- Belief is defined in two ways: a. the standard use of the term as the conviction of the existence of a particular phenomenon; b. theologically, the conviction of the correctness of any particular relationship. For example, even the most prosaic of activities, such as biting into an apple, requires a web of belief in order to do so. To bite into the apple requires the belief that the apple is indeed an apple, that is to say, to trust the information of your senses. As well, in order to eat it, you have to believe that is not poisoned, is nutritious, will taste good, etc. —Otherwise put, as belief is the conviction in the correctness of any particular relationship, belief is also the first step in free-will choosing. That is to say, some threshold of degree of belief is always necessary in order to impel one to action.
- In sum, there is no action in the physical world which does not require belief beforehand. In this formulation, belief is a priori both ubiquitous and necessary to produce agency in a physical world. (Definition “a” is true even for atheists.) Which car to buy, which house to buy, which school to send your kids to, which person to marry, etc.—everything requires belief in both senses of the definition described in #1.
- Belief is a transcendence of purely physical information/sensation/phenomena. It is an abstraction and so an interpretative function and as such a point of view. The purpose of this point of view is to understand the world and exert agency. Belief’s attempt to make sense of the world is non-cognitive. As such, belief is a different function than cognition. Though logic can contribute or detract from belief, theologically, belief is a phenomenon that inhabits a realm beyond cognition. [Which, incidentally, is what allows even very bright people to believe in anti-rational things.] That realm beyond cognition is the interface between infinity and finitude. As such, belief is the space/place/realm/terms wherein we meet G-d and establish and play out our relationship with Him. So situated, belief has no limits. This means belief, unlike cognition, does not end in paradox.
- Belief as the necessary precursor to free will must itself be free and non-contingent. Belief as non-contingent means that factors may influence belief for periods of time but eventually, definitionally, can’t ever be permanent, ever-lasting influences. That is to say, belief, definitionally, has a shelf life, which means it is a degrading asset. As such, belief must be continually renewed for its relevance and survival. Otherwise put, without such maintenance, belief will degrade in the face of the forces of entropy of this world, i.e. disease, violence, sickness, death, etc., what one can also call the forces of inevitable loss.
- The end of philosophical regression in belief will be the following half-rhetorical question: How is it that I, a derivative being who cannot generate my own existence, how is it that I have existence? I write, half-rhetorical, because meditation upon this question tends one toward the answer that there must be a Source that grants/gives me my existence. It is this fundamental ‘observation’ from which all religious meaning is born, no matter the religion, where meaning is defined principally as the naming of things which itself began when Adam named the animals. This naming of Source which one accepts as reality, as true and inescapable, is the very foundation of religious belief. It is at this germination point that belief as meaning and meaning as belief is indistinguishable. [For a further description of the nature of this giving of aliveness from Source to derivative being and the reciprocity of giving and gratitude that is at the core of relationship, see #’s 5-6 in my Notes on Monotheism. This idea of reciprocal giving and gratitude as, prima facie, the most essential act of creation and continuing metaphor in human affairs, which is to say, the interwoven relatedness and relationship between Source and creation and creation with creation, is the singular immanent addition of the Ari over the transcendent theology of the Rambam.]
- The ‘answer’ of the end of philosophical regression in belief is, of course, unprovable, just as all belief is unprovable. It is, however, this very feature of improvability which vaults belief beyond the more limited realm of cognition. This is so because the interface between Source and derivative beings, i.e. between G-d and us, is relationship and not proof. That is to say, belief is more fundamentally embedded in the concept of relationship than proof.
- What all men seek is the most amount of life for their lives, that is to say, the most amount of aliveness possible. The most amount of aliveness, definitionally, will be the most amount of connection to that Source of aliveness. And since belief is the connecting point to Source, the more belief in the existence of that relationship and the correctness of that relationship, the more energy of aliveness will be generated. [Note that this is in distinct opposition to the pursuit of aliveness as the pursuit of the experiential vividness of temporal meaning, i.e. scaling mountains, bungee jumping, etc.]
- Since the essence of belief is the recognition of the gift of life from Source, recognition will be defined as intentionality. Since G-d must continually input energy into the creation to sustain it, G-d can be said to be always ‘present’ for the relationship. As such, it is human intentionality which ignites one’s relationship with Source.
- The difficulty of belief in Judaism is threefold: 1. G-d is not perceptible in any sensory way. 2. All cognition about G-d ends in either, ‘I don’t know,’ or in paradox. 3. Based on #’s 1-2, a Jew is required to observe an austere code of morality called halacha. [Christianity and Islam solve these problems in their own ways: Christianity makes G-d palpable by making Jesus the son of G-d; it also did away with halacha. Islam defines their sense of non-temporal meaning in terms of temporal vividness, i.e. the promise of virgins in heaven. As well, Sharia law is not nearly as demanding as halacha.]
- Belief in G-d is belief in non-temporal meaning. As such, it is meaning which transcends time. In turn, belief as abstraction is an act of imagination asserted against the forces of entropy of this temporal world, otherwise known as the forces of the inevitability of loss. A function of belief in non-temporal meaning is to contextualize the harsh determinisms of this world—disease, destruction, death, et al—into cognitively and emotionally bearable phenomenon. This act of imagination, i.e. asserting non-physical, non-sensory, non-temporal meaning as a contextualizing framework against the concrete forces of the inevitability of loss, is religion’s most important, most merciful, human act.
And since belief is non-contingent by definition, i.e. that it degrades over time without maintenance, an essential question becomes, how does one maintain that act of imagination in a world that continually degrades it?
- Humans as derivative beings are, by definition, boundaried, where boundary is defined as being distinct and therefore unique from all else. In this sense everything in creation is boundaried, distinct, and unique. The range of degree of boundary will include principally being, but also, within being, the distinctness and uniqueness of talent, ability, appearance. Time and place are boundaried as well and are dimensional stages for the life of a derivative being. A derivative being can’t live outside of time and place in an infinite realm (we are not speaking here about the afterlife since that is after life) since that realm is not derivative. As such, a derivative being’s relationship with G-d must necessarily take place in a physical world [Note that angels’ relationship with G-d only exists due to the physical creation.] with G-d as non-sensory Being. And yet such relationship with G-d can’t become corporeal since that would be a compromise to the integrity of His infinity. Hence, the meeting ‘place’ between G-d and man must be in the interface of belief.
- One can rank degrees of belief by judging to what degree belief effects two outcomes: 1. Contextualizes and so relieves the anxieties produced by the forces of entropy, i.e. the inevitabilities of loss, as described above. This is quality of belief. 2. Gets you to behave morally consistently, that is to say, to behave in consonance with one’s beliefs. This is quantity of belief. [Note that the definition of a definition is that any definition must include a range and degree of the defined term and be applicable to all men.] A lack of effects of belief means that one’s beliefs contain either or both a degree of weakness or falsity.
- Where G-d is completely Other than man—no pantheism, no panentheism—and man exists in relationship with Source through the agency of belief as the basis of free will choosing, such monotheistic relatedness is the fullest expression of human responsibility. Why is this? Because human responsibility can only be fully expressed through human distinctness of being. This means beingness which is not diluted by the heretical impingements of pantheism and panentheism. Such monotheistic beingness is most responsible for itself because it is only and ever itself. Ideologies besides pure monotheism are in some sense and degree partnerships of beingness between beings where the interpenetration of one being into another blurs/dulls the distinctness of being. This interpenetration is the intermingling effect of beingness-es. As such, partnership is always less responsible than a single being in and of itself. Why is this? Because solo agency existentially, and so necessarily, feels the full weight of the forces of entropy, i.e. the inevitabilities of loss. In turn, the need to contextualize these harsh determinisms and so act responsibly in order to assert one’s singular, undiluted needs against these forces, what indeed one might call asserting one’s values against this sense of existential weight, is fully felt. In addition, solo agency enables us to experience the full range of emotions – joy, love, etc.
Rabbi Yosef Kaufman is a writer and teaches at Machon Yaakov, Jerusalem.