Sunday, May 13, 2012

Mitzva #1 – Belief in God

Maimonides and most other authorities consider the obligation to believe in God to be one of the six hundred and thirteen mitzvos, and understand this to be the obligation expressed in the opening sentence of the Aseres HaDibros – Ten “Commandments” – (Exodus 20:2), “I am Hashem, your God, Who took you out of the land of Egypt, from the house of slavery.” There are, however, some authorities, such as the Halachos Gedolos (circa the 8th century), who do not include this obligation in their catalog of the 613 commandments.

It should be clear at the the outset that all opinions, whether or not they include it in their formal catalog of the mitzvos, consider belief in God to be absolutely obligatory and foundational to Judaism. Belief in God is axiomatic to Judaism and failure to believe in God puts one completely outside the bounds of Judaism. 

Nevertheless, despite its importance, there is good reason to omit the obligation to believe in God from a formal catalog of the mitzvos. The entire concept of a commandment presupposes the existence of an authority that issues commands. A commandment to believe in the existence of the authority that issued the commandment is logically impossible. So how, then, can a person be commanded to believe in God? Either he already believes, in which case the commandment is unnecessary, or he doesn't believe, in which case the commandment can have no meaningful authority or content.

It follows that the basic obligation to believe in God must exist independently of, and logically prior to, the mitzvos. This "meta-obligation", if you will, is one that is morally inherent in one's existence as a human being who is capable of recognizing the existence of His Creator and Benefactor. Being that God has created us and is the sole source of everything that we value in existence, to deny His reality is inherently immoral and no command is necessary. Being that God does exist, failure to believe in Him can mean only that one is in error, and to the degree that one is capable of correcting that error, he is morally obligated to do so. (This concept of a moral obligation existing independently of a Divine command also touches upon other important issues, such as the very nature of morality itself, but that is a topic for another time.)

This point is so basic that it raises the question of how to understand the position of those, like Maimonides, who do include the obligation to believe in God in their catalog of the commandments.

There are several answers to this question, all of which basically distinguish between the basic recognition of God's existence, which, in fact, cannot be commanded, and the mitzvah of emunah (belief) or yedias Hashem (knowing God), which can begin only after that first basic recognition has been achieved.

Essentially, the mitzvah of emunah requires us to internalize our basic recognition of God's existence into our personality. There is a great distance between intellectually recognizing a truth and making that truth an integral part of how you think and feel. The “meta-obligation” of belief in God is satisfied once we come to the intellectual recognition that God exists. This recognition must have a rational basis (not so-called “faith”, for reasons we will discuss in the next post). For the Jewish people at Sinai the knowledge of God was the result of direct experience. For us today, who have not directly experienced such an open revelation, our recognition of God must be rooted primarily in the historical traditions and experiences of the Jewish people and in our recognition of God’s hand in history and in nature. (See also my previous post, "Jewish Arguments for the Existence of God".)

It is only after we have achieved this basic recognition that the actual mitzvah of emunah comes into play. This mitzvah obligates us to take steps to reinforce and internalize our recognition of God, so that it becomes a basic part of our personality. Many sources see this as the intent of the famous verse in Deuteronomy (4:39), "And you shall know today, and take it to your heart, that Hashem is God in heaven above and upon the earth beneath; there is none else." There are two stages, first you must "know" that Hashem is God, and then you must "take it to your heart."

There are a wide range of methods that can be used for this purpose. In fact, the bulk of Jewish practice is intended to help us work towards this goal. Thus, the observance of the Sabbath is intended to reinforce our belief in Creation, the various holidays reinforce our belief in God's supervision over the events of the world, prayer reinforces our belief in God's supervision over every aspect of our lives, and so on through almost everything we do as Jews. Moreover, the very act of living a life in obedience to God's will helps us internalize our belief in Him. When we refrain from a forbidden act, whether it be eating a forbidden food or speaking lashon hara, we reinforce in our minds the reality of God's existence.

However, there are also a number of methods that are uniquely suited towards reinforcing our belief in God. Many sources emphasize the importance of deeply studying the various philosophical proofs for God's existence. Others, however, see the engagement in philosophical study as potentially doing more harm than good (for reasons that go beyond the scope of this essay), and instead emphasize other techniques, such as studying the wisdom and kindness evident in the natural world, and the miraculous survival of the Jewish people through thousands of years of exile and upheaval. (Also see my previous posts, "The Role of Philosophy in Judaism" and "Why Study Jewish History? Part 3 - Strengthening Our Emunah".)

R' Elchonon Wasserman
A somewhat different, more mussar oriented, approach is given in a famous essay by Rabbi Elchonon Wasserman (d.1941) printed in Kovetz Maamarim. R' Wasserman writes that, in truth, God's existence is so self-evident that it should be clear to any rational person. Why then do so many intelligent people fail to recognize this truth? R' Wasserman answers that human beings have an extraordinary talent for self-deception, i.e. intelligence does not necessarily equate to rationality, and when we don't want to accept a truth, we are very capable of fooling ourselves into denying even the most self-evident of truths and of using our intelligence to provide apparently rational arguments for our self-serving desires.

Based on this, Rav Wasserman argues that the commandment to believe is actually a commandment to work on ourselves to subdue and rectify those natural inclinations and character flaws that cause us to deny that which should be obvious. Once we do so, belief in God's existence will come naturally as a self-evident truth.

While, to my knowledge, R' Wasserman is the first to clearly formulate this approach, it is firmly based upon earlier sources. The idea that the denial of God's existence is actually rooted in deeper character flaws is found, either explicitly or implicitly, in many earlier sources. For example, Maimonides, in his Guide for the Perplexed (3:51) writes:
...all those that have no religion, neither one based on speculation nor one received by tradition.... I consider these as irrational beings, and not as human beings; they are below mankind, but above monkeys, since they have the form and shape of man, and a mental faculty above that of the monkey.
Maimonides believed that only a fundamentally irrational person could deny this most basic of self-evident truths - the existence of God. The reason why so many of us struggle with belief in God is because, as in many other areas of life, what we are really struggling with is our natural inclination towards self-serving irrational behavior.

No comments: