The Coalescing of Belief with Knowledge


Nativ Winiarsky




I read with avid interest and attention your reply to my question. After reading the response a number of times I have fashioned a retort to some of the propositions raised therein, which I believe, are subject to debate, if not doubt. (You didn’t think I would go away that easy did you?)


Let me begin by supporting your primary thesis that there is no commandment to know God since by virtue of its manifest nature, it is not something for which a command is necessary. In Job (always a good source for these type of discussions), the prophet exclaims in response to the many recent pitfalls which have befallen him “mi lo yodeah bechol eleh ki yad hashem aseta zot?” (“Who cannot fail to discover that the hand of the Lord is behind all this”) (12,9). In furtherance of both this declaration, and your argument, the renowned philosopher Crescas sets forth in his Or Ha-Shem:


“He who includes among the list of positive precepts belief in the existence of God falls into common error. The very character of the term “mitzvah” indicates by definition, that it can only apply to matters governed by free will and choice. But faith in the existence of God is one of those things, which are not governed by free will and choice. Consequently the term mitzvah cannot apply to it.”


Here Crecas seemingly argues that “faith” in God is inherent and innate to mankind. Your citation to Ramban’s comments to Rambam’s sefer hamitzvot certainly seemingly serves to further bolster your claim.


However before I begin my rejoinder, let me respond to your apparently startling discovery that knowledge of God is something greater than Torah and mitzvoth. You did not need to resort to Ramban for this finding nor did you need to make the argument by inference. It is stated rather explicitly in Rambam’s famous “parable of the palace’ which I will cite in full given its absolute import:


“A king is in his palace, and all his subjects are partly in the country, and partly abroad. Of the former, some have their backs turned towards the king’s palace, and their face in another direction; and some are desirous and zealous to go to the palace, seeking “to inquire in his temple,” and to minister before him, but have not yet seen even the face of the wall of the house. Of those that desire to go to the palace through the gate, some reach it, and go round about in search of the entrance gate; others have passed through the gate, and walk about in the ante-chamber; and others have succeeded in entering into the inner part of the palace, and being in the same room with the king in the royal palace. But even the latter do not immediately on entering the palace see the king – at a distance, or close by – hear his words, or speak to him. I will now explain the simile, which I have made. The people who are abroad are 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 of that of the monkey.

Those who are in the country, but have their backs turned towards the king’s palaces, are those who possess religion, belief, and thought, but happen to hold false doctrines, which they either adopted in consequence of great mistakes made in their own speculations, or received from others who misled them. Because of these doctrines they recede more and more from the royal palace the more they seem to proceed.

Those who desire to arrive at the palace, and to enter it, but have not yet seen it, are the mass of religious people; the multitude that observe the divine commandments, but are ignorant. Those who arrive at the palace, but go round about it, are those that devote themselves exclusively to the study of the practical law; they believe traditionally in true principals of faith, and learn the practical worship of God, but are not trained in philosophical treatment of the principals of the Law, and do not endeavor to establish the truth of their faith by proof. Those who undertake to investigate the principals of religion have come to the antechamber; and there is no doubt that these can be divided into three grades. But those who have succeeded in finding a proof for everything that can be proved, who have a true knowledge of God, so far as a true knowledge can be attained, and are near the truth, wherever an approach to the truth is possible, they have reached the goal, and are in the palace in which the king lives.” (Guide III, 51) (Emphasis added)


Needless to say, this portion of the Guide did not meet with a pleasant reception by the traditionally inclined. We find Shem Tov ben Joseph ibn Shem Tov, in his Commentary on the Guide to the Perplexed, at III 51 stating:


“Many rabbinic scholars said Maimonidies did not write this chapter and if he did write it, it ought to be hidden away or, most appropriately, burned. For how could he say that those who know natural matters (physics) are on a higher level than those who engage in religion, and even more that they are with the ruler in the inner chamber, for on this basis the philosophers who are engaged with physics and metaphysics have achieved a higher level than those who are immersed in Torah.” (Emphasis added)


With all due respect to Shem Tov, he clearly misreads the parable. While it does take some incisive analysis and review, clearly Rambam saw in the study of physics and metaphysics the proper completion of Talmudic training and the members of the fifth class in the parable are Talmudists who go on to master physics and the principals of religion, and not the scientifically trained non-Talmudists, as thought by Shem Tov. Proof of this conclusion can be quite cogently and convincingly presented but is, I believe, not appropriate in this format which fails to allow us to present a particularly thorough analysis.


Suffice it to say that there was no need for Shem Tov’s surprise (or yours for that matter) since this parable merely re-emphasis that which Rambam wrote in his Mishne Torah wherein he wrote that in Hilchot Yesodei HaTorah (Chapter 4, § 13)


“I maintain that it is not proper for a person to stroll in the Pardes unless he had filled his belly with bread and meat. “Bread and meat” refer to the knowledge of what is permitted and what is forbidden (mitzvah asseh v. mitzvah lo te’ asseh) and similar matters concerning other mitzvoth. Even though the Sages referred to these as “a small matter” – for our Sages said “A great matter” – this is Ma’aseh Merkvah (metaphysics). A small matter, this is the debates of Abbaye and Ravva – nevertheless it is fitting for them to given precedence, because they settle a person’s mind.” (Emphasis added)


Traditionally minded authorities were not particularly pleased with this statement either with the Ritba, among others, stating, inter alia, “May God atone him.” However, all the Rambam is stating is that the study of physics and metaphysics is the proper completion of Talmudic training (which he boldly seeks to replace with his Mishne Torah e.g. see his introduction to the Mishne Torah wherein he writes “a person should first study the Written Law, and then study my Mishne Torah, and he will thereby comprehend the entire Oral Law from it [the bread and meat] without having to study any other text between the two.) The Rabbis understood his intent to replace the Talmud and the statutory codes with his Mishne Torah and ‘for that reason the name Mishne Torah is rarely used. Instead the test is commonly referred to as the yad HaChazakah.” Touger, pg. 33.


However, the crux of the Rambam’s position, to wit, that the supreme and most perfect human being is the philosophically trained talmudists traditional Jew, is made out in the incisive and convincing analysis by Isadore Twersky and there is no point in repeating the analysis here. Twersky “Some Non-Halachik Aspects of the Mishne Torah,” A. Altman (ed) Jewish Medieval and Renaissance Studies pg. 161-182.


Thus, your newfound understanding of the primacy of knowledge of God is not really newfound at all but is rather unequivocally and rather unambiguously contained within the many writings of the Rambam. To your credit however, you reached this conclusion without resort to the arguments propounded by the Rambam. Reaching these conclusions utilizing your own individual inductive and deductive analysis should be heartily commended and noted to your favor.


This digression was not without purpose. Returning to the original question as to why Rambam changed his language from “belief’ in Sefer Hamitvot to “know” in his Mishne Torah still remains to be clarified and the propositions presented above certainly assist towards that end.


Before I do that however, allow me to clarify why I found your arguments, however compelling, as not decisive. Specifically, you employed arguments by the Ramban (Rambam’s primary protagonist) to support your position. However, that is, respectfully, improper. In order to explicate Rambam’s change of language, resort can only be made to Rambam’s writings and not to arguments made by others that are wholly contradictory to Rambam’s initial position that belief in God is a mitzvah.


Ordinarily, one may conclude that Rambam merely had a change of mind and one work was written years after the initial work and Rambam had exhibited a change of thought (something that is exhibited in other works). This argument is not applicable to the present circumstances since, although the Sefer HaMitvot was written in Arabic, and the Mishne Torah in Hebrew, they were written virtually at identical points in his life with the Mishne Torah following immediately on the heels of the Sefer HaMitvot.


The answer, after much investigation, I believe is something suggested by your article. Specifically, the Sefer HaMitvot was written for the third group contained in the parable. It was written for the laity and these are the mitzvoth required to be performed by each and every Jew. In that respect, each Jew is commanded (and Rambam uses the word mitzvah which is a salient point you ignore in your article), at a minimum, to have faith in the existence of God. However, when we speak of the fundamentals of all fundamentals, and pillars of all pillars, i.e. the crux and acme of all human knowledge which is “a proof for everything that can be proved… true knowledge of God” [a level of knowledge which not every person has the capability to grasp {Mishne Torah, Chapter 4, § 11}] than mere faith or belief, is not enough. To that end, knowledge is required. What exactly is the difference you ask? Well, according to the Rambam – none! Knowledge, according to the Rambam, is merely a degree of faith.


“When reading my present treatise, bear in mind that by “faith” we do not understand merely that which is uttered with the lips, but also that which is apprehended by the soul, the conviction that the object [of belief] is exactly as apprehended…For belief is only possible after the apprehension of a thing; it consists in the conviction that the thing apprehended has its existence beyond the mind [in reality] exactly as it is conceived in the mind. If in addition to this we are convinced that the thing cannot be different in any way from what we believe it to be, and that no reasonable argument can be found for the rejection of the belief or for the admission of any derivation from it, then the belief is true. Renounce desires and habits, follow your reason.” (Guide, I,50)


Rambam clearly holds that if no alternative to a belief is possible, and the mind determines that such is the case, the mind can be said to know the proposition. Belief at its acme, belief that is certain, hence coalesces with knowledge. (A similar notion is found in Bachya, Chovot ha-Lavavot 1.2 wherein he describes the four levels of understanding the unity of God starting with mere faith and reaching its summit through proof)


Thus, Rambam is to be read in retrospect as taking the same position in the Sefer HaMitzvot as in the Mishne Torah and intimating there too that the first two commandments of the written law are injunctions to believe in the existence and unity of God with the minimal requirement being one of faith and the optimal requirement (the fundamental of all fundamentals and the pillar of all pillars) being true knowledge of God – both forms of belief on two very different grades.


As for whether Rambam holds belief in God to be an inherent notion not deserving of command, your citation to Ramban notwithstanding, Rambam utilizes the word mitzvah and in fact, following the aforementioned quotation by Rambam in the Guide at I,50, specifically states that there do exist “things whose existence is manifest and obvious; some of which are innate notions or objects of sensation…and in fact require no proof if man had been left in his primitive state.” Suffice it to say; of the four items listed, knowledge or belief in God is not one of them. Thus, Rambam would argue with your supposition.


Moreover, your citation that Noachides are not required to know God as further “proof” of your argument similarly is wanting since I know by reading your other articles that you are well aware that Rambam requires that Noachides perform their seven (7) mitzvoth with knowledge that they were commanded by God which necessarily implies they are thereby commanded to know of him. See Rambam’s Hilchot Melachim Chapter 8.


Rabbi, I thank you for your article because as a result of same, which inspired me to do the research which resulted in this response, it “generated a new understanding to myself and I am sure to others.”


Tizku L’Mitvot




Nativ Winiarsky