Misunderstanding Belief

It dawned on me not long ago that we frequently confuse the secular concept “belief” with אמונה, Emunah, which can also be translated with the word “belief”.  In the secular sense, believing is equivalent to joining a particular religion.  “Do you believe in Jesus/Allah/Yaweh/Dharma/Great Spirit/Gaia?” is really asking which, if any, spiritual path you follow. Rather than a mode of thought/emotion, it’s a statement of opting in.

In Judaism, belief is independent of identity. אמונה, Emunah, is, indeed a mitzva, a commandment, an act that binds us to The Creator.  It is one of six hundred thirteen mitzvot.  It’s a goal, an ideal, and we’re mandated to continuously engage in this mitzva, not merely check it off once as a membership requirement. And, like all mitzvot, we rise and fall in our observance of it.  And, the mitzva is to believe in God, not to believe in Judaism. There are times that relationship seems effortless and there are times that God seems so distant as to not be perceivable at all. The complacency of taking Emunah, either permanently accepted or permanently rejected, as a given is a dangerous illusion.

The basic fact of one’s Jewishness has nothing to do with one’s belief. Let me repeat this, the basic fact of one’s Jewishness has nothing to do with one’s belief. This reflects the complex reality that Judaism is, indeed, a religion, but it is also a peoplehood.  It’s not a race nor an ethnicity, but it is both a nation and a religion.  Not every Jew participates in the religion (this doesn’t mean that he isn’t mandated to, merely that he doesn’t engage). Many Jews believe and many don’t.  Since God resists definition, even the belief that one Jew holds isn’t identical with the belief another has, not to mention usually not consistent within a single lifetime.

While it is, in one sense, very important what a Jew believes, in another, perhaps deeper one, it doesn’t matter at all. (Although from a communal perspective, people can, and have, “opt out” of their Judaism, but from a soul-based perspective it’s not at all clear.)

By its very nature, belief isn’t limited to logic, nor to objectivity. When the Rambam (Maimonides) lists his principle beliefs, he’s not presenting an in-or-out creed test.  Rather, he’s declaring that, for example, belief in the existence of the Creator,  belief in God’s eternity, belief in the divine origin of the Torah and the like are, for him, inescapable truths which, although they defy logic or empirical observation, are nonetheless, true.

As I’ve mentioned frequently, אמנה, Emunah, is related to the word אומן, Uman, which means an artist or craftsman. It’s unverifiable knowledge and it is always a work in progress.

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8 Responses to Misunderstanding Belief

  1. Ed Pearlman says:

    Great post. We live in a Christian society and Christianity has generally defined the words belief, religion, and faith, on its own terms. When someone asks me about my “faith” I have to take them back to square one.

    • We Jews also frequently conceptualize in Christian terms.

      • I agree and this bothers me.It is often hard to have any kind of meaningful discussion about these kinds of things due to assumptions and misconceptions based on translated words. And even our greatest writers make this mistake – perhaps
        thinking that they must use words that people understand. Emunah should be emunah. It is hard enough to try and understand what this really means without adding foreign conceptualizations.

      • Hebrew, Ivrit, indeed, is the most effective language to describe our Jewish ideas, but we have to deal as best we can with the reality that for a huge percentage of our people Hebrew is still a closed book. It makes for a challenge!

  2. Jacques Ruda says:

    My Mother used to tell us about the last Passover in the Warsaw Ghetto in 1943. Though she was 23, she was the youngest one present and her Father asked her to ask the 4 questions. She refused and instead asked why did they have to die. Her Father replied that he did not know but he believed that G-d had a plan and their deaths would have purpose. His Yarziet is the last day of Passover. My Mother believed that there would not have been a State of Israel without what my parents went through. I think my Grandfather had true emunah. It is my hope we should never face a similar test

  3. Ileanah says:

    Very interesting! Made me stop and think what I really understand as “believe” and “faith”. Such a paradoxical world is the Jewish one! And how wonderful it is that we can wonder about the same issues, generation after generation, adding our personal experiences to the tapestry of definitions.

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