“Everything is in the hands of Heaven except for reverence of Heaven”
(Babylonian Talmud, tractate Berachot, 33b)
In his commentary of this week’s portion, Lech Lecha, Avraham Burg takes issue with the concept of faith. Weaving together late antiquity Midrash, Maimonides and his own hermeneutics, Burg charts his namesake, the original Abraham, as he who opened to God the door of faith, i.e. of an enduring reciprocal and dynamic relationship between man and the divine. It was the human side who liberated God from the shackles of skeptic solitude, according to Burg, and not vie versa. This Idea, originally explored in a beautiful rabbinic allegory, is expounded by Burg to show its full theological post-modern import.
It is worth taking the opportunity that Burg gives us in order to inquire a little further into the notion of faith, for it may teach us something about the way faith plays a role in our lives, secular and observant alike.
In philosophy of language there is an important distinction between “believing that” and “believing in”. When I believe that x, I believe that a certain proposition is true. For example, the proposition “I believe that it’s raining” means that I hold the proposition “it’s raining” to be true. Most uses of the verb to believe in our everyday language are of this sort, and usually refer to things we can’t be certain about, but still hold as true. The degree to which we are willing to act upon beliefs from the nature of “believing that” vary greatly by person and circumstance So much for “believe that.”
“Believing in” on the other hand, is a completely different story. When we believe in something or somebody, like a child sometimes believes in her parents, we have a unique kind of relation of a human being towards some active entity other than that human being. When we believe in, we don’t necessarily assert that everything is true or correct about what or whom we believe in. By believing in, we rather dive into belief; we have no other choice but to act upon such a belief, in the most existential way.
Now, what kind of belief is religious belief? Often when we talk (many times argue rather than plainly talk) of our religious belief we use the grammar of “believing that.” We regard religious convictions as propositions about a certain reality – historic or contemporary – and on this premise we defend or attack these propositions. The Creation vs. Evolution Debate evolved to a large amount along these lines, the lines of “believing that” the world was created or not, in six days or not, by God or not, and the list goes on and on.
Burg’s suggestion that Abraham’s leap of faith was so revolutionary precisely because it was a human redemption of the divine, a freeing of God almighty from His solitude and an invitation for Him to engage in a dramatic and meaningful relationship with His human counterparts, paves a path to recognize that religious belief is fundamentally about believing in. I understand this reading as implying that when we belief in God, we do not believe in this or that proposition regarding the existence, attributes and activity of this or that divine entity, but rather that we choose to enter a relationship with somebody wholly unknown, yet extremely significant to us.
When believing in God, we commit ourselves to a covenant regardless of its consequences; we give ourselves to the transcendent without trying to confine it within our everyday logic and truth calculus. Such a belief can indeed be redemptive to man and maybe, like Burg offers us, redemptive even to God.
Hillel Ben Sasson is a PhD candidate at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in the department of philosophy. He edited the original Hebrew Version of “Very Near to You” by Avraham Burg.