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Faith and Knowledge

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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.

At that point, says Abarbanel (Chap.11), “the shape of faith which follows these inquires will be drawn in the heart of man and within his soul, for he then will believe perforce in the conclusion resulting from these inquiries and this knowledge, and that kind of (intense) faith will come suddenly without his choice or will” – somewhat of a clinching process.

However, there is a slight problem with this exposition of the Rambam’s view in terms of the wording Rambam uses to define this mitzvah. He does not state that the mitzvah is to believe but rather to know (Hilchos Yesodei HaTorah 1:1). According to Abarbanel, the knowledge, seemingly, is that which precedes the mitzvah, while the mitzvah itself (of faith and belief) is to believe in that which transcends intellect and understanding.

The Rambam’s wording, therefore, implies that the mitzvah of faith and belief is not totally bereft of the intellectual process but actually incorporates it. It does involve the intellectual process even when dealing with the transcendent realm of faith and belief, of emunah, and facilitates its internalization. The pasuk extolling the wonders of the era of Mashiach also attests to this: “The earth will be filled with the knowledge of God” (Yeshayahu 11:9). And so does our daily recitation of the Aleinu prayer: “All inhabitants of the world shall recognize and know…”

Thus, the mitzvah of emunah remains applicable (even after the “clinching” process) in terms of its having to be nurtured through study of appropriate Torah topics and reflection. Were the mitzvah to entail only faith and belief, we indeed would be hard put to keep observing it once we reached the clinching point of fully and firmly believing – as faith and belief don’t just dissipate. Emunah does incorporate knowledge also, as there are many progressively higher levels of revelation and recognition of the all-encompassing dimension of God. We are commanded to strive to attain these higher states of recognition by engaging in a reflective process during prayer.

“A mitzvah without kavanah is like a body without a soul” (Shelah HaKadosh, vol. 1, p.249b). Many of our children have not been sufficiently exposed to the inner soul-dimension of the Torah and thus can fall prey to the many negative attitudes abounding today. Yeshiva education ought to develop in our children a strong personal emunah and knowledge that will have them stand on their own terra firma and, as a result, not be swayed by any transient cultural winds.

Until educators realize the importance of these matters and implement changes in yeshiva curricula, parents should find time to read and study with their children appropriate texts and passages dealing with these fundamental elements and use them as a springboard for discussions. Questions on the minds of our children, which they may be ambivalent or even fearful about asking, should be welcomed and elicited.

The yearly experience of the question-and-answer process of the Haggadah, instituted by our sages as an educational tool to ingrain emunah, should spread throughout the rest of the year at the Shabbos and Yom Tov table.

About the Author: Rabbi Yeheskel Lebovic is the spiritual leader of Cong. Ahavath Zion of Maplewood, New Jersey. His articles on Jewish philosophy and chassidus have appeared in various publications. Comments from readers can be e-mailed to ylebovic@gmail.com.


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