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Rational Belief

Rational Belief

Should acceptance of the Torah be based more on evidence, or more on faith? The answer: It depends.


Judaism has two seemingly contradictory sources dealing with a fundamental question of Shavuot. Should our acceptance of Torah be based on a blind faith ― or on a rational intellectual basis?

Source #1 ― "Duties Of The Heart," by Rebbeinu Bechaye (11th century Spain):

Are you to accept [Jewish ideals] on the authority of those (rabbis) learned in Torah and tradition ― and exclusively rely on their traditions?

On the contrary! The Torah expressly bids you to reflect and exercise your intellect on such themes. After you have attained knowledge by the method of tradition, which covers all the precepts of law, you should investigate with your reason, understanding, and judgement until the truth becomes clear to you and false ideas are dispelled; as it is written, "Know this day and lay it on your heart, that the Lord, He is God" (Deut. 4:39). This admonition refers to everything in which rational methods of investigation can be used.

Source #2 – Midrash Sifri, Deut. ch. 33

When God was ready to give the Torah, He first went to all the nations of the world and offered it to them. One after another, the nations all asked, "What's written in the Torah?"

Finally God went and offered the Torah to the Jewish people. They accepted it sight-unseen, as the Torah says (Exodus 24:7): "We will first do the Torah, and then we will understand it."

There are essentially two questions which these sources raise:

Question #1 ― "We will do, and then we will understand" does not seem sensible. What intelligent person would ever commit to a system which he or she does not yet understand? Shouldn't the Jews have said, "We will understand, and only then we will do"?

Question #2 ― How could the first source state so clearly that acceptance of Judaism is dependent on an intellectual process? Doesn't this directly contradict the verse in the Torah which says "we will do and then we will understand?"

God's Track Record

The answer is that both sources are valid, but they are referring to two different situations.

When a person goes to a trusted family doctor, he will not question the recommended treatment. Similarly, by the time the Jewish people were standing at Mount Sinai, they already had an ongoing, trusting relationship with God. They had personally witnessed the Ten Plagues in Egypt, the splitting of the Red Sea, and the Manna miraculously falling from heaven. They knew clearly that God runs the world and that He wants only our good. Therefore, when He offered the Jews a guidebook for all of life, there was no doubt that they wanted it ― whatever it may contain.

Actually, the order of "we will do, and then we will understand" is the only logical way the Jewish people could have accepted Torah. If they would have said, "Let us read the Torah first, and then we will decide whether or not we want to accept it," that in and of itself would have been a rejection of the Torah! They would have in effect been saying, "We are only interested in accepting a system of moral guidelines from God if it is convenient and comfortable for us."

The Role of Rational Acceptance

Given this explanation, how are we to understand the emphasis on rational acceptance of the Torah which the first source ("Duties of the Heart") expresses?

The key is to understand which period of Jewish history we are speaking about. For the generation of Moses, which had an intimate personal awareness of God's power and His love for the Jewish people, it was obvious that they should accept the Torah sight-unseen.

"Duties of the Heart," however, is addressed to all future generations. How are we ― who lack those fundamental formative experiences of the original generation ― expected to relate to the Torah?

The answer is with our minds. We must think, investigate, and clarify to determine our relationship with the Torah.

Given the multitude of possible religions and "paths to God" clamoring for our attention (combined with the human tendency to settle for half-truths, and comfortable compromises to tough questions), we are instructed to rely primarily on our minds for our inquiry into the truth of Torah.

However, as important as intellectual knowledge may be initially ― "Know therefore this day," it must be joined by emotional realization ― "and consider it in your heart."

A complete relationship with God needs both intellect and emotion. "Knowledge of God without feeling" leaves a person disconnected and out of touch with his convictions. "Feeling without knowledge," on the other hand, is the basis for every cult, nationalistic ideology, and charismatic movement in history.

That's why both components together ― intellect and emotion ― are essential to every search for truth and relationship with God.

This Shavuot, let us therefore commit to using our intellect to probe, investigate, inquire and research the depths of God and His Torah, so that we may reach the level of a complete, wholehearted "doing and understanding."

May 14, 2002

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Visitor Comments: 5

(5) Wassim, May 26, 2009 10:09 AM

"A Matter of Trust"

sorry, couldn't resist... It's hard when you're always afraid. You just recover when another belief is betrayed. So break my heart if you must. It's a matter of trust. Billy Joel - Matter of Trust

(4) Ashley Bell, May 26, 2009 1:38 AM

A Matter of Trust

I think you can understand the spirit or nature of a gift upon receiving it & faithfully trust your intuition in the absence of understanding it's being.

(3) Wassim, May 25, 2009 6:28 AM

"Rational Belief" is a defining Jewish characteristic

This is really a great article. I love it when I read something so rare and such a treasure, in my opinion. There was something in my muslim childhood education encouraging us to think about scripture (Quran in that case), but as I got older, I realised that unless you could successfully pass yourself off as a 6 year old, there wasn't really much readiness to debate interpritation or analysis of scripture. As I got older still, images of Jews passionately discussing scripture haunted me and eventually I couldn't resist the lure of that hidden meaning that really is there for all to know, if they bothered to try. This tradition of discussion and debate is not only a method to higher understanding, but also an insurance against apathy (if not ridicule) which is a real threat to any religion. And as human rights become more wide spread, more and more people will question what they've been told, and each person will process it through their own "nonesense-filter". It's great to be able to defend God's existence without needing "scientific" proof. That's another point, don't equate "scientific proof" with "rational". In the realm of unprovable hypothesis, there is only probability, fuzzy logic, and rational belief.

(2) gabriello marchetti, June 11, 2008 8:24 AM

intelectual and feeling aspects

once rabbi rothman said to me : a good heart loves with justice and istinct , mind and fisically togheter . Also for Torah acceptance I think so.

(1) Anonymous, June 2, 2008 11:51 PM

Thank you for your succinct, to-the-point article. Well done. Chag somayach!

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