Emunah: Biblical Faith

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

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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.

In God We Trust

No, the context makes it very clear: Abraham's act of righteousness is his demonstration of trust in God. There can be no doubt that, had he been asked, Abraham would happily have affirmed the truth of the four propositions listed just above. The Torah, however, gives us no reason for thinking that Abraham ever asked himself the sorts of questions to which our four propositions could be construed as answers. The emunah spoken of here is more than belief that certain statements about God are true; it is belief in God, trust and reliance upon God, all of which call forth behavior consistent with that stance of trust and reliance.

The point I am making here about the meaning of emunah is neither new nor controversial; it is just not often noticed. Yet perusing a concordance and examining the verses in context is enough to convince any reader that the basic, root meaning of emunah is trust and reliance, not intellectual acquiescence in the truth of certain propositions.

A few further examples should suffice to make the point clear. God is described as a God of emunah in the great poem Ha'azinu: "The Rock, His work is perfect; for all His ways are justice, a God of faithfulness [emunah] and without iniquity; just and right is He" (Deuteronomy 32: 4.). God is not being described here as agreeing to the truth of certain statements. The verse itself teaches us which of God's characteristics make it possible to appeal to a "God of faithfulness": God is free of iniquity, just and right.

Even in cases where the Hebrew can be construed in terms of "belief that" as opposed to "belief in," reading the verse in context almost always reaffirms the point being made here about the connotation of emunah in the Torah. In Deuteronomy 9:23 Moses berates the Jews: "And when the Lord sent you from Kadesh‑Barnea, saying, 'Go up and possess the land which I have given you'; then ye rebelled against the commandment of the Lord your God, and ye believed Him [he'emantem] not, nor hearkened to His voice."

This verse might be construed as saying that the Jews simply did not believe what God was telling them; i.e. they did not believe that God was speaking the truth. This, however, is an entirely implausible interpretation. In the first place, the parallel between "believing" and "hearkening" is clear; the Jews are being castigated for failing to do what God told them to do, not for their failure to believe some statement or other.

Why did they fail to do what God instructed? The Jews failed to trust God, and therefore they failed to obey God's, command. God commanded the Jews to ascend to the Land of Israel and conquer it, promising that they would succeed. The lack of emunahin this verse relates to the Jews' failure to trust God to keep the promise made. Furthermore, what was the content of God's statement concerning which the Jews showed lack of emunah? It was the command to ascend to the Land of Israel.

If one disobeys a command and is therefore accused of lack of emunah, it makes much more sense to say that one is being accused of lack of trust in the commander than of quibbling over the accuracy of statements made by or about the commander.

Theology and the Torah

My claim here is that the Torah teaches belief in God, as opposed to beliefs about God. That is not to say that no specific beliefs are implied or even explicitly taught in the Torah. The Torah obviously assumes God's existence, although it nowhere states simply that God exists, or according to most interpreters, commands belief that God exists. The Torah also clearly teaches that God is one: "Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one" (Deuteronomy 6: 4)…

If, then, there are specific beliefs taught in the Torah, why can we not say that the emunah which the Torah both demands of a Jew and seeks to inculcate, is belief that certain statements are true, as opposed to trust in God, trust which finds its expression in certain forms of behavior?

The answer to this question has to do with the Torah's understanding of itself and its understanding of the nature of human beings. To state part of the answer in summary fashion: the Torah teaches, occasionally explicitly, more often implicitly, certain beliefs about God, the universe, and human beings; notwithstanding this, the Torah has no systematic theology.

Judaism emerged through a struggle with idolatry, demanding loyalty to the one God, creator of the universe. This loyalty was to find expression in certain ways, pre‑eminently through obedience to God's will as expressed in the Torah.

So long as one expressed that essential loyalty in speech and (especially) in action, little attempt was made to enquire closely into the doctrines one affirmed; indeed, no attempt was even made to establish exactly what doctrines one ought to affirm. Furthermore, Judaism developed as a religion intimately bound up with a distinct and often beleaguered community.

Loyalty to the community was a further way in which loyalty to God and God's revelation was expressed. Loyalty to God, Torah, and Israel, therefore, is the hallmark of the Jew: loyal behavior, not systematic theology, is what is expected and demanded.

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