Rabbinic Reflections: Faithcraft

Judaism is faith-based, but not based on faith. At least, it is not based solely on faith. We would not talk about the Jewish people, Jewishness, Jewish identity, or antisemitism if Judaism was only about beliefs or tenets and their consequent behaviors. Rather, Judaism is multifaceted and multilayered, especially given its survival over millennia.

As we approach the holiday of Shavuot this week, it matters what Judaism is and what it is about. The holiday itself is meant to be a call to enact the connection between God and the Jewish people. It contains within its traditions the ancient agricultural practices of bringing sheaves of barley as grain offerings to mark the early summer harvest. A more recent version of bringing our “first fruits” is the tradition of celebrating confirmation for Jewish teens concluding high school-level studies.

Shavuot also has mystical and mathematical meaning as we count forty-nine days in a sequence of seven weeks of seven days to connect with God’s Presence. Not surprisingly, another fixture of Shavuot tradition is to celebrate the anniversary – some would say the continuing moment – of the giving of Torah at Mount Sinai. Within these traditions are experiences of tangibility and of remoteness, of a search and of a communion.

Rabbanit Rivka Lubitch describes these experiences as those of generations, each with a different kind of faith (emunah). The first generation’s faith is truth, “they saw, they believed, they knew.” The middle generation’s faith is trust (eemun), “they gave trust in God in what God had done and in what God is to do in the future.” The last generation’s faith is fostering (omnut), “they foster God and God’s Torah, and raise them and rear them until the Lord is made God and God’s Torah is made Torah.”

In her exposition, early Jewish faith was one of immediacy, of direct connection to God; most of Jewish faith was one of hope that a distant God would manifest at some future point; and now, now we are demonstrating faith by nurturing God’s presence so that God might trust us and be loved.

It is worth noting that Lubitch thinks this last generation broods about the truth and trust of the prior generations, “they do not trust in anything.” Presuming that she sees herself in this last generation, as I do, her idea that the last generation is fostering God is less heretical than it is radically optimistic.

I want to take her wordplay a step further and suggest that the last generation not only fosters (omen) it also crafts (oman), just as Lubitch crafted the piece I quoted, “Faith.” There is something creative – generative or artistic – about making space for faith in Jewish life.

Judaism gets by on ritual; distinctive foods and cultural cliches; on fear of assimilation and/or annihilation; on learning and innovation. Shavuot reminds us that, in addition to cheesecake, we need to nurture faith. We need to grapple with our relationship to the moment we took on Torah as an ethical code based on a relationship to the Divine. We have to somehow make that real for ourselves and our community. We need to do faithcraft; it builds trust and brings us closer together.

About Rabbi Jeremy Winaker

Rabbi Jeremy Winaker is the executive director of the Greater Philadelphia Hillel Network, responsible for West Chester University, Haverford, Bryn Mawr, and other area colleges. He is the former head of school at the Albert Einstein Academy in Wilmington and was the senior Jewish educator at the Kristol Hillel Center at the University of Delaware for four years. Rabbi Winaker lives in Delaware with his wife and three children.

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