Beit Midrash

To dedicate this lesson

Simple, Relaxed Faith – or Stormy, Questioning Faith?

Three rabbis contemplate emuna [faith] and how it intersects and works alongside knowledge and intellect.


Various Rabbis

Kislev 1 5782
Translated by Hillel Fendel

1. Intellect is not Divinity  Rabbi Zalman Gopin, Guiding Rebbe (Mashpia) in Yeshivat Tomchei Tmimim, Kfar Chabad

Emuna [often (mis)translated as "faith"] is something internal and true within one's soul (neshama), and is above the intellect. The answer to the question posed in the headline depends on how that which brings about emuna is understood.

One possibility is that what brings one to have emuna is when he encounters questions with no answers. The intellect cannot answer questions such as, "How can something make itself?" – yet when a person carefully considers the world around him, he has no choice but to conclude that there is a Creator, even though he doesn't understand how it works. Like the Rambam (Maimonides) writes: "When a person starts to try to figure out these things, he immediately draws backward." The intellect also cannot explain the secret of the existence of the Jewish People, which is an illogical and unreasonable phenomenon. As a result of looking into such questions, he reaches non-intellectual conclusions – faith in a Divine Creator – and this is problematic for him as an intellectual being. Therefore, when it is questions like this that bring one to emuna, it is understandable that questions and doubts will arise.

Another possibility is that emuna means that we, who are intellectual beings, have within us a dimension that is deeper than our intellect. This is the soul (neshama), which is a utensil for emuna. There is a well-known phrase in Hassidic thought that states, "Every sense grasps that which it senses," meaning that every sense holds onto those things that are appropriate for it.

For instance, hands hold material things, the intellect holds abstract things, and the neshama grasps Divinity. Just like it is impossible to grasp an emotion with our hand, similarly we cannot grasp G-dliness with our intellect. Emuna does not negate or oppose human nature; on the contrary, it is its real reality! Emuna is something that sits well in the neshama, which is a utensil for Divinity, and it is precisely that which brings peace and tranquility to the person.

2. Don't Repress! – Rabbi Zamir Cohen, Head of the Hidabrut Organization

There are two types of emuna. One of them begins with doubts and ends with serenity, and the second begins calmly and also ends calmly. Each individual must check himself and his nature to see which type of faith is his, and he should then march in the path that is appropriate for him.

A person whose soul is calm, and who lives his emuna in G-d without being bothered by questions and investigations – need not trouble himself with questions of this type.

However, there are people with stormy souls, always looking to analyze and ask questions – and these must not be ignored. A person of this type must approach experts who deal in these matters, and seek out answers that will restore his volatile soul. For him to ignore or repress his questions is liable to be catastrophic, as is known from various cases.

Emuna, in Hebrew, comes from the same root as the word for trust, and thus means to "give trust." That is, emuna is not just the knowledge that there is a Creator, but also the trust that we place in He Who watches over everything and guides everything for the best.

Emuna is the final destination of both routes mentioned here, both of which end in serenity. And not only does emuna increase serenity, but this very serenity is a test for us to see if we have reached the trait of bitachon, "trust in G-d" to the appropriate degree. Rabbeinu Bachye in his Chovot HaLevavot (Obligations of the Hearts, the chapter on Trust in G-d) writes: "The essence of bitachon is serenity of soul… His heart fully trusts that the one he is trusting will always do what is good and correct for him." That is, the Creator will not necessarily do what the person thinks is best for himself, but rather that which is truly best for him. And we of course all want our life to be run according to what is truly best and right for us, according to what the Divine sees in the future and knows to be best for us.

We thus see that when one's emuna increases, so does his serenity of soul. But there are two ways to get there: The first one is itself calm and serene, while the second one is replete with questions and inquiries – but he who truly seeks the truth, will find it in the end.

3. The Anchor of Simplicity – Rabbi Nissan David Kivac, Mashpia in Breslev

The very phrasing of the headline is what forms the question.

The matter of emuna has two components: Faith and Knowledge. In the most basic manner, faith is something that is beyond the area of mere questions and answers. Its nature is one of t'mimut, simplicity and innocence. Its Hebrew root also means "perfect, whole." One who truly believes is whole-hearted in his faith; he senses it the same way he senses the physical reality around him. However, there is another component: the intellect. When one engages intellectually, this is based by definition on questions, and is liable to lead to stronger questions and doubts.

This is a central topic in the thought of the Baal Shem Tov, but for some reason, it is widely neglected. We must differentiate: Yes, the Torah studied by righteous people is couched in terms of facts, knowledge, and intellectual proofs. This is how emuna is learned, via knowledge. But the very reality of faith can be experienced only with t'mimut and simplicity, without questions. This is why integration of the two is required here.

Rabbe Nachman of Breslev speaks much about this topic, explaining that the root of emuna is emet, truth, which is Daat, knowledge. But if we approach the study of emuna only with our intellect, we are liable to encounter questions, and to quickly leave the field of faith altogether. The correct combination is this: Emuna should build up Daat, and Daat will strengthen Emuna. That is, it is permitted and even desirable to expand our faith by acquiring knowledge, which, by definition, is done by meeting up with questions and the search for answers. One who chooses this path must take heed to define it as "engaging in a search for that which can be understood," while at the same time ensuring that his anchor always remains in the field of emuna t'mimah, complete and unquestioning faith.

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