Bar-Ilan University

The Faculty of Jewish Studies

The Office of the Campus Rabbi


Daf Parashat Hashavua

(Study Sheet on the Weekly Torah Portion)

Basic Jewish Studies Unit


"He believed in God" (Genesis xvi: 6): The Various Connotations of Religious Faith and Their Articulation in the Character of Abraham

Several Biblical figures have provided us with archetypical patterns of human behavior: Adam displays our finest qualities as human beings (when we are not burdened with a poisonous heredity and when we are located in ideal surroundings) but also our basest instincts when we sin; Moses is the prime example of the leader who is also a lawgiver; David is the ideal king; Job is the archetype of the suffering righteous individual; and so forth. Abraham is the paragon of the religious believer: although raised in an atmosphere of idolatry, he obeys God's commandment and travels to a distant land, where he is, at a later stage, ordered to sacrifice his son Isaac. In his unwavering belief in God, Abraham has become a role model for subsequent generations and his religious behavior displays an entire range of connotations suggested by the term "religious faith": complete confidence in God's providence; painstaking attention to details in the execution of God's commands; the clearing away of all doubts even when ordered to perform seemingly unreasonable acts; confirmed knowledge of God's existence; a sense of having experienced divine revelation; and a firm resolve to accept God's dominion and authority over one's own life. Here is what some religious thinkers, from both the remote past and from the not-so-distant past, have to say about the various aspects of Abraham's religious faith.

Religious faith as complete confidence in God (Philo of Alexandria)

Religious faith can be interpreted on the rational level - as a form of knowledge - or on the emotional level - as trust in God. When considering the subject of faith in God, Philo of Alexandria (in his "On Positive Qualities") speaks of a belief in a single Being Who is responsible for the management of the universe. Philo stresses the importance of total faith, as opposed to a vague belief in some abstract theory surrounding a divine but distant creator. In Philo's eyes, Abraham epitomizes the concept of such total faith:

As far as Philo is concerned, no belief is worthy except for belief in God. The explicit praise bestowed in the Bible on Abraham is proof that the first of the Patriarchs expressed in his behavior throughout his entire life an exclusive belief in God.

Religious faith as expressed in the performance of good deeds (Rabbi Yehuda Halevi)

In the opening to Rabbi Yehuda Halevi's work, The Kuzarite, an angel appears before the king of the Kuzarites and criticizes him for his behavior: "Your intentions are good, but your deeds are not acceptable." This message can serve as The Kuzarite's motto. In deciding to embrace Judaism, rather than Christianity, Islam or pagan philosophy, the king has resolved to perform those special acts which create a unique relationship with God. Thus, the king wants to go considerably beyond the mere desire to serve God, a desire that is common to all religions.

Rabbi Yehuda Halevi distinguishes between the "roots of faith" and the "roots of heresy" (chapter 1, section 87). The heretic or the religious rebel has good intentions and "tries to make preparations for receiving approval from God." However, this heretic/rebel "does not know the nature of such preparations, nor their extent, nor the manner in which God should be worshipped, nor where or when He should be worshipped." The heretic/rebel tries to acquire knowledge of God through circuitous routes, through "the wisdom of the human brain" or through "the wisdom of the astrologers. In order to perform the deeds that God wants us to perform, we "must aspire to divine wisdom . . . from God himself".

In his worship of God, Abraham passed from the stage of illusory faith to authentic religious faith. Halevi (ch. 4, sec. 17) bases his interpretation on "the midrashic exegesis of the rabbinical sages regarding the verse in Genesis (xv: 5), "He [=God] led him [Abraham] outside: God was really saying to Abraham, 'Abandon your astrology' (Talmud, Sabbath Tractate, p. 156a); in other words, God was commanding Abraham to distance himself from his seemingly rational studies, such as astrology". Here is the turning point in Abraham's life: he abandons secular studies, which are the fruit of human reasoning ("his seemingly rational studies"), and "he commits himself to be the faithful servant of the Infinite Being Whom he has come to know through his senses, through divine revelation". Abraham's initial discovery of God's existence was effected through his rational thinking, and, at that stage, our Patriarch wrote The Book of Creation, which Halevi regards as a philosophical treatise (The Kuzarite, ch. 4, sec. 27): "At this point in his spiritual development, Abraham believed in the oneness and omnipotence of God (as Aristotle interpreted the concept of God, or the stage that we refer to as 'Aristotle's God'), but had not yet reached the threshold of divine revelation (the stage that we refer to as 'Abraham's God')". When he discovers God through divine revelation, Abraham becomes the authentic religious individual, who carries out God's commands to the letter and who "will not make one step forward or one step backward without God's permission".

Religious faith as expressed through a readiness to obey even divine commands that are beyond human comprehension (Rabad - Lofty Faith)

At first glance, the religious thought of Rabad (1110-1180), author of Lofty Faith (Ha'emuna Harama), appears to be diametrically opposed to that of Halevi, because, whereas Halevi rejected Aristotelian philosophy, Rabad embraced it wholeheartedly. Nonetheless, in the epilogue of his book, seeking to define the term "religious faith" and to demonstrate the sharp difference between faith and heresy, Rabad cites the spiritual stance adopted by Abraham, the archetypal individual of religious faith, particularly in the face of divine commandments, which are beyond human comprehension ("seemingly beyond all rhyme or reason") and which Rabad calls "delicate legal matters" (the phrase that appears in the original Arabic text):

Thus, genuine religious faith expresses itself in the devoted, unwavering performance of divine commandments, which seems to be beyond all human comprehension. This is the halof Abraham's behavior in the spiritual sphere, and this is the hallmark of all those who think of Abraham as their religious role-model, especially when they are performing divine commandments whose significance they do not understand. In the execution of such divine commandments, Jews throughout the generations continue to express their trust in God.

Religious faith as viewing the existence of God as a proven fact (Maimonides)

According to Maimonides, Abraham's greatness lies in his having effectively proven the fact of the existence of the one God. In introducing his comments on Abraham, Maimonides cites a midrash (from Midrash Rabba, ch. 38, sec. 13): in this brief narrative Abraham, viewing the forces of nature, comes to the conclusion that they are all controlled by a single, supreme Being. Maimonides, in his presentation of the laws concerning idolatry (Mishneh Torah, ch. 1, sec. 3), cites Abraham as the first individual to prove the existence of God. Abraham derives his proof from the sun's infinite spin - proof that, in another context, is attributed to Aristotle (Moreh Nevuhim, ch. 2, sec. 1). In seeing Abraham as a "natural philosopher," Maimonides does not distinguish between the concepts of "Abraham's God" and that of "Aristotle's God," whose existence is proved through cosmology. Maimonides defines Abraham's faith thus: "There is one and only one God, Who has ommipotent control of the sun and Who has created the entire universe" (Mishneh Torah, ch. 1, sec. 3). Abraham is depicted by Maimonides in his Mishneh Torah not as someone who obeys an incomprehensible (in his own mind) divine command and who thus travels to the Land of Canaan, but rather as an individual who, in his wanderings, spreads the absolute truth: "Abraham proclaimed to all of the nations on the earth that, in the entire universe, there is but one God, Whom alone we must worship. As he proceeded slowly towards the Land of Canaan, Abraham would gather followers from the various cities and kingdoms through which he would pass, until he finally arrived in the Promised Land, where he continued to proclaim knowledge of God's existence". (ibid.) The first of all religious believers not only proved the fact of God's existence but spread that truth as an itinerant teacher wandering throughout the civilized world of his era. As Maimonides sees it, to have genuine religious faith is to both perceive and prove the truth of God's existence (Moreh Nevukhim, ch. 1, sec. 50), whereas heresy is "to believe in something that is the complete reverse of the truth" (ibid.).

Religious faith as abstract intellectual perception (Rabbi Simha Cohen of Dvinsk)

In his treatise, "Meshekh Hokhma" (= "Pouch of Wisdom"), Rabbi Simha Cohen of Dvinsk (1843-1926) draws a sharp distinction between the Jews, who are "religious believers and the children of religious believers", and the pagan Gentiles. Cohen surveys generations of idolatry, which is based on emotions, and notes how different is religious faith, which is based on rational thought. According to Cohen, emotions are "derived from nature and from our sensory perceptions, which stir the human heart". Using this yardstick, Cohen measures both Greek mythology - in which adoration is expressed for "the god of beauty, the god of courage and the god of love" - and modern religions ("even today, the nations of the earth continue to create paintings and to sanctify human sensory perceptions"). Referring to the "modern religions", Cohen speaks specifically, on the one hand, of Christianity ("Jesus is given a saintly status and is even called the 'son of God'") and, on the other hand, of Islam ("even the Ishmaelites worship the tomb of their savior in Mecca"). In contrast, the Jews, who are "religious believers and the children of religious believers", are the descendants of Abraham, the founder of abstract rational religious faith: "Abraham realized that God is not a part of the created world nor a force in the material sense, but rather is a supreme Being beyond depiction, beyond perception . . . . Abraham's religious thought is thus an accurate, rational analysis of reality". The Children of Israel are Abraham's followers: "All Jews believe in the truth of God's existence and in the truth of His oneness. Their religious faith is based on abstract thought and they have no respect for those who are swayed by their natures and by their emotions".

Religious faith as a relationship created in the wake of divine revelation (Rabbi Y.D. Soloveichik)

In Rabbi Y.D. Soloveichik's view, our relationship with God is a two-way street. Because of the link between our selfhood and the supranatural world, we seek God in the cosmos and arrive at the overall perception that God truly exists in the universe. This was the approach adopted by Abraham as he began his spiritual journey: "According to our traditions, Abraham, the noble spirit of religious faith, sought and found God in the starry heavens above Mesopotamia" ("The Isolated Individual of Religious Faith"). Soloveichik considers Abraham to have been the "first person to look for the God of creation - as depicted in the Book of Genesis - within the context of the world God created" ("And You Will Search from That Spot"). Apparently, Soloveichik bases his words on the statements of the rabbinical sages who taught that Abraham was an astrologer in his youth (Sabbath Tractate, p. 156a) who found rational proof for God's existence through studying the limited forces of nature (Bereshit Rabba, ch. 38, sec. 13). On the surface, it would appear that Soloveichik is following in the footsteps of Halevi and is distinguishing between the God Whose existence is perceived by means of rational proof ("Aristotle's God") and the God Who reveals Himself to the truly religious individual ("Abraham's God"). However, in effect, Soloveichik contrasts the "natural-cosmic experience" with "revelatory faith" and maintains that Abraham's first stage in the path towards spiritual maturity was the "natural-cosmic experience", rather than philosophically-based rational arguments. This religious experience, in Soloveichik's view, is not sufficient for the development of authentic religious faith: "By longing for God through our perception of the real world, we are not automatically led to religious faith" ("And You Will Search from That Spot"). Revelatory faith is the personal path that begins with God and ends with a complete and believing human being. This was the path that Abraham followed: "Only when he [=Abraham] encounters God on earth, as a father, brother and friend - instead of encountering him on the unknown paths of the universe - only then does Abraham feel truly liberated" ("The Isolated Individual of Religious Faith").

Religious faith as a decision to worship God (Yeshayahu Leibowitz)

Yeshayahu Leibowitz's religious thought includes a critique of various views on religious faith. According to Leibowitz, religious faith cannot coexist with rationally acquired knowledge: "Religious faith has nothing to do with the knowledge of obvious facts" ("Religion and Science in the Middle Ages and in the Modern Era"). Leibowitz attaches no significance - in terms of religious faith - to the theoretical determination that the world must have a Prime Mover. Nor does Leibowitz see any connection between genuine religious faith and confidence that God provides for the individual's needs. In Leibowitz's view, "Religious faith is expressed solely through the individual's decision to serve God through total commitment" ("On Science and Values"). Here is the way Leibowitz characterizes Abraham, the prime role-model of the religious believer:

In line with his reading of the Book of Genesis, Leibowitz considers Abraham unique, but not because he is the founder of monotheism. On this point, Leibowitz adopts an approach that is quite different from that of the midrash and - in the wake of the midrash - that of Maimonides with regard to the first of the Patriarchs: "The Book of Genesis is unique and thus, magnificent and profound. The book's uniqueness lies in the fact that no specific mention is made of idolatry. In the world of Genesis, everyone believes in God and there are no heretics or religious rebels . . . . Then, if Abraham lives in a world where the belief in God is universal, why does the Bible set Abraham apart as one who believes in God? ("Abraham and Job"). As Leibowitz sees it, the most dramatic expression of Abraham's religious faith is his willingness to sacrifice Isaac because God has commanded him to do so - this is "the summit of religious faith and religious courage". "The very acceptance of God's decree clearly indicates that Abraham's religious faith is integral and whole" ("Comments on the Weekly Torah Portion")".

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"Religious faith is part and parcel of the righteous individual's way of life" (Habakuk ii: 4); however, there are different ways of expressing one's religious faith.

Prof. Hannah Kasher

The Weekly Torah Portion appears with the assistance of both the University President's Fund for Torah and Science and the Office of the Rabbi of the Campus.