Thursday, February 22, 2007

is a "leap of faith" an anathema to Judaism?


Does Judaism require a leap of Faith?

Both Christianity and Islam require a leap of faith in order to believe, but this is an anathema to Judaism. We base our belief on a priori evidence and reason, in the same way that you believe the earth goes around the sun even though you have not personally witnessed it to be so.

Wow! I would say that is an oversimplification! An “anathema”? Last week on A Simple Jew’s blog there was an interesting debate between Rabbi Maroof and others along with some recap of historical answers to the question of whether reason or simple belief (i.e. although these words weren’t used, “a leap of faith”) was the best route to faith - evidence exists for both sides. I don’t think even those who opine that faith must be rooted in philosophical proof and evidence would compare religious belief with scientific claims like “the earth revolves around the sun” which can be empirically verified. 2+2=4 is an a priori truth that is justified based on reason; belief in G-d is a categorically different proposition. I personally find the assertion that faith can be grounded in pure rationalism to be overblown and fraught with its own dangers, as I previously wrote, but do believe religious belief is not counter-intuitive or unreasonable, as a Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris would claim. Exactly what the relationship between reason and belief is requires more discussion and more nuance than this simplistic answer provides.


  1. I accept that my original jewishanswers response was simplified – that’s the purpose of that site – to answer questions at the asker’s level – but I think you are wrong to equate “simple faith” with “leap of faith” - they are in my view two different things.

    My point (over there) is that whether or not you could verify empirically that the earth goes around the sun, few (if any) people have attempted to do so – we have a rational reason to accept that belief – but we do take it on faith that the scientists are telling us the truth. Even scientists who investigate it do so indirectly – no one has ever traveled far enough away from the earth to watch it go around the sun. its a belief based on evidence. And when scientifically-minded people take leaps of faith, it can get them into hot water – ie, when they accept a new theory based on someone else’s unverified research or data.

    To illustrate, I have had enough conversations with Christians and Moslems to state with confidence that their belief system differs from ours fundamentally in this way. A Moslem or Xian will say, "first you must believe, then it will all make sense" but a Jew - in my view - will say, "first it should make sense, and that will lead to belief". How you define "make sense" in a Jewish context is really the deeper and more complicated part of this discussion which I decidedly left out of my jewishanswers answer.

    Kol tuv,


  2. >>>A Moslem or Xian will say, "first you must believe, then it will all make sense"

    This is exactly what A Simple Jew and others are arguing fulfills the mitzvah of emunah - it need not make sense at all, but one must still believe. Based on R' Nachman and many others, I think this idea is correct and would not label it an 'anathema'. See the Ishbitza in Mei HaShiloach on the parsha of the akeida who writes that religion may demand from man that which runs contrary to reason and man must obey. Many other chassidic sources reflect the same idea. You also conflate the idea of 'reasonable' with the idea of a priori truth, as I noted. Finally, I doubt that believing Xstians find their religion any more or less unreasonable than we find ours. If you believe, then not eating a cheeseburger or wearing wool and linen is something you do even if it doesn't make sense; if not, I don't see how reason can convince you to accept these practices.

  3. The answer to your latter question is that the reason in Judaism is relevant in accepting the entire package. Once we have done that, the details are accepted on faith. Similarly science - one has enough experience with science to accept it as a system that can accurately describe nature, after which the details are usually accepted as a matter of faith. In Xianity and Islam, however, the entire system is accepted as a matter of pure faith. Thus, Deut. 4:11-12, 5:4, 5:19-21, 11:7, 29:14....There is nothing comparable in any other belief system. Even the simplest Jew with the simplest faith is required to celebrate the Pesach seder where the story is told. Thus it is not a leap of faith to avoid shatnez, it is a faithful conclusion from historical evidence (for the simple Jew, the seder; for the complicated Jew, more than that perhaps).