Tag Archives: practicing faith

Practicing Faith, Part 3

What has to be healed in us is our true nature, made in the likeness of God. What we have to learn is love. The healing and the learning are the same thing, for at the very core of our essence we are constituted in God’s likeness by our freedom, and the exercise of that freedom is nothing else but the exercise of disinterested love – the love of God for His own sake, because He is God.

The beginning of love is truth, and before He will give us His love, God must cleanse our souls of the lies that are in them. And the most effective way of detaching us from ourselves is to make us detest ourselves as we have made ourselves by sin, in order that we may love Him reflected in our souls as He has re-made them by His love.

This is the meaning of the contemplative life, and the sense of all the apparently meaningless little rules and observances and fasts and obediences and penances and humiliations and labors that go to make up the routine of existence in a contemplative monastery: they all serve to remind us of what we are and Who God is – that we may get sick of the sight of ourselves and turn to Him: and in the end, we will find Him in ourselves, in our own purified natures which have become the mirror of His tremendous Goodness and of His endless love…

-Thomas Merton upon entering a Trappist monastery as a novice
Part Three, Chapter Four: “The Sweet Savor of Liberty” (pp 409-10)
The Seven Storey Mountain: An Autobiography of Faith

I hadn’t planned on writing a “part 3” to the part 1 and part 2 of “Practicing Faith,” but this quote form Merton’s book, which I did want to write about, sort of demanded it. I’ve been trying to define what “practicing faith” means which, for me, isn’t always the same as “practicing religion.”

Religion is the mechanism or the interface by which we practice our faith. For Thomas Merton, that interface was the Catholic church and eventually, a Trappist monastery. That’s not exactly my cup of tea and it may not be yours either, but it certainly was his and in the above quote, he has a point to make that I rather like.

But it’s not perfect.

On the one hand, Merton draws a sharp dichotomy between our human self and our selfless love of God. On the other hand, he reunites these two halves when he says our “purified natures which have become the mirror of His tremendous Goodness and of His endless love…” Christianity tends to split the world into the secular and the Divine, devaluing the former and elevating the latter to the highest degree. This explains the rationale for Merton’s joining a “contemplative monastery” in which he could engage in the “little rules and observances and fasts and obediences and penances and humiliations and labors” that comprise monastery life as a life dedicated to our holiness while minimizing our human nature.

Judaism doesn’t support a monastic lifestyle and generally believes that everything we do in the secular has meaning and substance in the Divine realm without really being separated from it. Life is life and faith is faith; a unified whole, much as God is, not divided or relegated into different categories, meanings, or realms. If God created you to be here in the world, then He meant for you to live out your holy life in a concrete universe, not pining away for the ephemeral, spiritual heavens.

When we are confronted to lead a life of faith, we have to ask ourselves (and God) how we’re supposed to do it. For Merton, the answer was to convert to Catholicism and later, to join a Trappist monastery in Kentucky. That isn’t the answer for all of us.

But wait!

If God is One and His Name is One, isn’t there just One religion or One religious sect…one and only one way to worship Him?

You’d think so, which is what allows many people in many different religions to say, “we are the one and you are not.” But I recently compared Thomas Merton and some of the things he teaches to Rabbi M. M. Schneerson and his teachings, and I think we can agree that these two men had radically different ways of practicing faith and certainly of practicing religion.

But the vision or essence behind the mechanics of their practice may have been more closely aligned than we can see on the surface. True, they would have disagreed on a good many things, but they also seemed to see and talk to the same God and I am convinced that God talked to both of them.

I don’t know how they would have tolerated each other if they had actually ever met (both the Rebbe and Merton have since passed away some time ago, so only God knows what a conversation between these two would be like), but in stripping away the “little rules and observances and fasts and obediences” involved in each of their daily lives, maybe we can get a glimpse of the bigger picture.

He has an opinion of how each person should be, how each thing should be done. Those who follow his choreography are his friends, those who dare dance their own dance are his enemies; and few, if any, are left without a label.

In truth, he has neither enemies nor friends. He has only himself, for that is all that exists in his world.

“If you don’t want to be so lonely,” we tell him, “make some room for the rest of us.”

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“The Thick Lagoon of Ego”
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe
Rabbi M. M. Schneerson

I suppose I’m coming dangerously close to saying that what religion you practice doesn’t matter and that there are many roads that lead to God. That statement is bound to offend just about everyone, since we are all deeply invested (me too) in our various religions and how our particular religion is a wonderful way (or the wonderful way) to encounter God and find the meaning of our life in Him. In fact, as proof there is one and only one way, Christians will undoubtedly quote:

Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. –John 14:6 (ESV)

This, for the Christian, would automatically rule out the Rebbe as having the ability to come to God and for many Protestants, it would rule out Merton’s having a life of holiness as well. And yet, how can we be so sure of just who God accepts and who God rejects, based on their life and how they understand practicing faith?

Human beings can be terribly arrogant and self-absorbed. In order to feel as if we matter to God, we sometimes make the mistake of believing that God cares less for people who are not like us than for people who are like us. For God to love us more, He must love someone else less. We have to be the favorite child to feel secure, so God’s other children can’t also be “favorite.”

Blowing out someone else’s candle doesn’t make yours burn any brighter. -Anonymous

If you want to get better at your faith, by all means, please practice it. But this isn’t a competition. You don’t have to worry that God has only one “gold medal” in the “holiness Olympics.” If we’re competing against anyone, it is ourselves. The only challenge is to be a better person of faith today than we were yesterday. What someone else does or doesn’t do in practicing their faith cannot and does not affect who we are and what we are doing as people who are faithful to God.

We spend all of our lives trying to understand God and understand who we are in Him. That’s a full time job. Do we really need to waste that time worrying about the other person and how he or she chooses to practice faith?

There are no things. There are only words. The Divine Words of Creation.

The words become scattered and we no longer understand their meaning. Only then are they things. Words in exile.

If so, their redemption lies in the story we tell with them. Reorganizing noise into meaning, redefining what is real, and living a life accordingly.

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

We are all journeying on our own path. We are all using our own words to tell our story about God. We each live our life according to that story. The story is our tale about how we practice our faith, and it is always different for each person…but God is the same.

Practicing Faith, Part 2

RebbeSurprisingly, when this question reached Rav Yosef Shalom Eliyashiv, shlit”a, he ruled leniently. “Although the Mishnah Berurah rules that one may not eat food which was in one of the seven liquids without washing, I am lenient in this matter. Although it is certainly a good custom to follow the Magen Avraham in this regard, it is not an obligation. ‬But one who wishes to wash should not interrupt between washing and eating.

Mishna Berura Yomi Digest
Stories to Share
“The Morning Snack”
Shulchan Aruch Siman 158 Seif 4

On today’s amud we find that sometimes being unnecessarily strict
stems from pride.

Rav Meir Chadash brought a story to illustrate how bad middos can cause an otherwise wonderful person to act inappropriately. “A certain woman was very careful to give generously to tzedakah, even going to much trouble so that yeshiva students should eat at her house at no charge. One time a certain student used a bit more water than necessary to wash his hands. The woman began to scream, ‘Kloiznikim! Good-for-nothings! These people are not careful to save water!’

He concluded, “This is a classic case of petty miserliness. The underlying attitude is, ‘If I give, that is fine. But if someone takes even a little without my say-so, I am willing to heap insult and shame on his head!’”

Mishna Berura Yomi Digest
Stories to Share
“The Root of Sin”
Shulchan Aruch Siman 158 Seif 9

But when this question reached Rav Nissim Karelitz, shlit”a, he ruled that no correction was necessary. “Although it is true that some sources hold this chumrah—the Yafe L’Lev is another achron who is stringent—the Chazon Ish clearly disagrees. He writes that one can certainly wait for his hands to dry since the main reasons we must dry our hands before eating is either because of the defiled water which is still on one’s hands or because it is disgusting to eat with wet hands…”

Mishna Berura Yomi Digest
Stories to Share
“A Little Knowledge”
Shulchan Aruch Siman 158 Seif 11

These Rabbinic rulings may seem strange, arcane, and even bizarre to most Christians. We aren’t often taught to be particularly concerned by whether or not we should wash our hands as a condition of dunking a donut in a cup of coffee, if we should use only a certain amount of water in hand washing, and whether to use a towel or forced air to dry our hands after washing as religious obligations, but they can be serious concerns for the observant Jew.

Remember in Part 1 of this “mediation,” I was talking about “practicing faith.” I said that we practice faith by doing and certainly in the examples I’ve just presented, we see Jewish people who are greatly concerned with exactly how they practice, even the smallest details of their faith in daily living.

I’m not suggesting that we Christians go down that particular path. Remember, in Part 1, I quoted from a commentary on the Ethics of Our Fathers that defined a Jew as someone who was more than the sum of his practices and stated that even if a Jew were to completely ignore all of the Torah, they would always be a Jew before man and God.

That doesn’t seem to describe the Christian, since it’s our faith and how we live it out that defines us.

However, I offer these quotes for another reason besides just as examples of “practicing Judaism.” There’s a sort of fallacy in Christian thinking that says Jewish religious practice is inflexible and practically dictatorial. The concept of “being under the Law” is a statement uttered by Christians almost always in a tone of horror. Even those Christians (and some “Jewish Christians”) who say they love Israel and feel called to the Torah, have significant problems with what is referred to as “Rabbinic Judaism.”

And yet we see that there is a great deal of flexibility in how Rabbinic rulings are issued and in how Judaism is practiced. We even see that excessive rigidity is considered sinful rather than pious, and an indication of an individual’s personal pride rather than a sincere desire to serve God.

Ironically, the sort of rigidity and judgmentalism that has been attributeed to Rabbinic Judaism actually describes some non-Jews in certain corners of the Hebrew Roots/Messianic Jewish movement (I use those terms somewhat loosely, since under that umbrella is contained a broad spectrum of beliefs and practices, and not all of them healthy). I’ve personally heard non-Jews in particular areas of this movement (not those with whom I was closely associated) argue almost violently about the proper method of tying tzitzit or what level of kashrut is considered correct. These same folks also dismissed “Rabbinic Judaism” out of hand and proceeded to “possess” the “practice” their own brand of “being Jewish” based on their personal interpretation of scripture or worse, based on some self-declared Gentile “Rabbi’s” revelations from (supposedly) on high.

Practicing righteousness and faith isn’t the same as practicing self-righteousness and faith in a cult leader. It’s also not the same as making concrete judgments on religious and practical behaviors not only for your own group, but for everyone around you and for the world in general.

It also isn’t exercising the supreme irony of Gentiles “practicing Judaism” by removing everything Jewish from the practice except some superficial “Jewish-like” activities. You don’t love Jews by hating Judaism.

Case in point.

Rav Aharon Leib Steinman, shlit”a, once discussed the terrible scourge of sin’as chinam in a moving manner. Speaking in a pained tone of voice, he said, “It is sad that when a Jew wants to expand his apartment, his neighbor—even if the construction doesn’t affect his apartment in the slightest—will often find an ‘underground’ way to stop construction. Such a person often won’t even allow his neighbor to put up a sukkah for seven days a year. But why should he care? In many situations the protestors’ apartment is in the north and the construction is in the south. Although there is no earthly reason why such construction should annoy them, they still protest.

Daf Yomi Digest
Stories Off the Daf
“Human Nature”
Me’ila 4

Here, we see human nature getting in the way of practicing even general human compassion. When a Jew wants to put up a sukkah, for example, in obedience to the commandments, why should his non-Jewish neighbors care? It doesn’t affect them and they aren’t being made to obey the commandment themselves.

The same goes for those non-Jews who are attracted to certain aspects of Judaism but who do not accept the authority of the Rabbis to be able to define what is Jewish religious practice and lifestyle. If there are observant Jews who do choose to keep Glatt Kosher, for example, or who do wash their hands in the morning, or who say the Shema twice daily…even if you disagree with how those Jews practice their faith, why do you, a non-Jew, care enough to say they are wrong and to devalue who they are? What harm does it do to you? Aren’t you free to practice your faith as you see fit?

But this is exactly the point. If you are too rigid in how you judge the religious practice of others or object to what another person does or doesn’t do in the course of their relationship with God, are you practicing faith or practicing being a prideful human being?

To take it a step further, if a Muslim man kneeling on his prayer rug cries out to God with all his soul for a greater understanding of Allah and the desire to serve and be holy, why do you, even if you have “issues” with Islam, care if or how that Muslim prays? Why do you care if or how a Jew prays? If you have issues with the Christian church and believe bad things about the religion where you were raised, why do you care if or how some Christians pray to God?

If you really want to practice faith and get better at it; if you really want to make a small faith bigger, what must you do?

He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? –Micah 6:8 (ESV)

God, through the prophet Micah, didn’t say to judge others, force your religious convictions on everyone you disagree with, and demand that you take over another group’s faith practices because you “know better.”

Do justice.

Love kindness.

Walk humbly with your God.

So is this practicing Christianity? It is if you’re a Christian. It’s practicing Judaism if you’re a Jew, and practicing Islam if you’re a Muslim. For all I know, it’s practicing Buddhism is you’re a Buddhist. Most of all though, it’s practicing getting closer to God.

So practice justice, kindness, and humility every day and perhaps then, your small faith will begin to grow.

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.