"Faith"
© 2010 S.H. Parker

There is no word for "faith" in Hebrew. Therefore, there is no way to express the notion of a "counter-factual belief." There is no way to express believing in something for which one has no evidence (which is what "faith" is, as that term is understood in the modern age). Therefore there is no way to conceive "faith" in the sense of believing a proposition to be true for which we have no empirical (observational) evidence.

I learned this from Abba Hillel Silver's book, Where Judaism Differed. Rabbi Silver stated that the word usually translated as "faith" (אֱמוּנָה, emunah) really means something else, something quite different. But the most memorable thing was his assertion that Israel did not need the concept of "faith."

The operative word, here, is "need." Israel has no need of the very idea of "faith."

Why did Israel not need faith? 

Israel saw what happened in Egypt. Israel saw what happened at the Reed Sea. Most importantly, Israel stood under the mountain and heard God's word. As Rav Silver observed, Israel had no need of faith, of counter-factual belief, for the simple reason that God is a matter of empirical evidence for them. God and God's word are entirely a matter of empirical observation.

Israel has direct empirical evidence, what philosophers call "sense evidence" and scientists call "observational evidence." So direct is this evidence that there is absolutely no need for eisegesis, that is, for post hoc re-interpretation.

This is a powerful but entirely obvious observation on Rav Silver's part (now that he's made it, of course it's obvious!).

Israel's direct experience of God is so obvious that, while we understand the relationship of it to the (almost immediate) incident of the golden ox, the epistemological and theological implications pass virtually unnoticed.

The main consequence? A Jew need not believe in anything beyond what s/he can hear, see, touch or smell. No testimony beyond that of their own senses is required.

The only "faith" that a Jew needs, if s/he needs "faith" at all, in the modern sense, is that the people Israel did encounter God in the wilderness or that their report that they did contains some factuality. And the "leap of faith" to that is not such a great one.

In fact, if you do a text search for "faith" on the entire Bible at the Mechon-Mamre Online Bible (Mechon-Mamre uses the Jewish Publication Society translation, used by many chumashim), you will find only two instances of "faith." Neither of these instances is in the Pentateuch or even the Hexateuch. The two instances of "faith" are in 2 Ezekiel 39:23 and Isaiah 7:9.

On the other hand, if you do the same search in the Judaica Press edition (at Chabad.ORG), there are many more occurrences of the word. Many of these occurrences are in the Pentateuch.

Take, for example, one of the first occurrences of אֱמוּנָה (emunah, "faith") in the Judaica Press translation, Shmot 17:12:

וִידֵי מֹשֶׁה כְּבֵדִים, וַיִּקְחוּ-אֶבֶן וַיָּשִׂימוּ תַחְתָּיו וַיֵּשֶׁב עָלֶיהָ; וְאַהֲרֹן וְחוּר תָּמְכוּ בְיָדָיו, מִזֶּה אֶחָד וּמִזֶּה אֶחָד, וַיְהִי יָדָיו אֱמוּנָה, עַד-בֹּא הַשָּׁמֶשׁ.

This is at the famous encounter with Amalek. So long as Moshe Rabbeinu's arms were raised (toward heaven), Israel prevailed in battle. When he lowered his arms, Amalek prevailed:

 וְהָיָה, כַּאֲשֶׁר יָרִים מֹשֶׁה יָדוֹ--וְגָבַר יִשְׂרָאֵל; וְכַאֲשֶׁר יָנִיחַ יָדוֹ, וְגָבַר עֲמָלֵק. And it came to pass, when Moses held up his hand, that Israel prevailed; and when he let down his hand, Amalek prevailed.
Shmot 17:11

Mechon-Mamre renders verse 12:

But Moses' hands were heavy; and they took a stone, and put it under him, and he sat thereon; and Aaron and Hur stayed up his hands, the one on the one side, and the other on the other side; and his hands were steady until the going down of the sun.

While the Judaica Press renders it:

Now Moses hands were heavy; so they took a stone and placed it under him, and he sat on it. Aaron and Hur supported his hands, one from this [side], and one from that [side]; so he was with his hands in faith until sunset

(I have bold-faced the different renderings of אֱמוּנָה, emunah, the word Silver was talking about.)

Rhetorically, I ask you, which of these two translations reads better?

Silver's point, however, is supported by the fact that אֱמוּנָה comes from the root[1] אםן. This is the same root as "amen," "truth, to be trustworthy, firm, confirmed." See the Online Etymological Dictionary which tell us:

amen
O.E., from L.L. amen, from Gk. amen, from Heb., "truth," used adverbially as an expression of agreement (e.g. Deut. xxvii.26, I Kings i.36; cf. Mod.Eng. verily, surely, absolutely in the same sense), from Sem. root a-m-n "to be trustworthy, confirm, support." Used in O.E. only at the end of Gospels, otherwise translated as Sošlic! or Swa hit ys, or Sy! As an expression of concurrence after prayers, it is recorded from early 13c.

אֱמוּנָה, emunah, "faith," therefore, does not mean believing in what you cannot see or any other proposition incapable of empirical confirmation (a la Karl Popper). It means believing, like Nachson, "Moshe is the prophet of God; Moshe said God said we would get to the other side of this water; good enough for me!" In short, if God said it, it will be (and I don't have to worry about it any more).

It is on this understanding of "faith" that I argued "If we have discharged our responsibility, we have the right to expect God to finish the task (I have this from Rabbi Radinsky, see my comments on the parting of the waters)."

It is on this understanding of "faith: that I argued "In other words, if a person violates the Devine mandate and we do not know about it, it is for God:"

הַנִּסְתָּרֹת--לַיהוָה, אֱלֹהֵינוּ; וְהַנִּגְלֹת לָנוּ וּלְבָנֵינוּ, עַד-עוֹלָם--לַעֲשׂוֹת, אֶת-כָּל-דִּבְרֵי הַתּוֹרָה הַזֹּאת. The secret things belong unto the LORD our God; but the things that are revealed belong unto us and to our children for ever, that we may do all the words of this [teaching]
Devarim 29:28

And it is for this reason that I claim that someone who feels compelled to pass laws enforcing their understanding of divine mandate is not a "person of faith." Someone who feels compelled to make all others around him/her believe as s/he believes is not a "person of faith." Let us be quite clear about this, any such person is not a person of faith, indeed does not even understand "faith," regardless of the religion they profess. Imposition of "God's will" by civil law or any form of force or coercion is, in fact, prima facie evidence of lack of faith. It is also prima facie evidence of a failure to understand Holy Writ.

c[1] Hebrew is a root system language. A root word, usually two or three letters, is the basis on which the words we use are based; spoken words are derived from a root word. At the root level, a word is not a verb or a noun or any other part of speech. It is just a word. But from the root, the parts of speech -- the expressive actions of language -- are formed. Thus a single word can become a verb or a noun or an imperative or an adjective or just about anything else. Theoretically, a single root can give rise to both nouns and verbs. For example, "learn" is the basis for "teach (v)," student (n)" and "teaching(s) [lessons]." Oh, yes, it is also the root of "to learn" and "to study."