The Nature of Human Faith
What a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how infinite in faculties, in form and moving how express and admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals—and yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust? — Prince Hamlet
The Two Pockets of Reb Simcha Bunum
The Chasidic master Rabbi Simcha Bunam Bonhart of Peshischa is reported to have said that each person must have two pockets, each one carrying a different note. The first note should say (m. Sanhedrin 4:5), “The world was created for me.” The second note should say (Gen. 18:27), “I am dust and ashes.”
Reb Simcha Bunam unlocks a deep religious truth in this claim. The latter verse captures the very sentiment one feels when confronted with modern science. We are quite literally, dust—the dust of stars, the dust of earth, the detritus of our ancestral DNA. Reality is humbling.
However, if we as humans were to take only this perspective, we would be lost and without bearings. Why struggle for success and purpose if life is totally meaningless? What is the basis for judging someone to be moral or immoral, virtuous or depraved, creative or destructive, if all happenings on our tiny speck of the universe are laughably negligible in the scheme of things? Not only would thinking this way destroy a person’s ability to function in this world, but there is a more profound problem with it as well: deep down none of us really believes this. It simply doesn’t ring true.
The Innate Qualities of Human Faith
Most of us have an innate sense of right and wrong, good and bad, positive and negative. We look at acts of cruelty and are disgusted; we speak of kindness and charity in glowing terms. We want our lives to have meaning; we want to contribute to our society and be remembered by others for our good qualities. We love our families and believe them to be important, and we feel the vital importance of their feeling the same way about us. Many of us experience the urgency to be part of something larger than ourselves—to be part of a people, a religion, to be a cog in the divine wheel.
Although it is true that this feeling can be explained by evolutionary biologists as an adaptive function, by neuroscientists as a consequence of neurochemicals shooting across the brain, or by sociologists as a consequence of cultural biases, this is all academic. A feeling is no less real because it can be explained, and an idea seems no less true just because I can explain why I have a need to believe it.
For example, most of us feel that those whom we love—our spouses, our children, our parents, our close friends—are special in some way. Are they special? Can any of us demonstrate this in an objective way? I assume not. Does realizing that our view of our loved ones is subjectively determined take away from the poignancy of the feeling? Not a bit. Most of us dedicate our lives to the happiness of our loved ones and feel that this is the right thing to do, irrespective of the fact that we cannot demonstrate in any objective way that the world, not to mention the universe, is bettered in some “real” way by the health and happiness of our family and friends.
Religious conviction works similarly. I view the world through Jewish lenses—I always have. I believe that living a Jewish life, studying and keeping Torah, and throwing my lot in with my Jewish brothers and sisters gives my life meaning. I believe that by doing this I am doing something good in a real way, fulfilling some sort of divine mission. I am well aware of the fact that I cannot demonstrate any of this in an objective way; I cannot prove that living a Jewish life bonds me to a divine mission or that it makes the world a better place. However, neither can I prove in any objective way that the world is better off with life on it than it would be as a barren wasteland like Mars. The Earth is a collection of star dust after all, and if atoms on this small planet form themselves into a tree, a person, or a rock, what possible difference could that make in a universe as vast as ours? And yet, somehow I do not live in daily existential angst about my existence, the significance of my life, or even the veracity of my religious beliefs and commitments.
The Tenacity of Faith: Defeating the Total Perspective Vortex
To return to Douglas Adams’ book—there was one man who survived the Total Perspective Vortex. After exiting the vortex alive, Zaphod Beeblebrox is questioned by the stunned administrator of the machine, Gargravarr. “You have been in the vortex?” he asks. “Yes,” responds Zaphod. “And it was working?” he asks, “Sure was,” Zaphod responds. “And you saw the whole infinity of creation?” Gargravarr stammers. Zaphod responds again in the affirmative. “And you saw yourself in relation to it all?” Gargravarr continues, reeling. “Oh, yeah,” answers Zaphod. “But…” Gargravarr finally asks, “What did you experience?” Shrugging his shoulders, Zaphod replies, “It just told me what I knew all the time. I’m a really terrific and great guy.” Zaphod is the extreme embodiment of the second pocket; he is a man who believes that the world was created for him.
Although Zaphod is a symbol for extreme smugness and self-assurance, his humorous reply masks a psychological truism. Humanity can only continue productively if we believe in the significance of our lives irrespective of the haunting vastness of the universe. Personally, I believe with all my heart that life is good, that behaving ethically improves the world in some cosmic way, and that evil destroys it. I believe my loved ones are special and that living a committed Jewish life makes the world a better place.
Now I have the other pocket as well. I understand the challenges to my beliefs and the humility one needs to have when making sweeping claims about our vast universe. Certainly we are merely dust and ashes, but we cannot live with that message alone. We must also live with the realization that humans have a place in this world, that what we do matters and that it is our duty as God’s representatives on the earth to live a life of goodness and holiness. This profound realization, I believe, is the core of the religious and moral human personality, always looking for meaning in the apparently meaningless. It is this tendency that has allowed religion and Torah observance to survive the many paradigm shifts it has encountered in the past, and it is this tendency that will allow it to survive the current one.
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March 27, 2013
September 26, 2019
Dr. Rabbi Zev Farber is a fellow at Project TABS and editor of TheTorah.com. He holds a Ph.D. from Emory University in Jewish Religious Cultures (Hebrew Bible focus) and an M.A. from Hebrew University in Jewish History (biblical period focus). In addition to academic training, Zev holds ordination (yoreh yoreh) and advanced ordination (yadin yadin) from Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (YCT) Rabbinical School. He is the author of Images of Joshua in the Bible and their Reception (De Gruyter, BZAW 457) and the editor of Halakhic Realities: Collected Essays on Brain Death (Maggid).
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