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"Faith of Our Fathers" is a rousing hymn that never fails to inspire even the weakest of voices to roar.  I well remember singing it in church with my family, the words and the swelling music eliciting from deep in … Read More

By / June 17, 2009

"Faith of Our Fathers" is a rousing hymn that never fails to inspire even the weakest of voices to roar.  I well remember singing it in church with my family, the words and the swelling music eliciting from deep in my soul a feeling of passionate faith: 

Faith of our fathers, living still, in spite of dungeon, fire, and sword; O how our hearts beat high with joy whene’er we hear that glorious word! Faith of our fathers, holy faith! We will be true to thee till death.

The fathers that it referred to were, I assumed, my own Christian ancestors as well as the larger Christian world, for we, and only we, were people of faith.  By definition, if you didn’t believe in Jesus, you weren’t Christian.  Therefore, you didn’t have faith.  As I got older, I reluctantly would agree that there were non-Christians who had faith –  but not the right kind of faith, not the kind that I had, not faith in Jesus. 

But then, for various reasons, I lost that faith.  And if I no longer believed in Jesus, was it possible to have any kind of faith? 

It was then that I became more interested in "our fathers", the Biblical patriarchs and the original "fathers" of monotheism who pre-dated Jesus, and who obviously had faith in God.  They also pre-dated the events at Mt. Sinai and therefore there was no temple, no holy days, no required sacrifices, no laws on purity and impurity with respect to everything from food to sex to clothing, none of the rules and regulations that the three monotheistic faiths all now require.   These guys didn’t really pray, they just sort of talked to God when God came around or when they wanted something.  Nor was the afterlife or being saved a part of this early theology.  It would be difficult to say exactly what these fathers had "faith" in, aside from this one God who was interested in their lives and Who’d created the universe.  Abraham’s was a nascent faith, and seemed to simply assert that faithfulness will be rewarded with land and progeny. 

"Faith of our Fathers," written by Frederic William Faber, an Anglican priest who converted to Catholicism, was composed against the backdrop of the Anglican Church’s persecution of Catholics in the time of Henry VIII and Queen Elizabeth I.   Many of my Jewish friends remain puzzled by this propensity Christians have had to kill fellow Christians, simply for being a different type of Christian.  No matter how much you may disagree with another Jew, you will ignore your temptation to annihilate him, and content yourself with calling him a shmo.  We don’t have any extra Jews to spare, first of all, and second, there’s no central authority in Judaism that monolithically dictates how each person should practice his faith and so, though we might not like the other’s stance or agree with it, but we don’t take it personally and wouldn’t kill you just because you eat bacon sandwiches – on white bread. 

It’s not that there aren’t Jews who are passionate about their faith.   But Christianity is literally based on "The Passion" – Jesus’ crucifixion.  As a result, getting people to believe in Jesus’ deity and thereby be saved is quite important.   In Judaism, when religious arguments do break out, it’s more of an intellectual exercise – fencing for the soul – in which you try to poke a hole in the other person’s logic, not in order to be right, but just for the mental stimulation of it. 

At a bar mitzvah not long ago, the bar mitzvah boy went into a very long, complicated and scholarly explanation of the Biblical text he’d studied.  It was like hearing a legal brief – there was one rabbinic citation after another.  Not only was it painfully boring, but I didn’t spy God anywhere in any of the gobbledygook he’d said.  It had clearly been more about displaying his mental acuity than it was about discussing where God was in his life.  For me, I couldn’t help wondering: What’s the point?  Seriously.  Sure, you can be a Jew culturally and historically, but when you leave religion or faith out of it, Jews are no different than Armenians or Finns or any other ethnic group in the world.   

When I converted, I became a "bat Abraham," daughter of Abraham, and that is true.  Normative Judaism rarely makes my heart "beat high with joy," and I often feel it lacks the spiritual depth that I expect from religion.   Abraham, on the other hand, "had faith in the Lord," and God "found his heart faithful and made a covenant with him."  

Faith of our fathers, we will love both friend and foe in all our strife; and preach thee, too, as love knows how by kindly words and virtuous life…

Happy Father’s Day to Abraham, the father of three monotheistic faiths.