Wednesday, July 13, 2016


It depends if you are a theist or not. A theist is one who affirms that God relates to humans in an intimate fashion through knowledge, love, care, concern etc. A religious naturalist who is a non-theist considers God an impersonal force, an energy that animates the universe.

In English the expression “belief in God” or “faith in God”, reflecting mostly a theistic view, has a number of meanings, from simple “trust” to “total reliance,” almost a “blind acceptance.” In fact, Merriam-Webster, in one of its definitions states that “faith” is, “a firm belief in something for which there is no proof.” This definition is not too far from the one offered by the Church Father St. Augustine (5th cent, Algeria) who wrote, “Faith is to believe what you do not yet see,” or the satirist H.L. Mencken (1880-1956, Baltimore) who said, facetiously I assume, “Faith may be defined briefly as an illogical belief in the occurrence of the improbable,” and is taken to an extreme by Tertullian, an early Christian author who lived in the 3rd cent. Carthage, Africa, who allegedly said, credo quia absurdum est, namely, “I believe because it is absurd.” There are statements in Jewish sources that use “faith” in this manner too. Thus, for instance, Nahman of Bratzlav, a 19th cent. Hassidic master, wrote “Where reason ends, faith begins.”

Even though, in popular parlance, “faith” and “belief” are used almost synonymously, some ethicists prefer to separate the two by saying that “faith is irrational belief,” whereas “belief” is an idea that can be verified or tested using a scientific method.

In the Hebrew Bible, the root aman means “trust” or “reliance upon another.” Thus, for instance, Jacob did not “believe” (lo he-emin) his children when they told him that Joseph was a ruler in Egypt (Gen. 45:26). However, its basic sense is “firmness, steadfastness.” Thus, for example, Moses’ hands were “steady” (yede emunah) when Aaron and Hur sat, one on each side, supporting his hands up during the battle against the Amalekites (Ex. 17:12).  Similarly, in Job 39: 24, the horse “cannot stand still” (velo ya-amin) at the blast of the trumpet.  In Rabbinic Hebrew, Amen, means, “I affirm.” A Shtar amanah is a bill of indebtedness signed on trust that it will be carried out later on. 

A survey of the Hebrew classical literature indicates that when aman is used regarding human beings, the meaning is very often “to trust” or “to rely on.” For example, Moses is neeman, a most trustworthy human being (Num. 12:7). However, when the verb applies to God, it is extended from “steadfastness,” that is, “God is always there,” to almost blind faith (e.g., “Because you did not have faith in Me…” (Num. 20:12; see also Gen. 15:6; Ps. 78:22). Similarly, in the Talmud amanah refers to total faith in God, like anshe amanah (“people of faith” in God, Sot. 48b).

In a non-theistic religious naturalism of Judaism, “to have faith,” must mean more than “reliance without proof.” It should be understood in the sense that ethicists argue for “belief.” Namely, it must mean trust after verification, an assumption based on evidence and rationality, an assertion founded on prior examination, or, a reasonable and logical position. I like when Joseph Albo, a Spanish Rabbi (15th cent. Spain) writes, “The Torah does not oblige us to believe [le-haamin] in absurdities…or any imaginary notions which the reason cannot conceive,” or when Benjamin Disraeli, a former British Prime minister, born Jewish in 1804, said, “I make it a rule to believe only what I understand,” or when the Jewish liberal thinker, Rabbi Ludwig Philippson (d.1889, Germany) stated, “The Jew believes only what he has seen with his eyes.” 

For me, a religious naturalist, “to believe” means, “to affirm after careful examination.” Now, I submit, that is something many people are more likely to accept and use.

Rabbi Rifat Sonsino, Ph.D.

 For my other books, see

On the Ten Commandments: And God Spoke These Words:
Did Moses Really Have Horns:
Modern Judaism: (search by author and/or title)
Vivir Como Judio: (search by author and/or title).

(Co-authored with Rabbi Daniel Syme):
Finding God
What happens after I Die