D’var Torah: Questioning faith

Rachel LaVictoire, 18, is a recipient of the prestigious Nemerov Writing and Thomas H. Elliott Merit scholarships at Washington University, where she is a freshman. She grew up in Atlanta, where she is an active member of Temple Emanu-El and the Marcus Jewish Community Center. Rachel will be contributing regular commentaries and d’var Torah reflections, which will be posted on the Jewish Light’s website,  stljewishlight.com — some of which will also be included in the Jewish Light’s print editions.

By Rachel LaVictoire

Religion, by its very nature, is something that cannot be explained. While some are captivated by it, others see religion as nothing but a product of humanity’s extensive curiosity—a way of answering questions that are otherwise unanswerable. One thing is for certain, though: at one point or another everyone in his or her life has questioned religion.

The questioning comes in many forms and often moves like a snowball, growing quickly as it rolls. Do I believe humans all descend from Adam and Eve? Do I believe Moses wrote the Torah? Do I believe that my prayers are being heard? Do I believe there is something after I die? Do I even believe in G-d?

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And those are just questions you can ask about Judaism. What about other religions? Did Siddhartha Gautama really reach enlightenment after observing the suffering in our world and is karma real? What makes the beliefs of those Buddhists and Hindus “wrong” and our Jewish beliefs “right”?

These questions are dizzying and can send a person into a frenzy of doubt and discomfort. It’s not easy to question all that you know, all that you’ve been raised to know. But the truth is, these questions are important because in searching for answers to them, you can reach new depths in your own faith.

My “Thinking about Religion” course at Washington U was quite possible the most difficult class I’ve ever taken. Not because of the assignments or grading, but because it forced me to truly consider other possibilities.

Take for example the following excerpt from our textbook, “Comparing Religions: A Textbook Initiation,” written by Jeffrey Kripal, a professor a Rice University. In 1975, a 19-year-old named Bill Barnard from Gainesville, Fla. took a workshop in “latent spiritual energy” from a Hindu guru. When it came time for the “Descent of Power,” Bill sat reciting a mantra over and over again as the guru, as per the ritual, tapped Bill on the head with a peacock feather. This is Bill’s recollection:

“My consciousness dramatically shifted inside of me… I remember very vividly how odd it was to me to pay attention to where this mantra was coming from inside of me. It was as if I had split into two parts: one part was watching this mantra arise within me, while the other part of me was the mantra  . . . Then, something shifted again. All at once, I was no longer split into two, I was no longer looking for the source of the mantra; instead, I felt myself to be the source of the mantra . . . It’s not completely false to say that it felt like an awakening, like an ecstatic recognition that I was this dynamic, expansive, swirling mass of joyous consciousness, that I always had been that and that I always would be. The major trouble with this depiction, however, is that there was no ‘I’ separate from this joy, freedom, expansiveness, awareness, and so on. There was really no sense of spatial parameters, no sense of time duration. There was, though, a deep, solid inner knowing that ‘this’ was who ‘I’ was, that ‘this’ was very real, that ‘it’ was much more real than my previous sense of myself as a limited, suffering, ignorant ego with a body.”

At first, Bill Barnard may sound crazy. Some old man hit him over the head with a feather and suddenly space and time are non-issues and he’s a swirling mass of consciousness? Many people would write this off as an exaggeration, or a cry for attention.

Why, though?

It seems to me that the possibility that Bill’s story occurred exactly as he described it and the possibility that the Israelites ate bread that rained from the sky are about equal. This isn’t to say that I am going to become Hindu. I am Jewish and I know that, but I don’t think my being Jewish prohibits me from exploring others’ beliefs.

In this week’s Torah portion, Vayigash, Joseph reveals himself to his brothers. It had been 22 years since they sold him to the Egyptians. Joseph is now a nobel and respected man of Egypt. He told his brothers to go back to their father in Canaan and to bring their whole family and settle in the land of Goshen, so that Joseph would be near them. The brothers did so. They went back to their father Jacob and told him that Joseph was still alive and that he had sent wagons for the family and wanted all of them to leave Canaan and go to the land of Goshen.

Jacob was riveted by the thought of seeing his son, whom he thought had died, after 22 years, and so he agreed to go. This was not without concern, though. Jacob was not comfortable with leaving the Holy Land and venturing to Egypt, but during the trip, G-d called to Jacob. He said to Jacob, “I am God, the God of your father. Do not be afraid of going down to Egypt, for there I will make you into a great nation. I will go down with you to Egypt, and I will also bring you up” (Genesis 45:4).

Jacob’s anxiety was not a fear of violence or danger. He feared the loss of the Holy Land. It seemed plausible that if he left Canaan, his descendants would never know the land.

The same anxiety arises when people question their faith. They become nervous that they will lose it, that their answers will lead them into denial or even down an entirely different path. However, in this week’s parshah, G-d confronts that worry. He will be with us even when we question, for He is always with us. He will bring us back after our journey, back to the Holy Land and back to faith. It’s for this reason that I am able to question. I know in my heart what I believe. Adonai eloheinu Adonai ehad, the Lord is our God, the Lord is one. But it’s the curiosity, the doubt, the questioning, and then G-d’s pulling me back to Judaism that reinforces all that I believe. So follow in Jacob’s footsteps. Go on intellectual and spiritual journeys you never dared to do. Just as G-d promised to Jacob, so too will He “go down with you and also bring you up” (Genesis 45:4).