Belief and Knowledge
One of the difficulties in approaching the Biblical text is that it describes realities that are vastly different than our own. For example, when we speak of the truth of God’s Existence, we, generally, use the world belief. This is because we cannot, given the reality of our present world, know, beyond reasonable doubt, of His Existence. Belief is the term we use to reflect this lack of scientific, quantifiable, concrete evidence – and so we apply it to any recognition we have of God. But, given this understanding of the use of this term, would it then be proper to say that Adam and Chava [Eve] believed in God? Pursuant to the Biblical text, it would seem clear that Adam and Chava had absolute evidence of God’s Existence. He spoke to them, openly interrelated with them. Applying the term ‘belief’ to Adam and Chava’s relational encounter with God would, indeed, seem strange. It would be accurate to say that Adam and Chava had knowledge of God.
Within Traditional Jewish thought, recognition of this distinction is deemed vital in order to gain a proper understanding of the Biblical text and what it is trying to impart. If we see the individuals in the Bible as having the same perception of the existence of God as we do, based to some degree on some element of faith, we would actually be colouring the described events in a manner that would not be accurate. The lessons then learned from the text could be even incorrect. An excellent example of this would be the story of the binding of Isaac. The event did not demonstrate Avraham’s faith in God – that is to say, how much he believed in God’s Existence – for Avraham had absolute verification of God’s Existence, again and again, through the numerous clear encounters he had with the Deity. The only reason one can read this story as some test of faith is if one projects the present reality of our recognition of the Divine onto the Biblical text. Pursuant to the actual Biblical text, though, there is no issue as to the reality that was before Avraham. There was no question that God ordered him to sacrifice his son – but if that was true, how are we to understand Avraham’s dilemma given that the issue of faith in God’s Existence and Being was a non-factor?
In general, the modern issue of religion is perceived to revolve around the acceptance of the deity: do you believe or not? In many faiths, the essential issue of the religion centres on whether one has the proper beliefs or not. This is not so within the classical Jewish thought system emerging from Talmudic study. There are numerous sources that point to the legitimacy of doubt and verify that the honest rejection of the fundamental principles of the religion is not necessarily a sinful act. The real issue of free choice within classical Jewish thought actually emerges once there is no question about the veracity of the facts. Within Jewish Law, for example, one is only held accountable, by the courts, for a violation of the law (with some limited exception for reasons of law and order) if the perpetrator clearly accepted as true that God directed one not to perform this act. It is the non-observance of God’s directive -- as one fully accepts that this is, indeed, the directive of God -- that makes one culpable.
The question then emerges: why would anyone violate the word of God knowing it full well to be indeed His word? The concept of faith emerges for it provides an answer to this question. It can explain why one would not listen to God because, absent absolute proof that God so commanded, one can offer an explanation for a violation – I don’t believe that God so commanded. What choice would a person really have if he/she knew for certain that God did so command? How could you explain why one would act contrary to God’s Will, knowing full well that it is God’s Will and the full results and consequences of such a violation? Think about it – what then really was Avraham’s choice? Absolutely certain that God indeed commanded him to sacrifice Isaac and knowing full well Who God is, what really was Avraham’s choice? In regard to Adam and Chava, for example, popular mythology have turned them into impulsive, childish individuals in order to explain how they possibly could not have listened to God. Within Jewish thought, however, given that Adam and Chava actually, as direct creations of God, were brilliant and most mature individuals, such a perception is unacceptable. There is actually nothing in the text that supports a hypothesis of immaturity while there are indications of their intelligence. Why then they did not listen to God, thus, truly demands investigation (see further my article Tree of Knowledge at http://www.nishma.org/articles/journal/tree3.htm.) To similarly understand Avraham’s dilemma and the exceptional nature of Avraham’s response is also really what the story of the binding of Isaac is all about – but you can only approach this properly if you recognize that the subject of faith is not a factor in this story.
As I often state in my classes, if I heard a voice telling me to sacrifice my son, what I would do is go straight to some psychiatric centre and ask them to admit me. Avraham did not do so (figuratively, of course) because he absolutely knew that this instruction came from God. His issue was not faith; it was how to relate to this clear directive from God which he knew to be absolutely true. There was a problem but it was not concerning what he was going to do, or not do. That, given the actual reality of the situation, could not really be the essential issue. It was about how he was to relate to this directive. It was about his understanding of God as this directive contradicted everything else that he knew about Him. If one studies the Torah perspective on this story, one will learn these various issues which Avraham confronted in attempting to meet this powerful challenge of thought which God presented to him. The journey of Judaism is not really about faith; it is about knowledge and our human growth through the incorporation into our being of the Wisdom of God. It is about the challenges of thought with which each of us must struggle, (even given our present limitations of faith) in attempting to comprehend, relate and incorporate God’s Wisdom, as best we can, into our beings.
Rabbi Benjamin Hecht is the Founding Director of Nishma, which fosters the critical investigation of contemporary issues. For further info, see www.nishma.org and nishmablog.blogspot.com. You can follow Rabbi Hecht on Twitter @NishmaTorah.
Rabbi Benjamin Hecht is a periodic blogger for Jewish Values Online. You can find his other blog entries in the index of blogs. Rabbi Hecht has been a Panelist for Jewish Values Online for several years, responding to questions. You can find his answers by visiting Jewish Values Online, selecting the ‘View all panelists’ link, and clicking his name. A link will appear with his bio to show all answers he has submitted..
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