14. LOGICAL ASPECTS OF EMUNAH.
Here, in conclusion, we shall examine some of the logical difficulties
and paradoxes in the concept of religious faith.
discussing the logic in religious documents like the Bible or Talmud, we have
had no occasion to consider what philosophers call “proofs of Gd”. The
reason is simple: the pursuit of such proofs is not a religious phenomenon, at
least not originally, but a concern of secular philosophy (specifically, the
branch called theology). The Torah’s proofs of Gd are implied in the
epiphanies and acts of Gd that it reports, like His appearance to Moses in the
Burning Bush or His division of the Red Sea. When the prophets argue on Gd’s
behalf, they do not use abstract philosophy, but refer to Biblical events which
are taken for granted. Similarly, the Talmud takes off from the Biblical
document without critically questioning its origin or contents. Nevertheless,
nowadays theological discussions inevitably linger on natural proofs of
religion. The modern mind requires it.
It must be said at the outset that there are no unassailable proofs of
Judaism’s beliefs; nor are there disproofs. Every known argument, one way or
the other, has a rebuttal. Unless we are each personally and constantly in the
Presence of Gd, we are bound to have to rely on faith;
and lacking such experience, our reason also cannot with certainty deny its
Object. The main characteristics we attribute to Gd in our thinking, our
‘definition’ of him as Existent, Unitary, Unique, Omnipresent, Omniscient,
Omnipotent, Creator and Master of everything, perfectly just and merciful Judge,
providential and gracious, and so forth, are all intellectual and emotional
projections (constructions largely based on Torah data, to be sure), which
ultimately depend on acts of faith.
These comments apply equally to Christianity, Islam, and other
monotheistic religions. As for systems like Hinduism, Taoism or Buddhism, they
too contain unprovable and undisprovable beliefs, like the idea of karma or the
notion that liberation is possible (by means like meditation or whatever). In
every religion, there are certain starting points, which one may choose to
accept or refuse; logic becomes used in them only as from those points of
Consider, first, the most natural of arguments in favor of belief in Gd.
Looking around one at the world, one is bound to marvel at the miracle of existence,
at the fact that anything at all
exists, and furthermore at the degree of variety, order and complexity of what exists, not to mention the
wonder of our consciousness of all that. This general miracle, which seen
daily passes unnoticed, is surely more impressive than any particular miracle,
like the Splitting of the Red Sea. Where did all this come from? It could not
always have been there! Who made it happen? It is too fancy to have happened
“by chance” and “ex nihilo”
(even supposing the concepts of chance and nothingness at all meaningful)!
Thinking thus, one may easily infer: yes! There must be a Gd, powerful and
conscious to a very high degree, who created all this, the miracle of Nature.
However, convincing as this argument may seem,
it is easily rebutted. For we can similarly argue that if this universe we
experience is a marvelous thing, how much more marvelous is an Entity capable of creating it! Our
initial argument posited Gd as an explanation of the surprising phenomenon
before us; but upon reflection we must admit that we have thereby given
ourselves an even more complicated problem to solve.
We could therefore argue: if the world
requires explanation, how much more so Gd; and if Gd requires no explanation,
how much less so the world. In brief, our intervention has only been briefly
satisfying; the initial problem remains essentially unsolved; if we achieved
anything, it was to complicate matters further.
Thus, whether we refer to the existence as such of the world as a whole
(positing a cosmological argument) or to the variety, order and complexity of
its parts (a teleological argument), the logical impact of such ontological
arguments is identical – nil. We may through such reasoning make the interesting
discovery that matter may have been created ex
nihilo by a spiritual Being, but that does not provide us with a final
explanation of things. The existence and power of the Creator remain a
In any case, note well, such neutralization of the argument does not prove
anything against the idea of Gd; it merely signifies that the proposed course of
reasoning is not logically conclusive.
An alternative philosophical approach to the issue, is epistemological
rather than ontological. We may ask the question: what would
in principle constitute definite proof for or against each of the tenets of
religion; what would it take to convince us firmly? For instance, with regard to
the existence of Gd, one might assume that some manifestation of Divinity, such
as a great light or a very unnatural occurrence, would firmly convince any
However, it is conceivable that even under such conditions, once the
surprise is over and one has had a chance to think again, one may even doubt
one’s vision! Normally, we do not doubt any experience unless we have cause
to, due to some conflicting experience; however, the intellect is always capable
of skepticism and might be able to find some excuse for it even under the
We may consider this scenario as acceptable to the Torah, since we know from
within it that even after witnessing extraordinary events such as the Exodus
from Egypt or the Giving of the Torah at Sinai, there were individuals who
evidently, as their deeds demonstrate, had doubts concerning the reality or
significance of these events.
With regard to the characteristics of Gd we have mentioned, other than
Existence, the following comments may be made. Most of these concepts
encapsulate some logical perplexity. How may Gd have many attributes and powers
and yet be one? Some, like Maimonides, try to bypass the issue, by saying, His
oneness is something different from the unity of any thing in the natural world,
it is unique; or, by claiming (contrary to the Torah’s practise) that we can
only describe Gd by means of negative propositions, saying what He is not (not
plural, not finite, etc.). But these are artifices, which do not really resolve
the paradoxes. Gd as both transcendent and immanent, the uncreated creator and
unmoved mover of everything, all-knowing with an inner and outer perspective,
all-powerful with unsurpassable control of events – all these concepts are extrapolations of natural powers and events to an extreme degree,
but we have no experience of them nor capacity for it.
How can a human, not him/her self knowing everything, know
that Gd knows everything; how can a human, in whose experience all powers
are finite, know of an agent of will
capable of doing anything it wants? At best, what is involved is a Walt Disney
imagination, without attention to detail. The definitions of such limitless
concepts are unavoidably mere juggling of
words, they refer to nothing we have real knowledge of. Indeed, the concepts
are fraught with logical problems. Can
an omniscient being conceivably know that he is omniscient? he can only assume
it, for there may well be something beyond his ken he is not aware of.
Does omnipotence include the capacity for self-creation ex-nihilo? the idea is
unconscionable. How are we to conceive Gd as being everywhere, the being and
sustainer of being of all material, mental and spiritual existents, the
container of the whole universe, and yet somehow not get into pantheism, as did
And so forth – my purpose is not here to exhaust the issues, or cause
loss of faith, but merely to point out that any attempt to rationalize our
standard ideas about Gd is a display of naivety. Better to humbly acknowledge
the difficulties involved and our reliance on faith.
To conclude this topic, then, we must say that reason can order and make
consistent our thoughts concerning Gd and other religious beliefs, but it can
never definitely prove them. It is vain to seek actual proof. There is no escape
from the necessity of emunah, faith.
Faith is essential to freedom of will and moral responsibility: if the moral act
is done under the compulsion, as it were, of mere logic, the human being loses
his special status as decider. To say this, is not to provide a sort of
transcendental proof of religion – but is merely an explanatory perspective,
proposed from within religion, after its acceptance. The undecided are not
logically compelled by it, but are still free to choose for themselves whether to believe or not to believe.
Furthermore, it must be noted that proof of Gd would in no way entail
proof of the rest of religion. Given that Gd exists, there still remains the
issue as to which religious document, if
any, is to be relied on as Gd’s message to us. Is it to be the Torah, the
Gospels, or the Koran, or the Baghavad-Gita, for that matter? An additional act
of faith is required here too! Furthermore, granting the choice of the Written
Torah as a whole (in our case),
a multitude of additional acts of
faith are required to believe in the Oral Law (the Talmud and subsequent
Rabbinic developments). Every law, attitude and story in the Bible and
subsequent religious literature, is a complex of separate beliefs, requiring a
new act of faith. Washing the hands in the morning, the nidah
going to the mikveh, as much as belief in invisible entities (like angels), acts
(like Divine judgement) and domains (like the World-to-come) are bundles of acts
The demand for proof of Gd becomes, in this perspective, merely the
beginning of an infinite process. If we awaited the answers, refusing faith, we
would never find the time to enter religion…
any case, in practise (we must keep insisting on this point), people do not
become religious on account of rationalistic arguments, but for more visceral
motives. Good philosophy tries to abstain from extreme rationalism, and while it
tends to frown on confused anarchism, it is open to considerable speculation and
intuition. But religion allows the irrationalism in us, our instinctive deeper
yearnings and emotional responses, greater freedom. This is, I think, its human
dimension; it makes us more than machines.
To be sure, the extremes of religion, ‘fundamentalism’, or more precisely
are to a large extent products of an excessive rationalism (in a pejorative
sense of the term – it is the rationalism of simpletons), which explains the
severity they have historically very often implied (their expressions,
particularly the violence, are of course irrational).
What makes people religious in practise are banal things like hope for
happiness on earth (which is gradually transmuted into hope for life in a
thereafter), hope for better human relationships, hope for understanding, love,
harmony, a woman or man, children; also, the release from fears, protection from
the hardships of life, and of death, release from guilt and from uncertainty,
absolution and guidance. (These are very broad brushstrokes, but you know what I
mean.) Religion makes promises and threatens, capturing ready victims and then
spinning an ever tighter web around them, with expert moves and the help of its
victims themselves (these words may sound harsh, disillusioned; but this is a
view, which has some truth). Religion has psychology, it knows what moves
The human being has his or her own intuition of justice. It is not in all
people identical nor of equal intensity, but it is the source of their ability
to at all grasp the concept. This personal intuition of justice may be
influenced, one way or another, by religious or other doctrines – cultural
influences may cause a rationalistic or even forcible reconstruction of the
instinct in an individual – but epistemologically it precedes them and antecedes
them. The concept of justice, then, is in all individuals the result of a
compromise between personal insight and socio-cultural pressures, whose power
over the individual depends on the particular combination of desires, fears and
guilts which at a given time determine his or her susceptibility.
All this has apparently little to do with Gd, but rather more to do with
psychology and sociology! But in truth, since religion takes up so firmly the
idea of Gd, we tend to associate the two, and usually think distancing ourselves
from the former necessitates distancing ourselves from the latter. Belief in Gd
is theologically conceivable without belief in a religion; many people have
tried to opt for this middle ground. But in practise the link is rather strong.
Resistance to religion arises to the extent that, or as of when, the promises or
threats it makes are regarded as empirically untenable.
What is it we expect from Gd when we ask him for justice and mercy? Justice:
that we and our loved ones be rewarded for our good deeds and that our enemies
be punished for their bad deeds and be deprived of graceful gifts. Mercy:
that we and our loved ones be given gifts of grace and be forgiven for our bad
deeds. When our hearts feel generous, we understand that Gd may reward good
deeds of our enemies and occasionally forgive their bad deeds. All this is a
basic instinct of humans. On this basis we may pray for our protection, our
sustenance, our happiness, and so forth.
Of course, the concepts involved in such general or specific prayers are
complex. There are many aspects, levels and degrees to them.
Good and bad may be spiritual, mental, physical, emotional – or
political, social, economic or environmental or even esthetic; and may be so to
various degrees, directly or indirectly, and categorically or conditionally. One
may cause good or bad to Gd’s designs, or to oneself, to other people
(individually, in groups or as a species), or even to animals or vegetation
(individually, in groups or as species).
Furthermore, there may be harmonies and conflicts between all these domains –
they impinge on each other, naturally and logically, in various ways, and
hierarchies must be set up or identified. Additionally, our perceptions come
into play: the objective status of a value or disvalue is often moot or
irrelevant, and our subjective intuitions of them may have more impact.
Likewise, friends and enemies may be real or imagined. These notions
basically refer to the benefit or harm other people cause us (in the various
ways just mentioned). But motives and emotions are involved in such evaluations:
issues of love, hatred or indifference, sincerity or insincerity, on both sides.
There are friends or enemies in fact (by virtue of objective impact) and those
of intention (referring to whether they affect us one way or the other
deliberately, incidentally or by accident).
We assume and hope Gd, the Judge and Arbitrator, sorts all these factors
out, and delivers and enforces a fair decision.
Appeal to Gd presupposes a belief in good and bad. Zen will say that good
and bad are linked, and its adepts try to see the world neutrally, without such
dualist concept. It is true that the thought
of good automatically gives rise to the thought
of bad – or at least, absence of good – by way of outline
and contrast. Logically, the concepts can be grounded in relation to a
standard of value, which merely ‘passes the buck’ to some arbitrary norm, unless
universal values can be identified. But actually, within human beings, these
concepts, good and bad, are very difficult to pin-point; they are vague,
variable, and often inconsistent. It is more in the way of an instinct, or at
best an intuition of appearance, that we conceive good or bad to apply to
something. This is one of the peaks of our conceptual faculty, this discerning
of the unwordable, but no less valuable than sense perception. It is the dignity
and decency of humans.
In relation to Gd, what humans seek, and what makes them enter and
practise religion, is a set of rules to the game of life, which, if they adhere
to them and perform certain things (in the largest sense), it will be well with
them as they wish; and if they do not, they may expect negative consequences. It
is a deal we want to believe in, and are willing to pay for (whether or
not we admit our mercantilism). It is a rationalist demand for a comprehensible
world in which good and bad are each put in its place. Religion comes along and
promises just that, an orderly causality (this is in the case of theist
religions – in the case of religions like Taoism and Buddhism the offer is
different, an escape by transcendence from the good-bad dichotomy). One accepts
the doctrine hopefully, and tries to
perceive the world in the prescribed way so as to obtain solace.
Difficulty may arise after a long apprenticeship, when one finds that the
rules we were promised do not hold, and the sequences of good and bad in our
lives, whatever they be for each individual, do not necessarily adhere to the
At this point, religion proposes transcendental domains – heaven and hell.
A perception of events contrary to the expectations raised by the religion,
together with a conviction of having played the game by the rules, may cause a
breakdown of faith and the abandonment of religion, or parts thereof. But a
vacuum remains, if the world continues to seem irrational – a need for fair-play
The Believer’s Wager
is that Gd exists, and that his or her particular choice of Religion (or even
his/her personally designed religion, or variant of an established Religion) is
the correct one for himself or herself. It is a wager, because the refusal to
make a leap of faith, is itself a leap of faith, into something which must be
What if my religion is true,
and I abstain from following it – will I get hurt and/or will I miss goodies?
And what if my religion is false,
and I do follow it – will I mess up my life and/or will I waste it?
What of other belief-systems on the market – how do they compare, in terms
of credibility and efficacy?
There is a wide-ranging calculus in the decision, which may be referred
to as the essence of theodicy, but ultimately some
leap of faith remains unavoidable, in whatever direction it be.
seems to be a logical conflict between the concepts of faith and justice. We
have shown earlier, and I think every serious thinker readily admits, Divine law
cannot be proven by experience and reason, but rather depends fundamentally and
in larger measure on pure faith, i.e. on willed belief. If so, how can such law, which inherently in its
claim of origins contains a doubt concerning its own validity, be justly viewed
as binding on people who lack faith in it, or even on people who have faith in
it, to the extent of making them liable to punishment by human court or by Gd if
they do not obey it?
It has only gradually dawned on me that the concept of Divine law arrived
at by open philosophical inquiry – that of an ethic based on respect of Torah
tradition, mixed with attention to factual experience and use of rational
faculties – is very different in character from the concept of mitzvah manifest
in the religious population and culture at large. For the hard-core orthodox
Jew, the law makes absolute and incontrovertible demands; no understanding or
tolerance for those who deviate from it out
of doubt is in justice possible,
only if at all at best in mercy.
On the one hand: Rabbinic authorities recognize that religious observance
strongly depends on faith, as evidenced by constant exhortations to emunah
– and faith logically implies doubt; and on the other hand: it is a principle of
justice, given to at least some extent within the Talmud itself, that doubt
relative to a law exempts one from judgement under that law. Yet the radical
tension between these two positions seems to have gone unnoticed.
A similar contradiction can more easily be avoided under a system of
“natural” jurisprudence. In the latter case, most of mankind, or (more
precisely) most of a particular society or group of people, experiences
revulsion or fear in relation to certain behavior patterns, and the wish or need
to demand of its members certain other patterns. It therefore imposes its
collective will, enacting laws and setting up ways and means for their
enforcement. It does so without having to prove
its abstract justice – though it may explain itself pragmatically, with
reference to the common welfare, in order to approach a consensus and promote
Under a system of ‘religious’ jurisprudence, however, the basis of law
is, rather, the alleged will of Gd, and a claim to absolute justice would seem
necessary. For one would expect, in a rationalistic perspective, that whatever
the Creator chooses to regard as just – and give us as His law – must indeed be
just; even an abstract concept like justice can logically have no existence or
reality not endowed it by the Creator of all things. But, in a more humanistic
perspective, justice is whatever human beings in general experience or intuit as
just, it being after all they who will be on the receiving end of any blows the
law may entail.
In any case, our sense of justice, and the views proposed by the Talmud
as of Divine origin, would seem to concur that doubt
mitigates law. Various pleas of this kind are possible:
one can plead innocence and claim a doubt that
the accused A in fact broke the law L – or a doubt that the court/judges know or
can know that A in fact broke L;
one can plead ignorance and claim a doubt that
the accused A knew that L was law, or that it applied in the situation concerned
– or a doubt that the court/judges know or can know that A knew L was law, or
one can plead liberty, and claim a doubt that
the law L is a Divine law – or a doubt that the court/judges know or can know
that L is law;
With regard to the first category, Jewish law relies on the testimony of
reliable witnesses coupled with circumstantial evidence to remove reasonable
doubt (though, is there not usually a small drop of doubt left?). With regard to
the second category, Jewish law requires the forewarning of the criminal just
prior to the crime (though, what if he disbelieved them?). With regard to the
third category, the most radical objection, the court can always in practise
pursue judgement notwithstanding such doubts, on the basis of natural
jurisprudence (that is, social necessity and power). Modern law, in the 20th
century Western countries, follows more or less similar lines (very broadly
speaking, of course).
If any and every degree of doubt was taken seriously in practise, in the
name of an ideal of perfect justice, there would be total anarchy, the
antithesis of the rule of law which makes justice possible. Nevertheless, our
discussion here is not about realistic wisdom, and what precisely to regard (or
not regard) as extenuating circumstances, but perhaps a logical critique of
fierce fanatics. There is sufficient cause for doubt, it seems to me, in any
ethical/juridical doctrine, to exclude the justification of extremely
judgemental attitudes and blind hatred, except of course where obviously heinous
crimes have been committed.
Although doubt and justice are somewhat in friction, some uncertainty
would seem to be essential to the operation of human freewill, on which the
concept of justice depends; and so in some respects justice is fundamentally
impossible without the existence of doubt. This paradoxical unity in duality may
be illustrated in the following remarks.
If, as some commentators seem to claim, Divine judgement occurs through
the operation of an actual Heavenly Court, in the presence of the accused and
with a chance for him to defend himself, why do we never remember it? In earthly
justice, a prison inmate knows why he is there (ignoring Kafkaesque situations);
but, in Divine justice, the sufferings we experience in this world (I do not
know what happens in the next) are rarely understood by us, and even if we feel
guilty about this or that past deed, and guess that maybe our sufferings relate
to such past deeds, we never remember an actual trial up above. Perhaps, simply,
the uncertainty is part and parcel of the punishment; we surely do not worry
about it when it is good things that are happening to us.
Why is reward/punishment for virtue/vice not immediate? For if every
moment is a new creation, as some commentators claim, it would seem that the
person concerned is not one and the same individual today (at the time of the
deed) and tomorrow (at the time of its retribution), but at every moment a new
creature. Indeed, often we sin with selfish and cavalier disregard for future
consequences, regarding that future person as another than oneself. But
evidently, Judaism does not see this issue as a major problem, and explains the
delay granted sinners as Divine mercy designed to give him time to repent. And
the delay of reward? perhaps to accumulate credit for bigger and better things!
A thought I had in Tsfat, in the summer of 1991, during a study of Moshe
Cordovero’s work, Tamar Devorah. The question I had posed was: if Gd keeps the sinner
alive to give him time to repent, yet Gd knows the future and so knows in
advance who will repent and who will not, why does He keep the latter alive at
all? The answer I had proposed was as follows: if Gd did not keep the impenitent
sinners alive, then all those remaining alive could assume themselves to be
future penitents, and would be less in a hurry to improve themselves. Similarly,
with regard to the doctrine that sinners are rewarded by Gd in this world so
that He owes them nothing good in the next, while nice guys and gals are treated
harshly in this world, so that Gd can give them only good in the next – if this
principle were applied consistently and exclusively, one could draw inferences
from people’s happiness or suffering.
In brief, then, Gd has to confuse the issues and cloud things, in order to maintain the
doubts and mystery which make freedom of choice possible and willpower necessary.
Judaic concept of legislated belief is hard to understand. I know that similar
objections have been put forward by others in relation to laws commanding love
(as in “love the Lrd your Gd”); though it is clear enough to me that
while one cannot force oneself to love at will, one can perhaps over time by
sensitive behavior teach oneself to do so. In contrast, belief is something more
fundamental from the epistemological point of view.
Human belief and knowledge naturally arise through the collective impact
of perceptual and conceptual appearances. Concrete and abstract phenomena
present themselves to our consciousness, and over time we try to sort them out
(compare and contrast them) and make sense of them (weed out contradictions,
interrelate data, and fill gaps). At any given moment in one’s life, one cannot
honestly ab initio characterize any
given appearance, viewed in isolation from its contexts, as a ‘reality’ (or
truth) or an ‘illusion’ (or falsehood). It is only within the total
context of all phenomena one has encountered that one can evaluate any one
of these phenomena, and consider it as part of reality or as a distortion
thereof, or as still problematic. And of course, since the context is continually changing, these evaluations vary with time and can be
The naive mind, the person who has not reflected on epistemological
issues, just takes the processes involved for granted, and believes whatever
he/she happens to believe, moved by the natural impact of impressions, including
those determined by emotional forces and those emanating purposely or
unintentionally from the surrounding society, or from particular milieux
therein, to varying degrees. To such people (and we all to varying extents fall
in this class) there is no clear distinction between belief and knowledge. Or,
more accurately, for such people, knowledge is more determined by belief, than
belief is as it should be by knowledge.
To a philosophically inclined person, knowledge is like a fragile plant,
something which changes and grows and must be delicately nurtured and taken care
of. There is never any question of anticipating reality, other than gently and
tentatively; one may well ask questions, but one listens to the answers,
patiently letting reality speak for itself, reveal itself, at its own pace. At
no time does one consider the way things present themselves to be final, or try
to force such phenomena to remain rigid or to move certain ways rather than
But some people, through pain, cowardice or laziness, try to impose on
themselves (or on others, by means of political, cultural or religious
dictatorships) certain beliefs; and they illegitimately label these
“knowledge”, stealing a word which does not apply.
Belief differs from knowledge in that the former is to some extent an
attitude, normally determined by the natural force of presentations, but also
capable of being ‘taken up’ as an act of will, in which case we call it
“faith”. Knowledge, in contrast, is a more normative concept,
signifying that the proposed result did not arise through mere natural inertia,
and certainly not through forced belief (whether against reason and experience,
or in their interstices or beyond their horizons), but was to some extent
pondered, developed with reference to logical standards, validated as far as
possible in the given context. Thus, belief might be viewed as a more generic
concept, which includes everything – faith, emotionally-determined belief,
externally-imposed belief, common/naive knowing and scientific knowledge. The
latter two differ only in degree of reflection they imply.
In this perspective, direct revelation refers to extraordinary
presentations of phenomena by Gd to certain humans; and prophecy is the kind of
consciousness associated with such special events, be they verbal or include
sounds and images, whether seemingly occurring in the external domain or
dream-like. Indirect revelation is the report or hearsay about such phenomena.
Whereas direct revelation naturally causes belief, and is in principle a fully
legitimate source of knowledge, indirect revelation is more of an issue in these
respects, and requires more careful evaluation. Some people believe in indirect
revelations easily (particularly coming from certain teachers they trust), while
others take convincing and still others are skeptical on principle.
Now, Judaism (and similarly other religions) includes, not only a certain
“belief-system”, but a number of commanded beliefs. For instance,
Exod. 20:2 ,”I am the Lrd your Gd”, is interpreted by the Rabbis as a
Mitzvah to believe (constantly) in the existence and various attributes of
Hashem (e.g. sovereignty, mercy, justice), and His various powers and
achievements (e.g. creation, providence, liberation from Egypt, gift of Torah).
Similarly, the Shema Israel, Deut. 6:4, is a Mitzvah to believe in Hashem’s
utter Unity (despite the apparent plurality and variety of His attributes and
actions in the world). There are also negative commandments relating to belief –
such as Exod. 20:3, the Mitzvah to disbelieve in idols or gods other than
Hashem, and Num. 15:39, “and don’t go touring after your heart and after
your eyes”, which is interpreted as a Mitzvah to avoid heretical thoughts
and immoral fantasies.
This is hard to understand, from a logical point of view. Normally, what
one conceives as having-to-be-done is determined by what one wants to achieve
(one’s purposes, or more broadly, values) and by the information at hand
concerning relevant causal relations (which tells one what means are likely to
lead to one’s ends). In the construction of a natural ethic, neutral (or
alethic) propositions logically precede all normative propositions; there cannot
be normative propositions about
factual beliefs, for if a thing is already
commonly known as true, an imperative to believe it would be logically redundant
(except for a general call to intellectual honesty), and if it is not evidently
true, then there is no informational basis for an imperative about it.
Perhaps that is why the Torah simply says “I am the Lrd your
Gd” and “the Lrd is One”, in the way of announcing facts rather
than in the way of commanding beliefs. As for the above-mentioned command
concerning idols, it says literally “you shall not have
gods other than Me”; it does not refer explicitly to belief, but seems
rather to warn against certain behavior patterns. Lastly, the passage about the
‘heart’ and ‘eyes’ is rather vague, and might well refer to actions following-up
on heretical lines of thought or immoral imaginings, rather than primarily
to any cognitive processes.
In other words, the view that such Torah statements are commands to
believe or disbelieve something is not inevitable, nor really logically tenable.
Rather they must be viewed as positive or negative commands for certain courses
of action (other than beliefs), which logically follow from having certain
beliefs or tolerances. In this way, the
mind retains its intellectual freedom, which is the precondition of its
honesty and sincerity, and which is a facet of its dignity – and yet the person
is in no way freed in action from the
ethical obligations and prohibitions the Torah imposes, such submission to Gd
being also a facet of human dignity. Liberalism is not necessarily libertinism.
We could conclude here, and say the following. The intent of the
codifiers of such laws of belief (such as the Rambam), was clearly to protect
weaker minds from the assaults of misleading philosophies and irresistible
temptations. Doubt is always a danger, and was to be rejected forcefully,
without risking any untoward slippage. But, granting our above arguments, the
epistemological and logical background of this sort of codification is incorrect
and unstable. Furthermore, incidentally, its psychological effect is not always
ideal. Openness is right, and healthy too.
However, upon further reflection, a more even-handed conclusion is
possible. Introspection shows that in the course of religious living, there are
often moments of doubt, when everything conspires to make us doubt Gd’s
existence, or His mercy, or His justice, or whatever. Things may be going so
badly, that one wonders whether He is at all interested in helping us or whether
He knows how to judge correctly or whether He is at all there to do so; or one
may view Him as one’s tormentor and wish one could appeal to Someone else, some
higher or more sympathetic power, for help; and so forth. In such circumstances,
it is indeed very useful to have a law
of belief (in Gd, in Gd’s Oneness, etc.) to hold on to, so that, through fear,
even though not at the time through
pondered conviction, one keeps to the right path.
One may even tell oneself: no matter how bad things look, I will always
trust in my own essential goodness or sanity, or in my wife’s loyalty, or
whatever. Such resolutions have pragmatic value and make it possible for us to
transcend the vagaries of daily experience. Epistemologically, they rely on the
fact that there is a hierarchy of truths; some truths are more certain than
others. Thus, for instance, in logic, the laws of identity, of non-contradiction
and of the excluded-middle, and certain other principles, are given priority
over all others, so that if ever things look bad, it is not these laws which are
put in doubt but all other interpretations of the disturbing phenomena at hand.
In this light, an ethical law of belief is quite conceivable, like a
protective message from the past to the future. Gd may know that I am about to
enter a turbulent experience (and everyone does, sooner or later), and forewarns
me: “today, you know that I exist and that I am One, etc. – but tomorrow,
you will have the momentary illusion that these truths are unjustified; so, I
advise you to hold fast onto them come what may”. Such resolutions are not
necessarily contrary to logic, and in no way demean the intelligence of
humankind. In this way, mitzvot relating to belief are made reasonable and
conceivable; they do not tell us to believe (or not believe) in the way of blind
fanaticism, but rather protect our knowledge from unfortunate erosions.
For these reasons, by the way, the Mitzvot relating to belief which we
have listed here are regarded as ‘constant’; that is, applicable
non-stop. Surely, it is not humanly possible to literally always remember the Sabbath or Amalek’s enmity, or never
forget Amalek’s enmity. The human mind can only focus on so much at a time, and
must therefore allow some objects of consciousness to at least recede into the
background, if not disappear entirely, for awhile every so often; we must also
sleep. Therefore, such temporal expressions must refer, strictly-speaking, to an
occasional (though as frequent as possible) or conditional (in all the
appropriate circumstances) performance.
In the case of our laws of belief, they are comparable to a defensive
weapon one carries on one’s person at all times, not knowing when the enemy will
strike, ready for all eventualities. The weapon is not constantly in use, but it
is invariably ready for action. Of course, our resolve to fall back on these
fixed beliefs in times of doubt, colors our whole existence, in the long run
determining all our choices; for the belief in Gd and all its implications have
undoubtedly broad and deep influences on the human psyche and destiny.
This sort of intellectual pursuit of the First Cause, is found in
Greek philosophy. One Talmudic version is the story in Midrash Genesis
Rabbah (ch. 38), according to which the patriarch Abraham arrived to a
knowledge of Gd by reasoning backwards from each thing to its cause. The
argument has often, in philosophy, been understood as based on the idea that
everything has a cause, therefore so must the universe have one; but such an
idea is consistent only if we accept that of infinite series, which is
rather difficult to accept, and which in any case if accepted would exclude
acceptance of a first cause. The version more commonly found today appeals
rather to the need to explain the improbable fact
and richness of existence; it
refers to complexity as much as to causality.
And I can testify that there have been times in my life when this has
been the only convincing argument I had left to offer myself!
As for the belief, found in Hinduism and Christianity, that Gd has
appeared in human form (incarnation), it does not merely present a more
difficult technical problem; it is rather an unconscionable concept: how can
a container contain itself? If at all, such appearance would have to be
postulated as a projected illusion, a sort of holograph, at best; it cannot
be proposed as a ‘real’ material body like that of human beings.
Note that the argument is often misconstrued as an attempt to explain
matter. But it is not so, essentially; for the mind (consisting of the stuff
of our inner experiences and the soul we seem to have) is just as
fascinating an enigma, if not more so. The problem is more broadly: existence.
In this perspective, we may say that Judaism, which conceives of an eternal
spiritual Gd, preceding and outlasting all matter, and Aristotle, who
conceives of an everlasting universe, including Gd and matter, are basically
in agreement with regard to the eternity of existence as such (for the
former, with regard to Gd’s existence only; for the latter, more broadly).
This is ironic, considering how some commentators present these doctrines as
in radical conflict; they are in disagreement, but only in relation to the
issue of matter’s longevity. A truly radical counter-thesis is the claim
that existence suddenly appeared spontaneously out of non-existence; some
people apparently believe that. But the way the latter thesis is
‘imaginable’ should be noted: we visualize the event like a cartoon on
TV, the screen is at first empty, then ‘pop!’ a universe appears from
nowhere; however, there is a screen to begin with, and there may be
invisible events behind the screen.
Hypotheses circulated in recent years to explain the Sinai experience
include, for instances, references to psychotropic substances, or
technological gadgets, or visiting extraterrestrials.
Of course, by definition
(deductively) an in-fact omniscient being knows his omniscience. But the
problem is at the inductive level, gradual development. More needs to be
said on this and similar issues.
Which is not an easy feat, in view of its lack of system (why would
Gd’s historic statement to humanity be so disorderly, so ‘unprepared’?); and
the many apparent inaccuracies and inconsistencies in it (those noted by the
Rabbis, and those ignored by them); not to mention the disproportionately
large place given to apparently minor matters, while major issues are
glossed over or totally ignored. But a critique of the Torah is not in
order, here: the present work takes it, as much as possible, as the point of
L’integrisme, a French word
which seems to be becoming English.
It is handy because it describes the total empire religion may have on its
adherents, dragging them into ever more demanding commitment. Its
connotation is, however, especially political; the terrorist tactics of
various Islamic fanatics or absolute theocracy of Iranian ayatollahs
(clergy), which we currently witness daily in the news, sadly come to
mind. The term is still accurate in this context, suggesting
totalitarianism, the desire of some to have everyone
else follow their path and to control all
aspects of their lives. ‘Fundamentalism’ rather indicates the level of text
the adherents refer to for their beliefs; i.e. a certain naive and
superficial approach to textual exegesis. Behind the intolerance, which is
also to be found to some extent in today’s Jewish world, is the severity
towards self seemingly demanded by religion (and other puritanisms): this is
what causes us to look at others with hardness.
With regard to the mineral world, the issue is debatable. We
ordinarily consider concepts of good or bad as applicable to such objects
only in relation to living creatures, or eventually to Gd. One might however
say, more absolutely, that the destruction of even a stone, is
“bad” for it, or that a gem or a work of art or a technological
marvel has an intrinsic “value” as an apogee of the universe. But
within such a notion, there would be no degrees or conditions. The good of a
thing would be its unchanged existence; bad for it would be any modification
in its being, at which point it would be another
thing, which in turn would have only either-or value-relations to events. As
for Gd, Whom we conceive as indestructible, and even unchanging (although a
Free Agent of change), the concepts of good or bad are inapplicable to Him
personally; at most we can say that whatever He wills is good, and whatever
He wants us (to whom He has allotted some measure of choice) to will – is
good, and not-to-will – is bad.
In this context, it is worth quoting George Santayana (d. 1952):
“Fanaticism is described as redoubling your effort when you have
forgotten your aim”. It is clear that not everyone reevaluates their
Incidentally, the idea of hell is said to have originated in
Zoroastrianism, a dualist religion of the 6th cent. BCE which still has
adherents. See Roberts, p. 169.
This is called Pascal’s Wager
in histories of philosophy; but since I thought of it independently and I am
sure others have, and a more descriptive name seemed worthwhile, I have