A leap of faith that Yom Kippur asks us to make

Some suggestions on how to override our doubts on the holiest day of the year


Close up image depicting a rear view of two Jewish men sitting together inside a synagogue. They have their heads bowed in prayer and they are wearing the traditional Jewish skull cap - otherwise known as a kippah or yarmulke - on their heads. Horizontal color image with copy space.

On three days of the year our synagogues are full. Large numbers of Jews who don’t come to prayer services the rest of the year will make an appearance to mark the High Holy Days.

Provincial shuls with dwindling memberships will be revitalised as children and grandchildren from out of town come to visit over the holidays. This is an inspirational thing to behold. 

Each year, as the synagogues are full, people will sing the words Vechol ma’aminim, which mean, “And everyone believes.” But do they? Does everyone really believe?

Some would have it that there’s no such thing as an atheist in a fox hole; that somewhere — deep down — everyone does believe. But that itself is difficult to believe. 

As the masses of Anglo-Jewry gather together to sing that catchy tune, a cynic might ask how many of them actually understand the words that they’re singing?

If they all believe, why do so many of them come to synagogue only once or twice a year? Why do so many drive to Orthodox shuls, hiding their cars and silencing their phones? 

The cynic would be wrong. The prayer isn’t saying that everyone believes. Hebrew doesn’t mark the distinction between faith and belief. So I would prefer to translate it as follows: “Everyone has faith.” What is the difference between faith and belief? 

Mark Twain would have it that “faith is believing what you know ’ain’t so”. On this view, the only thing that makes faith distinctive is that it’s somehow irrational. Faith is believing without sufficient evidence, or against the evidence. But that can’t be right.

The philosopher Richard Foley points out that if we didn’t have some degree of faith in our own cognitive apparatus, we wouldn’t be able to form beliefs to begin with.

The economist Francis Fukuyama argues that any healthy economy requires a certain degree of trust (which is certainly related somehow to faith) between those who take part.

Faith is also the glue that holds friendships and relationships together. Given its evident centrality to a life well lived, it would be costly indeed to define faith as something inherently irrational. What then is faith? 

Let’s imagine that your friend Sally is running in a local election. What would it mean to have faith that she’ll win? First of all, it’s to think that the world would be better off if Sally wins.

Wouldn’t it be odd to say, “I have faith that she’ll win but God save us if she does?"

To have faith is also to be personally invested. It would be odd to say that you have faith that Sally will win, but that you really hope she doesn’t.

Finally, to have faith that something is true, you need to think it a live possibility. You can’t know it to be false. You can’t say that you have faith that Sally has won if you’ve counted the ballots and know that she lost.

This account of faith is owed to the Christian philosopher Dan Howard-Snyder. If he’s right, it turns out that you can have enough evidence to make it rational to have faith, even if you don’t have enough evidence to make it rational to believe. 

We don’t sing, on the High Holy Days, “We all have faith that sinners will burn in hell!” Good. That’s something that most of us don’t long for.

Instead, the prayer in question describes a God who redeems us from the grave, judges fairly, is kind to the righteous and the wicked, is patient, forgives, and — understanding our frailties — opens the door to those who knock in repentance. 

I don’t imagine that everyone who goes to synagogue on the High Holy Days believes these things. But they’d probably agree that it would be nice if they were true.

However unlikely some of these things might seem, surely they could agree that these things are possible, for all we know. If that’s right, then what they’re singing will be absolutely true: they all have faith. 

If we have faith that something is true, the next step is to take a leap of faith.

The leap of faith is to commit to patterns of living that actually reflect what we hope to be true. What is it that holds so many of us back from taking this leap? Why do I so often fail to act in accordance with my faith?

Perhaps the words of the prayer hold the answer to this question too. It begins: “And everyone has faith that He is a God of faith.”

However far we may have strayed from our potential, there is a being, more awesome than we can imagine, who has more faith in us than we do in ourselves.

If we had faith in that, we might find the strength we need to take more leaps of faith. 

Rabbi Lebens teaches philosophy at Haifa University. His most recent book is A Guide for the Jewish Undecided 

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