Emunah Peshutah – Response to a Reader

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Reaction from readers – posted and not – shows that the words of R’ Simcha Zisel of Kelm (see “A Torah Rationalist’s Manifesto,” Feb. 24) struck a responsive chord.

One reader may have supplied the answer to his own cri de coeur. “How can we expect to win the battle for our childrens’ minds and souls, if we don’t challenge and fortify them with DA’AS Torah, as opposed to a rationalist-rejecting emphasis on emunah peshuta (simple belief) alone?!”

I would turn the question upon my questioner. Can we expect to win the battle for our children’s minds and souls without fortifying them with much emunah peshutah?

Don’t get me wrong. The path I have chosen for myself – and for my children – involves a huge component of embracing rationalism. Living in an open society (whose few remaining barriers and mechitzos grow more porous by the day), I don’t know if there is much of a choice.

I don’t celebrate this state of affairs without equivocation. There is much to be commended about emunah peshutah, a commodity which is seriously abraded by the process of robust, critical thinking that many of us celebrate.

First of all, there is a beautiful strength, innocence and power in seeing things simply and clearly. To quote TS Eliot

And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

The upshot of much of our chakirah (rational inquiry – the traditional term used as the antonym for emunah peshutah) is to arrive back at the place with which emunah peshutah starts and ends, without traveling the convoluted paths in between. Most of us have to admit that the chakirah approach, while often adding insight and nuance, just us often drains us of unequivocal enthusiasm. Our prose is marked with too many footnotes.

Secondly, our fallback position in so many areas has to be emunah peshutah. None of us is smart enough, or well read enough, to answer all the questions. The passage from Rambam that R’ Simcha Zisel cites alludes to as much, when he refers to issues that we cannot explain rationally, and that we then have no choice but to attribute to the meta-rational. When our rational backs are against the wall, we rely on our emunah to carry us forward.

A few years ago, I had dinner with a world-class scholar of Jewish antiquity, who happens to be Orthodox. Partly, I think, because I subconsciously did not want to be disappointed by his answer, I did not bring up biblical criticism until we were ready to go our separate ways. As he was preparing to get into his limo (like so many other visitors here in LA, he had been brought out to assist on a movie, and was properly courted), I popped the question. What were his thoughts about Higher Criticism, about the Documentary Hypothesis? He admitted that he did not have a satisfactory position, because he just had never had the adequate time yet to study the matter and formulate a response. I pressed forward. What, then, did he tell his own children? What did he tell himself? His answer was full of confidence and pride.

“What answer do I really need? The Torah is emes (absolutely true)– I know that. Is anything else really important?”

It was a wonderful response of emunah peshutah, from the lips of a quintessential chakirah individual.

Understanding all of this is important, I think, in relating to much of what goes on in our community. We often find much to criticize about goings-on around us. We should recognize that much of what we don’t like is motivated by a sincere effort to preserve as much emunah peshutah in parts of the community where it has not become extinct. We can speculate about the price paid for such efforts, and whether or not they are doomed to failure. We shouldn’t, however, belittle the attempt. There are people who have not had to grapple with difficult questions; they should be allowed to continue in peace. There are Torah personalities who realize that the chakirah process has produced some wonderful and satisfactory responses to difficult issues, but that they also tend to stimulate new questions, not all of which have been answered. They would like to protect the naďve (not used pejoratively) from the agony of raising questions for which quick answers will not be readily available.

I, for one, would hate to see emunah peshutah become another fossil.

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16 Responses

  1. Joshua says:

    I must apologize, but I am not very learned. My question, which is very basic and, I assume, naive, is the following: if we rely simply on emunah, are we not doing exactly what the Xtians, Moslems and many other religions do? If so, emunah would appear not to be a very reliable faculty in arriving at truth. Why would we rely on this?

  2. Chana Luntz says:

    I tend agree with the poster who says that first we need to understand what we mean by Emunah, and Emunah peshuta, because I think we are rather talking at cross purposes. To me, the concept of Emunah peshuta is mostly closely linked in English to the concept of “trust” rather than “faith” and therefore it seems to follow that it develops in a similar way. If I trust my husband, it means that I may not necessarily know how he will do something, or achieve something, but that he will act in a way that is right or correct vis a vis me rather than the converse. So if there is something I don’t understand, I assume the positive rather than jumping to negative conclusions. Similarly one of the primarly goals is build trust in one’s children, so that when you tell them that eg this or that is necessary they will be prepared to accept that. Your scholar of Jewish antiquity had precisely this trust that the Torah is emes and hence there must be answer even if he does not know what it is.

    But trust between people, it seems to me, is built up over time through a myriad of things, little and big (usually lots of little and a few big that really cements it). And it seems to follow, at least to me, that the same is true vis a vis Emunah peshuta. And one of the common ways of building that trust is via some form of chakira, ie having grappled with intellectual doubts in one area, and having come through the other side, one is far more willing to trust that there are similar answers with regard to other similar challenges. In fact it seems to me that there are two primary ways at ending up with Emunah peshuta, the first is by having engaged with and overcoming some form of intellectual challenge and the second is by having engaged with and overcoming some form of emotional challenge of the nature of personal tragedy (that is the case of the grandmother) (or maybe, but I am not sure, these are actually two different types of Emunah Peshuta). Which is not to say that everybody comes out the other side where the challenges, whether intellectual or emotional are big ones (death, disability, infertility, poverty), in fact I think a lot of people don’t, and even some who sort of do, come out scarred, but my instinct is that nobody can actually be said to have real Emunah peshuta if they have not in fact come out the other side of at least one of these two (although there are unquestionably people who walk through one or both of these situations without seeming ever to notice the difficulty, very much like Rabbi Akiva coming out of the pardes unscathed).

    So while I understand the instinct to shield (we all have precisely the same instinct vis a vis personal tragedy, who would not do anything to prevent one’s children from suffering the hardships of life) the same dilemmas would seem to arise vis a vis overprotectiveness in terms of the ups and downs of life and the difficulties of intellectual life.

    And in a crazy way, is this not all a lack of Emunah peshuta, that we lack the faith that not only do the tragedies that befall us come from the Dayan Emes, but so do the intellectual challenges to our emunah? Not to say that in all cases we are not required to do reasonable hishtadlus, but just as there is reasonable hishtadlus in earning a parnassa, and there is obsessive hishtadlus that ignores the role of Hashem in providing a parnassa, so too, is there not reasonable hishtadlus and obsessive hishtadlus in trying to shield from intellectual and emotional challenges.

    Chana

  3. Micha says:

    I posted a numper of essays on the subject of emunah peshutah vs machashavah amuqah on Aspaqlaria, my blog. In short, I believe both are mandatory. Emunah without machashavah is superficial and vague, machashavah alone, though will only get you to know about HQBH, not knowing Him.

    As I see it, the question boils down to the role of mind and heart. Both need to be developed, and they’re developed in very different ways. There is therefore no conflict, just very different goals. The illusion of conflict is from trying to do both with the same method, forcing you to select rather than keep a larger toolkit.

    See:
    Emunah Peshutah vs Machashavah
    The Kuzari Proof, parts I, II, and III
    Argument by Design ver 4.0

  4. Reb Yitzchok,

    Some interesting thoughts, and I think the quote fron TS Eliot, along with the additional line mentioned by one of the other people commenting on your post, does help in understanding the approach of the Rambam to this issue. This approach is based on my father z”l explanation (see http://sambor.blogspot.com/2005/02/what-are-my-influences.html for whom that is).
    It is important to understand that there is a fundimental difference between “Emunah” and “Emunah Peshuta”. It is the opinion of the Rambam that there is a requirement on every Jew to “know” that there is HaShem. What does it mean to “know”? That is the aspect of Chakira – to explore using the intellectual capabilities that HaShem has given us. How do we know that we have reached the correct answer? In a purely scientific environment, the question is close to meaningless, and basically is that if we have done the best we can, that is all one can do. That is not the approach of Yahadus. Because, in addition to the requirement of “knowing” that there is HaShem, there is also the requirement to “believe” / to have Emunah that there is HaShem. How do these two co-exist?

    The answer is that once we have completed our intellectual exercise, we have done our best to determine what the truth is, we then compare that to what our Ikrei Emunah are. If our intellectual analysis has come up with an structure that is consistent with the Ikrei Emunah, then we can feel confident that MAYBE we have reached some portion of the ultimate TRUTH. However, if after all our work, we find that the structure in some way cannot co-exist with the Ikrei Emunah, then we need to go back to the beginning and start again.

    This aspect of Emunah, then is both a difficult state and requires an Emunah that is exceptionally strong. It must be strong enough to stand against what was our best attempts to create a rational structure of what is reality and truth and be able to demolish it, if needed.

    Emunah Peshuta, on the other hand, is the almost dialecticly opposite approach. It says, basically, that since you are going to end up here anyhow, why bother to leave. Just stay within the daled amos of your Emunah and do not try to understand and rationalize. For some people, actually I think for the overwhelming majority, that is what they want and are able to handle. It is only for the few, who are willing to take the challenge of going out and trying to “know” HaShem, but willing to bound that exercise in knowledge by their Emunah.

    Sambor un-Rebbi

  5. espaklarya says:

    Et tu, Brute?
    There were those who thought your original article was “wimpy” and I thought they were a little hasty…I retract, they were right.

  6. Michoel says:

    One grows in “emunah p’shutah”, which might be better called “inherent” emunah, by learning Torah and keeping the mitzvos meticulously, particularly shmiras shabbos.

  7. Anon says:

    As the source of the comment that was the subject of this post I’d like to make the following comment: first off, I’m flattered that R’ Adlerstein thought enough of it to make it the focal point of his follow-up article. Secondly, it appears that he got the impression that I was somehow rejecting the idea of emunah peshuta. Not at all. Rather, if you go back to my original comment (which he quotes above), you’ll notice that what I was decrying was a reliance on emunah peshuta alone–at the expense of the benefits that chakira can provide. What I had in mind (and I’m glad to see the comments by the HS teachers!) were our adolescent children, who are struggling with their “ancient faith,” in the modern world, and where an approach utilizing chakira can be invaluable to–you guessed it–their emunah! I have seen the benefits in my own experience, with a teenage son who (beyond my control) finds himself attending a public high school. During the past couple of years, he and I have had many a conversation comparing and contrasting world religions, Torah and science, to name but two, and I dare say his hashkafos are as good (if not better!) than many a contemporary yeshiva bochur.

  8. Not the Godol Hador says:

    Secondly, our fallback position in so many areas has to be emunah peshutah. None of us is smart enough, or well read enough, to answer all the questions.

    True, but we should be able to rely on those who have looked into this in detail and come to some credible conclusions. When the ‘experts’ themselves seem to have emunah peshutah its worrying.

  9. Hanan says:

    To Suri Rosenblatt

    Regarding your comment: “If someone is naturally more of a chakirah-inclined person, how can he nurture his emunah pshutah as well?”

    In my experience I have had no luck. It’s incredibly difficult if not impossible. I’m also struggling with that question. How?

  10. Suri Rosenblatt says:

    It seems to me that this distinction between chakirah and emunah pshuta is something many of us intuit without always realizing it. As a High School teacher, this is something I struggle with. In our day, chakirah is so necessary, but so is emunah pshutah. A question is – conveying an appreciation of chakirah is much easier; how can we convey emunah pshutah to our students? In parenting, children learn from our example and how we act and react to life’s situations. In teaching, this is not as easily done. And while we’re on the subject: If someone is naturally more of a chakirah-inclined person, how can he nurture his emunah pshutah as well?

  11. Cosmic X says:

    The bottom line is different strokes for different folks. There are those that would be harmed by chakirot, and there are those that absolutely need chakirot in order to fortify their emunah.

  12. Phil says:

    Perhaps a Lubavitcher reader can correct any errors in this story:
    The Alter Rebbe once remarked to his students, “I’d give up all my learning if only I could have the simple faith of my grandmother.”
    The students, naturally, were stunned. “Maybe we should stop learning,” some thought.
    But the Rebbe intercepted any such feelings with, “… but it requires 80 years of learning to come to that conclusion.”

  13. chaim klein says:

    I don’t understand. I thought that true emunah peshuto meant understanding that there are certain things that are beyond rationalization/ In addition , as Rabbi Cardozo points out: Does emunah mean belief in G-D or belief that G-d. I think a clarification of Emunah is in order. I teach many high school students, ranging in their levels of observance and can attest that chakiraizing only enhances their appreciation of Torah and Judaism.As one of my students in a yeshishe institution said to his classmate who accused me of excessively philosophical Judaism ” The only reason you think that it’s too philosophical is because you have never thought about it”. Ck

  14. Moishe Potemkin says:

    What I find frustrating about this post is the presumption that the sincerity of ba’alei emunah peshuta trumps the sincerity of the chokrim, to the point that their needs can be disregarded without respect. Historically, this is a questionable claim, and practically, much damage is caused by this approach. At what point does this poetic dream cost more than it’s worth?

  15. Joel Rich says:

    Nice quote from TS Eliot but I wonder – the prior line is IIRC “We shall not cease from exploration” which implies (at least I thought) an obligation (along the lines of Vikivshuha which demands a rationalist approach to the exploration of the world that HKB”H gave us as long as it’s subsumed under the mantle of Torah) to explore.
    KT
    Joel Rich

  16. Dov says:

    I agree with your basic point, but if you’re implying that the Gedolim who condemned R. Slifkin were justified, this doesn’t apply. How many people’s emunah peshutah did R. Slifkin’s books actually harm? Probably very few, if any; I doubt that the naive people to which you refer bothered to read the books. But many of these naive people probably started reading the books after the Gedolim condemned them. And I shudder to think how many people’s emunas chachomim were harmed by the condemnations. (Come to think of it, you probably agree with all this, in light of the defense of R. Slifkin that you posted a few weeks ago!)