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The Torah Learning Library of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah

Stepping Out in Faith in Hashem

Lech Lecha 5784 in English

by Rabbi Dr. Eli Yoggev (Posted on October 25, 2023)
Topics: Lekh Lekha, Sefer Breishit, Torah

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Does Judaism require a leap of faith? It depends on who you ask! For the Rambam, the answer is no. In his Guide for the Perplexed (1:50), faith is presented as a form of knowledge: “Bear in mind that by ‘faith’ we do not understand merely that which is uttered with the lips. … For belief … is conceived in the mind.” For us to have faith in Hashem, or any other tenet of the Jewish faith, we must intellectually prove our religious truths to ourselves. The more we prove, the more cognizant we are of the truth, the more “faith” we have. If we understand a leap of faith as a “leap” beyond what is known and proven through our intellect, the Rambam would not promote this endeavor.

The Rambam expands on his definition of “faith” through our parasha’s protagonist, Avraham Avinu. The Torah says Avraham had faith in Hashem: “וְהֶאֱמִן בַּה’ וַיַּחְשְׁבֶהָ לּוֹ צְדָקָה-And he [Avraham] put his faith-emunah in Hashem, who reckoned it to his merit” (Breishit 15:6). How did Avraham attain this faith? The Rambam explains: “[Avraham] began to explore and think … wondering: ‘How is it possible for the constellations to continue to revolve without having anyone controlling them? Who is causing them to revolve? Surely, they do not cause themselves to revolve.’ … Ultimately, he appreciated the way of truth and understood the path of righteousness through his accurate comprehension. He realized that there was one God who controlled the constellations, that He created everything” (Mishneh Torah, Avodah Zarah 1:3). In other words, Avraham was a philosopher who proved to himself, through the argument from a first cause (also known as the teleological argument), that God exists.

For the 12th century Rabbi Yehuda Halevi the opposite state of being—living in simple faith—is the ideal. Intellectual investigations only enter the equation when simple faith is wanting (see Kuzari, end of 2:26; 5:1). The ideal is to leave behind our investigations and embrace a more direct connection, through faith. Like the Rambam, Rabbi Yehuda Halevi portrays Avraham as the exemplar of his faith model: “[Hashem] commanded him [Avraham] to leave off his speculative research into the stars and other matters, and to follow faithfully the object of his inclination, as it is written: ‘Taste and see that the Lord is good’ (Tehillim 34:9)” (Kuzari 4:17).

When taken to the extreme, this view implies what some might call a “leap of faith”—with one caveat. The term “leap of faith,” as its commonly used, often entails a step outside of the certain to a place of doubt and uncertainty. For Rabbi Yehuda Halevi, faith is on a higher level of certainty than the intellect. Speculations can only get us so far. This is why we are urged to leave our speculative research aside, and directly experience, “taste and see,” Hashem’s goodness.

Over the years I have found both faith models to speak to my religious experience. The Rambam’s intellectual investigations enrich and solidify my connection to Hashem and Judaism. However, Rabbi Yehuda Halevi’s critique of pure reason, along with his emphasis on direct faith emerging from the inner soul, are deeply resonant as well. Therefore, in discussions on the matter, I often like to shift the conversation from a leap of faith to taking a step of faith.

This mode of faith is also directly connected to Avraham Avinu. The opening words of our parasha, lech lecha, commanded to Avraham, literally mean “take steps.” Avraham therefore can be viewed not only as a philosopher and a simple man of faith, but also as a journeyman—whose faith was built through both investigation and steps of faith.

In fact, each stage of Avraham’s journey, each one of his ten tests (Pirkey Avot 5:3), can be viewed as a composite of these two components. Prior to Hashem’s original lech lecha command, Avraham researched and learned about Hashem’s existence, as per the Rambam‘s depiction above. Avraham then took a step of faith in Hashem, a lech lecha, based on this knowledge, and left his homeland. From this experience he intellectually learned about how Hashem took care of him in exile. He was then ready to take a new step of faith. This is how it proceeded until Avraham’s final test: the Akeidah (Binding of Isaac). The Akeidah was a huge test, but based on our explanation it didn’t entail a leap of faith. It was a step of faith, based on Avraham’s intellectual standing, informed by the nine previous teachings.

In the end, faith-emunah is a very personal experience, as the prophet Havakuk (2:4) proclaimed: “וְצַדִּיק בֶּאֱמוּנָתוֹ יִחְיֶה-And the righteous will live in [their own] faith.” Each of us must find our own path toward emunah in Hashem and Yiddishkeit. What works for others may not work for us. What’s most important, however, is that we put in the work, like Avraham, to cultivate faith. This will not only be “reckoned to our merit,” it will propel us forward, leaps and bounds, in our avodat Hashem.

Shabbat Shalom.