Religion, we imagine, is all about faith: we even call religions “faiths,” and have “interfaith dialogues.” But Judaism has no commandment “to have faith.” In Judaism, we are saved not by what we believe but by what we do: ma’asim tovim (“good deeds”).
Yet faith does matter, as we see this week. When Abraham is promised progeny as countless as the stars in the sky, “He believed in God.” The word “believed” is he’emin, a variant of emunah, “faith.” The rabbis, ever after, called Abraham the quintessential “man of faith,” a reminder that good deeds without faith are wanting.
What then is faith?
Most people associate it with faith in the existence of God, what the polls regularly measure when they ask if we believe in God. Most of us do, in fact. But many of us have doubts; if not atheists, we are at least agnostics. And even if we do believe, it is not always clear just what it is that we believe in. Does that make us faithless? Or is faith a bit more complex than a referendum on the reality of the divine?
The Torah account complicates the issue. Yes, “Abraham believed” but “God accounted it to him as tzedaka.” If we know what tzedaka is, we might understand faith as well.
Tzedaka usually denotes the Jewish equivalent of charity: feeding the hungry, supporting the poor, and so forth. But why would God count Abraham’s “faith” as “charity”? Most interpreters fall back on the idea that tzedaka more properly means doing what is right and proper. From the venerable King James Bible of 1611 to the 1913 Jewish Publication Society edition, therefore, translations usually say, “God accounted it to him for righteousness.”
That doesn’t help very much, however, since all that tells us is that Abraham acted “rightly.” The newer JPS translation of 1962, therefore, tries, “God considered it meritorious.” But what exactly was it about Abraham’s “faith” that made it meritorious? We are back where we started. What, again, is faith?
Suppose we take the association of “faith” with tzedaka more seriously. Not that faith exactly is tzedaka; faith is just like tzedaka. God considered Abraham’s faith meritorious because it exhibited a quality that characterizes tzedaka as well. What quality?
The thing about tzedaka is that one never finishes it. One starts small — it is hard for children to part with that first tiny gift from their allowance — but one keeps on giving until, over the years, it becomes second nature to share our bounty with others. Of tzedek (the parallel form for tzedaka) Torah says (Deuteronomy 16:20), “Tzedek tzedek tirdof,” “Righteousness! Righteousness is what you must pursue!” Pursue — not fully attain. Proverbs too maintains (21:21), “One who strives after righteousness attains life, success, and honor.” With tzedek (or tzedaka), striving is everything.
So too with faith. Faith is not an all-or-nothing thing. It is a lifelong habit that we strive to develop.
All of this runs contrary to the popular notion of Abraham’s faith being a daring leap from something to nothing — a concept derived from Protestant theologian Soren Kierkegaard, who imagined that in order to obey God’s call to sacrifice Isaac, Abraham must have overcome rationality and leaped to a different perspective from which to view the world.
Nothing could be farther from the Jewish point of view, which sees faith (like tzedaka) as a quality into which we grow by practice. Abraham sometimes has it, sometimes not. Faith is an attitude of trust into which we train ourselves.
“The righteous live by their faith” (Habakkuk 2:4), we are assured, but how so? Not through a daring leap beyond reason, but by a steady path to ever more trust that, as the parsha says, this journey we call life has purpose, pattern, and hope, that in our own way, we are called, as Abraham and Sarah were, to take up residence in a world of wonder and of woe, but overall of mystery and of majesty. Faith is the habit of seeing purpose and meaning where others see emptiness and chaos.
“People who live without faith,” says Itturei Torah, “lack values and purpose. When crises arrive, they ask, ‘What’s the use of living?’” Faith is the conviction that “there is a point to life, that life is valuable.” What Abraham’s faith provided is the quintessential Jewish attitude toward existence. Life is good; life has promise; we persevere through the bad believing that eventually, good will follow. To life! L’chaim!