Sunday, May 10, 2009

Why is Faith a Virtue?

Once again, I find I am prompted to post in response to something I read over Shabbos. This time it is an article about Holocaust survivors and what we can learn from them. The article was well written and quite moving. As I read it, though, I noticed two implicit assumptions made by the author.

The first was that suffering has a purpose for its own sake. This was expressed in with a quote from a rav who said that he did not say Kaddish for relatives who had died in the Holocaust because they were already sitting next to God and did not need any more merits. I think this idea probably owes a lot to the human need to find purpose. If everything has a purpose, and the victims’ suffering served no obvious purpose in this world, it must have served them in the next world.

The second was the assumption that faith is a virtue, perhaps the greatest virtue, and that the more unreasonable it is to hold onto faith the more virtuous it is to do so. The conclusion of the article was a statement that we must learn from the remaining survivors what it means to have faith, particularly what it means to have faith in nightmarish conditions.

But why is this a virtue? Faith is trust, in this context trust in God. It is often compared to the trust a child has in his parents. Even if the parent forces the child to do something unpleasant, the child still trusts that the parent loves him and knows best. I see this with my own daughter. If I let her she would eat cookies all day. When I tell her she can’t have any more cookies she gets very upset. Sometimes I have to force her to do things that are good for her, like changing her diaper when she wants to play. Yet she seems to quickly forget these indignities.

For most children, this faith in their parents is justified. Their parents really are doing what is best for them. It is often argued that God, like a parent, must sometimes do things to us that are unpleasant but are what is best for us. We are like children compared to God and shouldn’t question His judgment. This works if we assume that a) God is all-knowing and b) God is a loving parent Who wants what is best for us.

What if God is really an abusive parent? Children who are abused often also love their parents. They take the blame for the abuse on themselves, claiming that they deserved to be hit because they were bad. Similarly, when bad things happen to people they often say that it is because of their sins, and God is justified in punishing them.

Several years ago my cousin was killed in a car accident. A rav from the community who came to be menachem avel told my aunt and uncle that she had died because they had not tried hard enough to do the mitzvos properly, that she was a korban for klal yisroel’s aveiros. My uncle found comfort in this. I was horrified. This rav had just told grieving parents that their daughter’s death was their fault!

It seems that God fits the abusive parent profile better than that loving parent. Yet holding onto faith in Him, especially in horrific conditions, is considered a virtue.

I think part of the answer is evolutionary. In general, we consider virtues those things that have helped our species survive and develop complex civilization. Not killing those close to you is a virtue. Helping those in your family and community is a virtue. These things help your family’s genes survive and help to build a community. Trusting your parents also helps you to survive, and similarly becomes a virtue. Trusting those who are close to you, your family and close friends, is usually considered a virtue. This trust is extended to the Parent in the sky, God.

Part of the answer also relates to the first assumption in the article, that all suffering ultimately has a purpose. This strengthens faith under adverse conditions. For one to lose faith while suffering means that one’s suffering has no purpose. So suffering can actually increase faith.

So faith becomes a virtue through evolutionary programming and is strengthened because it gives people’s suffering purpose. Faith is a virtue because it allows people to endure hardship and helps to build society. The greater the evidence to the contrary, the stronger faith can become and the more virtuous it is.

[The question of why faith is a virtue really needs a much longer discussion, but this was inspired by a particular article and mostly addresses the points brought up by that article.]


  1. Last week I asked a woman why she thought that faith was virtuous.

    I think faith is fashionable and those who proclaim to have it, don't need to rationalise it when adhering to the expectations of their reference group.

    However when they think about it they are not so sure that it is.

  2. I would say faith is a virtue not because it leads to bitachon in the sense of que sera sera or because it gives people a purpose. I also don't think faith is a virtue because of the particular content or dogmas. I would say paradoxically the virtue is acquiring the disposition to have emuna in the possibilities of emuna. At times it's a bit like the little engine that could...I believe I can do it or I can make it happen simply because I believe in a force outside myself. Obviously you have to pick your spots. Saying if my belief is strong enough my hair will grow back, might be a bit of a stretch. At other times I believe in believing in God because in so doing I leave my limited self and connect with something larger, and that in and of itself is a virtue.

    As you say this takes some more discussion.