Wednesday, June 25, 2008

The Challenge of Belief


In a much-discussed essay (Kovetz Ma'amarim pp. 11-12), R. Elchanan Wasserman asks how the Torah can command a Jew -- particularly an unsophisticated 13-year old -- to believe in God. Such a belief is so philosophically complex, and the repercussions of disbelief are so dramatic, that it is hard to understand how the Torah can make such a demand. R. Wasserman offers a powerful answer to this question but I'd like to propose a different answer.


A 13-year old is not liable for religious lapses. While within Judaism a male becomes an adult at the age of 13 and a female at 12, this is only regarding the obligation to observe the commandments. Rashi (Gen. 23:1) quotes a midrash that teaches us that Jews are not punished by God for religious failures until the age of 20. The time in between is, evidently, a training period of physical, emotional and intellectual maturation (there is a dissenting view of the Chakham Tzvi no. 49 but see on this topic R. Matis Blum, Torah La-Da'as, vol. 4 pp. 53-56). It is much more understandable if the requirement is for a 20-year old to reach the philosophical understanding involved in believing in God. A 13-year old is commanded to believe but he is not liable for lapses until he reaches full intellectual maturity at the age of 20.

Click here to read moreHowever, this is somewhat beside the point. R. Wasserman uses a 13-year old as an extreme example but his question also applies to a fully mature adult. If Aristotle, with all his incredible wisdom, could not reach belief in God, how can anyone else who is less wise be expected to reach the Jewish conclusion? Rather, answers R. Wasserman (pp. 12-14, 18, 19-20), belief in Jewish ideas is a simple matter and largely self-evident. However, it is not only a matter of wisdom. A person's physical and emotional desires inevitably impact in some way on his scholarly inquiries. Even the wisest man in the world can reach a mistaken conclusion if he has a conscious or subconscious interest in a particular outcome. Only someone who subjugates his desires to his intellect can be unbiased and assured of reaching the right conclusion.

This response is troubling because it explicitly minimizes the real challenges to the cosmological proof of God and also expresses great cynicism about all non-believers in Judaism, including all sorts of ascetics.


An alternative answer could be that belief in God is not necessarily related to wisdom. There is more than one way to achieve such belief and for a 13-year old, or anyone not philosophically inclined or capable, belief through tradition -- from what you learn from your parents and teachers -- is sufficient. The Sefer Ha-Chinukh (no. 26) states that the basic fulfillment of the mitzvah to believe in God is by simply believing. It is a higher level of fulfillment to arrive at that belief through philosophical inquiry (see this post for more on this: link).

We begin the shemoneh esreh prayer by praising "our God and the God of our fathers". The commentators are bothered by both the redundancy and the order. Why do we say both "our God" and "the God of our fathers"? And why are the father after us rather than before? The Dover Shalom commentary (in Otzar Ha-Tefillos) explains that we have to try to arrive at a belief in God on our own but when we reach the limits of our own efforts we rely on the tradition we receive from our ancestors.

This is significant for young adults and anyone who lacks the ability to arrive at belief on his own. Even if you -- or Aristotle -- are unable to reach a proper conclusion through philosophy, if you maintain a "simple belief" based on tradition then you have fulfilled the religious obligation.

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