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Is the concept of faith contrary to the intellect?

It is commonly accepted that belief or faith forms the foundation of the individual’s religious life.  Yet despite many mutual influences…

  1. A.   Faith – Only what has been proven

It is commonly accepted that belief or faith forms the foundation of an individual’s religious life.  Yet despite many mutual influences, the concept of emunah in Judaism (which is often translated as belief or faith) differs in essential ways from the idea of faith found in Christianity.  Thus, it also differs greatly from the commonly accepted concept of faith as found in Western civilization, which Christianity played an essential role in constructing.  ‘Faith’ is generally understood as the acceptance of ideas that it is impossible to prove, or that may even contradict one’s intellect (“I believe despite it being absurd” or: “because it is absurd”).   Against such a view we find that Rabbi Yehuda HaLevi (renowned poet, philosopher, Kabbalist, and scholar of Spanish Jewry, 1075 – 1141) writes in his work The Kuzari (I , 89): “G-d forbid that we should believe in the impossible or in anything that the intellect rejects or sees as impossible.”  That is to say: One of the primary foundations of Jewish faith is that faith must not contradict the intellect.  The Jew is required to believe only that which has been proven to be correct- whether that proof be based purely on the intellectual faculties or historical-factual evidence gathered by the senses.  According to this view we might say that the concept of emunah, faith, is very close to the concepts of “knowing” or “being certain”.  Therefore, insofar as Jewish theology is concerned, “I believe” really means “I know”.

When the truth of a concept or idea is proven, a specific psychological experience develops and accompanies the individual’s realization of that truth.  The psychological experience that accompanies emunah after it has been confirmed as true includes a sense of belonging and calmness that with time transforms into something standardized and potentially even becomes tradition.  Yet we must remember at all times that the foundation of faith lies in the certainty of proof.

The best form of emunah, then, is that which has been clarified by one’s intellect.  Thus, the individual who is capable of intellectual reasoning will never be satisfied with naïve faith.  Instead, he must combine his faith with the totality of his knowing.  Yet all men differ in the level of their intellectual prowess, and therefore Judaism does not demand that each individual clarify faith intellectually.  For some it is enough just to know that faith is based on proofs.

Two additional points should be emphasized: First, not everything that is accepted by the religious public is, in fact, obligatory from the point of view of Jewish belief.  Therefore, it is necessary to study the various writings that deal with Jewish faith in a serious way in order not to include those aspects that, while popular are not necessary.  Second, the individual is not measured by the declared content of his faith, but rather by the values that are expressed in his behavior in a practical way.

  1. B.   Revelation as the source for alternative thought

A Noahide is expected to accept upon himself faith in the Jewish sense of the term.

In order to get an initial idea about this kind of faith, one must first learn history – not only the political, military, and economic histories of the nations, but also and primarily the history of ideas, beliefs and concepts, and thereby examine the spiritual contribution of the Jewish faith throughout general world thought.

Later on, one must be introduced to the tradition of Revelation at Mount Sinai.  It is impossible for one who has never heard of this tradition to imagine a G-d who reveals Himself and watches over all, for it is impossible to break through the mental barrier that nature places before us.

The ordinary person’s thought pattern centers around the assumption that nature is mute, and thus he may arrive at the conclusion that ‘G-d is the First Intellect’ or that ‘Nature is G-d’.  Such thoughts may lead him to discover the world, but not the Creator of the world.  Our Sages of Blessed Memory call a person who lives with this type of consciousness an epikoros, a nonbeliever: “Who is an epikoros? He who says that the world is an automaton.”  That is: the world acts on its own power, automatically.  This is a perfectly normal attitude for one who lives and acts in the natural world.

We find that the idea of revelation is considered paradoxical in the regular line of thought, for there is no natural tendency in the human psyche to accept the idea of a transcendent divinity that is at once beyond all reality and in spite of this finds interest in the minutest details of human behavior.  True, faith is a natural human tendency, implanted in the human psyche.  However, natural faith is not faith in G-d but rather faith in idolatry or paganism, where one forms a deep and sincere religious relationship with the powers of nature that are found within the world, and not outside of it.

The revelation at Mount Sinai broke through the regular patterns of thought and forced the human consciousness to think in a new direction.  We might say that most of mankind’s involvement in the idea of a transcendental divinity stems from the knowledge of this revelation among the peoples of the world.  After the appearance of the prophets of Israel and the spread of their teachings throughout the world during hundreds of years, philosophers arose who found intellectual proofs of the existence of a transcendental G-d.  The goal of their investigations had already been established, and thus the intellect found new avenues that were previously unfathomable.  One could never have said, “I contemplated nature and discovered G-d” had he not heard from the religious traditions that it is possible to speak about a ‘Master of the Universe’.

The verses that speak of the revelation at Mount Sinai make it clear that the event took place on the backdrop of extreme skepticism from those who participated in, and actually experienced, the event.  The Children of Israel found it hard to accept Moses’ mission and they insisted on hearing the Word of G-d directly (Exodus 19:8): “And all the people answered together, and said, All that G-d has spoken we will do.  And Moses returned the words of the people unto G-d.”  This is also what is emphasized in the following verse, in G-d’s answer: “And G-d said unto Moses, Lo, I come unto you in a thick cloud, that the people may hear when I speak with you, and believe you forever.”  In other words: revelation is necessary in order for the people to know that the Law of Moses is true.  This is also how Rashi explains the verse: “I heard that it is their will to hear from You, for he who hears from the messenger is not like he who hears from the king, and we wish to see our King”.  In other words, the messenger is not as credible as the king, for he may add or subtract from his words.  The Children of Israel were not ready to accept any miracle as conclusive proof for the mission of Moses.  Only when they heard the voice of G-d were they convinced.  The sound of the voice of G-d is different in an essential way from any other possible miracle, and it  is a possible way to convince the skeptic. 

  1. C.    The Biblical narrative as historical truth

Another important question that we must ask is: How can we be sure that the biblical story is not simply an invention?

Here we must assume two fundamental principles:

First: Every story that tells of an occurrence that is formative for a given national identity must be true.

For example, how can we know that the French Revolution indeed took place?  We do not need to fly to France and analyze historical documentation.  It is enough to see the imprint that the revolution left on the French nation and on the entire western world in order to be convinced that it happened.  So too with the Holocaust:  We do not believe the Holocaust took place simply because we saw pictures or documentation.  The principle evidence for the occurrence of the Holocaust is the collective trauma that left its impression on the Jewish people.  Anyone who observes the Jewish people from the outside can see that there was a Holocaust, for we act as victims of the Holocaust.

Let us limit this principle and say that there are two types of formative stories: there are stories that deal with the period when the nation already exists and other stories that deal with the period prior to the establishment of the nation.  Only the first kind of story must necessarily hold historical truth, for it is impossible to add a formative story that never happened to an entire nation.  The second type of story, however, did not necessarily take place, for it could be fabricated and then strengthened among the populace by way of propaganda.  The myth surrounding the establishment of the city of Athens by the goddess Athena, for example, is a baseless story because it happened outside the period of Greek history.  But the battle of Troy certainly happened for it is a formative occurrence that took place after the establishment of the Greek nation.  Thus, were the Torah given to the Fathers (Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob) and were we to base our faith on this fact, we could certainly doubt the validity of the story since the people of Israel had not yet then appeared as a nation.

Second: A story that cannot be fabricated must be true.

This is the argument brought in Deuteronomy (Deuteronomy 4: 32):

“Ask now about the former days, long before your time, from the day G-d created human beings on the earth; ask from one end of the heavens to the other.  Has anything as great as this ever happened, or has anything like it ever been heard of?”

The scriptures invite us to investigate the stories of peoples in every part of the world to examine whether indeed such a great thing as this had ever happened or been heard of outside of the Jewish people.  Had it ‘ever happened’- that is, as a true story, and ‘has anything like it ever been heard of’- that is, has such a thing been told even if it never happened.  What is the meaning of this investigation?

“Has any other people heard the voice of G-d speaking out of fire, as you have, and lived?”

That is to say: Your search for any other tradition that speaks of the revelation of the Creator – whether historical or mythological – will be in vain.  It is impossible to invent such a story, for the whole idea of revelation of the Creator is foreign to man’s psyche.  The idea that the Creator of all descended from His supreme place and penetrated into our existence in order to command man to act in a specific manner is not normative.  It never even occurs as a story of fiction.  Thus, it is totally incomprehensible that an entire nation should speak of being exposed to Divine revelation.  Let us put it this way: The only people who conceived of the idea that the Creator of the world speaks are those who claim He spoke to them, and therefore they are speaking truthfully.

Let us illustrate the argument with the following story: A young child who grew up in an entirely Hebrew speaking environment returns home one day and says two sentences in Japanese.  His parents ask him: Who taught you those sentences?  He tells how, on his way home, he met two people with slanted eyes and a big camera and they told him those sentences.  There is no way we could not believe him, for the child has no other source of knowledge regarding those people or sentences.  There are some declarations that are impossible to invent, and therefore they cannot be lies.  So too with revelation: From the period of pre-history until today there has never been a civilization that has conceived a story of revelation of the Creator.  Here we see the centrality of the phenomenon of prophecy in Israel, for it is the foundation of the entire concept of faith. 

Pre-Socratic philosophy serves as a perfect example for the matter at hand:  All of the philosophers of that period were pantheists of different sorts, and they were incapable of rising beyond the boundaries of the cosmos and meeting a transcendental divinity.  In several mythological stories we do find gods that reveal themselves to men, but the stories never describe the G-d who is the Creator of all, who remains transcendental and abstract.  Rather, they speak of minor gods that are, in the end, merely parts of creation itself.  Thus, if there is an entire nation who tells that it experienced an encounter with He who stands outside of the world, that nation is necessarily telling a true story, for such an idea could not have been invented spontaneously.

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About Rabbi Oury Cherki

Rabbi Oury Cherki
Rav Oury Cherki was born in Algeria in 1959 and grew up in France, and he made Aliyah in 1972. He studied at Merkaz Harav Yeshiva, which was founded by Rav Avraham Yitzchak Kook. He performed his military service in the artillery branch of the IDF. He studied with Rav Tzvi Yehuda Kook, Rav Yehuda Leon Ashkenazi (Manitou), Rav Shlomo Binyamin and Achlag. Rav Cherki heads the Israeli department of Machon Meir, and he is the Director of Brit Olam - the Noahide World Center.He teaches in many places throughout Israel. Rav Cherki is the spiritual leader of the "Beth Yehuda" community in Kiryat Moshe (Jerusalem). He has written many books on Jewish thought and philosophy.

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