Wednesday, March 02, 2005

A Defense of Simple Faith

A few years ago, I sent the following letter to the author of a very rationalist Orthodox website who claimed that simple faith is foolish (I also posted it to the Avodah e-mail list (lightly edited):

Dear Rabbi X,

I would like to compliment you on a well-designed and eye-pleasing website. You have clearly spent a lot of time in filling it with content designed to bring Jews closer to Yiddishkeit.

I recently came across an article on your website titled XXXXX and I was a bit taken aback by your strong stance. In this essay, you argue that "faith" is a Christian concept and that Judaism requires arriving at the knowledge of God's existence through proof. Only fools deny this and you choose not to be "politically correct" but to expose this foolishness for what it is. To demonstrate your point, you quote from many rishonim, including Rav Hai Gaon, Rav Sa'adia Gaon, R. Bahya Ibn Pakuda, Rambam, Ramban, and R. Yehudah Ha-Levi (also, Malbim, although I'm not sure why he fits into that list).

While I sympathize with your point and recognize that this was the view of many rishonim, I think that you greatly overstated your case. There is legitimate basis within rishonim for the view that faith is sufficient [in exclusion of proof, not of fulfilment of mitzvos]. If I am correct, and there are rishonim who state this opinion, then it is wrong to call those who follow these rishonim "fools." As the Rambam said in four separate places, we cannot be mahri'a in an issue that has no practical ramifications based on halakhic rules. Even if the majority of rishonim, or even tanna'im, believe one thing, we cannot simply follow the halakhic rule and follow rov. While it might be wise to follow the view of the majority of wise sages, it is not obligatory.

1. To start, 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.

2. 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.

3. 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...'"

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 unequivocably clear that faith is greater than proven knowledge.

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!

4. 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.

5. 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.

6. 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. 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."

A possible challenge to R. Berger can be brought from Ha-Emunah Ve-Ha-Bitahon that is attributed to Ramban, ch. 19 (Kisvei Ha-Ramban vol. II p. 413). However, the authorship of this book is a serious question.

7. 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.

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.

8. 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 over proof have ample basis within Jewish sources. Indeed, they have Habakuk (2:4) on
whom to rely.


Gil Student

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