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Belief or Faith - Robert Wiltshire

1973 was in many ways a good year : The 1st female jockey to win a horse race in the USA,The open university awarded its first degrees, women were admitted to the floor of the Stock Exchange for the first time, and the Austin Allegro was launched and the cod war ended . But it has to be said in terms of fashion and music it really left a lot to be desired. My Barmitzvah was on the 28th July of that year and I have to tell you that Gary Glitter’s  "leader of the Gang"  was number 1 in the charts that week. Please don't judge - those are the facts.


On the rare occasions when I look back at my barmitzvah photographs I recoil at the amount of Orange and turquoise that seemed to pervade all of the pictures and I wore a ridiculous ruffed dress shirt and bow tie to go with an ill fitting two-tone suit. There seemed to be an intention back then to pretend we were small adults and so we should dress like adults. I do not look back on the pictures fondly I am sorry to say, despite the fact that at the time I thought i looked cool. The only saving grace is that my best friend Aron was wearing a brown velvet jacket,cream dress shirt and silk brown bow tie. That is probably why - and I honestly do regret this now - we did not have official pictures taken for our children's bnei mitzvah.


Instead we asked our friend Steve to take photographs of the family in a more relaxed setting. Steve is a professional photographer and one of the nicest people you could ever hope to meet. He used to take pictures for magazines and has photographs hanging in the national portrait gallery and then as he matured, moved on to become a really wonderful wedding photographer.

I mention this because Steve has two daughters.

It seems perfectly normal to us of course that women are now considered the equals of men in law and I think it is a wonderful thing that in our United Kingdom the leaders of all the parties on Scotland and at least one of the parties in England, Northern Ireland and Wales are women.

Of course there are still glass ceilings and difficulties but we have come a very long way.

It was  only 30 years ago in fact - 10 years after orange and turquoise ceased to be a colour of choice for clothing and curtains - that Inge Beale who is now the Chief Executive of Lloyds of London walked out of her insurance underwriting  job because her colleagues wouldn't take down off the walls pictures of the Sun page 3 girls.

That was then and Fortunately because we now live in enlightened times - and it is to society’s shame that it took a few thousand years from today's portion -  that his daughters will inherit what wealth he may have amassed in his life time ( if not his title had he been an hereditary peer).

The problem is they will very likely inherit far too soon.

Belief is a strange thing. No that's not quite right actually; belief is not strange it is normal. We believe certain things to be true and they can be factual or not. What we tend to do with belief is to take facts and Mould them,put them in an order that helps its to believe. Our political beliefs , which have certainly been tested in the last few years, are a case in point:

We look at the world around us ,as it is, and take some of those factual observations and turn them into beliefs. It is this concept that President Trump’s advisor Kelly Anna Conway misinterpreted ( It’s shabbat so I’m being kind) : She actually took beliefs and turned them into facts !

But it is beliefs that are formed  by facts and not the other way round. It makes beliefs no less real to us but they are beliefs.

And that's fine: No problem.

But there is a fundamental difference between a belief and faith. I have faith that Arsenal will win the league next season but it is based in nothing more than hope. It cannot be based on a belief because the facts don't support it.

I read the obituary the other day of a surgeon who had practised at kings college hospital. I don't know exactly why I find obituaries interesting. Actually I do know why. It is because it is uplifting to read the story of a person who has had the opportunity to lead his life well. It doesn't matter really  whether they are famous or not , achieved some medical breakthrough, wrote a seminal novel.

I don't care.

What I care about is that they live their life well and leave behind them a legacy of a life well lived.

I feel exactly the same when I listen to the bereaved families talk about their relative at a shiva: lives full of meaning and purpose to them and to their families. There is an uplifting feeling when I leave what is after all a sad occasion. It is not counter intuitive - it is as the family would have hoped : that the life of their loved one had meaning. That life meant something.

In this obituary the surgeon had been a refugee from Nazi Germany and after the war had discovered that his mother, sister and aunt had all been killed. From that moment on he became an atheist . The article went on to say that he had lost his faith - not that he'd stopped believing. The difference is not exactly semantics it is that we cannot take a set of facts to prove Gods existence or disprove it.

It is a matter of faith. And faith is less tangible.

Just to mis  quote Groucho Marx again, and I know I quote him often : I have beliefs, and if you don't like them I’ve got others - But Faith ? Faith is binary - you either have faith or you don't. You cant be a bit faithful.

Lionel Blue, may his memory be for a blessing said :Faith is an attitude of acceptance of not knowing. Knowing doesn't create faith. Not knowing does .

I completely get why this surgeon lost his faith - where was God during the Shoah - How much has been written on this subject? I accept his loss of faith and I respect it.

In the last year or so a few things have happened which to quote the vernacular have been pants. Friends of mine have struggled and continue to struggle with the effects of breast cancer. They are winning but what a fight they have had. I am as compassionate as all of you would expect of me and joke in an attempt to lighten their mood -and mine. We joke about hair loss, and about reconstruction and with all of the dark humour I could think of we laugh our heads off.

Cancer can be funny - well ok it cant but the treatment can be. And laughing at it can help. And so I’ve also  said the word Cancer out loud. It's much easier to say it quietly :  How many times do we watch people go : she’s got cancer ( whisper) . Why do people do that? By not saying it loudly -  does it make any less life threatening?

Steve had felt unwell for months. Back pain he couldn't shift and generally he  just felt under the weather. So thinking it might be anaemia he went to the doctor. The good news was that he's not  got anaemia. The bad news is : he has stomach cancer. Its terminal . He's 59.

He has lived his life well. A good man, a great husband, and father and a really creative photographer who to the best of my knowledge has never had a bad thought in his head. It is just not right or fair that that he will die before his time.

The first time I saw Steve after his diagnosis I asked him what was on his bucket list - I could enjoy a trip to Vegas - but he said he didn't have one. He's happy with what he's done and just wanted to spend time with his wife and family. Incredibly selfish !

We went for lunch with some friends who had lost their son a few months before. He was the same age as my son Oliver.

It was a tragedy  and the pain was etched on their faces, because as the meditation says in the Shiva prayer book - there is a rent in the Universe .But The soul had been taken out of the family - he wasn't mentioned at lunch . It was too painful.

Being driven home in the car - a little over refreshed I accept - I didn't think about much about the boy really.

But it was  the following day that  I read the obituary of the surgeon who had lost his faith. Where is God while all of these people get cancer, and a wonderful family have to endure such unbearable pain.

Like the surgeon there are enough reasons to lose my faith but I don't. Why does it make me want to find a synagogue wherever I am or search for the prayer room at an airport .

I do it because deep inside I find myself comforted by prayer and faith. I don't sense that God is a thing or a person or an omnipotent being. God doesn't make decisions about who is going to get cancer or suffer illness.

But it is my faith in God that I can draw comfort from  - in the silences of some Synagogues or sometimes  in  any place of prayer. It is there in the quiet, that gaps in the silence, are filled with something which to me is God.

Now there is always the question that faith exists to give some understanding of death and to take some of the fear away from it. The thing is Judaism doesn't really focus on some great afterlife , what Judaism focuses on is life. And it is life that faith can give understanding to. We cannot know the mysteries of death but faith in God can help us to live.

And so unlike those who lose their faith  in the face of tragedy there can be some solace in maintaining that faith: which can manifest itself in silence,but for many it is present  in communities such as ours where good things so often happen and in the people who make up  these communities and who so often have the ability to be incredibly kind and supportive - they make us laugh and cry and are with us for the good times and just as importantly or perhaps more importantly for the bad times.

This is why faith is important. Empiricism - facts - help form our beliefs but faith is the acceptance that there is something we don't understand which makes places such as this , and communities such as ours what they are.

So is it worth believing in God - well look at it in the most base way - what have we got to lose.

There is a meditation by David Wolpe - There is no escaping the pain of suffering and the tormenting questions of God’s silence. In the end however the Jewish position has always been to understand that,however close there is a gap between human beings and God and we cannot finally understand Gods intentions or designs. Therefore we continue to pray.

So here is my prayer. I would like to live long enough to have another bar mitzvah when I am 83 . I will wear an ordinary suit and very likely not wear a tie .

And I want there to be official photographs

And I would like Steve to be there to take them 

 His daughters  can  wait for their inheritance.


Robert Wiltshire


Tue, 20 October 2020 2 Cheshvan 5781