Simple Faith vs Rational Conviction


Moshe Ben-Chaim



Gil: In your essay you quote the introduction to Hovos Ha-Levavos by R. Bahya ben Yosef Ibn Pakuda. You rightly note that he says that it is an obligation for anyone intellectually capable to prove our tradition (p. 9 in the Feldheim/Qafih edition). However, he is also clear that those who are not intellectually capable, I would argue the vast majority of Jews, are not obligated to prove it and can be satisfied with tradition and faith. Even Rabbeinu Bahya, one of the earliest and most important rationalist philosophers, only requires the intellectual elite to go beyond faith.

Moshe Ben-Chaim: You just agreed that conviction does surpass faith.

Gil: A similar but crucially more moderate view is offered by the anonymous Sefer Ha-Hinukh. On the first mitzvah of Parashas Yisro, the mitzvah to believe in God, the Hinukh writes "And if he merits rising in wisdom, and his heart will understand and his eyes will see proofs that this faith in which he believed is true, clear, and necessary then he will fulfill this mitzvah in an extra fashion (mitzvah min ha-muvhar)." According to the Hinukh, proving faith is only a mitzvah min ha-muvhar. It is not an obligation.

Moshe Ben-Chaim: Again you support the view that conviction surpasses faith.

Gil: However, rationalist philosophers are not the only source of our tradition. In your essay, you quote R. Yehudah Ha-Levi in his Kuzari as advocating that tradition must be proven. In this I believe you are mistaken. Indeed, a theme throughout the Kuzari is that faith is greater than proven belief. Consider the end of 2:26 (p. 68 in the Even Shmuel edition): "I say, 'It is God's Torah and whoever accepts it simply, without questioning and investigation, is greater than the investigator and critic. However, whoever has deviated from this high level to investigate, it is good that he search for reasons for these things...'"

Moshe Ben-Chaim: An “investigator and critic” means one who accepts Torah is better off than one who is a Torah critic. But he goes on to say, “it is good that he search for reasons for these things”. Thus, reasoning is a good.

Gil: In 4:27 (p. 189), R. Ha-Levi explains that once Avraham Avinu was taught the truth he abandoned all of his philosophizing and scientific investigations. Once one has been taught the truth, it is unnecessary to search for it. See also 5:1-2 (p. 195) where R. Ha-Levi makes it unequivocally clear that faith is greater than proven knowledge.

Moshe Ben-Chaim: You misunderstand what you read. Abraham was wise to abandon speculation in place of proof, which he found. Once someone sees a proof, he needs no further philosophizing. Additionally, why did Moses remind the people “lest you forget what your eyes saw” referring to Sinai? Moses too relied on proof. What better “proof” do you need that conviction surpasses all else, than Moses’ words here? Do you mot see this yourself in your own mind? Furthermore, why did God create Revelation at Sinai, were it not that He desired a proof for man, in place of faith?


Also, I fail to see where Rabbi Yehuda HaLevi says faith surpasses proof. You certainly have not displayed that here.

Gil: The Kuzari alone is sufficient to justify those who prefer simple faith over proven knowledge. R. Yehudah Ha-Levi, the anti-philosophy philosopher, is certainly one on whom people can rely for their hashkafos. It is no surprise that his Kuzari is so popular in contemporary Yeshivah circles and that it has been translated into English a number of times, even by Metsudah!

In addition to the Kuzari, the Rivash writes in his famous anti-philosophy teshuvah (45), "They [the Greek philosophers] also wrote in their books that perfect knowledge is attainable only through investigation, not through tradition. But we have received the truth that our Torah, which came to us at Sinai from the mouth of God, through the intermediation of the master of [all] the prophets, is perfect. It is superior to everything and all their investigations are null and void compared to it."

To the Rivash, philosophical investigation is unnecessary when we have a tradition. The investigations are null and void compared to tradition.

Moshe Ben-Chaim: You disprove yourself again. The Rivash relies on Sinai…and for what reason? Because from here he derived a “proof”. 


I would add that in his laws of the Torah Fundamentals, (1:7,8) Maimonides first proves God through scientific proof, and only then does he cite Torah verses. His position is that rational investigation is credible. Additionally, when he described the manner of attaining love of God (ibid, 2:2), he does not even mention Torah as a means, but simply, the study of the universe. This type of study is based on reasoning, not tradition. Thus, Maimonides’ view here is that rational conviction is the optimum.

Gil: R. Hayim Yair Bakhrakh writes in his Havos Ya'ir (214), "faith is good and obligatory and investigation is an abomination (to'evah)." The context of that statement demonstrates its relevance to our discussion. See below for his understanding of the Rambam.

You also quote the Ramban as supporting your view. However, your citation does not prove that at all. Indeed, R. David Berger has suggested the exact opposite. In the book "Judaism's Encounter with Other Cultures" (R. Jacob Schacter, ed.) p. 99, R. Berger notes that the Ramban in his Sha'ar Ha-Gemul (Kisvei Ha-Ramban vol. II p. 281) states that every Jew is obligated to investigate suffering in this world and to try to understand how God rewards and punishes. This, however, is due to the obligation of tziduk ha-din, which is a theme throughout Sha'ar HaGemul. Absent this obligation, evidently, there is no need to investigate our beliefs.

Moshe Ben-Chaim: Simply because you fail to locate other statements, you feel the one where Maimonides says to ‘investigate’ means that only “here” one should do so? This is not rational thinking.



Gil: As R. Berger wrote, "[T]he revelation of Torah is an empirical datum par excellence; consequently, there is no more point in constructing proofs for doctrines explicitly taught in the revelation than for the proposition that the sun rises in the morning."

Moshe Ben-Chaim: I disagree; discovery of proofs create a greater appreciation for how God constructed His universe, and His Torah.

Gil: Even your understanding of Rambam, the greatest Jewish rationalist, is not unassailable. It is well known that while the Rambam wrote in a number of places that it is a mitzvah to "know" God, in his Sefer Ha-Mitzvos he wrote that it is a mitzvah to "believe" in God. R. Hayim Heller challenged that translation as ambiguous and R. Yosef Qafih has stated that it is incorrect and that the only proper rendition of the Rambam's Arabic in Sefer Ha-Mitzvos is that it is a mitzvah to "know" God.

However, in his Al Ha-Teshuvah (pp. 195-201), R. Yosef Dov Soloveitchik investigates what it means to "know" God. As he points out, it is impossible to know God. Rather, the Rambam means that we are obligated to constantly recognize God's existence. As it says in Mishlei (3:6), "In all your ways know Him." Cf. Rabbeinu Yonah's commentary to Mishlei, ad loc.

Moshe Ben-Chaim: Agreed, we cannot know “God”, but rather, His creations and actions. Moses too could not know God’s nature

Gil: R. Hayim Yair Bakhrakh, author of Havos Ya'ir, has a different explanation of the Rambam's view in one of his teshuvos. In teshuvah 210, he argues that according to the Rambam the best and clearest faith is that which has been philosophically proven. However, unproven faith is also sufficient. This is, unsurprisingly, in accordance with what the Hinukh says. It is very common for the Hinukh to follow the Rambam's view and even quote him verbatim.

In line with the above, it is interesting to note how Radak explains knowledge of God in his commentary to Yirmiyahu (9:23). As a rationalist, Radak translates "haskel" as philosophically understanding God. "Yado'a osi" does not mean the same. Rather, knowledge of God means following in God's ways -- doing acts of hesed and tzedakah.

In summary, it is not only overkill to accuse those who disagree with your rationalism of foolishness. It is wrong. Those who prefer faith to proof have ample basis within Jewish sources. Indeed, they have Habakuk (2:4) on whom to rely.

Moshe Ben-Chaim: I disagree with your read of Habakuk. However, if you ask what one should do when faced with the dilemma of faith in God, or nothing, I would say there is a third possibility: proof. I would at first introduce proofs. If the person could not grasp them, I would not abandon a sustained attempt at teaching these proofs. I would say that if he claimed to have faith in God’s existence, I would pursue that avenue, asking, “What gives you this faith?” Eventually, he would state that other Jews share this faith, for without independent proof from his own mind, he received his faith from others. (There is no other possible means by which he arrived at a faith.) I would then ask him why he feels this to be valid. We would most certainly eventuate at the history of the Jews, and ultimately, Revelation at Sinai. Finally, possessing no method of refuting Sinai, he would be forced, by reason, to admit of its truth. His faith would be replaced rather quickly by conviction.


Which one is better; faith or proof? Only proof affords one a ‘perception’ of what is real, faith does not. Faith requires no thinking; whereas proof is based on actual perceptions, and reasoning about how the universe exists and operates. We only arrive at perceptions of God’s truth, when we engage reason. Otherwise, our “belief” in God need not be bound by any principle or structure. With faith, one may live in fantasy, whereas the realization of God is synonymous with the realization of truth.


No ‘thinking’ individual, by definition, will suggest simple faith as better than reason. And no ‘faithful’ person has the capacity to reason, and therefore, he cannot argue his position as better. Also, the two cannot engage in dialogue, as the faithful person bereft of intelligence will not apprehend the rationalist’s views.


Herein, you were tactful not to offer any ‘reasoning’ for your position, as that would have been your contradiction. You simply quoted sources. But allow one final question: “Why shall I accept your sources?” Here is my checkmate to you: if you don’t answer, you lose. If you do answer, you succumb to using “reason”, thereby abandoning your ‘faith’.  Either way, “reason” wins.