Followers

Saturday, December 12, 2015

WHAT DOES IT MEAN "TO BELIEVE"?



In Genesis 15, God appears to Abram in a vision and promises to increase his reward. Abram, however, is very skeptic. He says to God: You are promising to give me wonderful things, yet, I do not have a child of my own who will carry on my name and work. God, reassures him that His promise still stands. The text ends with these words: “And because he [Abram] believed in the Lord, He [God] reckoned it to his merit” (v.6). 

This is a difficult text and has received various interpretations. For example, according to N. Sarna, “The idea is that Abram’s act of faith made him worthy of God’s reward, which is secured through a covenant” (JPS, Genesis, 113). But the basic questions remains: What does it mean “to believe?”

Moses Mendelsohn (1729-1786, Germany), one of Jewish luminaries who lived during the period of Enlightenment, pointed out that there is no commandment in the Hebrew Bible “to believe,” but only to carry out good deeds. Thus, he added, “to believe” should be best rendered as “to trust” or “to affirm convincingly.” 

I think Mendelsohn is on the right track. When I trust someone, I do this on the basis of previous knowledge that the other person is harmless, and, even well-intentioned, cooperative and supportive. Certainty of conviction should be based on critical insight. Thus, for example, I trust nature because I have seen it function in a reliable way. I am certain that morning will follow night, because I have observed it before. 

I don’t like to use the word “faith,” because it often implies “blind faith” which is dangerous. A person who has a blind faith in another loses his/her critical acumen, and totally depends on someone else’s word or action. Whereas trust based on previous knowledge is comforting and indeed necessary. We need to be able to live with trust in others. Societal life is not possible without a friend trusting another, or a spouse relying on the partner’s word and deed. 

There are many theories as to why people shake hands. One of the most intriguing explanation is that by shaking hands the two sides convince each other that they are not hiding a weapon in their hand, and that they intend to cooperate rather than destroy one another. 

We live in a world of mistrust. We often tend to look at each other with cautious eyes, because we have seen how some people have total and uncritical faith in their leaders, in their system and in their way of life. We don’t need blind faith. Our goal should be to strengthen the human potential for verifiable trust, and to establish a society where people can relate to one another without fear. 

We are still very far from this ideal.
What do you think?

Rabbi Rifat Sonsino, Ph.D.
Dec. 2015