddha, or Rabbi Shulman! My mother was so proud!
Faith is a grounded idealism. Faith lifts us up. Faith inspires us. It touches our hearts because it informs our minds. Faith is the courage to live according to the right in which we believe. Faith is not fact. Faith is the confidence to live our ideals.