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Sinai The Binding of Belief and Knowledge

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            One of the difficulties in approaching the Biblical text is that it describes realities that are vastly different than our own. It describes occurrences which are beyond our comprehension. This further extends to the truth of God’s Existence. It is why we, generally, use the world belief in describing our comprehension of the Almighty and the acceptance of miracles. Given the reality of our present world, we cannot know, through rational means, beyond reasonable doubt, of His Existence and cannot honestly fathom the open miracle. In fact, His very Existence challenges the parameters of rational thought for He, by definition, is beyond these parameters. Belief thus 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. We understand it to imply a recognition of God on a different plane, from a different perspective.  As various scholars of Torah explain, it can reflect a perception of our souls; we, spiritually, experience God. There is, though, a hesitation, a vagueness.

            Given this understanding of the use of this term, would it be proper then to say that Adam and Eve simply believed in God? Pursuant to the Biblical text, it would seem clear that Adam and Eve had absolute evidence of God’s Existence. He created them, spoke to them, interrelated with them. Solely applying the term ‘belief’ to Adam and Eve would, indeed, seem strange. It would seem better to say that Adam and Eve had a  knowledge of God through the evidence, beyond a reasonable doubt, which supported the conclusion of His Existence. Their interaction with the world in which they existed was based on knowledge just as our interaction with our world is. There was an absolute rational argument for the acceptance of the Existence of God – albeit, though, that this very conclusion also inherently challenged reason itself. This paradox is what, in fact, defines an important aspect of the Torah experience. In the realm of Torah, reason and belief, both, necessarily exist.
            How do we actually know that our sense of belief informs us of what is true? This is the challenge of belief. There is no argument able to fully substantiate what we believe to be true in the same manner that no argument in itself can negate a belief. Belief is ultimately personal; we believe because we believe. But does that necessarily mean that one’s beliefs are by definition correct? Given the multitude of contradictory beliefs in the world, the answer to this question would be obvious. It is reason which we use to substantiate our perceptions of the truth. It is reason which also must be the basis of any communication between individuals for, while belief is personal, reason, through its objectivity, allows for the communal. Reason and belief both have their limitations. They both also have their purpose. Our existence must thus flow from both reason and belief.
            The chasm between the Existence of God and the nature of humanity furthermore means that He is truly beyond our comprehension. Nevertheless, He Exists – furthermore, actively Exists within our existence. Our base link to Him flows from our attribute of belief, notwithstanding that, as with all human attributes, it demands further contemplation within reason, This is because the very purpose of our existence on this Earth is to grow and the value of this growth is marked in its challenge . To grow means to contemplate, analyze, consider – render thoughtful decisions – and this is only possible with the application of our facilities of reason. This is a further explanation for why there is both belief and reason. This is why Torah demands both reason and belief. It is thus not surprising that the mitzvah of deep analytic Torah study is so fundamental. It demands both reason and belief in its very essence.
            This is why our present world is a challenge to us. The division between the realm of reason and the realm of belief is strong. This does not mean that we can never, in some manner, connect the two but it is challenging. From a Torah perspective, this is a reflection of the challenge of growth and, as such, is defensible and understandable – but nonetheless a challenge which we are to recognize and respect. In the Biblical world, the division between the two realms was not as apparent; this is also why we have some difficulty relating to this world. There was still, though, a challenge even in that world – for a full definition of God’s Existence is incomprehensible to the rational.
             The challenge of the tension of reason and belief is fundamental to our process of growth. The process of Torah is to bring them closer together within the outlook of humanity. There was one moment in history, though, when their ultimate bonding within the perspective of the human being was reached and this was Sinai. In the communal Revelation of Sinai where every individual there was part of an event within the realm of human reality, there was a distinction in the perception and understanding of God which never was repeated. Reason and belief  bonded within this reality to the extent that they can. The Jewish nation thus had no doubt on any level that they were being addressed by God. As Maimonides powerfully declares, Sinai was absolutely unique.
            This, however, was not our endpoint but rather are starting point. It was from the recognition of this ideal that we were to then take action to attempt to re-create Sinai within our lives given the challenges we face. Our modern world is where we now encounter these challenges to which we must respond. Sinai is our ideal which, through Torah, gives us insight into how to respond. It also is the ideal toward which we must strive. The key is that human existence is all about growth and thoughtful development. If we find it difficult and challenging: that is because it is supposed to be!
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Rabbi Benjamin Hecht 
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 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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