Friday, September 07, 2007

How can one be commanded to believe?

The discussion whether believing in God can be commanded is an old one and already Rambam and Ramban discuss it. Rambam counts it as a Mitzvat Asseh while Ramban notes that the Behag does not, explaining that it is a general principle of accepting the yoke of heaven which is the reason for all Mitzvot. The argument is much more subtle than appears at first blush, as we will see.

As I was driving home last night, it crossed my mind that I could not remember there being a command in Tanach to believe in God. Nowhere is Emunat Hashem a command in the scriptures. I checked in the concordance and confirmed it. There is no such command using the words which have the root אמן in the sense of a commandment related to belief in God. The words used are Yediah as in

אַתָּה הָרְאֵתָ לָדַעַת, כִּי יְהוָה הוּא הָאֱלֹהִים: אֵין עוֹד, מִלְּבַדּוֹ.

35 Unto thee it was shown, that thou might know that the LORD, He is God; there is none else beside Him.

Or love of God as in

ה וְאָהַבְתָּ, אֵת יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, בְּכָל-לְבָבְךָ וּבְכָל-נַפְשְׁךָ, וּבְכָל-מְאֹדֶךָ.
5 And thou shall love the LORD thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might.

Or to fear as in
יג אֶת-יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ תִּירָא, וְאֹתוֹ תַעֲבֹד; וּבִשְׁמוֹ, תִּשָּׁבֵעַ.
13 Thou shall fear the LORD thy God; and Him shall thou serve, and by His name shall thou swear.

Some bloggers where going at it earlier this week where one argued that one does not have to believe as long as one performs Mitzvot while R. Chaim B., ( and the two posts following this one), quoting Ramban and Rabbeinu Yonah argued that without belief where is Kabbalat Malchut Shamayim. I agree with R. Chaim B. but with a different twist. I also believe that I can pinpoint the problem that XGH and some other so-called skeptics are having and the source of their frustration, which comes through loud and clear. Let me explain:

To understand trigonometry and advanced mathematics one needs to know the basics and slowly progress until one gets the more difficult concepts. One certainly cannot comprehend advanced math, which is conceptual, without proper preparation. I do not understand it nor do I even have inkling what exactly it is all about. There is a parallel, though not exactly comparable, with believing in God. Emunah is a state that one has to arrive at. It is not an a priori state but one that a person has to grow into. How he arrives at it, what he believes about God, the God he believes in are the criteria for the kind of believer that person is. It is the goal of the whole Torah, the Mitzvot, the learning, even the Brisker Torah to bring us to some level of Emunah. So what is this process? How do we know that we are not deluding ourselves into believing a fairy tale? That fear, believing in a fantasy, is in fact the greatest challenge and the underlying meaning of Avodah Zara. It is exactly why Chazal tell us that Avodah Zara is the greatest challenge and is the sine qua non of the whole Torah. It is a misunderstanding that it has been eliminated nowadays (see this lucid explanation at ). People still believe in a fairy tale God!

If we look at the way the Torah presents itself to us, we see this process quite clearly. Sinai, the experience that all had of God, is to me like a goal post. It is telling us that we can glimpse where we want to be at the end of the process, know God. It is the goal to strive for and we all can attain a certain level of it. To make sure that we don’t get off the track and fantasize (this is the meaning of the story of the Egel), we are given a process that has to be followed very carefully. If followed properly we will then end up with not only an intellectual but also an experiential belief in God. The process is multifaceted and is composed of Yediah, knowledge, philosophical and theological study and Mitzvot that direct us towards that (Shabbat etc…), while at the same time experiencing God through the action oriented Mitzvot. Intellectually we try to understand an entity that is the ultimate transcendence. One tries to find Him through our environment, the sciences and general observation of all that He caused to exist. At the same time, we accept the yoke of heaven by doing the Mitzvot. I understand that to mean that if we do the Mitzvot thoughtfully, we keep God as the source of the commandment, in our consciousness. It permeates our daily life and is thus the impetus for us to continue with the philosophical/theological quest. It reminds us of it and keeps our minds focused on the search for understanding. We also come to realize that our minds are the connecting link between God and us and the closest experience to a non-physical existence we can experience. Our mind is a ubiquitous part of our existence as man, thus we are always connected with God if we allow ourselves. That is the meaning of fear of God and is the experiential part of the process. Rambam in MN 3:52 explains this:

We do not sit, move, and occupy ourselves when we are alone and at home, in the same manner as we do in the presence of a great king. We speak and open our mouth as we please when we are with the people of our own household and with our relatives, but not so when we are in a royal assembly. If we therefore desire to attain human perfection, and to be truly men of God, we must awake from our sleep, and bear in mind that the great king that is over us, and is always joined to us, is greater than any earthly king, greater than David and Solomon. The king that cleaves to us and embraces us is the Intellect that influences us, and forms the link between us and God. We perceive God by means of that light that He sends down unto us.”

How do we arrive at a state where we feel God’s presence, we experience Him?

“What I have here pointed out to you is the object of all our religious acts. For by [carrying out] all the details of the prescribed practices, and repeating them continually, some excellent men may attain human perfection. They will be filled with respect and reverence towards God; and bearing in mind Who is with them, they will perform their duty. God declares in plain words that it is the object of all religious acts to produce in man fear of God and obedience to His word - the state of mind which we have demonstrated in this chapter for those who desire to know the truth, as being our duty to seek.”

Inducing this feeling of fear of God is the purpose of all the Mitzvot that require us to act. Many of both the positive and negative commandments are there to remind us of God’s ubiquitous presence.

At the same time, we also try to understand God and in that, process is also experiential. It generates a desire to cleave to god. That is described as love of God. (See my recent posts on this)

But the truths which the Law teaches us--the knowledge of God's Existence and Unity--create in us love of God, as we have shown repeatedly. You know how frequently the Law exhorts us to love God.”

It is this dual process that brings us to the ultimate goal.

The two objects, love and fear of God, are acquired by two different means. The love is the result of the truths taught in the Law, including the true knowledge of the Existence of God; whilst fear of God is produced by the practices prescribed in the Law. Note this explanation.”

So coming back to the original question. Yes, there is a commandment to believe in God. However, one cannot be ordered to believe. One can however be commanded to work towards believing. One can be shown a goal and told to now work towards attaining it. Both Rambam and Ramban agree here totally. Kabbalat Ol Malchut Shamayim, is accepting upon oneself the commitment to develop an understanding and a belief in God. That is accomplished through first accepting the strictures of the Mitzvot. They are structured in such a way that if you follow them properly at the end you will find God and not a fantasy. Properly means both the action oriented Mitzvot as well as the intellectual/theological ones. (Much more about this as I discuss Ta’amei Hamitzvot.)[1]

[NOTE added after posting: The astute reader will note that Ramban explains the first mitzvah, Yediat Hashem, as the acceptance of the yoke of heaven while Rambam sees it only in Mitzvah 2, Yichud Hashem, the unity of God. I will discuss that in a separate post.]

Shabbat Shalom

[1] Re the argument in Sefer Hamitzvot, Ramban explains that though he agrees with Rambam he can see the point of Behag. Behag argues that a goal is not a commandment.


  1. I cannot begin to express my gratitude for this post. Simply wonderful. I find it not only wise and informative, I think it is reflective of the hashkafah I was taught when young.

    I believe it deserves wider dissemination and hope you make the different participants in the debate aware of your contribution.

  2. Thank you. I enjoy your comments on the blogs. R. Chaim is a regular visitor as is GH though lately he is so frustrated that i feel for him. I am not sure he is ready to hear reason yet.

  3. your post is an examples of the indirect voluntarism approach - you can influence environment/external action etc. and through that come to believe. this was the #2 hesber in my list of how a command to believe works. Can I be medayek that you are not a fan of direct voluntarism - i.e. you do not believe a person has control over their thought and cannot will themselves to believe?
    P.S. have a kesiva v'chasima tova

  4. I am not sure it is exactly that. It is more in the vein of Ta'amu Ure'u.

    Ketiva Vechatima Tova Gam Lemar.

  5. Great post. I concur with the other commentaters. I think you have very much hit the nail on the head. Its intent to believe that truly matters. Yes everyone has doubts, but in the end, the foundation of a moral existence is the belief that Man is not the measure of all things and that there is an objective goodness that God represents.

  6. I do not comment here as often as I should, but reading this post reminded me why I like your blog so much.

    Ketiva Vechatima Tova!

  7. David S and Mevaseret Thank you for your kind words. i enjoy the writing too and learn a lot when i write. So thank you for reading giving me the impetus to think.

    Ketiva Vechatima Tova to all.