Knowledge and Belief
Rabbi Israel Chait
We have shown in our last article that the notion of religious faith is not Biblical, that is, it is not found in the Jewish Bible the Torah. It is Christian, and on a larger scale belongs to the pagan, primitive, and idolatrous modes of worship which the Torah proscribes and abhors. The Torah demands knowledge not faith. Verses such as, "You have been shown so that you may know that the Lord, He is God; there is none other besides Him (Deut. 4:35)," and, "And you shall know this day and return (those ideas) to your heart that the Lord, He is God... (ibid:39)" make this clear. When Moses appointed the leaders of Israel he stated, "Get yourselves men of knowledge and depth of understanding who are known (as such) to your tribes... (ibid. 1:13)." Moses did not request "men of great piety and religiosity," rather, men of "knowledge and depth of understanding." Ever since the time of Moses the religion of Israel has been guided and directed by the scholars of Israel, the great intellectual giants of the nation. The religion of Israel is not democratic nor is it prejudicial. It is not democratic in that it does not permit the ignorant to voice an opinion on religious matters; he who cannot follow the complex and abstract arguments of the Talmud has no right to arrive at decisions in religious matters. On the other hand the religion of Israel is not prejudicial; it recognizes and reveres anyone who has the knowledge of Torah, young or old, male or female, black or white, proselyte or prince, a high priest or an illegitimate offspring. The religion of Israel is best described as an intellectual aristocracy; it centers around knowledge.
This being the case we may ask "is there any place in Judaism for something other than knowledge?" We may also ask "what is the difference between 'emmunah,' (roughly translated as belief) and 'yediah,' (knowledge)?" Also, what is meant by the verse in Genesis 15:6, roughly translated, "And he (Abraham) believed in God and He counted it to him for righteousness"?
Let us examine the chapter in which the above verse is found. Here we find Abraham in a prophetic vision discussing with God the future prospects of his holy work. His main concern was that he was childless. This is expressed in Genesis 15:2,3. Abraham was convinced that in order for his work to continue after his death the successor to his position would have to be his own offspring. Eliezer, his faithful servant, would not have the kind of credibility necessary to continue the work successfully. God agreed with Abraham and promised him a successor from his own loins (verse 4). At this point Abraham inquires no further, as is stated in verse 6, "and he believed in God, and this was considered righteousness."
In verse 7 God continues to tell Abraham that his offspring will inherit the land in which he was then dwelling. Suddenly Abraham changes his tactic and he inquires of God, and here we must be accurate in our translation, "with what shall I know that I will inherit it?" It should be noted that he does not say "how" shall I know that I will inherit, but rather "with what" shall I know that I will inherit it. This distinction, as we shall see, is of extreme importance. Every word in Torah counts.
Let us search out where the answer to Abraham' questions lies in the text. The semantics of the verse show us the way. Abraham asked "bamah aida," "with what shall I know;" God answered "yadoah taida," knowing you shall surely know (verse 13). Here we are dealing with knowledge, "yediah," not "emmunah," belief or trust. Abraham's question was an intellectual one. God had promised him the land; this implied that a whole nation would one day be established that would follow his ideational system of knowledge of God. Abraham knew how difficult it was to get people to embrace the ideas of the true religion. After years of expounding his philosophy and in spite of the divine assistance Abraham received in making him a famous figure, he was only able to win over 318 people. Even his nephew Lot departed from him to obtain residence in Sodom. Abraham was intrigued by the sociological vision God presented to him. How could an entire nation be brought to embrace the true religion? He inquired of God, "bamah," with what, meaning, through what means can such a fact be accomplished? God answered him that it would take place through the medium of slavery (15:13). The slave, the lowly individual who has no status would listen to the ideas set forth by God's messenger, Moses, and then respond appropriately. It is paradoxical yet true that man is more prone to see truth precisely when he is in the lowest ebb of human existence. God taught Abraham this truth concerning the human personality and with it He explained how a nation would be founded with the ideas of the true religion.
Abraham never asked God "how do I know?" Such a question would be absurd, for "God Is not a man that He should lie."(Numbers 23:14) Abraham never doubted the veracity of God's statement. But God is first and foremost for man, a teacher. In the prophetic vision man the student has the opportunity to gain knowledge from God the teacher. Abraham asked God an intellectual question "with what" or through what means can such a prophecy come into being? He was perplexed and intrigued by the sociological phenomenon God presented to him.
Similarly, when God told Abraham he would have a child, Abraham never asked God how He would bring this about. The particular details of how God would accomplish this were unimportant to Abraham. Interest in such details is idle speculation and curiosity. In God's presence one does not seek idle speculation but instead one seeks knowledge. Abraham was praised for not asking God how He would bring about the birth of his offspring. Instead he trusted in God. He knew that how God does things, how He brings His plans into action, is not an area for human speculation. Here man should not attempt to use his reasoning powers. Here he must withdraw and trust totally in God. Here one uses "emmunah," trust and belief in God's reliability to bring His word into actuality.
In these few verses the Torah narrative sets forth one of the basic principles of the religion of Israel. It teaches us when to use knowledge and when to abstain from using knowledge. Stated briefly, the eleventh principle of our faith, that is, the principle of God's system of reward and punishment, is not subject to human scrutiny. Nay, it is arrogant and preposterous for man to think he can understand God's plan; "for my thoughts are not your thoughts nor my ways your ways, saith the Lord." (Isaiah 55:8 ) Man can only state humbly, as did Moses, "and you shall know that the Lord your God He is God, the Almighty and the Trustworthy ("ne'eman" from the word "emmunah") who keeps the covenant and the kindness to those who love Him ."(Deut. 6:9,10) Our knowledge in this instance is limited to the fact the Almighty is trustworthy; we cannot have knowledge of the particulars of God's judgments. We must engage rigorously in knowledge of God's Torah even knowledge of His existence (for those who have risen to the level where they are capable of doing so) but we are never to think that we know God's plans.
Our father Abraham taught us this profound lesson and Moses and the prophets reiterated it. The Rabbis of the Talmud, the true heirs to Torah knowledge, have stated this in expounding the verse of Hosea 2:22, "And I will betroth thee with 'emmunah,' trust." This, they said, refers to the trust the people of Israel have throughout the lengthy days of the Diaspora that the redemption spoken of by the prophets will come true. We do not know how or when this will happen but we know it will happen. As the angel said to Daniel, "because these things are closed and sealed till the time of the end." (Daniel 12:9)
There are always those that defy this teaching of Abraham. Instead of spending their lives in pursuit of knowledge of God's Torah they are preoccupied with God's plan, In every turn of current events they see the specter of God's miraculous intervention which they believe will be carried out according to ideas that appeal to their infantile minds. Such are the groups of messianics who rise up again and again in every generation in a futile attempt to predict God's plans. They set up for themselves messianic figures, and when these fail they either set up others, or, refusing to accept reality, maintain that their proclaimed messiahs will return from the dead. They are usually outsiders who come to the religion of Israel with ideas they have absorbed from their pagan heritage. Sometimes they are even to be found among the people of Israel. This is stated in Daniel 11:14, "and the evil doers of your nation will rise up to establish the vision but they shall stumble."
The Rabbis have identified such groups as the "calculators of the end of time," and have stated unequivocally that "their spirit should decay." They attempt to find God not through knowledge but through their imagination. Since they search for God they feel close to Him but their method excludes them from having any part in the true religion of Israel. They are near to God in their mouths, but distant in their thoughts (Jerimiah 12:2). They have certain characteristics. They harbor a hatred for the scholars of Israel from whom they sense censure for their goals and motives. Their ideas of God are always tainted with the idolatrous which is the fullest expression of the seeking God through the imagination.
In summation, the word "emmunah" has no counterpart in the English language. Words are representations of ideas; the ideas of Torah are unique and are often incapable of translation. We may interpret them through many words or phrases. the objective of Torah is to activate the divine element in man, which according to our scholars is the intellectual faculty. "Emmunah" is not a breach in the function of this faculty but rather a specific case. The same marvelous faculty which gives man knowledge also dictates to him that certain things are intrinsically unknowable. In "Emmunah" knowledge leads us to certain conclusions although we can have no first hand knowledge of the specifics of these conclusions. "Emmunah" is verification from an external source, indirect knowledge. There is no leap of faith in Judaism. We call God the God of " Emmunah" because although man can know that He is just he cannot know how He is just. Through "emmunah" man reaches the highest plateau of self-knowledge, knowledge of his own limitations.