Sunday, February 11, 2007

May one just simply believe? Emunah Peshutah as a Commandment and as Idolatry.

Is there a place for Emunah Peshutah in Judaism? I know that it is a theology proposed by Rav Nachman of Breslov. I am not well versed in his writings but from the little I have read I suspect that it is much more complex than meets the eye. I also suspect that the Emunah Peshutah that is bandied around by his contemporary followers is not what he had in mind. Be it as it may, the popular understanding of this idea is that it is a goal to work on oneself not to ask questions, ignore reality and deny our rational capacity. Just accept that there is a God that may or may not be physical, that sometimes gets angry at other times not, He is one but we do not exactly know what that means (one God or unique?) and so on. This latter version of Emunah Peshutah is anathema to everything Judaism was meant to teach the world and us and according to Rambam contravenes the second commandment, Lo Y’heyeh Lecha elohim acherim.

The Ten Commandments start with two Mitzvot. The first is the positive command Anochi Hashem Elokecha which Rambam in Hilchot Yesodei Hatorah defines as the obligation to “know” (not just believe) that God is 1) the First Cause, 2) if He did not exist nothing else would 3) if nothing else existed, He would, 4) He is the only ultimate truth, 5) He is the force that makes the universe move (in Aristotelian parlance moves the Spheres). These are quite complicated concepts and require a lot of study and contemplation to grasp them. This type of positive commandment means that one has to spend a lifetime, if necessary, until one arrives at the understanding of these concepts about God. In other words it is a constant obligation on us.

The second Mitzvah is Lo Y’heyeh Lecha elohim acherim Al Panay. Rambam defines this Mitzvah together with the first in Hilchot Yesodei Hatorah 1:6. After telling us that one has to “know” the concepts covered by the first mitzvah, one who thinks that there is a different God, (different than the concepts listed above) transgresses the negative commandment of Lo Y’heyeh and is “Kofer Be’ikar”, errs in the most fundamental dogma (literally “root”) because this is the great dogma (root) that everything depends upon.

[ו] וידיעת דבר זה מצות עשה, שנאמר "אנוכי ה' אלוהיך" (
וכל המעלה על דעתו שיש שם אלוה אחר, חוץ מזה--עובר בלא תעשה, שנאמר "לא יהיה לך אלוהים אחרים, על פניי"
וכפר בעיקר, שזה הוא העיקר הגדול שהכול תלוי בו.

Rambam holds that one who has a concept of God that does not agree with those listed above transgresses this Mitzvah and denies the most important and fundamental ideas of Judaism.

In MN 1:36 Rambam defines the words Kefirah as follows: “by "infidelity" (Kefirah) I mean the belief that a thing is different from what it really is”. He goes on to say: “How great, then, must be the offense of him who has a wrong opinion of God Himself, and believes Him to be different from what He truly is, i.e., assumes that He does not exist, that He consists of two elements, that He is corporeal, that He is subject to external influence, or ascribes to Him any defect whatever. Such a person is undoubtedly worse than he who worships idols in the belief that they, as agents, can do good or evil.”

On the one hand Rambam expects us to “know” all these difficult concepts and at the same time he warns us that if we have incorrect concepts of God we are transgressing a commandment. These ideas are very complex and take a lot of study and contemplation, sometimes years. What are we to do until we get there?

In MN 1:35 Rambam discusses what we should teach children and beginners in general about God and the educational impact of our teaching.

That God is incorporeal, that He cannot be compared with His creatures, that He is not subject to external influence; these are things which must be explained to every one according to his capacity, and they must be taught by way of tradition to children and women, to the stupid and ignorant, as they are taught that God is One, that He is eternal, and that He alone is to be worshipped. Without incorporeality there is no unity, for a corporeal thing is in the first case not simple, but composed of matter and form which are two separate things by definition, and secondly, as it has extension it is also divisible. When persons have received this doctrine, and have been trained in this belief, and are in consequence at a loss to reconcile it with the writings of the Prophets, the meaning of the latter must be made clear and explained to them by pointing out the homonymity and the figurative application of certain terms discussed in this part of the work. Their belief in the unity of God and in the words of the Prophets will then be a true and perfect belief.”

We are supposed to teach children and beginners to accept that God exists, cannot be influenced, He is incorporeal and unique. We explain to them the last two as they are easier to grasp. As they grow in understanding and are confronted in their learning with texts that seem to contradict what they were taught, they are introduced to the philosophical discourse and the ways of interpretation. It is almost as if there is an intentional contradiction between what the Torah asks us to accept and believe and the different narratives within it. By confronting them a person develops to the point that he “knows” the first Mitzvah of Anochi and the five principles it incorporates. The negative commandment is thus the tool that helps us keep the positive commandment of knowing God. This is the Emunah Peshutah that we have as we start our quest, as opposed to the one touted by some segments of our community. This Emunah Peshutah is also not a goal but the first step in Avodat Hashem. It is also the belief of those who do not have the capacity to understand.

Those who are not sufficiently intelligent to comprehend the true interpretation of these passages in the Bible, or to understand that the same term admits of two different interpretations, may simply be told that the scriptural passage is clearly understood by the wise, but that they should content themselves with knowing that God is incorporeal, that He is never subject to external influence, as passivity implies a change, while God is entirely free from all change, that He cannot be compared to anything besides Himself, that no definition includes Him together with any other being, that the words of the Prophets are true, and that difficulties met with may be explained on this principle. This may suffice for that class of persons, and it is not proper to leave them in the belief that God is corporeal, or that He has any of the properties of material objects, just as there is no need to leave them in the belief that God does not exist, that there are more Gods than one, or that any other being may be worshipped.”

Not everyone has the capacity to “know”. Those who do not, we ask to believe and accept. Usually the people who do not have the intellectual capacity to learn the philosophical discourse are also not bothered by the questions. Emunah Peshutah, accepting things on belief, suffices for them.

This kind of Emunah Peshutah is not only acceptable, it is mandatory and fulfills the obligations imposed by the negative commandment of Lo Y’heyeh Lecha. The popular one contravenes it.


  1. David, I wonder if you noticed the discussion I was involved in on last week, which revolved around this issue?

  2. I did and commented. I am not sure why but the comment disappeared. It may be that it never took or it was taken out.

  3. Somehow it rings a bell that the Kuzari says that it's preferable to believe with emunah p'shutah rather than chakirah.
    I think other Rishonim also had this attitude.

  4. see kuzari 5:2,

    However I am not really concerned with those shitot. In fact Ramban in this particular halacha of Lo Y'eyeh disagrees with rambam and still accepts that the real ma'amin is one that has proven it and understands it.

    I will tell you Ytschak, I have been brought up on these shitot and was always told that Emunah Peshutah is the highest madrega (Besht), I almost lost my religion that way. It turned when I discovered Leibowitz and Rambam be'iyun. I can accept that for others different approaches work better but deep down I wonder if they are following Judaism or some other religion. It baffles me how intelligent people can buy into it. It is elitist but I really believe that the whole enterprise of Judaism is there for the minority in every generation who follow the derech of the Rambam, his predecessors and followers. You find them hidden away in the most surprising places . Within that community of thinkers there is aquite a wide range of thought but the core has to be there - what is man, God, and Torah. It is that thinking that has kept judaism alive upto nowadays. Rav Kook in a letter to Ze'ev Yavetz excoriates him for his negative attitude to rambam. He says to him that if not for rambam Judaism would not exist today.

  5. david guttman writes that quotes the Besh"t as saying that "Emunah Peshutah is the highest madrega (Besht)".

    Actually, the Besh"t clearly held that COMBINING BOTH Emunah Pshuta and Chakira is the ideal path to take. Please see: keser Shem Tov daf 19 and Lekutei Yikorim Daf 16. These are brought down in the Sefer baal shem Tov Al hatorah in Parshas Noach, Amod hatfilah par. 141.

  6. David, who do you identify as the Rambam's predecessors?

  7. >the Besh"t clearly held that COMBINING BOTH

    I am not a big maivin on the besht though I imagine you must be right with talmidim of The Rebbe reb Ber Mimezritsh like the Tanya, Hakirah could not be too far away.Kedushas Levi was nothing to ignore, Slonim and other chasidus , R.tzodok etc... I once saw the seder hayom of the ysmach moshe and the first thing everey morning was a shiur kavua of one hour in Moreh.

    Re Rambam's predecessors it is quite unclear. What we do know is that his father rav Maimon influenced him a lot. Though he does not quote him often and all we have is a letter of his to an african kehillah, Rabbeinu Avraham his son, quotes him extensively in his pirush al hatorah. We also know that ambam refers to his father's Rebbe Ry Migash as exceptinally great. Though he does not clarify whether it is halacha or Machshava, the language he uses seems to cover both. We also know that R. Yehudah Halevi's Kuzari is totally different than his pyutim where he is much closer to Rambam's derech. I have not gone much deeper into the further antecedents but the Rif , rebbe of the ri migash must have had a great influence, R. Shmuel ibn Gevirol though more mystical had animpact on him, we also know the Chovat Halevavot was known to him ( I cannot remeber where I got this from but it is something I picked up along the way),Rav Kapach shows his thourough knowledge of Rav Saadyah though he disagrees with him. We know that the writings of R. Shmuel ben Hofni were well known in spain as Ibn Ezra quotes him extensively. R, Shmuel hanagid and his predecessors r. Hanoch and R. Moshe from the arba'ah shevuyim fame must have brought the Yeshivot of Bavel's theology to Spain. There is also no question that the Arab aristotlians had a great impact saee Shlomo Pines intro to MN.

    Prof. Wolfson did some work in this area though he is a little too technical for me.

  8. >Rav Kapach shows his thourough knowledge of Rav Saadyah though he disagrees with him

    I was not clear. He dialogs with R. Saadyah and sometimes disagrees.

  9. "Just accept that there is a God that may or may not be physical, that sometimes gets angry at other times not, He is one but we do not exactly know what that means (one God or unique?) and so on."

    Come now, the Emuna pshuta folks dont believe any of these things

  10. David,
    Is there any reference to Rashi in Rambam's writings?
    There is a letter where the Rambam recommends the perush of Ibn Ezra.I don't remember whether he mentions Rashi in that letter.
    In any case,some claim that the letter is a forgery.

  11. I agree with you in disagreeing with the approach of "... it is a goal to work on oneself not to ask questions, ignore reality and deny our rational capacity". On the thread in "A Simple Jew", I've quoted Rav Wolbe(2nd volume Alie Shur, Vaadim on Emunah) that even within Emunah Peshutah, there is room for sophistication.

    I think that there is a place for both, properly understood. Ravad I(author of Sefer Hakabbalah) writes in the preface to his philosophical treatise Emunah Ramah that people without a philosophical inclination should ignore his work, and others like it because, after all, “the purpose of philosophy is action”, and such people would benefit most from solely relying on the tradition. Nevertheless, the Ravad continues to say that he is writing his sefer for those who could benefit from it.

  12. Ytschak, Ithe letter you mention is a forgery according to most. Re Rashi, I vaguely remember that Rabbeinu Avraham the son mentions Rashi. I do not think Rambam does. But Lo ra'iti eina reayah.

    Baruch, The Ravad is probably talking about the simple people who Rambam also says in the continuation of the piece that I quote. i did not bring because he makes clear that is for those who have no ability.

  13. Emunah Peshutah can be defined as the realization that G-d is so great that we cannot fully (or perhaps at all) comprehend Him. We, however, believe that He exists and is a factor in our lives and the Manhig of the World. This does not deny intellectual relfection but makes it secondary to this conviction which we choose to uphold as matter of faith. It presupposes that we can only grasp the Truth only partially by reason and that is why faith is superior to reason.

    Rebbe Nachman defined emunah peshutah not as the opposite of hakirah but as the opposite of doubt. Since hakirah provokes doubt, he advocates hakirah only for the Rebbe who struggles with the forces of doubt and concealment on the behalf of his followers.

    On partial truth see

  14. >he advocates hakirah only for the Rebbe who struggles with the forces of doubt and concealment on the behalf of his followers.

    Explain how that differs from the one who supposedly died for the sake of man? How can the rebbe's understanding help me?

    This is the first time I heard it put that way. I was used to the Rebbe's elevating and taking his chassidim with him (Noam Elimelech style) I understood it that he somehow passes along some of his teachings and by his authority the person accepts it. The stories of the simple am ha'aretz who could hardly read was the paradigm of those the Rebbe could elevate. Your scenario is dangerous and smacks of SZ who went to the Tume'ah to be Ma'aleh it and took with him many of our compatriots.

    I also do not understand what you mean by half Hakirah. I understand that the point of Hakirah is to really know why we cannot fathom HKBH. You are saying that Hakirah is to Know that we do know Him but because it is so difficult we leave it to the Rebbe? So the Rebbe does know the Mahut of HKBH?

    I really do not get what this is all about. i guess if you want to accept that HKBH is Eino Guf, Yodeah Rotzeh etc... without knowing what it means you will get some olam Haba but it certainly will not be the kind that Itrotehem Berashehem ( see Hil Teshuva at the end).

  15. Maimonides says: "My son, so long as you are engaged in studying the Mathematical Sciences and Logic, you belong to those who go round about the palace in search of the gate."

    Someone limited to science is clearly outside the gate.

    Upon learning physics, a person has entered the hall. After completing the study of natural philosophy, one has actually started to master metaphysics (and are inside).

  16. >Someone limited to science is clearly outside the gate.

    Upon learning physics, a person has entered the hall. After completing the study of natural philosophy, one has actually started to master metaphysics (and are inside).

    I believe you are paraphrasing with your interpretation. But what is your point?

  17. The point throughout the writings of the Rambam is this. We are not out to prove G-D's existence, in order to bolster religion against the critics (such as atheism, agnosticism and/or Darwinism). This is their claim.

    On the contrary, Science was/is viewed (by the Rambam) as an actual part of the (beginning of the) knowing G-D requirement/ process. Thus, proving the existence of G-D is undertaken with the pre-existing conclusion we have already made... namely that G-D does exist. It is up to us to reveal him. It is an exercise which studies his works (i.e.: that which is observable in the universe), in order to connect/know him. Thus, learning science and eventually phsyics is a requirement for the real knowing (getting closer to an understanding) of G-D.

    The ultimate conclusion of this exercise (according to Rambam) sometimes did result in prophecy, like the one who sat and meditated on nothing but G-D for 40 days.

    The concept of na'aseh w'nishma is thus misunderstood here. It was never meant to disuade us from scientifically studying Him, as is required.

  18. Anonymous, I agree with everything you say and you succinctly make the point. I question though the one thing you say "Thus, proving the existence of G-D is undertaken with the pre-existing conclusion we have already made... namely that G-D does exist" How do you explain Hil Yesodei Hatorah 1:6 Veyediat davar zeh mitzvat asseh, when yediat davar zeh includes sheyesh sham matzuy rishon? Also his effort in MN part 2 , the first several chapters deal with proving the existence of God even if we do not prove that He created the world in time. Is that not an exercise in mitzvat Yediat Hashem and not just to answer those who doubt? i see those perakim as explaining the forst few halachot in Yesodei Hatorah. I think Prof Ze'ev Harvey described MN as the gemara in hil de'ot of Mishne Torah which is the Mishna .

  19. >gemara in hil de'ot

    I meant in sefer Hamada.

  20. The relationship between Rebbe Nachman and lehavdil Shabbesai Tsvi is complex. Suffices to say that Rebbe Nachman saw as a part of his task the tikkun of ST. Yehuda Liebes hh written a lot about this. See also

    The reason that you have difficulty uderstanding these approaches is that you think completely in Rambam's terms. That is, of course, completely laudatory and legitimate; however, it does close the gates of understanding (not only of agreeing) of much subsequent thought.

    The real question is: "Can the Rambam still be a sole and sufficient guide in a world that has moved so far beyond him in technical philosophy and in religious thought?".

  21. >The real question is: "Can the Rambam still be a sole and sufficient guide in a world that has moved so far beyond him in technical philosophy and in religious thought?".

    I think s and I have been doing that in the last few years. i find that if properly understood he is the only one that stands up to that test.I am currently intrigued with Rav Kook. I am working on his Orot Hakodesh and the early stages seem quite interesting and are quite compatible with how i understand Rambam. As I develop this further i will write about it.

  22. Eagle Wannabe - previously anonymous2/13/2007 9:06 PM


    Of course it is all about knowing. We totally agree מֵאָה אָחוּז.

    Regarding the Avakesh's idea: "Can the Rambam still be a sole and sufficient guide in a world that has moved so far beyond him in technical philosophy and in religious thought?".

    I am totally baffled by Avekesh's entire assertion, question and premises. With all due respect, none it makes any sense to me.

    At any rate, it was a great post. But what more can be added to such an awesome post?

  23. How about "great" Eagle wannabe. LOL.

    Hanesher hagadol.

  24. The Great Eagle Wanna-be2/13/2007 11:27 PM

    Okay. Fine. HaNesher haGadol (wanna-be) it is.

    Might it now be appropriate to start a rip-roaring discussion on "how to prove G-D" ? It seems that none of the philosophically challenged individuals of our times is technically or religiously up for the task.

    I just got finished with this topic on a different board. The bottom line was that rabbi Ibn Paquda's logical proof (around the 11th century), listed in "Duties of the Heart", was unbeatable. HOWEVER, it required one given. This given is that this universe has not always existed (i.e.: it started at some time for some reason). This given also discluded the possibility of multiverses.

    This isn't such a stretch, as even Aristotle didn't claim to prove an eternal universe. Rather, he claimed to argue in favor of an eternal universe, by presenting (I believe 8) different arguments (none of which were bought by the Rambam). Also, Aristotle deliberately avoids words like proof and evidence. This is significant. Thus, it seems that Aristotle knew it was unprovable. So there is no reason why rabbi Ibn Paquda (or anyone else) couldn't (or shouldn't have) used it as a given (either way) in the proof of a Designer/Creator.

    Also, with the current trend in recent science (i.e.: the big bang) and earlier arguments for a started universe (by Newton himself), the argument now has a real chance of being considered amongst a wider variety of scholars. If you want, I can present that argument here.

    Or if this is not the direction you wanted to take, we can go another way. Either way, may we all merit to adhere to the important commandment of KNOWING (G-D); and that He exists.

    Shavua tuv
    The Great Eagle (wanna-be)

  25. Nesher Wanna-be2/13/2007 11:29 PM

    Truth be told: almost everything in r. Ibn Paquda's proof is also covered in the Guide (somewhere).

  26. Nesher wanna be, If you want to post on the subjectI would very much appreciate it. Email me.

    Rambam says about the same you do re Ibn Pakuda's type of proof in the last paragraph of MN 1:76 and in the preceding chapters.

    His strongest proof in my opinion is the First Cause and I posted on it earlier.

  27. Nesher Wannabe2/14/2007 11:35 AM

    "There are three premises from which it can be deduced that the world has a creator, Who brought it into existence from nonexistence:

    1- A thing does not make itself
    2- Causes are limited in number; since their number is limited, they must have a first cause before which there is no other.
    3- Anything that is composite was brought into existence.

    After these three premises are established, the inference to be drawn from them-- by one who knows how to apply them and combine them-- will be that the world has a Creator, Who brought it into existence from nonexistence..."

    (Duties of the Heart - 11th century)

    The rMb"M zs"l also states the following:

    “Convincing proof of design in the universe is to be found in the motion of the spheres and in the fixed positions of the stars in the spheres. It will therefore be found that all the prophets point to the stars and spheres to prove the existence of a Divine Being. Isaiah says ‘Lift up your eyes on high and behold who has created these things’. For this reason you find all the Prophets point to the spheres and stars when they want to prove that there must exist a Divine Being. Thus Abraham reflected on the stars, as is well known; Isaiah Xl. 26 exhorts us to learn from them the existence of G-D, and says, “Lift up your eyes on high, and behold who hath created these things” . Jeremiah calls G-D ‘The maker of heavens”, Abraham calls Him “The G-D of the heavens” --Gen xxiv”

  28. 1- A thing does not make itself

    I am not sure how that proves anything. Who made God?

    Re 2 - I am not sure why we cannot have causes ad infinitum.

    Re 3- So therefore there must be one entity that is not a composite that causes and is not caused. Combining 1 and 3 you have something.

    Re Rambam and the stars it is one of the proofs which I believe is the weakest nowadays. First it does not prove design at all once gravity is part of the equation. second rambam uses it as an add on because he insists that we have to prove God's existence without resorting to see Him as creator.

  29. Nesher Wannabe2/14/2007 9:14 PM


    The Rambam answers each one. Are you playing the skeptic on purpose? No matter (pun intended).

    The proof does not work alone - as you said. No one part can be used (by itself). Rather, they all need each other.

    #1: Who mentioned G-D? The first part of the proof (only) addresses observable, (usually) physical things. This is covered in chapter 12 (part 2) of the Guide. At this point, incorporeal categories (such as a first cause or G-D) are not addressed by the proof. Upon observing the existence of things, logic and science dictate that every thing (we can observe) was not caused to exist by itself. I am unaware of anything that ever caused itself to exist. I have thought of cells (which divide and multiply) or amebas. But I am sure they also do not cause themselves to exist.

    #2: I think that cause and effect is a straight forward concept. According to Rambam, the "immediate" efficient cause of a thing may again be the effect of some cause, and so on, but not adinfinitum. I don't deny that. However, this must be started by a first cause, which is the true cause of the product, and whose existence is not due to another cause.

    I think this is supported by observation, natural science, Aristotle, physics and logic. Ultimately, everything can be (or should be able to be) traced to a lead cause.

    There may be other contributors, but there is always some initial causing agent. Cause and effect.

    #3: Yes, number 1 and 3 work together.

    Regarding your last comment. I am baffled. We have to prove that G-D exists, without seeing him as the Creator. I thought the whole point was to prove an incorporeal Creator (or designer - as they say in Science). Nevermind that He is G-D (at first).

    I agree with you, regarding the STAR stuff (from the Rambam). However, something tells me that I do not yet know enough to make that assessment. More science, physics and astronomy is required on my part.

    Good stuff.

  30. >I thought the whole point was to prove an incorporeal Creator (or designer - as they say in Science). Nevermind that He is G-D (at first).

    We need to prove a First Cause not necessarily a creator or designer. That second part is an ontological acceptance rather than provable. Will is something we append to God without empirical proof. I have written on that in various posts see the one on Stephen Hawking and others in the same label(belief). Let me know if I did not make the point clear and I will try to clarify in coming posts. See also at Hakirah my two articles in vol 1 and 3 where this issue is discussed.

    I was not playing the skeptic. I am not one. I just wanted to make a point that before we embark on finding a proof, we need to define what we are trying to prove. Existence of God is not the same as Creator. Aristotle's God had no will and choice but is the First Cause. That differentiation is not clear to everybody and is the cause of skepticism. Stephen Hawking believes in a First Cause, he sees it as a singularity or a spiritual being. Which it is, is decided by religion not science.