Are We Commanded to Believe?
Rabbi Reuven Mann
This week’s parsha, Yitro, describes the most monumental event in human history, the Revelation on Mount Sinai and the proclamation of the Ten Utterances. The conventional term, “commandments,” is actually a misnomer, as that word, actually, denotes a mitzvah.
In Hebrew they are called dibrot, which can be translated as “statements” or “utterances.” These ten proclamations contain many more than ten mitzvot. They should rather be regarded as major Divine imperatives that can be broken down into a number of specific commandments (mitzvot).
For example, the fifth is “Honor thy father and mother,” which sets out for us the proper relationship we are to maintain with our parents. This subject is bracketed by a number of mitzvot. We are commanded to fear, not to curse, nor to inflict a wound on our parents, each of which constitutes a distinct commandment.
This great Revelation begins with a dramatic introduction: “I am the Lord Your G-d who took you out from the land of Egypt, from the house of slaves.” There is a controversy about the religious implication of this verse. Is it simply a transmission of vitally important information, that is, that the Creator of the universe is the selfsame One who arranged your Exodus from Egypt? Or is it more than that?
There are significant commentators, among them the Rambam, who regard this as a commandment to believe in the existence of Hashem. However, others disagree and we thus have a major theological dispute as to whether it is a mitzvah to believe in G-d.
This is a tantalizing issue which warrants a deeper investigation. The more challenging position is the one that denies that the statement ordains a religious obligation. That is because everything in Judaism is centered around our belief in Hashem. For example, we are commanded to both love and fear Hashem.
The purpose of Shabbat is to proclaim that He is the Creator of the universe. And the law of shmitta, that the land must lie fallow in the seventh year, is to declare that Hashem is the true “owner” of the world and all its resources.
Nevertheless, those who deny that there is a mitzvah to believe present fascinating and compelling reasoning. Such an enjoinment, they maintain, would have no meaning. They assert that it is impossible to command a person to believe in something. For the question would arise, does the person have faith or not? If he already does, there is no point in the obligation. And if he does not, a commandment is meaningless, for how can you order a person to believe in something? Even if he wanted to with all his heart, he would be unable to comply.
To illustrate, it would be impossible to command a young man to be in love with a certain woman (or vice versa). Love doesn’t work that way. It is determined by many complex emotional and psychological factors, but obligation is not one of them. Such is the reasoning of those who contend that the “first statement” does not establish a mitzvah.
The Rambam disagrees. In his famous codification of Jewish law, Mishneh Torah, he states, ”The ultimate foundation and pillar of wisdom is to know that there is a First Being who brought everything else into existence. Everything in heaven and earth, and all that is between them, exists only as a result of the reality of His existence.” After making a number of important points he concludes, “The knowledge of this matter is a positive command as it says “I am the Lord your G-d…” (Fundamentals of Belief, ch. 1).
The Rambam thus maintains that it is, indeed, reasonable to command someone to believe. But how does this make sense?
In my opinion, it has to do with how one understands the term belief, in this context. As we have seen, the Rambam regards the existence of the Creator as a discoverable truth, no different than any other. Thus, it is part of our body of knowledge.
So we can recognize Hashem by the use of our minds, primarily through the study of nature, the Torah, and the history of the great Revelation at Sinai. We most definitely can be commanded to study those matters that will lead us to a certain conclusion. For the Rambam, the key meaning of emunah (faith) is that we can attain, through contemplation, the conviction that G-d, the Creator of the universe, exists.
After writing these words, I consulted the Malbim, a preeminent Biblical commentator of the 19th century. He considers our problem and says, “How can there be a commandment to believe in something? Surely, believing or disbelieving is not something that one chooses freely. But by carefully analyzing the words of Maimonides, we will realize that there is no commandment to ‘believe,’ but rather to ‘know,’ as Maimonides himself writes: ‘The pillar of wisdom...is to know that there is a first cause...Knowing this is a positive mitzvah, as it states, I am Hashem your G-d.’ Knowing, not believing.”
This constitutes a unique dimension of our religion of Divine revelation. It is not for nothing that the very first request we make in the Amidah prayer is for knowledge, wisdom, and discernment. May we increase our efforts to study the wonders of Hashem as they are revealed in His universe and in His Torah.
Note: Along these lines, I remind you that Shabbat is a day that’s just made for study. It’s a time we get together with family and friends and socialize. Some meaningful conversation about a tantalizing religious issue can really make it a memorable experience. My new book, Eternally Yours: G-d’s Greatest Gift to Mankind, on Exodus, provides stimulating questions and unexpected answers that will generate energetic conversation. Please visit http://amzn.to/2G6V3Ql to obtain your copy.