Rabbi Mayer Twersky

Knowledge and Belief

"Carry out my mishpatim" - [mishpatim are] commandments which even if they had not been written [in the Torah] [human] reason dictates that they be written, such as idolatry, gilui arayos, murder, etc. "and safeguard my chukim" - [chukim are] commandments which the Satan challenges, such as consumption of pork, wearing wool and linen together, etc. And lest you say that [chukim are] empty prescriptions, the Torah teaches "I am Hashem" and you have no right to doubt [the chukim]. (Yoma 67b)

This passage in the Gemara introduces a fundamental distinction. Mishpatim are mitzvos which are intuitive, they correspond with our G-d given innate moral sense. Chukim, on the other hand, are entirely unintuitive. We do not intuitively discern the justification or rational of chukim. We simply surrender to and accept ratzon Hashem. A knowledge-faith dialectic characterizes our experience of mitzvos.

The dialectic of faith-knowledge characterizes our relationships with Hakadosh Baruch Hu as well. On the one hand, as Rambam clarifies in Mishneh Torah, we are commanded to know that Hashem exists. The world in all its complexity and beauty points to Hashem, the Borei Olam. The incomparably deep, inexhaustible wells of Torah point to Hashem, the Nosein haTorah. The "turbulent and majestic saga of Jewish history"[1] points to Hashem "whose eyes are cognizant to all the ways of mankind to grant each man according to his ways and the consequences of his deeds"[2]. We know Hashem, and yet we can not know Him. The human mind thinks in terms of time and place, while Hashem exists outside of time and place. Hence, we can not know Him, We can not grasp His essence. We believe in Hashem. We know and we believe, the twin foci of religious existence.[3]

Within religious life, knowledge and faith co-exist reciprocally. They nurture each other. Knowledge nurtures faith in that knowledge is the foundation of faith. We believe in Hashem though His essence is beyond human comprehension because of what we do know about Him (as explained above). We know of Hashem's eternal love of the Jewish people - "He who chose us from amongst all of the nations and gave us His Torah" - and thus we believe in Him even when His will in history is inscrutable. Clearly knowledge fosters and nurtures faith.

But faith also fosters and nurtures knowledge. Consider the following example from the world of learning. Tosafos raises a difficulty with Rashi's explanation, Ra'avad with Rambam's p'sak. Often, at first glance, the question is so compelling that Rashi or Rambam simply appear to be wrong. If one lacks confidence and trust in Rashi and Rambam he will be complacently content to think that Rashi failed to notice nuances in the text and Rambam forgot a relevant Gemara. If alternatively one operates with the knowledge that the chachmei haMasorah displayed a profound and remarkable mastery of Torah and benefited from siyata d'shmaya, one will re-think and re-examine the relevant sugyos. The answer for Rashi or Rambam which ultimately emerges will, upon discovery, turns out to be totally natural; the approach of Rashi or Rambam turns out to be as internally consistent and compelling as that of Tosafos or Ra'avad. Without emunas chachamim in Rashi and Rambam, their approaches, brilliant and subtle, would have gone unnoticed. With emunas chachamim, however, our appreciation and knowledge of Rahsi and Rambam's Torah and greatness is enhanced.

Thus we see that our belief in Torah and the chachmei haTorah allows us to discern the depth and profundity of Torah, thus adding to our knowledge of Torah.

Our appreciation and understanding of hashgachas Hashem is also rooted in the reciprocity of faith and knowledge. The pattern of divine providence, at times, protrudes from the tapestry of history. We witness open miracles. We know of Hashem's involvement, guiding the course of history. More often, however, Hashem camouflages His involvement. The skeptic sees no trace of providence. The man of faith searches and, at times, will succeed in uncovering the camouflaged pattern of hashgachas Hashem. Acting out of faith, he increases his knowledge.

As we have seen, the twin foci of a Torah life are faith and knowledge. The faith which the Torah expects from us is the antithesis of the Tertullian variety ("I believe because it is absurd"). It is a faith anchored in and fastened by knowledge. We are called upon to cultivate such faith.[4]

Modern man, buoyed by the explosion of scientific knowledge and the previously unimaginable advances of scientific technology, wants to know, but does not want to believe. Man's understanding is the measure of everything. Mishpatim sit well with us; chukim are grating. We are too often unwilling to surrender and acknowledge our limitations. In truth, we are limited not only vis-a-vis Hakadosh Baruch Hu, but also l'havdil with regard to our chachamei hamasorah. We know of their wisdom. There is much in the words of Chazal that we are privileged to understand and appreciate. But at times we encounter "chukim" in the words of Chazal. We do not understand the what or why of certain ma'amarei Chazal. At such times, we are called upon to surrender and believe. Our acceptance for all halachos and hashkafos haTorah must be unconditional.

In our times, we also witness the profound and tragic truth of an insight provided by the Rov zt"l. The Rov explains that without the absolute, unconditional acceptance of and submission to chukim, our commitment to mishpatim will also erode. In his day, the Rov cited the prohibition against murder. This is the ultimate mishpat. And yet if our acceptance of lo tirtsach is rooted only in our intuitive moral sense and not in unconditional surrender to ratzon Hashem, ultimately even lo tirtsach is rationalized away as our exigencies and predilections dictate. The Rov decried how euthanasia and abortion, acts of murder, are construed as acts of compassion.

In our own day the nightmare of a society which "accepts" mishpatim but does not surrender to chukim has grown even darker. We are witness to shameless attempts to legitimize homosexuality - which the Torah brands an abomination[5] - within Orthodox Judaism.

As evidenced by these examples, the reciprocity of faith and knowledge is more vital than was hitherto described. They simply cannot exist without each other. Authentic faith requires a foundation of knowledge, but knowledge also requires the support of faith and the act of intellectual surrender inherent within faith. Otherwise knowledge is susceptible to being relativized and rationalized away.[6]

[1]This phrase is my father's, zt"l

[2]Yirmiyahu 32

[3]This paragraph is based upon the comments of Reb Chayim with Reb Velvel, as recorded in Avi Ha-Ezri on Hilchos Teshuva

[4]See the Rov's essay U'bikashtem Misham

[5]Vayikra 18:22

[6]This last point deserves much elaboration which is not possible presently

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