I came across a letter in one of the Jewish magazines in which the reader proposed the need to engage in “kiruv kiruvim” – the kiruvim being our own children falling through the cracks. Not because they are cognitively deficient, she wrote, but because their yeshiva education does not sufficiently address issues of emunah that would help them overcome the various life obstacles they encounter, especially those connected to cultural differences and the various nefarious influences resulting from them.
Here are the views of some of our greatest gedolim bearing on the issue of emunah.
Rambam (Sefer HaMitzvot, Mitzvat Aseh 1) states that the first of the Aseres HaDibros, “Anochi,” constitutes the mitzvah to “believe in God.”
R. Chisdai, in his Ohr Hashem, objects to the Rambam’s opinion on the basis that before accepting the commandments of a Commander, the existence of that Commander has to be established on precedents other than a commandment to believe in his existence; otherwise it is a case of circular reasoning.
Further, he asks, how is it possible to command faith and belief altogether? If you lack emunah, how can you develop it merely because you’re commanded to believe?
The great chacham Rabbi Don Yitzchak Abarbanel answers these questions in his work Rosh Amana (chaps. 7 and 11). The crux of his approach is that the Rambam is not speaking about belief in God’s existence as constituting this mitzvah. Rather, it is only after we have already firmly established through various precedents that His existence is beyond question, and are thus convinced that there indeed is a Commander, that we are then commanded to believe in God’s inscrutable, qualitatively all-encompassing infinite dimension. And that is open only to faith and belief rather than intellectual grasp.
This is comparable to Avraham Avinu (Midrash Rabbah 39:1) who became convinced of God’s existence before receiving any prophetic revelation. In the same manner, argues Abarbanel, the recognition of God’s existence is an intellectually based conviction already in place before any mitzvah is given through Revelation.
This can be aligned with the comment attributed to the Shelah HaKadosh on the pasuk we say daily in Az Yashir: “This is my God and I will make a habitation for Him, the God of my father, and I will exalt him.”
“My God” refers to the state of the person having been able to reach recognition of God by dint of his own efforts, including his intellectual efforts, while “the God of my fathers” refers to the fundamentals of emunah inculcated in us through our fathers and tradition. The sequence, says the Shelah, of these two elements, with “my God” stated first, indicates an advantage in this type of recognition: when I manage to make this mine, it will have more lasting value. But if it is based only on my having received my father’s tradition, I may not have fully identified with it and may not be able to ward off the negative onslaughts stemming from the surrounding society.
The first step, then, is to apply the soul-God parallel: In the same way we readily recognize that the body cannot continue to function without a vivifying soul, so too we can readily sense that God is the vivifying “Divine Soul” of this vast “Universe Body,” without which it would cease to function the way it does.
Thus, says Abarbanel, the mitzvah of belief Rambam is speaking about relates to what follows the preparatory step of firm conviction of His existence, and is thus not a case of circular reasoning. That initial conviction, based as it is on our own logical conclusions, is in the category of “this is my God.” Once that is in place, we also have to accept and believe in the transcendence, perfection, and unity of God as a matter of belief, i.e. “the God of my father” – the mitzvah of emunah.
In this manner Abarbanel also answers the second question, concerning how one can command faith (Rosh Amana, Chap. 11). The command part relates to the multilevel stages that precede the eventual development of faith and belief. It relates to our having to inquire, probe and reflect about various factors, such as God’s all-inclusive Unity, in addition to having achieved firm conviction of His existence. We become convinced of His infinite transcendence (beyond the soul-God parallel) in no less a measure than the conviction we already have reached about His existence.