An Alternative Presented in Humility
For Poets, Musicians, Artists and Deep Souls
Do I contradict myself?
Very well, then, I contradict myself,
I am large, I contain multitudes.
[Walt Whitman] (1)
Nathan Lopes Cardozo
Principle One (2)
The Hopelessness of Dogma and the Beauty of Faith
Faith can only be found in the light of one’s soul, never in dogma. Dogmas reach only the mind but not the human heart. Trying to translate faith into dogma is a misguided technical skill that leaves the human heart empty of that which is crucial to a religious experience. Faith is the art of living with a question and recognizing the spiritual power of the query, which only dies when it is answered. Faith is the refutation of an attempt to reconcile theological declarations; instead, it holds them, suspended, and through the tension between them it creates vitality. Dogmas are essentially descriptive and normative. They can’t penetrate the mystery that hovers over all questions and answers. They are unable to formulate the relevance of that which surpasses final beliefs. Faith thrusts the religious man into a place of reality that the mind cannot grasp and words do not reach. It is a moment when all definitions come to an end and any attempt to come to conclusive principles can only yield trivialities that become suspended in the heart of the man of real faith. Genuine Judaism can only be understood in its natural habitat of deep faith and piety in which the divine reaches all thoughts. In faith, a man must enter the world with all that he is and has. One does not sacrifice one’s life for dogma, only for deep religious faith.
The difference between dogma and faith is like the difference between a word spoken and a word set to music. Faith is the refutation of human finality. It transforms dogma into something untouchable and gives man entry into the imponderable. It is resurrecting old words and infusing them with eternity.
Since the secular world is often unable to experience inner silence and space, religious philosophers, out of mere spiritual poverty, invented dogma so as to respond to this emptiness by imitating the language of the peripheral to describe the ineffable. Dogma transforms religiosity into a showcase, and the result is indifference to the sacred. Dogma is a dead thought, while faith is a living experience. Dogma is an attempt to believe; faith is the will to wonder. Dogma is built from conventional notions and mental clichés. Faith is marveling at the incomprehensible and experiencing the world more as a question than an answer. Living by dogma is like demonstrating the beauty of classical music by showing somebody Mozart’s musical score and informing him that he no longer needs to hear the music.
In one of Plato’s earliest dialogues, Charmides, the philosopher discusses the question: What is temperance? After offering several definitions, all of which prove inadequate, he has Socrates exclaim: “I have been utterly defeated, and have failed to discover what that is to which the imposer of names gave this name of temperance…. the impossibility of a man knowing in a sort of way that which he does not know at all” (3). Plato’s own words are: “It [philosophy] does not at all admit of verbal expression like other studies, but, as a result of continued application to the subject itself and communion therewith, it is brought to birth in the soul on a sudden, as light that is kindled by a leaping spark, and thereafter it nourishes itself” (4). Indeed, to define words such as “good,” “love” and “holy” is impossible. And so it is with religious beliefs. Any attempt to do so not only limits them but actually renders them meaningless, since their most essential component is removed. The best part of beauty is that which a picture cannot express.
As in other religions, teachers of Judaism have often attempted to raise its foundations to the level of clear utterances, dogmas and creeds. Yet, such endeavors cannot be more than indications, an attempt to convey what cannot be adequately expressed.
Judaism is in perpetual danger of prioritizing concepts and dogmas while forfeiting the primacy of the inexpressible dimensions of religious insights. Doctrines and creeds should never become screens; they can only function as windows into a world that is beyond definition. Dogma in the hands of man often turns into expressions of clerical authority, laying down a fixed set of principles without allowing an existential search for genuine faith.
Despite the fact that such an approach has been tried by some of the greatest Jewish thinkers, it has never succeeded, because Judaism is not the outcome of a doctrine but rather of concrete events, actions and insights of a people who experienced an encounter with God, which cannot be transmitted by absolute verbal expression. Judaism refused to accept dogma as sacrosanct and did not allow such attempts to come between itself and the inexhaustibility of its teachings. One cursory glance into the Talmud proves this point beyond doubt. The flow of thoughts and opposing ideas, as well as the suggestion and rejection of opinions and insights are abundant. The interaction between legality, prose, narrative, illusion and stark reality is astonishing. It is what distinguishes Judaism as the richest of all teachings. Not even Greek philosophy was able to produce such a symphony of ideas in which the waves of human intellect and divinity roll forward and backward. There is an absolute lack of systematization, and it is clear that any such attempt was nipped in the bud. The most persistent intellectual energy and analytic efforts were devoted to the continual contrivance of beautiful and profound interpretation in order to discover and reveal the totality of life.
It is detrimental to Jewish tradition to transform words into fixed clusters of thought and to store up entire consistent theories. The idea is not to hoard masses of information, secure them in one’s memory and then carefully convert them into notes. Once that happens, one becomes scared and disturbed by new ideas, since the new puts into question the fixed sum of information that has been stored in one’s mind. Ideas that cannot easily be pinned down are frightening.
Instead of being passive receptacles of words and ideas, the ideal is to hear and, most important, to receive and respond in an active and productive way. Judaism needs to stimulate a thinking process, which ultimately leads to transformation. Not only should uniformity of opinion not be sought, but it is to be avoided. Diversity of opinion is essential to discovering truth, which is presented to us in many contrasting colors, and no force in the world can put a great thought to death.
Even if dogma has a purpose, it can never function as a substitute for faith, but only as a minor aspect of it, just as music is much more than what a musical note can ever convey.
Judaism offers something that Christianity does not: a religion without a theology (5).
1. “Song of Myself,” Part 51, in Leaves of Grass (Oxford University Press, USA, 2005).
2. In the coming year I will, sporadically and as time permits, make a first attempt to suggest new principles of faith, which I believe are more true to Judaism for today’s spiritual climate. My main suggestion, stated by others as well, is that it is impossible to break Judaism down into absolute, well-worked-out theological principles. As such, the title of these essays is a contradiction in terms. I am fully aware that I step on holy and dangerous ground, and only men much greater than I have dared to enter this arena. Still, no theory is good unless one can use it to move beyond. The great Maimonides made a major attempt to give Judaism a solid theology. However, it backfired and was fought by many rabbinical authorities and thinkers. It is very telling that when Maimonides’ opponents gained ground, they effaced his honorific appellations from his tombstone, substituting them with the rude inscription: Here lies Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, banned and a heretic. Later, these words were removed, because opponents recanted their opposition. Today’s inscription reads: From Moshe to Moshe there was none like Moshe. We must remember, however that it is unclear why Maimonides insisted that there are conventional dogmas on which Judaism is founded. It may be that he wanted to offer the Jews of his day a Jewish theology as an anchor to hold them steady when confronting Christian and Islamic attacks on Judaism. “He postulated the principles for the masses … but not for those individuals who plumbed the knowledge of truth, for whom he wrote the Guide” (Rabbi Yitzchak Abarbanel (1437-1508), Rosh Amanah [Principles of Faith] Ch. 23). Still, as Professor Leon Roth stated, “This Hebrew of Hebrews had in many respects a Greek mind, and through his sense of logic and his passion for precision he brought Judaism into a doctrinal crisis the echoes of which are with us yet” (Judaism: A Portrait, 1960, p. 122). I know that professional philosophers will strongly object to my attempt at deconstructing the principles of faith and replacing them with a different approach. They will show inconsistencies and paradoxes. Yet, I believe that philosophy is more about the formulation of problems than about their solution. Paradoxes expose reality. “Ultimately, philosophy begins in wonder. And, at the end, when philosophic thought has done its best, the wonder remains” (Alfred North Whitehead, Modes of Thought, 1938). In elucidating my thoughts on these principles of faith, I was guided by the fact that it is the often ineffable relationship between ideas that gives them meaning. A collaboration of thoughts produces new insights. An idea functions only as a fragment in the formulation of a vision. The best part remains unspoken.
For outstanding studies on the Thirteen Principles of Maimonides, see: Louis Jacobs, Principles of the Jewish Faith: An Analytical Study (London: Vallentine-Mitchell, 1964); Marc B. Shapiro, The Limits of Orthodox Theology: Maimonides’ Thirteen Principles Reappraised (Oxford and Portland, Oregon: The Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 2004); Menachem Kellner: Must a Jew Believe Anything? Second edition (Oxford and Portland, Oregon: The Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 2006). See also: Michael Wyschogrod, The Body of Faith: God in the People Israel (Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson, Inc., 1996).
3. Plato, Charmides, or Temperance, tr. by Benjamin Jowett (Forgotten Books, 2008) p. 41.
4. Plato, Letters, Letter 7, Section 341C.
5. Walter A. Kaufmann, Critique of Religion and Philosophy (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1958) p. 276.
The Second Principle will be sent in several weeks.
pesach aceman says
excellent and very very relevant to today’s youth who need a spiritual and a dogmatic education to guide them through their ives. Yes there needs to be rules but the source must be a deep faith that expounds the rules and not rules that are faithless.
Malka Lasarow says
תורה חדשה מאתי תצא…. my deepest respect, Rabbi Cardozo, for being one of those daring to open up this new, so much longed for dimension. May we all be able to hold this new light, and receive the Torah, each one of us, without fear, from his and her unique place within the great organism. As Moshe Chaim Luzzatto tried to prepare us for this in his Tikkunim Chadashim (and all his other writings), as I believe, for our days…
Rabbi Harry Zeitlin says
All vital and important points and an article that needed to be written. Kol HaKavod!
As you know, I’m often trying to “defend” the Rambam and his “Ani Ma’amin”. My current thinking is that these concepts that he mentions there are ideas that he cannot reconcile to an empirical logic, but that are unavoidably true nonetheless. Thus, he’s not trying to tell us what we should believe, but what he can accept only on faith/belief. In other words, while it can easily look to us as if he’s presenting an inflexible dogma, what he’s really doing is showing us how Infinite Reality bursts any artificial limit or construct.