Bringing vanished faith back to life

Q&A with Russian-born rabbi, scientist and author Moshe Finkleman, who sets out to help others find their lost faith with his new book 'God is Not Dead'.

Moshe Finkelman (photo credit: Courtesy)
Moshe Finkelman
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Russian-born rabbi and scientist Moshe Finkleman had to fight for his faith while growing up in Soviet Russia. Now, with his new book God is not Dead: Man’s Pursuit of Faith in Judaism, inspired by his personal religious journey, he sets out to present a comprehensive blueprint of how to acquire and develop faith, and hopes to help others find their lost faith. Finkleman discusses with the The Jerusalem Post what motivates him, who inspires him and how he views Judaism and man's bond with God.
What motivated you to write the book God is not Dead?
Over the years of my practice as a congregational rabbi and a teacher in Jerusalem and in New York I realized that there was a great deal of confusion in relation to Jewish faith. For the most part, this confusion results from the fact that Judaism is heavily influenced by the Christianity and the New Age. Their teachings promote instantaneous faith and substitutes for spirituality. We are all familiar with messages such as “God is everywhere,” or “God cares for you,” or “Miracles do happen”.  These and other messages imply that God is always there for us; His function is to satisfy us; we have to do very little if anything to achieve spirituality.
The confusion in religion takes different forms and can eventually lead Jews to lose their faith. I witnessed numerous people stray away from their faith because Judaism did not provide them with the passion they sought. Others get disappointed in God if He does not deliver what they expected of Him—satisfying their needs. Their love for God goes away and so does their faith. Still, others see the Jewish religion as providing answers of how to achieve goodness in the human race or to attain happiness. They only consider select elements of the Jewish tradition, such as justice and morality, and fashion these into the foremost goals of Judaism. Their faith remains undeveloped and is in jeopardy of waning. The faith of others is immature—rather than grow in faith, these people choose to stay stagnant. In their minds they have already found God and have a “relationship” with Him. There are still others who have outgrown immature views of God but have not acquired anything else to fill the void. They may be dutiful to the law but feel that their rituals are without faith and their religion is without God.
None of these views help a contemporary Jew evolve a true faith in which he or she is the servant of God. Their faith is at risk of dying sooner or later.
The concern over the future of Judaism made me recognize a crucial need for a book on faith, clearly written and easily accessible to everyone.
What do you hope to achieve with this book?
I hope to provide clarity to the driving concepts of Judaism, resolve the confusion associated with religious views and bring the vanished faith back to life by showing the Jews the straightforward framework of how to develop their faith. To do so, God Is Not Dead establishes that true faith in Judaism is an art. Developing the art of carpentry, music, medicine, or architecture, for example, involves gaining skills and knowledge of the trade. It also requires applying effort and perseverance in perfecting the mastership. Likewise, faith is to be learned and acquired. Once it is acquired, it has to further grow, or it will stagnate and fade away.
Another key message in the book is that Jewish faith is demanding and not satisfying. It calls for recognition of our own duty to serve God while gaining nothing from this service. The book details stages of acquiring this recognition and reaching true faith as an active process occurring in the arenas of action, spirit and thought. This process is dynamic, and faith itself is ever evolving, while stagnation of faith will necessarily lead to disbelief. 

Do you ever find that your identities as a scientist and as a religious Jew conflict?
Never! There is no conflict between science and religion. These neither contradict each other nor are they compatible; they are just different entities. Science is based on knowledge; religion – on belief. Nothing I know from science makes me closer or farther away from religion. The theory of evolution, for instance, being a scientific theory is indifferent to religion; it does not contest what the Torah says about the creation of the world. We don’t derive from science any values in any area of life, such as ethics or religion. We don’t believe in God because we know something about how, when and why God created the world. We believe merely because we want to believe. 
I understand that you’re trained in kiruv (Orthodox Judaism outreach)– why is this important to you? Don’t you think people should live and let live?
My training in kiruv was important as it helped me inspire many people who misunderstand Jewish faith, to take the right path. Now with this book I intend to reach out to the wide range of Jewish people—observant and secular alike—and expose them to something they otherwise don’t know or ignore – growth in faith. I maintain that faith without growth is like muscles without use: they undergo atrophy—reduction in mass and weakness. Without self-advancement and self-mastery, a believer’s faith is in jeopardy; it will become slack and useless.
The messages in God is not Dead are vital for growth in faith. The book stresses that faith in Judaism is not a belief but a process; it has to be acquired and further developed in a continuous pursuit. The book raises awareness that there is no relationship with God—there is only a bond. This bond is a one-way street. It is the believer who takes the path leading him or her closer to God. God does not meet us halfway. God is not dead for those who are always in pursuit of faith.
Who/what is your biggest inspiration?
The works of three great scholars: Rambam – Maimonides; Ramhal - Rabbi M. H. Luzzatto; and Professor Yeshayahu Leibowitz had tremendous influence on developing my faith. These outstanding personalities lived in different times but were all great believers. Many messages in this book stem from their principles of faith.
How has your book been received thus far?
I have been receiving overwhelmingly warm feedback. It appears that the book leaves no one indifferent since the topic of faith is of interest to all. Some people have disagreements; they cannot reconcile the bold messages in the book with what they were taught all along—the image of intimate and personal God. To others, however—those who have their minds open to the new ideas—this book has been a revelation; it has made them better believers.
What were the biggest challenges you faced in writing the book and having it published?
The real challenge was to write a book on faith that speaks to every Jew. Another challenge was to stay away from technical jargon and terms as I assumed that some readers might not have theological or philosophical knowledge. While developing the system of growth in faith I undertook an ambitious mission to convey messages that would resonate with the worldview of a contemporary believer. My task also involved presenting reasonable goals and realistic expectations in pursuit of faith. Unlike scholarly books on the topics of faith in Judaism that can be condescending and intimidating, I wanted to present messages and concepts that the readers can grasp. In contrast with other books that go too far in the opposite direction and express a superficial and distorted view where Judaism is watered-down to something trivial, I saw a need for a book that is concise, unbiased, sincere, and free of mysticism. 
Can you tell us a bit about having to practice Judaism secretly in Russia? How old were you at the time? What did you learn from it?
Those days are long gone and forgotten and left but a few recollections. What I do remember is that growing up in Russia in a religious family was a real challenge. Mother lit Shabbat candles in a bathtub turned into a table, so the candles were not noticed by the neighbors. Father traveled hundreds of miles to buy kosher food. We, the children, lived dual lives. The real and yet secret life was lived at home: the Jewish tradition, Israel and Hebrew, the Torah, the Shabbat and the holidays were our reality. Outside home we kept low profiles and pretended to blend in. These years were difficult but they taught me that faith is never for granted—you have to fight for it. 
When and why did you move to Israel and when and why did you leave for the US?
My father was a member of a youth Zionist organization in pre-war Poland. Its main objective was helping young men and women to make aliya (immigration to Israel). My father’s aspirations for alilya were interrupted by World War Two.  Poland was occupied by the Nazis and my father fled while losing his parents in the Holocaust. After the war he found himself in Russia. All his life in Russia he was longing to leave for Israel, and he courageously fought for it. He instilled in us children, the love for Israel and the desire to live there. It took long years for his dream to come true. Finally, he was allowed to leave Russia with his family in 1975. My years in Israel were unforgettable. I served in the army, studied in the yeshiva, got training in science, taught Judaism, headed an important institution, and above all acquired many friends.
In the early 1990s I left for the US to pursue my career in science.