Jewish World Review August 16, 2002 / 8 Elul, 5762

Keeping the faith

The second in a series on how to acquire and internalize belief

By Rabbi Nathan Lopes Cardozo -- It is most important to realize that in biblical days and even in the days of the Mishna and the Talmud, hardly anybody doubted the existence of G-d. That He exists was beyond doubt. It is for this reason that we do not find any discussion in the Tenach, Scripture, Mishna or Talmud about G-d's existence. It is only in the Middle Ages that Jewish philosophers started to debate this matter.

For the biblical personality and those living in early post-biblical times, the existence of G-d was apparent.

One would discover His fingerprints everywhere. In Heaven, on Earth, in the colors of a flower, in the storm and clouds, in the thunder and lightning, in the smile of a baby or the beauty of the seashore. To ask for proof of His existence was just as absurd as asking people for evidence that their parents were alive while they were standing right in front of them. "Believe that" was beyond all doubt.

A careful study of the biblical personalities shows, however, that they struggled with different problems.

First of all, how one endures G-d's presence.

The foremost example of this dilemma is shown in the life of the father of monotheistic faith: Abraham. His, is not the concern about G-d's existence, but of G-d's trustworthiness.

When we compare two occasions on which Abraham was tested by G-d, we realize that it was not "believe that" which was the issue but clearly his belief in G-d, which was challenged. Even more important is the fact that we discover here two distinct conditions of "belief in," as the late Professor Yeshayahu Leibowitz notes in his Notes and Remarks concerning the Weekly Parasha.

Twice Abraham is asked to show his absolute trust in G-d. In chapter 15 of Genesis, G-d promises Abraham that he will have a son and that his descendants will become a blessing to the world. This was clearly a test of faith. As an elderly couple there was little chance that Abraham and his wife Sara would still have a son. This was no longer possible within the boundaries of the laws of human biology. It is, therefore, not surprising that the Torah emphasizes the unprecedented faith of Abraham when he showed complete confidence in G-d's promise: "And he believed in the L-rd and He (G-d) counted it to him for righteousness" (15:6)

Indeed, this was an unprecedented act of faith that few would ever reach.

How surprising, therefore, is the fact that Abraham's belief in G-d is once more challenged on a later occasion: at the incident of the sacrifice of Isaac.

After Abraham passes this test with flying colors, showing a willingness to even offer his son to G-d, the Torah again attests to the unfaltering belief of Abraham in G-d. This time G-d responds and says: "Now I know that you fear G-d."

This, however, gives us reason to pause. What was there in the second case which was not detected in the earlier case? Why give Abraham another test of faith, when his unlimited belief in G-d has already been established at the first test concerning the birth of a son? Why would Abraham only now prove his "yira" of G-d, which in the Hebrew language is not so much an expression of fright, but of awe?

Was this not proven in the first case? How much more awe could one expect after it had become as clear as the light of the sun that Abraham believed G-d's word even when that promise defied all human experience and in fact touched on the absurd?

There is, however, a long road to travel for the man who believed and feared G-d when he was promised that he would have a son and the man, who against all expectation, is being asked to take the life of that very son on a later occasion. After all, it would negate all that G-d had promised earlier, i.e. that this son would continue his mission long after he, Abraham, has passed on.

In the first case, man believes in G-d because His promise responds to a human desire: The possession of a son. In the second instance, it is belief in G-d despite the message it entails.

Instead of man being awarded for his belief, he is asked to suffer because of it and pay a bitter price. No doubt many would ask what kind of G-d this is and how trustworthy.

Abraham could have protested against this commandment to sacrifice his son. His arguments would have been strong: How can You go back on Your word? You promised me that my son Isaac would live a long life so as to guarantee the success of the great Jewish mission. Why this sudden "change of mind"?

It is here, that Abraham reaches a much higher level of belief in G-d, compared with the case where he is promised a son. His G-d is no longer a G-d who protects and secures a pleasant life for man, but it is the G-d who just is.

Abraham realizes that if G-d really exists, His existence is of such otherness, that there is no room for an order in which man can be sure of His ongoing protection or demand any answers concerning His deeds or intentions. He can only hope that G-d may grant him some insight at a later date.

As long as man is man, and G-d is G-d, man can have no claim on G-d whatsoever. As such, G-d is unknowable and, hence, His deeds are beyond the grasp of man. One could only hope and pray for His protection --- but one could never fully rely on it.

This indeed is one of the great contributions that Abraham made to the authentic meaning of faith. It is not the belief that G-d exists which he promulgated, not even the belief in a compassionate G-d, but a belief in G-d in terms of His own existence.

Rabbi Nathan Lopes Cardozo is a world-renowned lecturer and ambassador for Judaism, the Jewish people, the State of Israel and Sephardic Heritage. Comment by clicking here.


07/26/02: Keeping the faith Part I
01/18/02: The sanctification and importance of time
09/21/01: And if the High Holidays expectations are not met?
06/29/01: Freud and belief in the Creator
06/21/01: Comprehending the Creator

© 2002, Rabbi Nathan Lopes Cardozo