Every Jew must believe and know that there is a first existence,1 primal and eternal, which brought all things into existence and continues to sustain them. This is G-d.
As the Ramchal stated in his introduction, he was very selective in his choice of words in composing this work. Every idea or phrase that seems repetitive is actually adding new information, usually an important nuance.
Questions We'll Explore
- The Ramchal is basically stating that "a Jew must believe in G-d who is infinite." So why did he state this in such a complicated way?
- Why only introduce us to the name "G-d" at the end of the paragraph?
- Why say that we "must" (tzarich in Hebrew) believe and know? If we're discussing the mitzvah of belief in G-d, wouldn't it have made more sense to say that every Jew is "obligated" (chayav) to believe and know?
- What is the difference between believing and knowing? Once I know there's a problem with the brakes on my car, it sounds superfluous to say that I believe there's something wrong with them. Isn't belief just a subset of knowledge?
- How can we possibly know with any kind of certainty that G-d exists, much less that G-d is "primal and eternal, which created and continuously sustains everything"?
The Logic of an Infinite Existence
These questions all revolve around one central idea: Infinite existence is logically necessary. The idea of the world existing without having been created by an infinite being is logically impossible. The Ramchal doesn't say that we are obligated to believe because that would be presuming that I already believe, in which case I don't need the obligation! How can G-d command one to believe? If a person already accepts G-d's existence, the commandment is superfluous. If one doesn't accept G-d's existence, then there can be no commandment since one doesn't acknowledge the existence of a commander.
The Ramchal's approach is that one can know that G-d exists through logical premises and deductions. He says so explicitly in 1:1:2. Without any a priori belief system, one can arrive at the knowledge that there is an infinite being that created and continues to sustain all of finite existence. In other words, I must believe it for the same reason that I must believe that the earth is round. It's not simply an "obligation" to believe; I believe it because it makes sense.
What is the difference between believing and knowing? The Hebrew word emunah is often translated as belief or faith. Let's try to nail down some important definitions:
Webster's Dictionary defines faith as "the assent of the mind to the truth of what is declared by another." In other words, a decision to accept something as true, even if it does not necessarily have any rational basis.
If a total stranger approached me and said, "Listen, I'm really stuck. I left my wallet at home this morning. Can you loan me $100? I'll give you my phone number and will pay you back tonight. I promise." I have no evidence that this guy is telling the truth, or that he's giving me his real phone number. If I give him the money, it's because I have faith that he's trustworthy. (I wouldn't recommend it!)
Religions often talk about taking a "leap of faith" to accept their claims. Judaism categorically doesn't, as we will see in the words of the Ramchal. In fact, the word "faith" doesn't even exist in the Hebrew language. Although the Hebrew word emunah is often translated as faith, it would be more accurate to translate it as "belief." Let's see the distinction between these two words.
Webster's defines belief as "the assent of the mind to the truth of a proposition or alleged fact, on the ground of evidence" (emphasis added). In other words, I can believe something if there is a rational reason to believe it. If the guy who wanted to borrow money was my neighbor, there is good reason to think that he's trustworthy. 1) He's borrowed things before and returned them. 2) If tomorrow he denies that I ever lent him the money, he's going to look and feel pretty stupid. It's hard to think he'd do that just to make $100. So I'll lend my neighbor the money, even though I can't say with absolute certainty that he'll pay me back.
Belief is always in degrees. I have strong evidence that the state of Iowa exists, even though I've never been there. I've met people from there. It's occasionally in the news. Imagine if someone claimed that Iowa is a fictional state invented by a conspiracy of mapmakers, and that the people who claim to be from Iowa are all part of this grand conspiracy. I'd be willing to bet lots of money that Iowa exists and that the conspiracy theory is wrong. On the other hand, I don't have such a strong belief that stock X is going to rise 20% over the next six months. My stockbroker may have some evidence, but it's not strong enough to get me to invest all my savings in it.
Webster's defines knowledge as "the clear and certain perception of that which exists, or of truth and fact." I can only know something when I'm very certain – at least as certain as I can be about anything. I know that my father is trustworthy. If my father's a millionaire and we're in a shop that doesn't take credit cards, and he asks me to lend him $100, I know he'll pay me back.2
When the Ramchal says that one must believe and know, what does he mean? He must mean that emunah, the conviction that G-d exists, is a gradual process that starts with belief and slowly moves toward knowledge. It's not all or nothing. A person shouldn't say to himself, Since I don't know with certainty that G-d exists, I can't believe in Him. Rather, a person should look at the evidence for G-d's existence and see if it's more likely to be true than not. If a person is 70% convinced that G-d exists, the Ramchal would call him a believer. That believer's job is then to work out their questions and difficulties and come to a point where the conviction goes from belief to knowledge. The Ramchal is telling us that this degree of clarity regarding G-d's existence is achievable.
The Hebrew word for knowledge, (da'at) also carries a deeper connotation. The first time that the Torah uses this word is in the Garden of Eden, where it says that Adam "knew" his wife (Genesis, 4:1). In that context, knowing is a euphemism for their intimate relationship. Why is it described as "knowledge"?
True knowledge means to form an intimate connection. Just as an intimate connection can exist between husband and wife, it can apply to ideas as well. For example, I can "know" that a fire is hot and can burn me, but it's only when I stick my finger into the fire that I truly know that fire burns. Until that point, my knowledge was theoretical and abstract. Even when we witness someone else burning their hand, we can feel their pain because we emotionally connect to our own knowledge and experience with fire burning.
Is the Ramchal then saying that we can know G-d? Can we probe the mind of an infinite Being? Can we feel and see G-d in the same the way that we can sense physical objects?
That's obviously impossible. How can our physical senses of sight and touch perceive something non-physical? How can a finite being directly perceive the infinite?
Rather, the Ramchal's point is that one can "know," in an integrated real sense, that such a being exists. It means being so intellectually clear on the reality of G-d's existence that it affects your very being. You live with it as a reality. That integration comes, rewardingly, at the end of a long process of asking all the difficult questions:
- How do I know for sure that there is a G-d?
- How do I know G-d is infinite?
- How did G-d create something so finite like physicality?
- Why did G-d create me?
These are the questions the Ramchal will answer to bring us to the level of da'at, knowledge.
"This is G-d"
As we see from this first paragraph, the Ramchal only introduces us to the name "G-d" at the end of the first sentence. Why?
Because "G-d" is just the label for that first infinite existence. Had the Ramchal said, "Every Jew must believe in G-d, who is primal, eternal, etc..," he would essentially be asking you to take a leap of faith. It would be like saying, "You have an obligation to believe in G-d. Now let me tell you what it is you're believing in." Instead, his tone is, "You should believe and know that there is a first infinite cause to creation (because it's logical). We call that infinite cause G-d."
The Ramchal is saying that knowledge of G-d's existence is reachable. One only needs the patience to sort through and clarify the many questions surrounding the idea of an infinite being. The Ramchal will dedicate the rest of Chapter 1 to giving us a true understanding of what infinite is, and what it isn't.
Believing and Knowing
When the Ramchal says that every Jew must "believe and know" that there is an infinite being, he is touching on an age-old controversy among the earlier Jewish sages. There were those who were strongly in favor of using logical proofs to demonstrate G-d's existence, like Bahya Ibn Paquda in Duties of the Heart (see chapter, "The Gate of G-d's Unity").
Others were strongly opposed – for example, the argument of the philosopher to the king, in the Kuzari, by Rabbi Yehuda HaLevy.
Maimonides, in his overview of the 613 mitzvot, Sefer HaMitzvot (Positive Mitzvah #1), says that the mitzvah of emunah is "to believe that there is a first cause." On the other hand, in Mishneh Torah, Maimonides' classic halachic work, he says, "The foundation of all foundations and the pillar of all wisdom is to know that there is a first cause." The Ramchal brings both opinions, presumably for the reasons stated in the commentary above.
Rabbi Kaplan's Switch-Around
An interesting curiosity is that Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, in his original English translation of Derech Hashem for Feldheim publishers, altered the translation of the first line of the book. Instead of saying, "Every Jew must believe and know that there exists a first Being," his translation reads: "Every Jew must know and believe that there exists a first Being."
I don't know what Rabbi Kaplan had in mind, but it was almost certainly not an oversight. One possibility is that he's hinting at this deeper understanding of "knowing" that G-d exists. We can imagine that a person can know something to be true and yet not live with the implications of it at all. A person can "know" that they have a bad habit to overcome, yet they're not even trying to do anything about it. Why?
Rabbi Kaplan might say it's because you don't really believe in what you know. The knowledge is so theoretical and intellectual, so removed from the heart, that it won't affect a person's actions. In which case, by switching the order of the words, Rabbi Kaplan may be saying that you have to first know that G-d exists (intellectually, logically), and then once you know it, you have to allow it to guide your actions and decisions, to live with it as a reality – i.e. believe it.
The Torah itself describes this process of starting with the head and then moving to the heart. Deuteronomy 4:39 states: "And you shall know today and bring it into your hearts, that G-d is the supreme Being in heaven and on the earth beneath, there is no other."
Torah and Epistemology
Among secular European philosophers in the 1700s, a new idea emerged led by David Hume and John Locke called Epistemology, the philosophy of knowledge. They picked up on an interesting question posed centuries earlier by Rene Descartes: At what point can a person say with absolute certainty that they know something?
After all, haven't we all been in situations where we were sure that something was true, only to find out that it was a subtle fault in our logic, or that our minds or senses were playing tricks on us. More fundamentally, haven't we all had dreams that seemed very real? So how do we know we're not just dreaming right now?! When I reach logical conclusions about important things in my life, how seriously can I take them? Maybe I've fooled myself? Maybe I'm really in some sort of a matrix? Maybe this is all just a dream. How do we really know anything?
The Torah would look at such notions and ask a different question: Do you honestly believe that all pursuit of knowledge is futile? Will you never listen to a doctor's advice because you're not absolutely certain that he's right, or not certain that you're not just dreaming that you urgently need medicine? Would an epistemologist get married? Pay bills? Cross the street? Eat food? If not, then I can't imagine that the philosophy that denies all knowledge would last very long. All the epistemologists would die out pretty quickly!
Let's dig a little deeper into the psychology of the epistemologist. When do people start entertaining questions like, "How can I really be sure of anything?" When they're stuck with a proposal that logically locks them into an uncomfortable position. A man who has been happily married to a woman he loves for 30 years doesn't know, with absolute certainty, that she won't poison his dinner one night. But no matter how serious of an epistemologist he is, he'll go home that night and eat dinner without the slightest hesitation.
On the other hand, if this same person has lived as an atheist and then reads a book that convincingly demonstrates to him that there's a G-d, he'll be stuck. His first recourse is to find some logical flaw in the argument. If that fails, then the philosophical quandary, "But how can I really be sure of anything?" can relieve him of having to take the arguments seriously.
The Torah can't expect from a person any more than they really expect of themselves – to take life's questions seriously, to dig for rational answers, and to be honest with ourselves when we discover them. So the Torah's answer to epistemology is: Be consistent. Use the same type of decision-making process for determining G-d's existence as you would any other critical question in life – marriage, career, health. Weigh out the options and do what makes the most sense. Don't intellectually paralyze yourself by demanding to be "100% convinced." Reality doesn't work that way.
- Why does the Ramchal say that one must believe and know that G-d exists?
- Why does the Ramchal end his first statement with "This being is G-d," rather than begin with "One must believe and know that there is a G-d, defined as..."?
- How can Judaism command belief? Aren't you either a believer or you're not?!
- The phrase "first existence" (matzui rishon in Hebrew) is borrowed from the Maimonides' Mishneh Torah. While other translations render the phrase as "First Being," it is important to understand the context of the Ramchal's opening. His intent is to present infinite existence as a logical necessity, and only then to tell us that this infinite existence is a "Being." Calling infinite existence a "Being" is prematurely giving it a personality and a divinity (especially with a capital B!). It is only a later development in the chapter that we begin to identify what we can actually say about such an existence.
- Can we really even be certain of anything? Aren't all of our conclusions subject to possibly being wrong? Especially when dealing with deep and abstract topics, and certainly where there's a plethora of opinions and centuries of controversy! See the Deeper Insights at the end of this essay: "Torah and Epistemology."