Thursday, February 12, 2009

emunah -- knowledge or belief?

The first of the 10 commandments requires us to believe in G-d. While it may seem paradoxical to command belief -- the assumption that there is a G-d who commands presupposes the mitzvah -- R' Elchanan Wasserman explained that this is not a question. Belief is natural to any individual uncorrupted by the negative influence of environment. Emunah does that require that we create an inclination to believe in G-d -- that inclination is already there. Emunah requires that we don't undermine and undo that inclination.

R' Shach (Avi Ezri, Hil Tshuvah) writes that he was always bothered why the mitzvah is called emunah, belief, when belief in G-d is actually something that any thinking person can accept as the only rational and intelligent conclusion. The proper word to use should be "knowledge", to know G-d, not "belief" (which is in fact the term the Rambam uses, but which is not the way we generally speak of emunah). He writes that he asked this to the Brisker Rav who also asked the same question to R' Chaim. R' Chaim answered that accepting G-d's existance is certainly a logically compelling conclusion to draw and hence can be called "knowledge", but emunah entails far more than that. True emunah begins at the point where knowledge ends. Emunah means going beyond what the mind logically can intuit and accepting religious truth on faith alone.

It seems to me that if this is the definition of the mitzvah of emunah, then R' Elchanan's answer will not work. Going beyond what the mind rationally dictates is not something that is natural. Perhaps R' Chaim simply meant that there are different levels to the mitzvah: a basic level that is fulfilled based on accepting what is intuitively known to be true to the uncorrupted thinker and a higher level which ranges beyond that (however, it does not sound to me like this is what R' Chaim was driving at -- take a look!)


  1. I have struggled with Rav Elchanan's idea for years since I read it in Yeshivah. His concept of Emunah as faith as R. Chaim's works on the belief that HKBH created the world which is unprovable. On the other hand Metziut Hashem is rationally provable in my mind as long as we do not try to deal with what Metziut means in this context but what it does not - thus negative knowledge. I know that this is the classical Rambam approach and the more I learn it, the harder it is for me to understand the resistance to his approach by people I consider to be great minds.

    Shabbat Shalom.

  2. >>>works on the belief that HKBH created the world which is unprovable.

    B'mechilas kvodcha, R' Elchanan's approach is not built exclusively on this assumption at all. It is built on the fact that the existance of G-d is a "muskal rishon", an axiomatic principle that any reasonable person will arrive at. The fact that it is evident that G-d is the borei olam is just one piece of evidence that points us towards this axiomatic principle.

    Negative capability addresses how we describe G-d, but does not tell us anything about metziyus. The statement that "G-d exists" is sensible only as a positive statement.

  3. Doesn't the Rambam actually the mitzvah is knowledge in the very first halacha of the Yad -- yesodei hatorah 1:1 -- Yesod hayesodos veamud hachachmos LEYDA she-yesh sham etc. And he uses the same lashon in the minyan ha-mitzvos. I always heard the kasha the other way -- which is why does the Rambam frame the mitzva of emunah as one of knowledge.

  4. IMHO...

    1- "Muskal rishon" means "postulate", and a pretty direct translation of Aristo's "first principle". At least that's how the rishonim used the idiom. Something that you can see is true firsthand which isn't amenable to proof (eg parallel lines never meet). (Kant's synthetic apriori?)

    2- The whole discussion is being expressed in overly absolute terms. Picture a spectrum of things I believe:

    On one end are those things I believe despite evidence to the contrary. Those things I'm so convinced of, I expect that the evidence was misunderstood, and put the qasha away assuming there is an answer out there.

    On the other end is what Plato called knowledge "true, justified belief". Knowledge is a belief that is backed by the data (that happens to also be true). That's the difference between emunah and da'as. I would consider da'as a subset of emunah -- would you not trust in (shoresh: /amn/) data you actually know?

    BTW, the Rambam not only requires justification as part of yedi'ah, but also does not include "because a trusted source told me" as valid justification. To him, yedi'ah is built from first principles.

    In a more contemporary hashkafah, the Kuzari's notion of the power of mesorah as justification would be invoked (sometimes correctly, more often not). As would the idea that experiencing what it is like to live by halakhah is itself a means of obtaining first principles. Experiencing a Shabbos is thus a path to da'as.

    Most things are somewhere in the middle. That's the whole reason for chizuq emunah. We have a good deal of proof, but not enough to banish moments of doubt. Or perhaps enough things presented as counterproof to create those moments.

    Again, all this is merely IMHO.


  5. Anon1 - true, and sorry if it was unclear from the post but R' Shach does make this point as well, but the question is still fair based on our common idiomatic usage. Bottom line is there are two terms in our language - da'as and emunah - and with all due respect for the Rambam's view we tend to use the latter verb for faith and not the former. The question is why.

    Micha, I am not sure what you are saying. Can you explain in simpler terms? Thanx

  6. Anonymous11:59 AM

    if this is the definition of the mitzvah of emunah, then R' Elchanan's answer will not work. Going beyond what the mind rationally dictates is not something that is natural

    Implicit in belief in an all powerfull creator, would also lie the concept that he can not be fully understood by humans, nor would he always work with our laws of nature.

  7. Anon, I don't think it's necessarily a conclusion that He would "always work within our laws of nature." Implicit is that He wouldn't be compelled to; an all powerful creator could still choose to. (I am not saying He did, just that it's not implicit in omnipotence.)

    RCB, I'll try to explain in simpler terms, but I'm not sure I'm articulate enough to do so.

    Belief vs knowledge isn't an either or. Something known is something believed for a good reason. Does a person have a good reason? Well, some reasons are better than others.

    It's rare that someone believes something for absolutely no reason. And so a belief can be more or less knowledge, depending upon how much evidence he has, and how much evidence he has for that evidence, etc...

    I therefore fail to understand R' Shach's question. Emunah means that we can rely on the fact. Ne'emanus is trustworthiness. It includes yedi'ah, since belief, trusting a fact is true, includes trusting it for a solid reason -- yedi'ah.

    I also do not understand the whole question of whether it's logically compelling to believe in Hashem. The question isn't yes-or-no, it's how much? And someone with a little reason can spend time finding more reasons. Thus, a chiyuv to do so.

    Then there is a second issue. Not just the strength of one's reason for believing, but also the strength of the belief itself. Obiously if I have more reason for a given idea, I would be more sure of that idea. But it's not true that everything that someone is more sure of is because he has more reason.

    And so, aside from the question of building yedi'ah, one can build emunah without yedi'ah.

    Then I went off on a tangent as to what kinds of justification for a belief is valid. I described it a machloqes between the Rambam, the Kuzari, and moderns, with the moderns siding closer to the Kuzari.

    The Rambam says the best proof is scholastic, philosophical. The Kuzari says it's having a mesorah. Today, though, most people base their belief on "ta'amu ure'u ki tov Hashem". Shabbos works. Lomdus work. The first-hand experience of Torah is that of a true system.


  8. >>>The question isn't yes-or-no, it's how much?

    I disagree. There is no "shiur" to emunah - either you believe or you don't. You can't say that "I'm 51% sure that G-d exists" and since we follow rov are yotzei the mitzvah of emunah. More on this in another post bl"n.

  9. I disagree. There certainly are degrees of Knowing. The proof is that under duress, we often find out that what a person professed his whole life was duplicitous, and he himself didn't know it. Some people lose their faith when faced with suffering, some don't. But before the test, they both professed true belief, but one was fooling himself.

    Another point:
    Knowing that there is a borei olam, a first cause, is far from knowing Hashem. It's false to say that all monotheists believe in "the same God." There comes a point where the difference in traits means a difference in essence. I very much doubt that our emunah in Hashem has much in common with that of the American Indian's, though it has a great deal in common with Muslim's.

  10. Barzilai,

    I would wait to see what RCB ends up posting. My instinct is that one can argue that emunah has a shiur, it happens to be rov. Not sure how to measure rov, but that's a different question.

    Also, I pointed out magnitude in two related but distinct ways: how sure the person is, how solid his justification is. There is a third: how motivated is he to act on it. Someone can be sure of something intellectually, but on a visceral level, it isn't there -- and therefore in decision-making it's easily overcome by the yeitzer.


  11. I wrote about this topic over here.

  12. I forgot-- yasher koach for the ideas. I have to speak this Shabbas, and I hate to say my atiki. When I have, I've found myself falling asleep in middle of my own drasha.

  13. Gut Voch,

    R. Elchonon says:

    Emunah does that require that we create an inclination to believe in G-d -- that inclination is already there. Emunah requires that we don't undermine and undo that inclination.

    Rav Shach says:

    Emunah means going beyond what the mind logically can intuit and accepting religious truth on faith alone.

    Both of these statements if read without prejudice seem to say that "true emunah" cannot be rational but must be a Mesorah (accepted on faith)or an inclination. I find this to be a apologetic approach. There is no proof for Metziut Hashem other than what we were told! Or the christian approach - Faith.

    Why is it necessary to do that? Why not build on the logical, that there must be a First Cause which cannot be contingent. The problem that we face is that we cannot grasp the essence of HKBH nor can we understand His attributes other than equivocally. Even the word "exist" is not the same as we use it in our daily life. But that there "is" such a Matzuy is rationally provable and is not a Muskal Rishon. (1+1=2 is MR). The question of what Matzuy means is already another matter but if we accept that we cannot know that just as we cannot know God's essence there is no problem. In the famous argument between Russell and the priest whose name now escapes me, that is where they got hung up. Russell could not accept the possibility of "existence" that we cannot touch, feel, intuit. That is exactly where Rambam wants us to go with Yediah - to understand that there can be a Matzuy not like anything we can conceive as Metziut. The better we understand that the closer we are to HKBH and that is why Moshe was "poresh min Ha'isha" . The less tied to Chomer we are the better we can grasp this concept of Metziut.

    Where we have to go beyond rational proofs is, for example, when we deal with Briah Yesh Meay'in. It is there that we have to accept based on Nevuah which can be defined as Mesorah or faith.

  14. You are misstating both the view of E' Elchanan and the view of R' Shach.

    1) R' Elchanan is not denying logic as a source of faith, but rather addressing himself to the question of how something that is so logical and reasonable can be denied by so many. The answer is that what we accept as reasonable depends as much on our willingness to listen to reason as the arguments themselves.

    2. The first cause argument establishes yediya in a Divinity, but emunah is far more encompassing.

  15. Barzilai9:48 PM

    Rav Shach, in note on the bottom, refers to a Beis Halevi in Bo. There, the BH says, remarkably, that Emunah cannot be fulfilled by believing things for which you have convincing evidence. Emunah, whatever mitzvah that is, can only be fulfilled by believing things that cannot be proved. In this, I agree with David.

    However: this is exactly fahrkehrt from the Rambam's whole "leida ule'haamin," and he cannot mean what he seems to mean, especially since Rav Shach says that the Beis Halevi ijs saying the same as Reb Chaim and the Rov, and they would not blithely say fahrkehrt from the Rambam.

  16. Barzilai, I think the answer lies in Rambam in MN 1:35 where he writes that children have to be taught about Metzius and achdus hashem as emunah. As they develop they will then work towards proving it to themselves and then work towards understanding the To'arim ayin sham in detail and carefully. Emunah is not the end result but the starting point on the way to Yediah.

    when you quote the BH "can only be fulfilled by believing things that cannot be proved" is he saying that at this point in time you have not proven it to yourself rather than unprovable? I don't have it here but I suspect that is what he means.

  17. Barzilai I just found the BH and you are right he seems to be saying as you quoted. Tzarich Iyun.

  18. looking further at the BH he istalking about Emunah in what the Torah tells us not necessarily Metziut Hashem. There my understanding will work. Rambam does say Yesod hayesodos leidah and not leha'amin.

  19. Forget the Rambam -- as R' Shach writes, you have a pasuk in chumash of "v'yadata", not "v'he'emanta".

    The pshat is (as R' Shach writes) that there are two mitzvos: 1) yediya, which is what the mind can grasp; 2) emunah, which goes beyond the limits of mind. A classic Brisker 2 dinim sevara.

    I don't see that this is against the Rambam, esp. as the Rambam (as you quote) lumps together both yediya and emunah.

    But don't take my word for it -- R' Chaim, R' Shach, the Brisker Rav, the Beis haLevi had no problem with this, and R' Shach is saying it as a hesber within the Rambam!

  20. Barzilai11:50 PM

    So where is this "mitzva" of emunah? Why do Rav Shach and the Beis Halevi allude to such a mitzva? Where does the Torah say anything about emunah? It doesn't, I think. It just says Anochi.

    I think I just answered my own question. They are learning that Anochi creates an obligation to establish a firm and global belief. Since what we can prove is only a tiny part of Anochi, we are forced to accept the idea that the largest part of the mitzva can only be fulfilled via trust. Maybe pshat is, as David said, that the 'trust' portion will change over time, as our rational faculty grows. But it will always remain the greater part of "Anochi."