A Mitzvah for Non-Believers

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Worshipping together as a community, in the broadest sense of the term “worship,” requires mutual agreement on certain basic principles, such as the nature of the worship and its object. Without minimal uniformity of belief and purpose, people are unable to join together in their sacred tasks. One of those beliefs necessary for a religious community is belief in God, the object of worship. But what should someone unable to assent to that belief do? What does Judaism require of those who do not believe in God?

The question is only partly comprehensible. If someone does not believe in God, why would he care what God demands of him? However, there are degrees of belief and disbelief, and people often fluctuate within that spectrum. Belief is not a yes-or-no proposition but a cycle of varying strengths. Someone who is currently at the bottom of the scale may gain more confidence in his faith in a week, a month or a decade when his experiences and both emotional and intellectual moods have changed. Even someone who seemingly does not believe may want to believe or may be lack certainty in his disbelief. He might want to fulfill whatever religious obligation he can, whether out of caution, desire, habit or deference to another person.

The Rambam (Sefer Ha-Mitzvos, aseih 1; Mishneh Torah, Hilkhos Yesodei Ha-Torah 1:1) lists belief in God as a positive commandment. Others disagree, questioning the circularity of a command to believe in a Commander and the lack of free will in matters of faith. With this second question, the dissenters assert that a commandment implies a choice. Since people cannot choose what to believe, they cannot be commanded to believe.

R. Chasdai Crescas (Or Hashem 2:5:5) proposes a different definition of this commandment. The obligation is not to believe but to try to believe and, if unable, to be disappointed. These are acts and attitudes you can choose to adopt, even if you ultimately fail to achieve complete faith. Others suggest that this was Rambam’s real intent (see Kinas Sofrim to Sefer Ha-Mitzvos, aseih 1; R. Yitzchak Abarbanel, Rosh Amanah, ch. 11 intro. 9).

According to these thinkers, Jews are commanded to try to believe in God. Those blessed with the gift of faith can easily fulfill this commandment, finding God with little intellectual and emotional effort. But such people are still challenged to sustain this belief throughout their lives, despite whatever tragedies they may witness and whatever misfortunes may befall them. No one may believe in himself, in his unwavering faith, because he cannot know what challenges his faith may yet face.

Those unable to believe are still obligated to struggle with faith, to search for answers and attempt to find God. This is every person’s lifelong journey, with its ups and downs of faith. As long as you continue trying, patiently thinking, feeling and exploring, you have done your part, fulfilling the mitzvah of searching for belief in God. Ceasing to argue, stopping to care, giving up on God — that is the real sin.

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of TorahMusings.com, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link of New Jersey, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student serves on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and as Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He also serves on the Editorial Board of Jewish Action magazine and the Board of OU Press. He has published five English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

24 comments

  1. So to explicitly close out your opening paragraph, ipso facto, any Jew who turns up in shul to pray should be accepted. Amen.

  2. I agree although I think we mean two different things when we say it. I believe that non-believers are wrong but still part of the community.

  3. No disagreement on meaning. There are all sorts of people who are wrong, in various ways, within every community.

    על דעת המקום ועל דעת הקהל, בישיבה של מעלה ובישיבה של מטה, אנו מתירין להתפלל עם העבריינים.

  4. Shades of Gray

    Rabbi Yaakov Horowitz wrote about this in Mishpacha in 2007(“Not Yet:Leaving the Door Open”):

    http://www.rabbihorowitz.com/PYes/ArticleDetails.cfm?Book_ID=887&ThisGroup_ID=346&Type=Article

  5. “Ceasing to argue, stopping to care, giving up on God – that is the real sin.”

    Based on what you’re saying, I’d have to conclude that the Jewish blogosphere’s resident skeptics, with their obssesive searching and questioning are unwittingly fulfilling a mitzvah that they least expected to be credited with.

  6. I really like this post, and I think that it has a lot of truth to it, and it’s an approach I’ve adopted myself to understanding this relationship. However, I’m worried that all it does is defer the problem to a different level. Specifically,

    “Others disagree, questioning the circularity of a command to believe in a Commander and the lack of free will in matters of faith.”

    Don’t we have the same circularity here? Why would someone attempt to believe in a Commander either, if they don’t already? That’s the circularity part. The free will part has a similar problem: if someone doesn’t already believe, then why would they attempt to fulfill the commandment? If they did, it would be a completely irrational choice, under any and all senses of an irrational choice. The best way to put it in perspective, of course, is to imagine someone walked up to you on the subway with a Jews for Jesus thing and said “you know you’re commanded to believe in Jesus” and you said “so what? I don’t” and the response was “well have you tried? You should at least try. You are commanded to try.” I know what I would do – I would give them a ridiculous look, walk away, and forget about the incident 3 minutes later at most.

  7. Don’t we have the same circularity here?

    I think the argument comes down to a focus on the decision to be loyal to Judaism. Belief is a consummation of that loyalty, but someone who fails in their attempts to believe nevertheless gets credit for the decision and effort.

    This is not directly an argument for why someone should choose loyalty to Judaism or J4J or whatever else. At most, it says that we still value people despite their difficulties in belief, a fact which might make it more comfortable for them to choose loyalty.

    I’d have to conclude that the Jewish blogosphere’s resident skeptics, with their obssesive searching and questioning are unwittingly fulfilling a mitzvah

    Depends whether they are searching for a connection with the Jewish God, or else searching for arguments with which to draw other people away from Judaism.

  8. excellent post. can you please clarify the reference in Or Hashem. I looked but couldn’t find the citation, thanks

  9. Sorry, it’s 2:5:5, p. 222 in R. Shlomo Fischer’s 1990 edition

  10. Yoel Finkelman

    Yeshayahu Leibowitz once pointed out (probably more than once, if I know him at all) that the Torah requires the atheist to daven minchah just as much as it obligates the believer. Obviously, this fits into his general approach and is neatly, but even if we ignore the context he is, of course, correct, which points to something important but paradoxical, I think

  11. I’m somewhat hesitant to post this link, but I found the story very thought provoking for people of faith.
    KT

    http://www.time.com/time/printout/0,8816,1655720,00.html#

    Mother Teresa’s Crisis of Faith

  12. the Torah requires the atheist to daven minchah just as much as it obligates the believer.

    For me, prayer means to communicate with God. For the atheist, it means to say the syllable “ba”, then the syllable “ruch”, followed by a sequence of several thousand other arbitrary syllables. Only Yeshayahu Leibowitz could fail to see a difference between the two definitions.

  13. Guest: spot on. While outwardly the athiest/agnostic and a believing Jew are the same, what tefilloh means is as different as night and day. Also, the main point here is to try to believe and struggle with belief. Many Jews either don’t try or never tried in the first place, or, never had a chance to try.

    Reb Gil – loit R’ Chasdai Creshcas, would a non-religious Jew who tries to believe in Hashem, even in only in general terms and maybe even laced with personal negios and political correctness, fulfill this mitzvoh? For example, and this is based on a recent opinion column I read in the Toronto Star, that if a person says “I believe in G-d, but not one who would strike the Egyptians with plagues, or would drown them in the Red Sea, or would command us to celebrate such barbarity” is that a kiyum of the mitzvoh.

  14. I really don’t see how one can escape the necessity of having some belief in G-d as a basis for every Mitzva. Trying to believe in G-d may be a worthwhile activity for the non-believer, and G-d may reward his attempt if it is sincere, but the Torah starts with and stays with G-d from beginning to end.

    In terms of the Rambam, my working assumption is the difference between Emunah and Knowledge. Emunah is the starting point, knowledge is the goal. We ‘believe’ in G-d, are loyal to Him and His ways, and stick with Him through thick and thin.

    There is a Mitvah, though, of coming to know G-d as best as we can – through His ways, His briah, His Torah, through davening, etc. The believer is instructed to get a better, deeper, and more sophisticated understanding of who G-d is (so to speak). All attempts to do that are a fulfillment of the Mitvah of knowing G-d.

    [Note – I am not saying that this is necessarily the Rambam’s shitah].

  15. Isn’t it in fact the Rambam’s shita? I don’t have a Rambam with me but I thought the operative verb at the very beginning of Hil. Yesodei HaTorah is “leida” –to know.

    Am I wrong about this? And if I’m not wrong on the facts, Gil why isn’t that the answer to the question on the Rambam — viewing God’s existence as a fact and not a belief would seem to make the commandment non circular and a matter of choice in that if one doesn’t already know, he can find out.

  16. The Rambam has a Mitvah of knowing G-d, but my sense is that he would not define the Mitvah quite like I do. With that said, what I said certainly came from my learning the Rambam and dealing with certain questions on the Rambam such as the above question.

    One point to add, by the way. I don’t think that believe is a great translation of the word Emunah. I think loyal or affirming are better translations.

    I see Emunah as a type of loyalty which stems from affirming that which one has been taught. I affirm that G-d exists and stay loyal to Him because I have been shown and told that He exists. I then have the Mitvah to know Him which is to build upon and deepen that affirmation.

  17. Rafael: loit R’ Chasdai Creshcas, would a non-religious Jew who tries to believe in Hashem, even in only in general terms and maybe even laced with personal negios and political correctness, fulfill this mitzvoh?

    Yes, that is how I understand him.

  18. Carlos: why isn’t that the answer to the question on the Rambam — viewing God’s existence as a fact and not a belief would seem to make the commandment non circular and a matter of choice in that if one doesn’t already know, he can find out

    I don’t see how that solves the circularity issue, although this post doesn’t attempt to solve it anyway. Even though God’s existence is a fact, unless you already accept that fact why would you feel obligated to determine it? And if you do accept it, what’s the point?

  19. Rafael Araujo

    Reb Gil: Yes, that is how I understand him.

    So, according to this, even a “kol shehu”, a “shemetz” of a belief in the existence of Hashem would mikayem this mitzvoh? Interesting. Would you posit that his shita is that the belief, or the attempt to believe has to be constant, or can a person mikayem the mitzvoh b’shaah achas, a “one-time belief”?

  20. >Those unable to believe are still obligated to struggle with faith, to search for answers and attempt to find God. This is every person’s lifelong journey, with its ups and downs of faith. As long as you continue trying, patiently thinking, feeling and exploring, you have done your part, fulfilling the mitzvah of searching for belief in God. Ceasing to argue, stopping to care, giving up on God — that is the real sin.

    Ok, but for how long? Just as a believer at some point realizes he believes, why can’t the same be for the non-believer? At a certain point, a conclusion should be achieved for his active struggle and searching, and realize he simply does not believe.

  21. David Riceman

    See Rabbi Heller’s edition of Sefer HaMitzvot, mitzvah #1, footnote #1.

  22. I used to think Judaism’s goal was that folks should search for *truth* and find it in Judaism…but I was wrong and R’ Gil’s right: It’s not about doing as objective or unbiased a search for truth as possible, but it’s about Jews looking for a certain conclusion: God…but more specifically, frumkeit.

  23. I think that R Gil is correct, but for a slightly different reason. I think that RH, when we proclaim and declare that HaShem is our Father and King, especially Musaf and Tekias Shofar, is a day rooted in our belief in HaShem and challenges us to reenergize our basic beliefs in HaShem , as opposed to YK, which is viewed as a day devoted to Teshuvah Lifnei HaShem. Even someone whose search is rooted in personal negios sooner or later has to confront these core issues.

  24. I guess I don’t fully understand R’ Chasdai’s shitta… if someone made an honest, sincere, rigorous attempt at faith, and it just didn’t work, what imperative is there to believe? I read the original piece, and if I understood it correctly, R’ Chasdai says one cannot be punished for violating principles that one does not and is not obligated to believe in

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