Beit Midrash

  • Jewish Laws and Thoughts
  • Having Faith in Hashem
To dedicate this lesson
Translated by Hillel Fendel

What Is Emuna & How To Get It


Rabbi Chaim Avihau Schwartz

Adar 7 5781
I. Emuna - the Very Essence of Life

In the Aleinu prayer, we recite this cardinal Torah verse: "And you shall know today, and take it to your heart, that G-d is the Supreme Being in the heavens above and on earth below" (D'varim 4,39). This arouses an important question: How is it possible to know G-d, given that, as the Kabbalah teaches, "no thought can contain Him"?

The answer is that "knowing G-d" means to know His actions, the way He reveals Himself in the world, and His ties and bonds that He formed with His creations. All this is the study of emuna [often mistranslated as faith].

What is emuna? Is it an intellectual perception of G-d? Is it a deep emotional experience? Could it be a combination of both?

Emuna is the very essence of life. The Prophet Habbakuk stated: "A righteous man – with his emuna he will live"(2,4). That is, his emuna is his very life, and not just an addendum to his existence. Intellect is an addendum to life, as are emotions, and as is imagination. But emuna, on the other hand, is truly life itself. It is our very bond, as created human beings, to the Creator, to the Source of life, to the Source of all. We are bound together by faith.

What, then, is the place of intellect and our emotions? These are of course very important forces, but they are no more than utensils by which we can express ourselves and our essence. Emuna is that which is expressed in our intellect and emotions – but it itself is much deeper than they are.

As such, the study of emuna demands that we study in great depth the essence of our life, and that we recognize its true value.

II. Emuna Studies 101: Understanding the Value of the Nation of Israel

Just as in every discipline in Torah study, we cannot learn emuna however we wish, but only as we were taught and guided by the great Torah giants of Israel. The renowned Gaon of Vilna used to say, as related by his student Rav Yisrael of Shklov, that "the Sefer HaKuzari should be studied – for it is holy and pure and includes the foremost fundamentals of Israel's emuna and Torah."

The Kuzari, as the work is often known, was written by Rav Yehuda HaLevy some 900 years ago in the form of a dialogue between a rabbi and a pagan king, and is considered among the most important works of Torah philosophy.

Why is the Kuzari so special? There are, after all, many works dealing with the issues of Torah thought; why did the Vilna Gaon single this one out as teaching the foremost fundamentals of Israel's emuna and Torah?

Note that the unique aspect of the Kuzari that the Gaon of Vilna specifically emphasized is "Israel's emuna and Torah." This tells us that the basis of emuna studies must deal with understanding the true worth and significance of the Nation of Israel. There are various levels and stages in studying emuna, but the elementary and beginning thereof is none other than the study of Am Yisrael, the Jewish People.

III. The Jewish Nation's Unique Levels of Life and Emuna

"A righteous man – with his emuna he will live." Every person has his individual level of emuna, according to the level of his soul, of his life. In a certain sense, every righteous person has his own "emuna," i.e., the degree of his connection between himself and the Master of the World. (This does not mean, of course, that every individual can say, "to each his own beliefs…," as we too often hear.)

What is true for the individual is true for the nation as well. The entirety of the Nation of Israel has a particular level of emuna – very different than that of other peoples. The emuna of the Gentiles, in fact, intersects not a bit with that of Israel! This is because Israel's emuna essentially means our bonds of life with the Source of life. Our individual lives are actually the life of the Nation of Israel; they are not independent of our nation, but are rather within the context of bonds with the People of Israel, in the life force that our souls draw from the Nation of Israel. As a result, it is incumbent upon us to learn about this Nation's uniqueness, to understand what is the Nation of Israel.

The first section of the Kuzari chiefly revolves around this very point: the clarification of what precisely comprises the uniqueness of the life of Israel. This is the foundation of the study of emuna.

With this understanding, we can explain the above verse as follows: "A righteous man – with his emuna he will live" – The "righteous man" is actually the Congregation of Israel. The classic commentator Rashi says as much in several places, that when the word tzaddik, "righteous man," is mentioned in Psalms, the reference is to Israel.

For instance: "The tzaddik will flourish like a palm tree" (92,13), and "the horns of the tzaddik shall be exalted" (75,11) – Rashi explains that these are referring to Israel, the "tzaddik of the world," who is none other than Israel! "A righteous man – with his emuna he will live" means that the Nation of Israel has a special high level of emuna of its own, a level of life, a bond of life to the Source of life – a level that is unique to Israel.

IV. The Kuzari: Clarifying the Emuna of Israel

With this, we now understand the great importance that the Vilna Gaon attributed to the study of the principles of emuna, specifically via the Sefer HaKuzari. It is because of "Israel's emuna and Torah" that is emphasized herein – the unique bonds between the Jewish nation and G-d. The special level of connection between them is the level of basic emuna of each and every Jewish person. If we build the foundation of our emuna only like any healthy, upright nation seeking a connection with G-d, who happens to find a path of connectivity between its soul and G-d – we are missing the point! Our true emuna and life-level that is unique to us will be lost!
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