By Cheryl Berman
It is difficult to describe a faith crisis to someone who has never experienced one. I was a philosophy major in college and certain questions started to gnaw at me. The questions became my shadow; they followed me everywhere. The only two things that kept my mind racing faster than the questions were the guilt and the fear. The guilt stemmed from entertaining thoughts that were once considered forbidden; the fear came from the notion of living in a Godless world. But in retrospect, I think the emotion that stood out the most during that time in my life was the deep existential loneliness. I felt utterly and completely alone in the universe. I was too embarrassed to discuss my doubts with my professors, and I didn’t feel that my friends would understand. Sometimes I found myself screaming out to the very God I doubted simply because there was nobody else to talk to. I inhabited this immense spiritual desert for almost one full year.
The triggers of my struggle were complex and varied. Our general notion of God is laced with contradictions—God is all good, yet He is the author of evil; God is One, yet His presence fills the universe; God controls everything, yet he gives man free will. My study of philosophy only deepened these paradoxes. My struggle to prove His existence intellectually was fruitless. It took a decisive event to show me that I was searching in the wrong place.
On April 23, 1993, I woke up in a hospital bed with no memory of the accident that put me there. It was the first day of my journey back. I had been hit by a taxicab while waiting to cross the street. The months and years following the accident would be spent in a struggle to comprehend the messages behind the accident, and the value behind the struggle. Ultimately, it was this search that would bring me to the answers I had been seeking prior to that fateful day.
I sustained quite a few injuries, many of them severe. But the most important one, perhaps, was the concussion that resulted in my inability to read or remember. I essentially lost my ability to think. The lessons contained within that concussion for a philosophy major who relied so heavily on her brain and her ability to analyze arguments were invaluable. For months all I could do was feel. And that is exactly what I needed to do. I needed to learn that the root of faith does not lie in one’s ability to think about God intellectually. It lies in one’s ability to experience God.
In an article entitled “The Source of Faith is Faith Itself,” which appeared in Jewish Action (fall 1992) and was subsequently reprinted in Leaves of Faith: The World of Jewish Living (New Jersey, 2004), Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein writes of his own faith experience: “The greatest source of faith . . . has been the Ribbono shel Olam Himself. . . Existentially, . . . nothing has been more authentic than the encounter with Avinu Malkeinu, the source and ground of all being. Nothing more sustaining, nothing more strengthening, nothing vivifying” (366).
Often a person requires a crisis of faith to come to certain realizations regarding faith.
When I write of experiencing God, I am not speaking on an esoteric level. I am referring to religious experiences that we have all had the benefit of experiencing. I am alluding to the haunting sense we feel in our bones on Kol Nidrei night, or the awareness that God is peeking over our shoulders as we recite Unesaneh Tokef on Rosh Hashanah. I am speaking about that perception of otherness that makes the Seder night so distinct from every other night of the year. I am referring to that sheltered feeling we have when we stand together with our families around the Chanukah candles and sing about the miraculous victories of the Jewish people. Those experiences of God are what lie at the root of faith.
Often a person requires a crisis of faith to come to certain realizations regarding faith. In a 1967 article entitled “Faith and Doubt” that appeared in Tradition, Rabbi Norman Lamm acknowledges the inevitability of religious doubt in a world in which halachic Judaism encounters modern thought. Rabbi Lamm explains that doubt (safek) is not denial. Kefirah is denial. Doubt is the “openness to the possibility of denial.” It is the “suspension between emunah [belief] and kefirah [denial].” He further notes that doubt actually plays a positive role in the process of faith.
Initially, this idea might be difficult to grasp, for how could questioning one’s faith ultimately strengthen it? But if we think back to the first example of man challenging God in the Torah, we might be able to shed light on Rabbi Lamm’s statement.
When God wanted to destroy Sodom, He decided that He would first notify Abraham. Abraham was horrified at the thought of righteous people being murdered with evil ones. “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do justly?” (Bereishit 19:25). Abraham was thus forced to struggle with his own moral inclinations and his understanding of the nature of God. God clearly knew that Abraham would experience this inner conflict, so why did He intentionally put him in this situation?
Perhaps God was teaching Abraham and future generations that there is a value to this struggle. Abraham needed to undergo this crisis of faith regarding God’s justice. There is a certain give and take between faith and doubt that allows a person to emerge stronger in his faith. Faith is not simply a given state; it is achieved through a process. As Rabbi Lamm writes,
Cognitive faith is not an abstract, static acknowledgment of truth; it is a violent struggle in the attainment of emet. I begin by believing despite doubt; I end by believing all the more firmly because of doubt. Emunah is thus a dialectical process, not an established fact; an inner encounter between “yes” and “maybe,” between the exclamation point and the question mark. Emunah and safek are not in essential contradiction to each other.
Developmental psychologist James Fowler explains that just as a person develops intellectually and morally throughout his life, he develops in his faith. Fowler describes the stages that a person goes through in his faith development. The faith of a five-year-old is very different from that of an eighteen-year-old and the faith of an eighteen-year-old is different from that of a thirty-year-old. A five-year-old envisions God with his imagination—as perhaps a very old man with a long white beard, or an angel with wings that extend over the entire universe. A teenager already begins to develop a notion of a personal God (stage three of Fowler’s stages).
Faith is not simply a given state; it is achieved through a process.
Interestingly enough, stage four of Fowler’s faith development is doubt, or the faith crisis. It often appears in young adulthood, but sometimes it doesn’t emerge until one’s thirties or forties. A faith crisis, according to Fowler, occurs when one begins asking questions about the beliefs he grew up with, when one challenges some of the ideals and notions he built his life upon. Doubt plays a very important role as one develops faith, according to Fowler. This stage enables one to understand things about himself that will ultimately bring him closer to God. It allows one to understand the complexities and vastness of Truth and the limits of the human mind (Stages of Faith [New York, 1995] 174-198).
It is crucial to understand that human beings are by definition limited in their ability to find answers. In his poignant essay quoted earlier, Rabbi Lichtenstein writes,
What I received from all my mentors . . . was the key to confronting life, particularly modern life, in all its complexity: the recognition that it is not so necessary to have all the answers as to learn to live with the questions (364).
This was one of the most poignant lessons I learned from my car accident.
I’ll never forget the day I found out how severely my brain had been affected by the concussion I suffered. A distinguished rabbi from Stern College, which I had attended prior to the accident, came to visit me in the hospital. I had been told that he had sat with my parents for hours in the waiting room when I was first brought to the hospital. I was determined to make a good impression. He came into the room and sat down on the gray chair next to my bed. The conversation began with simple questions: “How do you feel?” “How is the hospital staff treating you?” I handled the questions adequately. “I could do this,” I thought to myself.
“What classes are you taking?” he continued.
“Let’s see . . . ,” I began.
And then I stopped. I couldn’t finish my sentence. I had no idea which classes I was taking that semester. I repeated the question to myself. This was an easy question. I wasn’t being asked to solve Zeno’s paradox. I should be able to handle this one. What classes am I taking? But no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t remember. I started to grow frantic. He tried to calm me down. My parents summoned a doctor. Apparently the medical staff had been so focused on my leg injury, they had neglected to focus on my head injury. Somebody brought me a book to read. I looked at the letters. I recognized them, but I couldn’t name any of them. It was like seeing someone you know on the street but not being able to place him. I knew I had seen those letters before, but where? And what were they called?
The doctors assured me that I would regain my ability to read. But I was devastated. A philosophy major with a brain injury is like a carpenter without his tools. I felt useless and utterly lost.
I learned two very important lessons from that experience. Firstly, I learned that my ability to think, analyze, and argue my way through philosophical theories that I had once taken such pride in had nothing to do with me. It was all a gift from God—and it was a gift that could be taken away in an instant by a bullet, a disease, or a taxicab while standing on a street corner. Secondly, I learned to accept my intellectual limitations. It is a critical lesson for someone who is suffering from a faith crisis. Often our quandaries don’t have answers that we are capable of understanding.
In Kol Dodi Dofek (published in BeSod HaYachid V’Hayachad [Jerusalem, 1976]), Rabbi Joseph Ber Soloveitchik writes that the universe resembles a woven rug, and we view only the back of the rug with all the snags and imperfections. Only God has the perspective of the perfectly blended side of the rug. Questions such as why good people suffer are unanswerable because our perspective is so limited. But we are simply incapable of seeing things from God’s perspective. My car accident put me in a position where I was forced to face myself with very noticeable intellectual limitations. It was extremely difficult, but it was a very powerful lesson for me.
There are a few points that I hope readers will take away from this article. Those undergoing a faith crisis should understand that what they are going through is a natural part of faith development. One must realize that faith is not a static thing; it develops over a person’s life, and questions are the method through which faith develops. One should not feel embarrassed to seek help or ask questions. Suffering in solitude is never the answer. For educators or parents, it is important to comprehend that every individual has a story, a personality, a unique spiritual core that has to be addressed when dealing with an individual’s faith crisis. At times, a faith crisis has emotional triggers that need to be dealt with by therapists. Other times, it may have intellectual roots and the individual is seeking answers. Nobody should ever be made to feel guilty about questioning God. Some questions have answers, and those answers should be examined. Other questions, however, are unanswerable.
For many, the true basis of faith is our experiences with Hashem. Such experiences should be sought and explored. Above all, it is important to remember that it is precisely the questioning process that can bring one to have a closer, deeper and more meaningful relationship with his Creator.
Cheryl Berman is the author of Reasonable Doubts: A Religious Skeptic Learns a Thing or Two About God (Jerusalem, 2010), a book about faith crisis in Judaism. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.