Simple faith constitutes deep identification with the foundations of faith and religion — an identification that cannot be based on intellect alone. Rather, it is achieved by way of ongoing learning and an "echo" effect that touches the inner core of our faith.

Shevat 5779 / January 2019

There is an inherent conflict between faith and intellect. Nothing is new about this tension, which is as old as the world itself. Many solutions have been offered over the generations, each according to its language and unique needs. I will try to deal briefly with this tension here by offering an approach to what is often referred to as “questions of faith” — one term among many for this set of difficulties.

Very early on in the Torah, the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil is referred to as a “tree that was pleasant to learn” (Gen. 3:6). The Torah alludes thereby that part of Adam’s sin in eating from the tree was succumbing to his appetite to explore in places where one should not. This idea is further reflected in Chazal’s statements: that Adam was an “apostate,” a “puller of his foreskin,” and a “heretic.”[1] Before his sin, the tension between belief and intellect was “external” to Adam. After the sin, it became “internal” to him, flesh of his flesh.

However, in this article, I wish to argue that even in our “post-sin” reality, we must maintain a distinction between intellect and faith. I do not mean to suggest that intellect plays no role in supporting faith. Obviously, one’s intellect serves as an important catalyst for sharpening and clarifying concepts and ideas. But as I will make clear, the essence of faith is far beyond human intellect, and the latter cannot serve as the basis of the former.

the essence of faith is far beyond human intellect, and the latter cannot serve as the basis of the former.

We can thus set the stage upon which to address “questions of faith.” In contrast to other Torah subjects, whereby we arrive at conclusions via a dialectic of questions and answers, such is not the case in matters of faith. True, challenges in matters of faith require responses, but these answers do not serve an inherently constructive purpose in building faith. They rather help remove an intellectual barrier that was obstructing the questioner’s faith. At the same time, where intellect can serve a positive role in supporting faith, this does not occur in the familiar form of question and answer, but rather, in the spirit of King Shlomo in Shir HaShirim or Koheles, as a deep dive into the experience of the believer, expressed perhaps as song or poetry. If and when the foundations of one’s faith become shaky, all the intellectual insight in the world will not bring it back. One simply cannot establish faith with mere cognitive tools.

To reaffirm faith that was damaged, internal identification must be recreated – an identification that speaks to the entire person, not just his intellect. The very depths of one’s soul must be revealed, and to achieve this, one must engage in an extended process I will call “resonance.”


Faith Begins at Home

“And the righteous shall live by his faith” (Hab. 2:3). This verse teaches that faith is not just an intellectual matter. The intellect — the tool of logic and rationality — is of course charged with an important part of human life, yet that remains but a part. Faith, on the other hand, encompasses all of life. It does not remain in the intellect but envelops the entire person.

The believer sees a natural phenomenon and identifies God, the “word of God” embodied in it. Such an experience is not an intellectual exercise; his very vision flows via “believing eyes.” The believer experiences the full range of life’s emotions — happiness and sadness, excitement and turmoil — and senses his relationship with God through them all. He lives life hearing the notes of a “higher tone.” These notes do not drown out the “lower tone” of the material world but rather join as a chorus to form a complete symphony. Such a person casts his eyes to heaven and sees “He who created them.”

Faith encompasses the entire person, surrounding him and elevating him. He reads the words of the daily newspaper like those around him, but he reads a different story. He shares the same experiences but somehow feels different feelings. He studies the same subjects but learns different lessons. Life in the shadow of faith is entirely unlike life outside of it.

Simple faith does not begin with an intellectual exploration, but with the rootedness of the faith of our fathers — that “It is good to be home.”

Our approach to faith questions then must begin from this vantage point. It is the nature of questions to limit themselves to the intellectual sphere. Questions therefore need not undermine faith itself, and the answers are not supposed to — and cannot — establish it. The first words of the book Daas Tevunos (the first words of the “intellect” in response to the questions of the “soul”) are the words “it is certain.”[2] Even the soul asks nothing but to “align” with the principles of faith — principles he believes in with a whole heart even before he begins to clarify them rationally.[3] The inquiry itself presupposes certainty, a certainty not dependent on questions and answers.

The above is how I would characterize what is known as “emunah peshutah,” or “simple faith.” Several years ago, a great and intelligent man suggested to me that simple faith means that “Even when there are questions, there are no problems.” In this sense, faith is the dwelling place within which a Jewish person lives his life. Even when there are questions when not everything is understood and clear, one does not leave the house, nor do the answers to those questions become the house’s foundations. Questions are confronted and addressed deep within the home, within the life of faith itself. Moving is not entertained as an option.

The (sometimes obsessive) interest in faith questions pushes aside simple faith, which is our foundation as believing Jews — a birthright we all share a claim to. Simple faith does not begin with intellectual exploration but with the rootedness of the faith of our fathers — that “It is good to be home.”

Along these lines, I heard from my mentor Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe zt”l that when Bnei Yisrael came to Mount Sinai to receive the Torah, they found God already there. The revelation of faith is always retroactive. When a person gains new insight into faith, he recognizes it as a “familiar place,” identifying something which was always in him. He returns to a home that he never actually left.


Intellect Does Not Establish Faith

Faith is like the anchor of a ship. Deep beneath the surface, it is greater than man and bigger than him. Its essence is not visible, but rather hidden in the most concealed recesses of the soul. Intellect can provide a limited vocabulary for the principles of faith, but the foundation itself — the faith beating in our hearts — is concealed.

Many questioners are deeply fearful regarding their faith questions, plagued by a sense that their faith must be satisfied by answers to their questions. This urgency results in a tension-filled interaction between the questioning student and the responding Rabbi. Indeed, if the questioner’s faith is wholly dependent on the answers he will presently receive from the respondent, then the very core of the questioner’s Jewishness now rests on the shoulders of the respondent! But the truth is that answers never establish faith, they merely pave the way for faith to enter into one’s intellectual space.

We should not of course dismiss the importance of the intellectual process. The ceaseless process of question and answer allows us to deepen our knowledge of God and is deeply important for our growth. In contrast to what has been said of belief, our faith is not “absurd.”[4] It aligns well with the intellect and can (as the Ramchal declares in Daas Tevunos) be made palatable to the heart. But this is not where one starts or ends the journey. As the ancients said, “One who seeks faith in the books of philosophy is like one who seeks life in the cemetery.” The human intellect cannot create the certainty which is the bedrock of faith. Even the greatest and wisest person may change his or her mind from time to time — while faith is unchanging. Moreover, it seems that something in the very operation of faith runs contrary to the intellect’s activity.

Our intellect is an “active intellect.”.. The movement of faith is different. It embeds itself in the believer, making him a receiver of wisdom rather than a creator.

Our intellect is an “active intellect.” It investigates matters proactively and creatively, transcending man’s limitations and conquering the world it discovers beyond, be they natural phenomena, the worlds of material and spirit, the concrete and the abstract. The movement of faith is different. It embeds itself in the believer, making him a receiver of wisdom rather than a creator. Rather than impose human intellect on the world, faith allows creation to speak — in the word of God with which the world was created — to man.

Faith and intellect are thus not to be reconciled in the form of question and answer, in the analytical spirit of the beis midrash, but synthesized in the expansion and explication of God’s word, as our great predecessors did in the form of poetry. “The obligation of all creatures” is, according to paytan, to “thank, exalt and praise, to glorify, lift, magnify and bless, to raise and take joy in all the words and praises of David son of Yishai, your anointed.” As Rabbi Wolbe zt”l explained, every person must add his song and praise to that of King David! Doing so certainly requires contemplation and deep thought, but it is a wholly different effort than asking and answering questions in the traditional sense.

What is then the role of answering questions in the realm of belief and faith? These questions do require treatment, as they constitute a barrier to the soul, obstructing the flow of faith to and from the soul. In this sense, the answers are meant to remove or lessen the barriers. Answers open the blockage and allow faith to flow freely again, bringing the questioner back to the comfort of “home” in the sense described above. But, as we said, answers do not create or build faith on their own, and providing answers is not the primary project of securing proper Emunah. Emphasis must rather be placed on opening oneself up to receiving and giving expression to the revealed word of God in this world.


Creating Identification: A Movement of Resonance

Faith is more accurately characterized not as understanding, as a function of intellect, but rather as identification, an experience within the depths of one’s soul. The distress a person encounters regarding faith is usually not a crisis of understanding but one of identification; hence the difficulty in solving these problems of faith. Philosophical or intellectual approaches, including learning the different “methods” to explain various issues of faith, do not create this needed identification. In fact, experience shows that when one tries to construct faith by relying on answers to questions, failure is almost guaranteed. How then can one build up this faith of identification or, as discussed above, rediscover it when one’s faith has been disrupted?

This innate power of faith, which lies deep in the individual’s soul, can be accessed through a process we’ll refer to as “resonance.” Resonance is the reaction of an object to an external force applied to it at regular frequencies. It is in fact an internal response to external stimuli. The Latin origin of the word “resonance” translates to “I am answering.” The way to arouse the internal reaction of a given object is by a rhythmic movement (at a frequency close to that of the natural fluctuation of the object) that stimulates an internal reaction, causing the given object to deviate entirely from its regular traits.

In the world of the spirit, this type of force is referred to as “persistence” or “endurance” [“hasmada” in Hebrew]. In the opening of Mesilas Yesharim, the Ramchal begins with the need for hasmada:

“The author said: I did not write this essay to teach people that which they did not know, but to remind them of what they already knew and which is greatly publicized among them. For you will not find in most of my words but matters which most people know, and do not suffice with them at all, but rather as much as they are publicized and their truth is known to all, so is their concealment great and their being forgotten widespread. Therefore the benefit taken from this book is not collected from reading it once, but rather when the reader cannot in his intellect find innovations after reading it which he did not have before his reading, but few. But the benefit comes from repeating it and hasmada. For he will be reminded of those things which are naturally forgotten by people, and he will take note of his duty which he is ignoring.”

One may be tempted, upon a superficial reading, to understand this as a sort of brainwashing technique: words are read again and again, rehearsed, and repeated as much as possible until they fully penetrate the mind. But this could not have been the author’s intention, for we presently find Ramchal instructing that his words be studied, not simply read without innovation or reaction. Rather, Ramchal is teaching that repeated reading of his work, coupled with constant and ongoing inquiry, produces internal “answers” within the person, or as we put it — identification. People forget what they have studied when they do not identify with the material. When a person truly identifies with the subject matter he is studying, he absorbs what he learns more deeply and never forgets it.

To establish faith, one must explore beyond the intellectual level and reach that of identification.

The same is true, and particularly so, when it comes to studying and building up emunah. To establish faith, one must explore beyond the intellectual level and reach that of identification. In this way, through the “internal answers” brought about by repetitious study, one can access the depths of the soul and rediscover the person’s basis for faith.

The most effective way to realize this process is by learning with a Rabbi — a figure from whom one can receive instruction and guidance in matters of faith. Not easily will a person return, time after time, to a known and familiar text, read it with fresh eyes and absorb it with new depth. Doing so is particularly challenging today, when we are used to and expect stimulating innovations and excitement, without which we tend to feel dissatisfied and stuck. Thus, when a person finds a Torah figure of stature with whom he can consult regularly, lay out his doubts and questions, and receive an appropriate response, he experiences the process of “spiritual resonance” and reestablishes the lines of faith.

As discussed above, a person does not need to recreate the foundations of faith ex nihilo. The foundations of faith are already right there within the person, embedded in him since birth. Through the process of resonance, of repeated study, one can connect to his internal reserve of faith, rediscover it — and return home.


In these short words — to which there is much to add — I offer an approach that should help us encounter questions of faith more effectively.

Today, when information is readily accessible to all, it seems particularly important to suggest an approach to this issue and equip people, young and old, with tools to deal with challenges and questions in emunah. Whereas many of us could in the past have been satisfied with simple faith, unchallenged by investigation and searching, today it seems that the phenomenon of simple faith is disappearing from the world. But the truth is that everyone needs to preserve “simple faith;” philosophical thought and intellectual investigation are but tools to enable it.

Simple faith is achieved by identifying with the foundations of belief and religion. Occasionally, faith questions may confuse us by creating landmines that prevent natural identification. These barriers are alleviated with the appropriate answers that set his heart at ease. And sometimes, a person may become so disconnected from the foundations of faith within him that he must reawaken the flow of emunah with a process of repeated learning. By creating this effect of “resonance,” he can reach the internal foundation of faith.

One can see this process unfold among many baalei teshuvah. The doors of teshuvah are opened when connects with a spiritual mentor, be it a Rabbi or another source of influence, where they can direct their questions and work through the answers time and again. Eventually, usually after quite a few visits, something suddenly clicks, and the light of faith begins to shine. This is the power of “spiritual resonance,” the internal awakening that occurs when a person connects with the “natural tempo” of his inner soul. Would that we will also merit to live in that same light of faith until “the land became filled with knowledge of God like the water covers the sea.”

[1] Bavli, Sanhedrin 38b

[2] Daas Tevunos, Ch. 10

[3] Ibid. Ch. 1

[4] In the words of Tertullian “Credo quia absurdum,” I believe because it is absurd. Our faith is compatible with the intellect while not dependent upon it.

photo: Bigstock

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