Overview: Emunah is perhaps from the most misunderstood concepts in Judaism. Does Emunah allow for skepticism and reasoning, and if yes what then is the purpose of Emunah? Do other religions also enjoy Emunah?
Observant Jews are well aware of the term Emunah, which is usually roughly translated as “belief.” Emunah is something strongly encouraged in Judaism. To the objective critical-thinking mind, this concept seems bizarre and a means to blind-faith. With no understanding or proofs, one is simply to accept and believe, and even more than that, to dedicate their life to something that cannot even be verified as true. It is a personal belief that is subjective, relative, and therefore not the absolute truth. This is the approach to Emunah (“faith”) as understood by many Jews and most certainly liberals and atheists.
If this is the Emunah that Judaism has to offer and demands, then we are really doomed! Does Judaism have no proofs for its truth against all other religions which claim divinity and truth? Does Judaism not have a way to defend the skepticism towards it? Is there really a G-d and a World to Come or is it just our subjective “belief” and personal feelings towards it? The facts show otherwise, and I can hardly imagine that the sages encouraged blind-faith since there is no evidence and rational basis for Judaism.
While it understood that such an Emunah (i.e. a form of blind-faith) would be encouraged to most Jews, of whom many aren’t capable of doing a full-fledged research and especially not objectively, this Emunah does not work for everyone. When one is already convinced of a truth (whether through a rational research or via blind-faith), it is understood why they would want to “brainwash” their children or their community to also believe what they think is the absolute truth. The reason is simple: from this individual’s perspective he already has the truth and will therefore take any means to convince his children or community to believe in this truth that he is already convinced of.
But that is only from this individual’s perspective. From the recipient’s perspective (the one getting “brainwashed”), however, things may be different. If they an objective critical-thinking mindset, they will not accept this brainwashing or Emunah but will do their own objective research. Hence, this Emunah in Judaism is actually positive brainwashing. To the skeptic or to the believer in another religion this “positive brainwashing” may sound like a joke; but to one who actually did a proper research or one who is convinced that Judaism is the truth (even if via brainwashing), knows well that it is indeed positive brainwashing in reality. Even The Rational Believer, who doesn’t trust the brainwashing, understands that such positive brainwashing is crucial for the upbringing of our children and our survival as a Jewish nation.
It must be noted that when we use the term “brainwashing” here, we do not mean it in a negative way. In fact, it would be fair to call it positive brainwashing. Brainwashing is usually viewed negatively because it is generally in the context of a cult which through brainwashing its members, the leaders deprive them of a greater good. They are frequently even forced to do things that are not good for their health or future in life. In our case, however, no bad comes out of people following the truth (i.e. Judaism), even if they themselves cannot prove that it is the truth.
Despite the above, we still cannot say that that is the only understanding of Emunah and the one that is required from everyone, since there are those who do think objectively and aren’t susceptible to this positive brainwashing. While people generally refer to Emunah as “faith” or often “blind-faith,” the more accurate definition of Emunah would be “faithfulness” or “loyalty.”[i]
So, when a person already has the belief in G-d, Emunah is the next step: will he or she be committed and loyal to this G-d that they believe in, or will they actively defy their knowledge of His existence and transgress His Torah. This definition of Emunah can be proven from the few times the word is stated in the Torah. By Abraham, the Torah uses the term Emunah to demonstrate his faithfulness to G-d.[ii] It couldn’t have been referring to “faith” because G-d already revealed Himself to Abraham, thus requiring no belief (and if it was simply belief, why then does the verse continue “and He reckoned it to his merit”—should one get rewarded for believing in the existence of someone who he himself saw and spoke to?).
After the Jews were freed from Egypt with great miracles which then proceeded with the great miracle of the splitting of the sea, the Torah states that the Jews had Emunah in G-d.[iii] This as well is obviously not “(blind)faith” because they just saw the works of the Lord, thus not requiring any belief. Emunah means “loyal” or “faithful” (coming from the root “straightforward”), and that was the Emunah of Abraham and the Jews. At the war with Amalek, Moses’ hands were erect throughout the duration of the war. The Torah uses the term Emunah there.[iv] In the context it can either be translated as “loyal”—that his hands were loyal to its task, or it can mean “straightforward” that his hands were literally straight (and from this raw translation of Emunah the more generally used term evolved into “faithfulness” which means the person is straight with his beliefs).
It is brought in various places throughout Kabbalah and Chassidus about the concept of Emunah, that it comes from the inner soul of a Jew. Over here it’s clear that it’s also referring to belief and not merely loyalty. These sources explain that the inner soul sees G-d and therefore requires no logical proof for it.[v] Now, it is clear to me that the reason this is mentioned so many times in Chassidus is in order to satisfy (positive brainwash) the Jews who cannot logically prove Judaism but feel stupid believing with blind-faith (thus they convince themselves it’s a belief from the inner soul). However, despite this it obviously is a true statement since Chassidus would never lie even if it is for the sake of positive brainwashing.
So, what is the meaning of this Emunah from the inner soul? Doesn’t it sound like a cop-out of rationality? Why can’t any religion claim the same “inner soul belief” to its blind-believers? Isn’t the natural belief based off childhood education and brainwashing? Why don’t atheist Jews have this feeling? Why does The Rational Believer not have this feeling?
Rather the meaning of this Emunah from the inner soul isn’t a belief so conscious just like one knows that the world exists. This Emunah is a subconscious feeling (or perhaps even biases)—because it comes from the inner soul—and is therefore usually covered over by the materialistic body and conscious of ours. Only by the very righteous Tzaddikim, whose soul is revealed to them (having not been covered by evil), is this inner Emunah so conscious to them.
For the common Jew it is only revealed at rare times, most significantly at times of martyrdom (Mesiras Nefesh in Heb.), an act done countless times by Jewish people throughout history. In such a case, the inner soul becomes revealed and affects the person giving him or her this feeling to give up his or her life for the sake of connecting to our Father and Creator. This explains why countless times throughout history we have seen wicked transgressors or passionate atheists suddenly give their life up when put at the stake to either denounce their faith in Judaism or sacrifice their lives.
Now, though it is subconscious, it still has a visible effect on us. Ironically, despite the fact that other religions preach the same “faith” and “belief” as us, only we survived to outlast every single religion in the world, us being the oldest, despite our long exile. It is mainly thanks to this natural subconscious spiritual push from the inner soul (even though so small) that let us strive way beyond all other extinct religions.
So, does The Rational Believer believe or not?
Based on the above translation of “belief” (i.e. positive brainwashing), The Rational Believer does not believe. But in essence, a fair translation of “belief” would be a position or stance on something that is controversial, as is in our case (of course just because it is controversial doesn’t mean that it’s non-provable and non-conclusive, as we have discussed about biases in chapter “How Can So Many People in the World be Mistaken?” Hence, yes, The Rational Believer believes, knows & has Emunah.
 Although Hinduism is usually regarded as the oldest religion followed by Judaism, by many standards it can be argued that Judaism is the oldest religion. While the origins of Hinduism precede Judaism, the religion as a whole significantly developed over the years. In addition, Hinduism has no supposed Revelation or Word of G-d, thus not regarded as a religion by many theologists. But this is a topic well beyond the scope of our discussion.
[i] See the following references to where it mentions the word in the Torah: Exodus 7:12, Deuteronomy 32:4, Isaiah 25:1, Jeremiah 5:1, Psalm 37:3, 119:30, 86, Proverbs 12:17, 22.
[ii] Genesis 15:6.
[iii] Exodus 14:31.
[iv] Exodus 17:12.
[v] See Tanya Ch. 19 and Maamor VeAtah Tezetzaveh 1981 of the Lubavitcher Rebbe.