When you speak about faith, what do you really speak about? Is faith an emotion? If so, what kind of emotion? Is it a state of mind? Or is it just a matter-of-fact “Here I am and I believe in something.” In Through the Looking-Glass, the Red Queen says to Alice, “Why, sometimes I’ve believed in six impossible things before breakfast.” So is faith this-believing in impossible things?
And there are people of different religions; each of them has faith. How do I treat the faith of somebody else? When the early Latin writers wrote about Jews, they spoke about the “superstition” of Judaism. Is the faith of somebody else a superstition? Or an aberration?
Is faith always connected with something that I cannot prove? Are faith and trust the same? I have never been near Mt. Everest, yet I still believe it is the tallest mountain on Earth. Is that faith? And if it is faith, can it be compared to the belief in God, and devils, and angels? Mt. Everest: Why do I believe in it? The number of people who actually have been there is quite limited. There are a number of people who could say that in one way or another they have experienced divinity-surely more than the number who have experienced Everest.
Do I believe them? And if not, why not? There was a time when that was very simple for people. They said, “We have the witnesses.” There are certain things that it’s next to impossible to verify on my own, so sometimes I have to trust one or two other people-witnesses. Some things are verifiable by science, but what is the number of people who do the verifying? An extremely limited number. So if I say I trust “So and So” because they are scientists, why don’t I trust “So and So” who is a prophet? And there is a good chance that a priest is more trustworthy than most scientists. If I would put as much effort in trying to reach God as I may put in trying to reach the North Pole, possibly one is as easily accessible as the other.
What taste does a passion fruit have? Some people have never tasted one. Now when you taste one you know exactly what the taste is. Then describe what it is. I can’t give you a more accurate description than most mystical writers do: “There was some sweetness in it, but it has a very distinctive taste of its own.” There is a verse in Psalms, “Taste and see how God is good” [Psalm 34:9]. That’s a literal translation. “Taste and see.” If you want to know what flavor it has, you have to go and taste it.
Faith is sometimes a form of stupidity. There are people who are stupid, or they are naïve. And you can tell them anything. They don’t have enough critical faculties, so they believe in a great number of things, some of them true, some of them patently untrue, and some of them sheer nonsense. When you tell them that you saw a three-headed devil jumping on their bed, they will believe you.
Now there are other people who don’t trust the person who told the story. They think that the story doesn’t make sense. Yet go to your most unbelieving friends and ask them what they accept as truth, in every field. And then you’ll see that these critical people believe in a huge number of things that are not proven, are unprovable, are not a part of current-day experience. But they are believers. To find people who are not believers is quite rare.
People make some choices about belief. If I believe in God: Believing in God is not just a simple statement without any obligation. It has all kinds of unpleasant ramifications-even to how I see my own life and my own experience. Now some people will say that they are believers-and you find this in every religion-because it doesn’t cost them anything. It doesn’t cost them anything, it doesn’t mean anything. For them, to say “yes” and “no” is equal. The point is, in what do I believe?
When you say that you think that God exists-how? Like the wind? Like a dream? Like a nightmare? Like a hero of a story, of a fairy tale? Like an electronic beam? Like a table? When a person says, “I have faith, I believe in God,” one of the questions is: Is God as real as a table? I know a more respectful person wouldn’t put it in such simple words, but would put it in much nicer, more elaborate, and more complicated language. But?Is God as real as a table? Do I believe in God in the same way as I believe in a table? I think it’s a very important question. When you go to all kinds of places of worship that theoretically contain a great number of the faithful, and you ask them this question, most of them will say God exists something like the wind, not much more.
There are consequences. You see, faith is not only a matter of quantity. In a different way, it’s a matter of quality. What does faith mean? Perhaps it means nothing. And for many people it’s then what I call an empy shell.
There are people who have a talent for faith, and I’m now speaking about real faith, not about believing anything. You may say that’s not fair: Why should a person have a talent for faith, or a talent for holiness, and other people not have much of it? It is not fair, indeed. Some of us have blue eyes and many don’t have blue eyes.
There may be people who have an ability for faith. But they grow up in places that know nothing about it, or know very little about it. There’s a story that the Baal Shem Tov related: He had a revelation that there was somebody as great as he living in a place. He found that this was simple shepherd. The shepherd said, “I heard that people have to worship God. I don’t know how, let me dance before you.” And the shepherd danced. Later on he said, “I heard that people have to give charity.” So he took a coin and threw it in the air. Then the shepherd said, “I heard that people have m’sirutt nefesh, giving themselves to God.” So he sat down, and he died. That is a story about somebody who doesn’t know anything, but whose level is possibly higher than that of most other people.
If you are born among the Aborigine in Australia, you have a chance. If you are born in, say, Afghanistan, you still have a very good chance. But let’s say that you are born in the Upper West Side of Manhattan. In certain homes, your chances are very limited. A little boy may have the soul of a saint, but he doesn’t have the first notion about what it means. There was a fellow who was living in a small village in Lithuania, who invented logarithms. He didn’t know that somebody else had invented them before. He didn’t get any glory from it, but he had this in him. There is a verse in the Bible, “faith ceased and it was cut out of their mouths.” One of my grandfathers said, “Why does faith cease? Because people don’t talk about it.”
Many years ago I read something that made an impression on me. It was a book by Norbert Wiener. He is the person who really created cybernetics, which now rules the world in so many ways. One of the points in the book was that he was very much against the keeping of scientific secrets. He said that it is not fair, but that it is also, basically, not doable. And then he said something that I think is in many ways important. He said although spies stole the atom bomb, it really did not matter, because the biggest secret of the atom bomb was revealed to the world when the first atom bomb was exploded. The secret was that this can be done. When you know it can be done, from that point on you have a different universe. It may take other people as many years or more or fewer to come to the same thing, but the fact that you know that it can be done makes a new world. And that’s true about other things as well.
Reprinted with permission from Parabola