May 27, 2022 |

To Know and To Believe

Of all the things we have once learned, there are some that we have completely forgotten. We once new passable French or how to tie a sailor's knot, or this guy we went to elementary school with, but we no longer have access to those files in our brains. Then, there are those things that we sort of think we remember, but we're not really sure. Like what happened in Lord of the Flies, or what our first kiss was like. Moving on, there are things that we really DO know and remember, but we don't think about all the time, like what our children's first words were or how to act appropriately in public. Finally, there are things that we think about ALL the time. Not only do we know them, but they are with us constantly, like 'how much money do I have in the bank?', 'is this the right job for me?', 'you are my best friend'.

A great example of this final category is a woman who takes her small child to a public playground. She does not want to hang over him all the time, so she sits on a park bench and glances at a magazine or talks to another mom. But there is a real danger that her 2 year old might hurt himself on the equipment, wander out of the park or, God forbid, be taken by a stranger. So, she is constantly keeping her eye on him, maintaining her lines of sight and checking in frequently. She may be nervous or not, but there is no moment in her consciousness that does not hover and flit around the question of "where is my child right now?"

I'd like to believe that certain questions of knowledge and identity are like this for us. "I am a proud Jew" or "I believe in God and the mission of the Jewish people" are these kinds of consciousness. But I think we are afflicted with a kind of attention-deficit disorder and assailed by distractions of all shapes and sizes so that these kinds of perpetual perception, or constant consciousness, are in doubt. Perhaps our minds are really filled with white noise and we need to tune them into a clearer HD spiritual channel.

Let me digress for a moment and try to bring this idea out from a different perspective: Moses Maimonides, known respectfully as the Rambam, was one of the greatest Jews of all time. He was born in Spain in 1135 and died in Egypt in 1204. He was an incredible polymath and used his skills to become an illustrious physician (in the vizier's court), a philosopher (still studied in grad schools today), a scholar of Jewish law, a poet, a people's Rabbi etc. etc.

When Maimonides bent his prodigious organizational skills to simplifying, mapping out and indexing all of Jewish law, he created a code of 14 separate volumes under which every one of the 613 laws could find a home. Counter to tradition, he began the first book of his magnum opus[1] with the Book of Knowledge (sefer ha-Mada). This book began with a series of laws called "the foundations of the Torah." Like a good scientist or philosopher, Maimonides wanted to put first things first, major principles followed by corollaries etc. In his opening passage, he states the primary credo of Judaism:

"It is the foundation of all foundations and the pillar of all wisdom to know (lei'da[2]) that there is a First Being and He made to be all that is."

Though said philosophically, this seems no different than what we say in the Ten Commandments: "I am the Lord your God" and in our prayers each day: "Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One." However, Rambam's formulation expresses our belief in God in terms of "knowledge", that every Jew on a fundamental level should "know" that there is a God. He does not use the Hebrew words for belief or trust, but that of intellectual perception.

Now, the Rambam also wrote a summary work (one volume instead of 14) of the 613 commandments called "the Book of Mitzvot." In this work - intriguingly - he writes the first mitzvah of Judaism differently:

"The first commandment is the command that He commanded us to believe (l'ha'amin) God, that we should believe that there is a source (?) and cause that activated all creation..."

So, which is it, Dr. Mr. Rabbi Maimonides? Do we need to believe or to know? They are NOT the same.[3] Is it a matter of the heart or a matter of the mind? Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik (known as "The Rov"), in his classic style, suggests that Maimonides has actually delineated two types (or modes) of belief. There is no contradiction; rather, we need to understand and embrace each. Certainly, one must believe in God Even if there is insufficient evidence for scientific proof and even if we can't understand why He allows evil to exist in the world, we need to fight our doubt and cynicism and be believers in our God.

However, we also have to "know" God. Now, according to Rabbi Soloveithcik, "knowing" does not mean proving or even - contrary to popular belief - intellectual apprehension of God through nature, logic, physics, genetics, or the rest of His creation.

It means instead "to be aware" of God. T o know at every moment that he is there. As the prophet Isaiah says, "Know Him in all thy ways" This is not primarily an intellectual process or even about learning and studying. It is an exercise in paying attention, in not being distracted, in not forgetting, in not taking it for granted. Being aware all the time is a kind of belief also - a belief in the most important aspects of our lives -- but a kind that requires a constant involvement in the moment, a constant checking in with our mission statement, the personal and people-of-Israel mission statements of our lives.

Like, the woman who keeps her child in her mind's eye at every moment, we want to keep track of and care for our most cherished beliefs and values. I know executives who paste their company mission statements or the names of their largest investors on their desks so they don't forget about them. Without tattooing Yahweh on your forehead or "I am a proud Jew" on your bicep, let us this Yom Kippur dedicate ourselves to the constant consciousness of who we are, how proud we are and the ongoing genius mission of the children of Israel. May you have a meaningful Yom Kippur and be sealed in the book of life. Shabbat shalom!


[1] It was called the Mishna Torah (review of the Torah) or "yad ha-Chazaka", "the powerful hand", a reference both to the 14 books of the work, numerically expressed yud-daled, or "yad" and also to God's liberating hand when He took the Jews out of Egypt.

[2] The word for knowledge, "yeda", is the root from which the words "Yoda" and "Jedi" in Star Wars were taken.

[3] Some scholars argue that "to believe" in the Book of Mitzvot is an inaccurate translation from the Arabic and that there is no contradiction or tension between "to know" and "to believe." This issue was not addressed by Rabbi Soloveichik, who took the texts as they are traditionally presented.


Rabbi Avi Heller

Joined: July 27, 2007

Originally from Denver CO, Rav Avi received a BA from BU and Rabbinic ordination and an MA in Bible from YU. Before joining MJE, he was Director of Jewish Education at BU Hillel, co-directed the BU Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus and was an Associate University Chaplain. He has been the...

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S. Kim Glassman

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Kim lives in Jerusalem, Israel. She designs book covers, illustrates children's books, typesets, and at times directs or helps out with community musical theatre.

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