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What My Father Taught Me about Faith

What My Father Taught Me about Faith

Menahem Mendl of Kotsk, one of the outstanding leaders of early nineteenth-century Hasidism, was reared by a learned father who also was an outspoken opponent of Hasidism. When he realized that his young son was veering away from normative Judaism toward Hasidism, he rebuked him and attempted to bring him back to the fold.

Young Menahem Mendl responded to his father’s admonitions by quoting the following verse from Exodus 15, along with a novel commentary: 

This is my God, and I will glorify Him, the God of my father, and I will exalt him. 

“‘This is my God...,’” Menahem Mendel told his father, “means that I must search for God in ways that have meaning for me personally, so that I can glorify God with integrity. Then and only then can I truly exalt ‘the God of my father.’”

This exchange reminds me of the disappointment and disapproval my father, a learned Orthodox Jew, expressed when I decided to enter the Reform rabbinate. He never allowed his criticism to become hurtful to me personally, but he made it quite clear that Reform was, in his view, an illegitimate expression of Judaism. He never attended a service that I conducted or heard me deliver a sermon. 

My father retired to Jerusalem in 1970. Four years later, the Reform rabbinate scheduled its convention there. I looked forward to visiting with him, but I avoided telling him why I was there: to lecture on the extent to which the modern State of Israel was (or was not) living up to the prophetic ideals of social justice. In it, I could not avoid criticizing the way in which Orthodox political parties hobbled efforts by successive Israeli governments to address human rights issues for the benefit of all.

Somehow, my father learned of my lecture and informed me that, since he had never been able to hear me preach in synagogue, he was eagerly looking forward to hearing me lecture in a secular venue. I told him it might be better for him not to be present for that particular lecture, but he was insistent.

I briefly considered softening my critique of Orthodoxy so as not to offend my father, but I decided I could not do so in good conscience. And so, I delivered my planned lecture, occasionally looking over at him as he sat there, attentive but expressionless. When I finished, I saw him rise and head for the door (he had told me beforehand that he had a meeting to get to) – but just as he was about to leave, he turned to me, waved, and made a clear gesture of approval. I was baffled; I knew there was no way my father could have agreed with a good part much of my message. 

That evening, I asked my father what he’d meant by his gesture. Did he accept my critique of Israeli Orthodoxy? “No, no,” he answered, “I didn’t agree at all with what you said, but I loved the way that you said it!” Through this and other incidents, I knew that, while my father disapproved of decision to leave Orthodoxy for Reform, he approved of my search for God according to my own lights. 

The fathers against whom Menachem Mendl of Kotsk and I rebelled intellectually were our teachers. They taught us to love God and to observe the mitzvot (commandments), but neither of them demanded that we believe some dogmatic formulation of the nature of God. They taught us to be good Jews and good human beings, but they never taught us that rejecting any particular item of faith would condemn us to damnation. And so, we were able to construct for ourselves systems of Judaism which, though departures from their beliefs, retained the essence. 

I feel certain that as the Kotsker grew older, he, as I, realized how much he loved his father and how much he owed to him. In my case, that love and reverence grew stronger, paradoxically, the more I departed from the details of my father’s teachings. Why? Because it was my father who set me out on the path of inquiry. It was he who gave me the basic tools of discovery and who encouraged my curiosity. That my practices later differed so much from his saddened my father, but it did not cause a rift between us because he knew that I, too, loved God. (I can hear my father responding to this idea by saying: “Yes, zunele, you love God in your way, and I love God in God’s way!”)

Like generations before me, “God of my father” is where I began my studies and my struggle, with the God taught to me by my father. But that inherited faith, great as it was, was tainted with tribal particularism, with a reverence for ritual over social responsibility, and with an unwillingness to recognize the sacredness of so many human achievements in the centuries since antiquity. Still, the solid foundation of faith bequeathed to me by my father is an incomparable blessing. In gratitude for that blessing, it is my sacred responsibility to achieve what I believe is a deeper faith, a faith that may truly glorify God for the human family of my generation. 

Rabbi Simeon J. Maslin has served in major rabbinic pulpits for half a century and as president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis. He is the author of Gates of Mitzvah, …And Turn It Again, and the novel Uncle Sol’s Women. This article is adapted from his new book God for Grown-Ups: A Jewish Perspective.

Rabbi Simeon J. Maslin
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