Emunah: Biblical Faith

In the Torah, faith in God means trust, not belief in particular propositions.

Print this page Print this page

In the following article, Kellner discusses the biblical value of emunah. Like Martin Buber before him, he convincingly shows that this word implies trust in God. However, Kellner's conclusion that trust--loyalty--is the hallmark of Judaism, is more dubious. He deduces this from his analysis of the Bible, but in truth, biblical religion is not the same as Judaism, which incorporates rabbinic elaboration of the Bible as well. Excerpted and reprinted with the permission of The Littman Library of Jewish Civilization from Must a Jew Believe Anything?.

The term emunah, which is rendered in English as "faith" or "belief," occurs for the first time in the Torah in connection with Abraham. 

After obeying God's command to leave his family and home, Abraham is led to the land which God promises to give to his descendants. Famine forces him to sojourn in Egypt, where his wife Sarah's beauty almost precipitates a tragedy. Back in the land promised by God, Abraham and his nephew Lot find that they cannot live together in peace, and each goes his own way. Lot is captured by enemies and then freed by Abraham.

Abraham Questions God

"After these things," the Torah tells us, "the word of the Lord came unto Abram in a vision, saying: 'Fear not, Abram, I am thy shield, thy reward shall be exceeding great.'" Now, for the first time, Abraham questions God: "O Lord God, what wilt Thou give me, seeing I go hence childless…to me thou hast given no seed."

jewish bibleGod has repeatedly promised Abraham that the land to which he has been brought will be given to his descendants. But Abraham remains childless: what is the use of a "great reward" if there are no children to whom it can be bequeathed? In response, God brings Abraham outside, and says: "Look now towards heaven and count the stars, if thou be able to count them…so shall thy seed be." What is Abraham's response to this new promise? "Vehe'emin,and he believed in the Lord; and He counted it to him for righteousness" (Genesis 15: 1‑6).

What is the nature of Abraham's belief which God counted as "righteousness"? It is quite clear that Abraham's righteous belief was not a matter of his accepting God's statements as true, or of having given explicit intellectual acquiescence to the truth of a series of propositions such as:

  1. God exists.

  2. God communicates with individuals and makes promises to them.

  3. God has the power to keep promises made.

  4. God may be relied upon to keep promises.

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

Dr. Menachem Kellner is Sir Isaac and Lady Edith Wolfson Professor of Jewish Religious Thought at the University of Haifa.