The Need to Know

It is clear from the Torah that there are obligations of the intellect as well as obligations of action.

I am the Lord your G-d, Who has taken you out of the land of Egypt, from the house of slavery.  You shall not recognize the G-ds of others in My presence.

The first two of the Ten Commandments obligate us to acknowledge G-d’s existence and His involvement in the world, and to deny the existence of any other power.   Every Jew is required to affirm certain truths and to reject falsehood: truth, belief and knowledge are constant themes throughout the Torah.

In the account of the plagues in Egypt, for example, G-d repeatedly states that the purpose of the miracles is to demonstrate certain basic truths about His existence.  G-d brings the first two plagues, “so that you will know that there is none like G-d, our G-d.”  After the fourth plague, He says, “so that you will know that I am G-d in the midst of the land.”  The fifth plague is followed by the statement, “So that you shall know that there is none like Me in all the world.”  The Torah makes it very clear that G-d’s purpose in performing the many miracles surrounding the Exodus was not simply to free the Jews and punish the Egyptians.  The supernatural events that occurred during the Exodus were designed to be an educational experience (albeit, high-impact) for the Egyptians and for the Jews.  They were a graphic demonstration of the true nature of G-d.  It is only because G-d wanted to inform the entire world of certain eternal truths that the Exodus took place in such a dramatic and awe-inspiring way.  G-d could have accomplished the same results much more easily and efficiently by simply removing the Jews from Egypt and placing them in the Promised Land.

Nachmanides, the 13th century Jewish philosopher from Spain, elaborates on this point:

The intent of all the commandments is that we should believe in G-d and admit that He created us; and that is the purpose of the whole of creation…  And G-d’s… only desire in this lower world is that humans should know and acknowledge to G-d that He created us.

Judaism is predicated upon the belief that there are absolute truths that are accessible to human beings.

For this commandment that I command you today — it is not hidden from you and it is not distant.  It is not in heaven, [for you] to say, “Who can ascend to the heaven for us and take it for us, so that we can obey it and fulfill it?”  Nor is it across the sea, to say,  “Who can cross to the other side of the sea for us and take it for us, so that we can obey it and fulfill it?”  Rather, the matter is very near to you — in your mouth and in your heart — to fulfill it.

A philosophy of pluralism or moral relativism, which denies the existence of absolute truths, is unacceptable to Jewish thought; the Torah has very definite moral pronouncements, imperatives and laws.  The belief that all truth is relative, however, pervades modern society.  As noted scholar and social commentator, Allan Bloom writes:

There is one thing a professor can be absolutely certain of: almost every student entering the university believes, or says he believes, that truth is relative.  If this belief is put to the test, one can count on the students’ reaction: they will be uncomprehending.  That anyone should regard the proposition as not self-evident astonishes them, as though one were calling into question 2 + 2 = 4.  These are things you don’t think about.

Although many people profess to believe that there are no absolutes, when challenged, it is clear that deep down they do accept certain absolutes.  I was once traveling from London to Australia, and at about 3.00 a.m., somewhere over Bandar-Seri Begawan we were served breakfast.  As usual, I was served my kosher meal before anyone else received the regular meal.  My neighbor looked at my elaborately wrapped tray and said, “Kosher food, huh?  Well, I don’t believe in absolute truth!”  I replied, “Are you absolutely sure of that?”  — a retort that usually makes the other party stop and think for a moment.  This time, however, my fellow traveler immediately responded, “Ah, but you are using logic.”

“If I understand you correctly,” I answered,  “you are saying that since you do not accept anything as absolutely true, logic is also in doubt.  Therefore, I cannot use logic to refute you.  Is that your claim?”  He confirmed that I was correct in my understanding of his argument.  “Well,” I said, “That is quite logical.”  At that point he realized that even he does accept certain truths as absolute (such as the validity of certain logical rules) and he quickly ended the conversation.

Not only is a relativist often self-deluding, he is often intolerant of those who do believe in absolutes.  The Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom, Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, points out that to the same degree that Judaism rejects pluralism, pluralism rejects Judaism:

Theological, as opposed to political, pluralism presupposes the absence of absolute or normative truth and hence the falsehood of Orthodoxy. Orthodoxy stakes its being on the existence of some truth that transcends the relativities of man. This is the rock on which pluralism founders. Either the Torah is the unmediated word of G-d or it is not. Either Halachah [Jewish law] commands every Jew or it does not. Either G-d speaks to us through history or He does not. Where truth and falsity are at stake, the idea that both sides of a contradiction are true is itself a contradiction…  the [literature] on pluralism proceeds on the explicit or hidden premise that Orthodoxy is false. It could not be otherwise, for if Orthodoxy is true, pluralism would be false. But if so, pluralism is no more tolerant than Orthodoxy.  Each represents a way of viewing the relationship between belief and truth, and each excludes the other.

Many Jewish philosophers maintain that belief in G-d is not a commandment, but a prerequisite to the commandments.  Such a commandment, they explain, would be irrelevant.  For the believer it is unnecessary and for the atheist it is not compelling, since without a commander there can be no commandments!

Maimonides maintains, however, that the obligation to believe in G-d is indeed a commandment.  The key to understanding Maimonides’ point of view can be found in the Hebrew word he uses to describe the nature of this belief.  We must, he says, develop da’at.  Da’at is usually translated as knowledge, but more accurately means the uniting of two entities as one.  The Torah, in fact, uses this word to describe the sexual union of Adam and Eve.  In the context of belief in the principles of faith, the idea of da’at is to completely integrate these concepts into the way we think and see the world, so that the concepts become one with ourselves.  Our knowledge of G-d’s existence should be as clear as the knowledge of our own existence, and as certain as the existence of every physical object in the room.  The quality of knowledge that constitutes da’at is defined by Maimonides in his Guide for the Perplexed:

Knowledge (da’at)… is the conviction that what we know exists outside our minds exactly as it is perceived in our minds.  If we are also convinced that the matter cannot be different at all from what we believe it to be, and that no reasonable argument can be found for the rejection of the belief… then that knowledge is true knowledge.

It appears then, that even according to Maimonides, belief alone is not what is required by the commandment, “I am the Lord, your G-d.”  Rather, it is knowledge of G-d that we are commanded to pursue and achieve.

The Hebrew word for belief, emunah, is closely related to the word for reliability and faithfulness: ne’eman.  Moses is described as “ne’eman,” trustworthy and faithful to G-d.  The simplest explanation of emunah, belief, is that one acts and lives in accordance with the principles of his belief, is faithful to them, and can be trusted.  Very few people go through their entire lives without experiencing times of uncertainty; nor does G-d expect such perfection.  What the Torah does demand is that no matter what the challenges, we continue to act in a way that is consistent with belief in G-d.  At the same time, we constantly strive to reach greater heights of da’at and belief in three primary ways:

  • Fulfillment of the commandments helps us to absorb truths about the world by performing actions that symbolize and demonstrate these truths.  For example, observing the Sabbath demonstrates our belief that the world has a Creator.
  • The study of Torah informs us of the principles of belief, and reinforces and brings the individual to a better understanding of these principles.
  • The study of nature and history shows us Divine wisdom and providence as manifested in the world.

Clearly, none of these methods will automatically bestow upon a person da’at or belief.  It is our task to struggle with, pursue and integrate the ideals of the Torah into our lives. The only limit to our knowledge of G-d is that we are creations, not the Creator.  In the words of the Sages, “If I would know Him, I would be Him.”  Just as an asymptote approaches the Y-axis but never touches it, so we can continuously become closer and closer to G-d even though we will never “touch” Him.

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