Practicing Faith, Part 1

The essential thing, however, is the training to habituate one’s mind and thought continuously, so that it always remain imprinted in his heart and mind, that everything one sees with his eyes — the heavens and earth and all they contain — constitutes the outer garments of the king, the Holy One, blessed be He.

In this way he will constantly remember their inwardness and vitality, which is G-dliness.

This is also implicit in the word emunah (“faith”), which is a term indicating “training” to which a person habituates himself, like a craftsman who trains his hands, and so forth.

Today’s Tanya Lesson (Listen online)
Likutei Amarim, end of Chapter 42
By Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi (1745-1812), founder of Chabad Chassidism
Elucidated by Rabbi Yosef Wineberg
Translated from Yiddish by Rabbi Levy Wineberg and Rabbi Sholom B. Wineberg
Edited by Uri Kaploun.

Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. For by it the people of old received their commendation. By faith we understand that the universe was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things that are visible.

Hebrews 11:1-3 (ESV)

Um, what is “faith” again?

We tend to think of faith as something we either have or don’t have, kind of like the color of your eyes. You either have brown eyes or not. It’s not something that comes and goes in stages, exactly. You either have faith or you don’t. You either believe in God or you don’t.

But wait a minute. Faith and belief aren’t the same things, are they? The writer of Hebrews seems to say that faith is the mechanism by which we understand that everything was created by the word of God, even though there isn’t any obvious physical evidence to support that this must be so.

But the lesson from the Tanya says that faith (emunah) is something we can be trained in and that we learn to habituate. Faith is learned? You can train in faith?

Kind of an interesting concept, and if you think about it a minute, it makes a lot of sense.

And he said to them, “Why are you afraid, O you of little faith?” –Matthew 8:26 (ESV)

But Jesus, aware of this, said, “O you of little faith, why are you discussing among yourselves the fact that you have no bread?” –Matthew 16:8 (ESV)

Then Jesus said to her, “O woman, your faith is great; it shall be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed at once. –Matthew 15:28 (ESV)

Here, we see that faith can be little or great. Presumably, faith can be anywhere between little and great, too. So there are degrees of faith. But where do these “degrees” come from? Is there anything we can do if we have little faith to make it great or at least bigger than it was before?

Jesus seemed to think so, otherwise he wouldn’t have criticized his disciples for having little faith. But how is this to be done? The commentary in the Tanya Lesson continues:

The Rebbe notes that “who trains his hands” means: “He is cognizant of the craft in his soul; he has a natural talent for it, but needs only to train his hands, so that it will find tangible expression in his actions (be it through art, or fashioning vessels, or the like).”

This is sort of like the old joke about a country fellow who decided to visit New York City. He went on a sightseeing tour of all the famous places in New York such as Times Square, Madison Square Garden, and the Empire State Building. He also bought a ticket to a Broadway play, but as the time of the performance was drawing near, he realized he didn’t know how to find the theatre.

The tourist stopped someone on the street who looked like a local and asked, “How do I get to Broadway?”

The New Yorker brusquely replied, “Practice.”

Can faith be practiced? Can we learn faith the same way we learn a skill, such as painting, molding clay, or replacing a light switch in the hallway of your home?

The Rebbe said something else though. He said that the soul “has a natural talent for it…” (faith) “…but needs only to train his hands, so that it will find tangible expression in his actions.”

So who has a natural talent in faith?

G-d speaks with us at every moment.
His words form the world we see about us.

A prophet is no more than one who catches those words before they congeal into space and time.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe
Rabbi M. M. Schneerson

While the Rabbi is talking about prophecy and not faith, I think we can apply his lesson to our “meditation.” God speaks to everyone, not only by virtue of the universe continuing to exist, but in many other ways. We were all created in His image. We are all His children, whether we even acknowledge Him or not. That means, we all have the ability, if we choose to use it, to connect to Him using faith as our bridge. True, some folks seem to have a greater talent for faith than others, as the Prophets had a greater “talent” for “hearing” God and passing on His Words, but even as we all can “hear” the voice of God, we all have a native talent to respond with faith…and to strengthen that faith by practicing it.

So how to you practice the “skill” of faith?

Part of the answer is in the source of the question. You study. You also pray, meditate, seek reliable teachers, spend time with other people who are also learning faith, and you let your general, day-to-day behaviors reflect your practice. This goes back to things I’ve said before about donating food to the hungry and visiting sick people in the hospital. If you want to be a person of faith, you have to act like a person of faith.

We learn by doing.

But I’ve heard some Gentile Christians say that if we are attracted to “practicing” the Bible and particularly practicing what we consider the Torah, we are really “practicing spiritual Judaism.” But is that true?

Who Is A Jew?

This apparent dichotomy in the nature of relations between Jew and Jew also appears in the words of our sages which describe the very definition of Jewishness and a Jew’s relationship with G-d.

The Talmud states: “A Jew, although he has transgressed, is a Jew.” He may violate, G-d forbid, the entire Torah, yet his intrinsic bond with the Almighty is not affected. In the words of the Midrash, “Torah preceded the creation of the world… but the thought of Israel preceded all in the mind of G-d.”

Commentary on Ethics of Our Fathers, Chapter 1
“Ulterior Motive”
Nissan 28, 5772 * April 20, 2012

Judaism, at least from the Chabad perspective, considers a Jew to be a Jew, even if he or she doesn’t “practice Judaism” at all. That can’t apply to we non-Jewish Christians if we must practice our faith to be disciples of the Master and are attached to the God of Israel by that practice. So it would seem that “spiritual Judaism” isn’t something that the goyim (non-Jews) can possess, even by diligent practice.

So what are we practicing when we who are not Jewish, practice faith? Christianity?

I’ll save the answer for Part 2.

2 thoughts on “Practicing Faith, Part 1”

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