Mystical Belief and Commandments


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A Commandment to Believe? A mystical Approach

By Yechezkel Gold

The Gaonic work, Halachot Gedolot, often referred to by an acrostic as BaHaG, held that there can be no commandment to believe in God. He reasoned that if someone does not believe, he will not heed a commandment obligating him to do so. Nevertheless, the great preponderance of Jewish thinkers and codifiers (e.g. Maimonides and Nachmanides) listed the commandment to believe among the 613 Torah commandments. This is puzzling: how can there be a commandment to believe?

A somewhat related theme whose elucidation will help us to understand the respective positions of the authorities above, presents itself prominently in Jewish liturgy, both in the evening and morning prayers. In the evening prayer, immediately after reciting the Shema, come the words: "truth and faith", as follows: "All of this (core ideas of Judaism as expressed in the Shema) is truth and faith". A similar expression appears in the continuation of the parallel prayer in the morning liturgy. If we describe something as true, it is fundamentally not only an article of faith. Why couple the two notions?

Of course, if the individual is unable to grasp the (full) truth of something, he can relate to it as true nevertheless if he accepts it as true, i.e. believes it. Also, if somebody satisfied himself that something is true, he does not need to continuously verify it. He can content himself with believing what he has already found to be true. However, in these two instances one of the two expressions, truth or faith, is automatic and secondary and need not be included in the prayer; after all, the evident purpose the liturgy tells us it is true is to instruct us to believe it. Why add to that that it is faith, which is secondary if we accept it to be true? Jewish liturgy, an extremely profound and carefully worded text, must be juxtaposing these two notions, truth and faith, to convey an idea in which both notions are fundamental. What do these ideas add to each other? How are these two concepts different for people?

The notions of truth and faith affect people differently. People tend to accept something they take to be true naturally. They may be uneasy about the implications or about the necessary response, but as the saying goes, "you can't argue with the facts". Beliefs are different. They may stir passions, but someone aware that he is taking something as an article of faith will not treat it as verified. A person chooses to believe.

From this perspective, to believe is an act of will. Thus it makes sense to have a commandment to believe something but not to command that it is true. Though BaHaG's opinion makes sense that it is inappropriate to give a command to someone who does not believe in the authority of the command, it might be that the type of belief that BaHaG is addressing is different from the one that Maimonides means when he states that there is a commandment to believe.

That is: there are several different kinds of faith. In Hebrew, emuna means faith. BaHaG is likely referring to a natural kind of faith. For example (Exodus 17, 8-13) when the Children of Israel battled against Amalek, Moses went up to the hilltop accompanied by Aaron and Chur. When he had his hands raised, the people of Israel were victorious but when he relaxed them, Amalek started winning. So Aaron and Chur placed a stone where Moses could sit, put a staff in his hands and held his arms up, thus ensuring the triumph of Israel. (footnote: The sages in the Mishna comment that it was not Moses' arms that achieved the victory. Rather, when the people of Israel raised their eyes in that direction and looked up to heaven, they were victorious.) The verse states that Moses' arms, held up by Aaron and Chur, were "emuna" meaning steadfast, faithful and reliable. Similarly, in our daily life, when we become accustomed to a recurring pattern such as the sun rising every morning, we come to believe and expect that this pattern will recur.

A somewhat similar kind of faith arises from upbringing and education. We trust our parents and naturally absorb their values, and a certain world view implicit in our families, communities, schools and general culture, often reiterated and rewarded. (footnote: Increasingly, the media shape people's values and what we consciously or unconsciously believe.)

On a deeper level, the people of Israel are called "believers and descendants of believers". There is a basic, natural (inherited?) tendency to have faith, to cling to the sense that life is meaningful and purposeful, that what we do matters, and underlying all of this, that all is meant to come out for the best. At bottom, it is a natural belief in God.

BaHaG's conception of faith seems to fit the natural tendency for belief described here. Maimonides apparently had a different idea in mind, a kind of faith that can be commanded and that it makes sense to command. As an introduction for understanding Maimonides' concept of faith, two approaches to Divine service taken from the realm of Jewish mysticism will be helpful: self-control (iskafia) and self-transformation (is-hapcha). Self-control enables an individual to come close to God in thought, speech and action by overcoming inner resistance. It has the tremendous advantage of freeing him/her from the constraints of his/her own natural boundaries and limitations to function at a much higher level. Self-control can require great effort and can be difficult.

Self-transformation changes a person on a deeper level. His/her spontaneous awareness, perceptions and feelings and his/her very being become Godly without requiring external, volitional control. Thereby, Divine service, prayer and Torah study and actualizing God's commandments are rendered delightful. Self-transformation obviously is more difficult to accomplish than self-control, but when achieved it becomes relatively effortless. In fact, Hasidic mysticism considers true self-transformation to be a gift from God to which a person can not arrive exclusively by his/her own efforts.

The mystical texts also mention a lofty mystical level in which self-control itself takes on the characteristics of self-transformation: the individual finds delight in personal effort to continuously surpass his/her present spontaneous level of Divine service. He/she values this more than what is bestowed upon him/her gratis. Here we see two levels operating concomitantly. On one level, the individual is practicing self-control at great personal effort. On the other level, he is experiencing spiritual delight, a gift from God in perceiving the lofty and fine results of his/her labors.

Generally, Cabala assigns self-control to the lower spiritual realms and self-transformation to the higher, Godly realm known as Atzilus, the domain of wisdom. As appropriate for a Godly realm, Atzilus is characterized by selflessness and altruism. The lofty souls from Atzilus do God's work, performing Mitzvot and in particular studying Torah with no ulterior motive. Selflessness enables them to seek and discover a Godly spark, a spiritual potential in every encounter, occurrence and situation. [footnote: This pertains to the Kav, the hidden spiritual passage linking the Ain Sof, the Infinite, Eternal Light, with the spiritual worlds. The Kav is first revealed in wisdom, the domain of Atzilus.] One need only bring out this spiritual potential through Torah and Mitzvot. Mainly, the realm of Atzilus emerges through Torah study. After all, revelation entails entering people's awareness, which is more the domain of study than of action. Moreover, selflessness relates more to Torah, the "middle way" of objectivity, truth and altruistic intentions. In contrast, in Mitzvot, the realm of action, these can not be discerned: we can only infer someone's intentions from his/her actions but the actions themselves are physical.

While Atzilus is the spiritual world of Divine intentions (and Divine will), the actual work of performing the Mitzvot and studying Torah in physical reality devolves upon the lower, created and non-Godly spiritual worlds. Because the Divine Light is not manifest in the lower worlds, created beings (both spiritual and physical) are not selfless. Unlike Atzilus, they experience themselves as distinct from God and their motivations even for Divine service derive from personal interest. Thus the actual work of Torah study and performing Mitzvot generally does not and cannot issue from entirely pure, altruistic intentions. Of course, there can be enormous variation in the quality and subtlety of personal interest. Wanting to please God and be close to Him is higher than serving in order to merit a portion of the world to come, which in turn is far better than the motivation of trying to impress people.

The underlying selfishness of created beings in the lower worlds stems results from sequestering the Eternal, Infinite Light in Atzilus, so it does not reach the lower worlds. Not being directly exposed to Godliness automatically results in heightening the sense of separate existence: self. From this we can infer something about the Infinite Light in Atzilus. Though it is infinite in quality (and therefore produces selflessness), its extent is not infinite. It does not generally reach the lower worlds.

This limitation of Atzilus derives from an aspect of its intrinsic character. Atzilus is the depiction of perfection, ultimate truth and stability. Perfection, truth and stability do not change. Reflecting this, the verse (Malachi 3, 6) states: "I, God, do not change". Nor do Torah and Mitzvot change since their root is Atzilus . As such, (though Atzilus has the quality of infinity) it does not extend outside itself. Truth does not extend to falsehood. Hasidic mysticism describes Atzilus as a reality in which content and intention (the so-called "lights") are perfectly balanced with their means of expression and actualization (the so-called "vessels"). Therefore, it generally does not extend to the lower worlds, in which the created beings are spiritual "outsiders", needy, unsettled and concerned with themselves. [This can be viewed in two mutually complementary ways: Atzilus will not extend beyond the bounds of stable, perfectly balanced spirituality to the lower worlds, or, because Atzilus does not extend to the lower worlds, they are needy, unsettled "outsiders".]

In contrast to the spiritual truth manifest in Atzilus, concealment of Godliness is usual and characteristic of lower realm, as the verse states: "Indeed, You are hiding, God" (Isaiah 45, 15). Hence, denizens of the lower spiritual worlds (such as most people's souls) can connect with God directly only through faith. Even reason, often considered the highest of human faculties among non-mystics, is limited and can connect with God only partially and indirectly. Since God is above the ability of intellect to grasp, even a well-developed understanding can not connect absolutely with God in the manner of Atzilus. This is because intellect deals only with ideas, but the Godly light itself is manifest in Atzilus. Intellect - thinking about a topic - can not substitute for mystical revelation. Ideas are finite and a new perspective can topple the edifice the mind previously built. History, including intellectual history, is replete with examples. Hence, the lower worlds are intrinsically unstable. They can not attain genuine truth. In Atzilus though, the Godly light itself that is the genuine truth, is revealed to lofty souls (and occasionally to others who merit ascending to Atzilus.)

Of course, despite the differences between them, God fashioned all the spiritual worlds, the lower ones as well as Atzilus. However, they were fashioned differently. The sages (Zohar, Exodus) relate, metaphorically, that God extended His right hand and fashioned the heavens, and extended His left hand and created the earth. That is, Atzilus represented by the heavens stems from the metaphorical right hand, denoting closeness and comfort. The lower worlds represented by the earth come from the metaphorical left (or, for our purposes, clumsy) hand, indicating distance, discomfort and requiring control. Hence, Atzilus is stable while the lower worlds are an unstable realm of (relative) spiritual outsiders.

From a different perspective, though, the manner of being in the lower worlds worlds indicates that their creation entailed an extension beyond the close range of Atzilus. That is, the lower worlds came into being because of a great addition of spirituality beyond the close range of Atzilus. Atzilus is the "natural domain" for Godliness. If existence extends beyond that, it derives from a higher, super-natural level of Godliness, too great to dwell stably in the vessels of Atzilus (or any other vessels). That is, though Godliness is revealed directly in Atzilus but hidden in the lower worlds, the potential and spiritual root of studying Torah and doing Mitzvot in the lower worlds greatly exceeds the level of Atzilus.

The very fact that one engages in Torah and Mitzvot despite concealment of the Godly Light inherent in them bespeaks a lofty level of Godliness. Torah and Mitzvahs as they appear in Atzilus manifest Godliness and depend on revelation. Lacking this revelation, paradoxically, renders the Torah and Mitzvot of the lower worlds absolute and unconditional in a higher, superior way. Because they are freely chosen and self generated and not accompanied by mystical revelation as in Atzilus, they exist independently of and thus are higher than even the Godliness manifested in Atzilus. The ultimate spiritual root of engaging in Torah and Mitzvot in the lower worlds is the Ain Sof, Infinite Godliness above Atzilus.

Cabalists call a process in which a lower level of existence ascends and unites with a higher level, bina. In simple language, bina means understanding. Ideas are higher than a lower level which does not (yet) grasp the idea, and when the lower level achieves understanding, it ascends and unites with the higher level. This is called bina . An analogous process of a lower level ascending and uniting with a higher level occurs through faith: though God is concealed from the lower level, the latter ascends and connects. As mentioned in the previous two paragraphs, the lower worlds have a higher spiritual root that Atzilus. Paralleling this notion, although bina is inferior to the Godly wisdom manifest in Atzilus, its spiritual root is higher. Because faith does not necessarily receive the support of mystical manifestation or even of reason (and therefore is intrinsically unstable), but rather originates in a still loftier, self generated spiritual rung (to which mystical manifestation and reason are only externals), faith can never be truly supported or corroborated. It is direct connection to God that can be achieved only by free choice.

Having understood this character of faith and free choice, the soul is in a position to connect to God in the purest, most sublime way, without thought of reward and without even internal or external circumstances corroborating that choice. This belief does not derive from the soul's spiritual nature like the manifestation of Godliness of Atzilus, nor from education, but rather it is choosing and accepting God independently. There is a Mitzvah to believe, to connect to God in that manner. In fact, one chooses to do so for God, meaning that the infinite, sublime reality of God that can be revealed only by choosing to heed that commandment obligates the soul to do so, without "forcing it" or overcoming it through mystical revelation. It is a choice to believe in God and serve Him because it is proper and meritorious to do so. Considering faith in God to be a Mitzvah as Maimonides and Nachmanides did, allows and even creates the circumstances, for this lofty level to which the individual can arrive through Divine service, to emerge. The belief that precedes Torah and Mitzvot, as described by BaHaG, does not allow revelation of this lofty level.

The Eternal Divine name, which the sages inform us denotes past present and future all at once (meaning that even past and future are manifest in the present), is revealed in Atzilus but not in the lower worlds. The Divine name associated with the world of bina denotes the future. These names parallel the character of their respective worlds. Atzilus is eternal Godly manifestation in the present. Similarly, Atzilus dwells within the scholar engaged in Torah study for its own sake with no ulterior motive: he is fascinated by the present and free from external constraint. Thus, the sages say that no man is free except he engaged in Torah study.

Unlike that, souls from lower worlds such as bina are compared to servants. Since the Eternal Divine Name is not manifest in the world of bina, most souls' internal reality tends to be somewhat unstable and therefore oriented towards change and, hence, the future. They (we) are less stably centered and focused on the present, but on the other hand have greater energies to effectuate change, such as to do Teshuva (repentance). Being anxious to escape spiritual bondage causes impermanence and instability but gives tremendous powers for change. Symmetrically, those tremendous powers for change render that reality unstable.

This situation renders sin possible in the lower worlds: tremendous, unstable energies can go in any direction the individual chooses. Their being purposely and freely directed toward choosing God, Torah and Mitzvot, is a creative, generative act precisely because it does not receive (much) external support. It is the closest the soul can come to Godliness: to engender and to live Godly spirituality. However, a soul from the lower worlds can not truly appreciate the lofty level attained through simple faith. This sublime level is revealed and appreciated only in Atzilus. Only Atzilus recognizes the sublime, holy level reached by Jews through simple faith. In lower worlds, this level is deemed faith while in Atzilus, in which Godliness is revealed, it is Divine truth. As the Maharash taught, simple faith and Torah and Mitzvot in the lower worlds elicit a greater level of Divine Light in Atzilus.

This explains the wording, "truth and faith", of the prayers. Divine truth and true connection with Godliness are through faith, and the Godliness and truth in faith are manifest in Atzilus. Truth and faith exist - must exist - concomitantly. A sensitive soul, even if it is not one of the rare souls of Atzilus, intuitively senses this truth. In that refined spiritual sense lies deep appreciation of serving God through faith and self-control. In the subtle revelation of Atzilus deep within the soul, self-control merges with self-transformation.

This merger of truth and faith, of Atzilus with the lower worlds, brings us to some interesting conclusions. As mentioned earlier, souls of the lower worlds connect to God through faith and commitment for ultimately selfish reasons, such as desiring to escape spiritual bondage or difficult or banal circumstances and/or to come to rapturous union with Godliness. The prominence of rescue and salvation as themes throughout the Bible and liturgy reflects those personal interests. At bottom, the soul yearns and believes in the future coming of Messiah and the Jubilee redemption, the ultimate rescue and salvation.

The Cabalistic and Hasidic literature associate Jubilee with bina. As described about bina earlier, the Jubilee is a tremendous increase in Godly revelation, more than the present state of the world can tolerate in the present. Therefore, the Jubilee is in the future. When the world's spiritual ability to receive and retain Godly revelation is sufficiently broad and deep, then the sublime Godly level of the Jubilee automatically becomes present rather than just future. To a certain extent this phenomenon already exists. Thus, Tractate Berachot (17a) relates that when the Rabbis departed from Rav Ami (alternatively Rav Chanina), they wished him: "may you view your world during your life". Hasidic mysticism comments that the righteous already glimpse the world to come, i.e. the future redemption, during their lives.

Thus, the lower worlds, in which souls have powerful, personal interest in coming so close to God that they are unable to accommodate that level of spirituality in the present so it is transferred to the future, are the ultimate focus of highest revelation: Jubilee. The Messiah will teach us how to integrate personal interest with the Godly selflessness of Atzilus so that present and future will merge.


from the November 2007 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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