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What Does it Mean to “Believe in G‑d”?

What Does it Mean to “Believe in G‑d”?


Even the honest atheist will agree that a first cause, an original being, must have preceded the universe. This original cause or source is what so humbled Einstein, although he incorrectly described it as a religious experience. The questions of faith begin with how we understand this First Cause, its nature, and its relationship to us and to the universe.

The statement, "I believe there is a G‑d" is meaningless. Faith is not the ability to imagine that which does not exist. Faith is finding relevance in that which is transcendent. To believe in G‑d, then, means not that you're of the opinion that He exists, but that you have found relevance in Him. When a person says "I believe in G‑d" what s/he really means is "G‑d is significant in my life".

In discussing our relationship with G‑d, the question we first need to ask, is, Who cares? In what way is He relevant?

For some people, G‑d is relevant because they are concerned with the origins of existence. For others, G‑d is relevant because they are concerned with the afterlife, and faith is a prerequisite for getting to heaven. Finally, for others, G‑d is relevant because they believe that life has purpose.

In Judaism, particularly in Chassidism, the interest in G‑d comes from the conviction that life has meaning. The recurring question in Chassidic thought is: Why is a soul sent into the world to suffer in a physical body, for 80, 90 years? We know there is a purpose, that G‑d is the author of that purpose, and we want to know and understand it.

Chabad Chassidism teaches that the mind is the soul's capacity to detect logic, the heart is the soul's capacity to respond negatively or positively. The respective functions of the mind, heart and soul are often confused.

One who lives by his heart exclusively, trusts only what he feels. One who lives by his mind exclusively, trusts only what fits. But neither of these tells you the truth. The mind demands that logic be trusted, the heart demands that the emotions be trusted. Yet both can be mistaken. They do not reveal inherent truth. For that, we turn to the soul, the neshamah. Because the soul is a part of the Divine -- and that is truth. When we have faith, when we find relevance in G‑d, we are trusting that instinct in the soul that tells us that G‑d is the purpose of life.

In pragmatic terms, the mind, the heart and the soul must each fulfill their function: when we know all that can be known, when we come to the edge of knowledge and logic itself tells us that we have reached its outer limits and it cannot handle what lay beyond this point, faith enters. Where the mind is no longer adequate, the soul responds to truth. This is faith.

This faith, this soul response, is necessary in the fulfillment of that category of mitzvot known as chukim, supra-rational laws, laws that do not subscribe to reason.

If someone has difficulties with these particular commandments, that is an indication that they may be relying on the mind and heart at the expense of their own capacity to react to truth -- the expression of their soul. When a Jew fulfills a mitzvah before they've fully intellectualized it, they are allowing their neshamah to respond to truth.

It is an ability that often needs to be cultivated. The sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn (1880-1950), recounts in his memoirs that as a small child, he once asked his father to explain to him why we follow a particular custom with regard to the saying of Modeh Ani upon waking in the morning. Instead of giving the answer, the Rebbe's father led him to an elderly, simple Jew, and asked the Jew, "Why do you say Modeh Ani in this particular way?" To which the man responded, "Because that's how my father taught me to do it." The Rebbe's father might have just as easily given him the rational reason for the custom. Instead, he saw it as an opportunity to exercise his ability to respond with faith.

This is why in Chabad-Lubavitch it is our approach to invite a Jew -- even one who claims not to believe -- to do a mitzvah, before we engage them in a discussion on faith. Because in consideration of the existence of the soul, we can assume that we don't have to convince people of life's Divine purpose. We just have to get them started, and with each mitzvah they do, their neshama asserts itself more, and questions become answered of themselves. By way of analogy, if a woman's maternal instinct appears to be absent, you don't argue the philosophy of motherhood with her. Just put the baby in her lap and her maternal response will emerge.

The relevance we find in Him will differ from person to person. Being that He is everything, people will experience G‑d in every possible way. He is the G‑d of Abraham and Isaac, of Benevolence and Might. And it is also true, as G‑d says, "I am known according to my deeds." Some will know Him as a rewarding G‑d, others as a G‑d who punishes, who provides, who saves, who enlightens, who inspires, and so on and on..

In the beginning, G‑d revealed Himself as the creator, master, king -- all very impersonal roles. In Halachah (Torah law) G‑d reveals His laws, but doesn't allow His "personal feelings" to show. Later, in the Kabbalah, G‑d makes Himself vulnerable; He shares intimate details. He is humanized in a two-way relationship. So the Halachist has great respect for the wisdom of the commandments, while the mystic sees G‑d as taking the mitzvot personally. When G‑d says, "don't cut down fruit trees," if we were sensitive we would not only hear a commandment, but we'd see something about G‑d. Kabbalah reveals that something. The halachot are the details; Kabbalah reads between the lines.

Kabbalah gives us a very different perspective on G‑d's "anthropomorphic" behavior. It reminds us that Torah comes to teach us about G‑d, and that expressions such as "G‑d spoke," "G‑d's hand," "G‑d's anger," need to be considered from Torah's or G‑d's perspective. We are not the reference point for G‑d's behavior; G‑d should serve as a reference for our behavior. He created the world. Speech, hand, anger, jealousy -- these are all His creations, these are all Divine rights. Our speech, our hand, our anger, our jealousy -- these are only metaphors for the real thing, not the other way around. When we read that "G‑d raises His hand" and splits the sea, we need to measure our own hand against that. When we raise it, what happens? Nothing. We learn then that we are not quite as powerful as G‑d. When we read that G‑d gets angry and punishes because He created a world with a Divine purpose, and that purpose is frustrated, we ought to measure our own anger against that. What have we created? Nothing. We may not, therefore, get angry and punish as G‑d does. Considering G‑d's anger and other attributes in this way brings us to a humbling recognition. Only when our anger or jealousy is an expression of moral indignation does it reflect true, Divine qualities. Only then, may we exercise such expressions. Whatever truth there is in anything in us, it is the extent to which we embody what it is He tells us about Himself.

Rabbi Manis Friedman, a noted Chassidic philosopher, author and lecturer, is dean of Bais Chana Women's Institute of Jewish Studies.
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Jeanne South Africa June 25, 2017

What exactly do you mean by 'the heart' ?
To me the heart is an organ

We use words like heartfelt and heart sore and heartache - are they emotions?
Where does this come from? Reply

Sigrid Haller Vienna, Austria April 10, 2017

Beyond "reason". Beyond "superficial trust". Great lines. Reply

Anonymous Aus December 26, 2015

Could someone please explain to me why doing a commandment beyond logic needs faith, that's not faith the human mind can UNDERSTAND that some things are beyond us. That dosnt need faith it needs logic. Reply

peterspc england February 18, 2015

g-d what does g-d say about man who is able to fly to the moon etc but is unable to feed its self without the slaughter of billions of innocent animals ? Reply

Steve E Abraham New York January 29, 2014

what does it mean to believe in g-d? Does it matter what g-d is? If g-d gave us the torah, and we accept it as g-d's words, then that should be enough! Look at this sentence: "this is what g-d said". Do you need anything more? It seems to me, that the true acceptance of Hashem without trying to understand the un-understandable, is the essence of being holy. The idea of "holy" is supernatural to begin with, and by definition we cannot understand supernatural. If we could, it would be natural. All of the discussion here is really a lower form of understanding, it is from a Rabbi who tries to show he is very educated and spiritual, when in actuality, he is just making up these answers. He bases his answers on the zohar, a book that we were taught should not be studied. Why are we kosher? Not because it is humane to animals, but because g-d said so. Why do we wear tzizis? Only because g-d said so. There is no such a thing as other dimensions or planes, anyone who uses this as an explanation is deluded. Reply

Anonymous Aus March 6, 2013

WOW never seem to be shocked at your amazingness! answered so many questions of mine and others and will be refering to this article in the future!
Thank you! Reply

ruth housman marshfield hills, ma April 3, 2012

finding relevance might be better spoken as finding reverence.

that's how I see it, and we can be, irreverent with each other, as that is comedy central. Light in all its manifestations.

but deeply, at the core of this, is a wellspring of LOVE, and for me, there is nothing like this "knowing". Nothing.

how could we have the one, without, the other? if there is a solution to suffering then G_d holds the key.

since I know G_d is all knowing, that every blade of grass is known, the immensity of this is awesome beyond, belief. Knowledge
has edge.

so my knowledge has to go, beyond, belief.

and all our stories are tended and tendered to, by a Divine Source, just as, each and every blade of grass. How deep is this knowledge, this feeling? It's impossible to describe with words what is, ineffable.

and so it all must come out all right "in the end", and the fringes on that prayer shawl speak to me, as do tallit, as do these sweet seasons, all that lives and breathes, that sings in the wind. Change is in the air. Sweet Promise. Reply

Karen Joyce Chaya Fradle Kleinman Bell Riverside, CA, USA March 30, 2012

"finding relevance"? I think it would be better spoken as, "Finding relevance to us personally and to the bettering of the world". Reply

ruth housman marshfield hills, ma March 28, 2012

Atheists Convene in Washington This was just in the news. A huge group of atheists, coming to Washington, to argue for separation of Church and State and to exhibit solidarity. I believe everyone has a right to express their beliefs, and also, atheists do, to me, keep us honest, about the terrible and cruel abuses of religion through the centuries, and we know, those professing religious beliefs were also part of the Inquisition that killed us off, without remorse, feeling righteous sanctity.

So YES and NO. I believe, G_d also created atheists, because I see, it's ALL G_D.

For me, what is important in life is how we act, promoting the dignity and respect for each other, and the healing of the broken places in life, and sadly, we all bleed, and need that helping hand.

I don't believe in G_d. I KNOW G_d exists, but I don't need to proselytize about this, I use my prose to express just the rose, that is LOVE itself, and feel we all need to LOVE.
And we can't get enough of it. And include the trees, what breathes! Reply

Anonymous lexington, ma March 27, 2012

Ed Yes, faith is beyond the human mind, and beyond anything this man says it is. Reply

Karen Joyce Chaya Fradle Kleinman Bell Riverside, CA, USA August 17, 2011

This statement is untrue logically. "Even the honest atheist will agree that a first cause, an original being, must have preceded the universe". This is untrue, because atheism by definition does not equate an original being preceding the universe. They just don't. Even if SOME did, you don't know all of their thinking on this matter. To pre-suppose what others think is not logical, rational, or realistic. Atheists do believe in the concept of love, however, so when I speak to them about G-d, I always equate G-d with love. Not creation. That subject is totally non defensible. Reply

ruth housman marshfield hills, ma January 7, 2011

I love what you wrote, Alex Pearlman and also Karen and anywhere.

There is something beautiful that happens on this Blog, when people who are deeply about soul think deeply about soul.

And when this happens it feels so much less solitary a journey. Sol is also for sun, and for what illuminates. And Saul being Sol aurally, too.

As for pearls and pearl man, I can't help remember that it is the very rub, of sand in the oyster shell that does create the pearl, and so it is, for us all. Reply

anywhere, earth-supporter January 5, 2011

it might not always be so easy as now @anywhere, earth--that is a beautiful way of putting it---may we all aspire to stand unconditionally! Reply

Karen Joyce Chaya Fradle Kleinman Bell Riverside, CA, USA January 5, 2011

Believing in Go-d means Believing in good. Without G-d, the world is pretty mean, bleak and terrifying. Reply

ruth housman marshfield hills, ma January 5, 2011

seek in order, to find! Is there a difference between belief in G_d and knowing? Carl Jung wrote, "I know G_d exists". I think there are surely ways of knowing that are rock solid, for each of us, evidence, and maybe proof is not necessary, as in G_d coming out of the clouds that do sometimes obscure the light, and whispering in our ear, words, as we hear them. Maybe there are other kinds of Proof.

There are different ways of knowing. For some there is simply, another day, and the dei in day, being so much about deus, or the visible presence of G_d in all, in awe, is sufficient. For others, somehow, science took primacy, and yet, for me, science is predicated on awe, and is subsumed under a much larger umbrella of discovery. As discovery is also for uncovering.

As we say there is a tree of life, I say, be leaf is also aurally belief, and I see a story that is deeply and beautifully about us all, within the words themselves.

Passing Hyde Street off Center in Newton I think about how G_d plays, hide & seek! Reply

Alex Pearlman New York , NY January 4, 2011

The destinction between heart and mind. There are many ways to characterize the difference between heart and mind...
Both are facilitated by the use of the physical mind. As in the expression "thinking with your heart".  For example your mind tells you the begger on the street will use your tzedakah for crack...while your heart says anything I can do to help this lost soul survive another moment;
Another example could be claustrophobic person stuck in the elevator...while the mind says, "this is a temporary inconvenience"...the heart is thinking "the end is coming"...and by the way, the physical heart made of muscle is also trying to jump out of your body.
Then, here comes the soul trying to reconcile these thoughts towards the truth. But it will only be the real truth if your soul's foundation is anchored in TORAH!!  As taught in the Shema. Reply

Anonymous anywhere, earth January 4, 2011

Today is the day to ask ourselves; Will I stand with the L-rd when all hell brakes loose? Will I stand with the L-rd when there seems to be no reason to do so?
Will I stand, because that is the only right thing to do and it is all that is left, yet still do so?
Let us consider; what will we do. Because it might not always be so easy as now. Reply

Karen Joyce Chaya Fradle Kleinman Bell Riverside, CA, USA January 4, 2011

What does it mean to believe in G-d? It means we have a very real source of strength to survive the calamities of this world. Reply

ruth housman marshfield hills, ma January 4, 2011

heart and soul There is a question above about how a mechanical system, like the heart, could also be, what we call heart, meaning Valentine, a symbol of love? I hope I am correct in understanding this question.

We cannot live without heart, meaning our hearts, that do pump our blood, that do work with the lungs to carry oxygenated blood to all parts of our body so we can breathe, and breath itself is known as ruah.

So a heart is crucial to our being alive. We take the metaphor for what is essential, and we say, to have heart, is to be kind, to love, and that is the extension of the word and its meanings. Deer, those creatures that run outside in the woods, so graceful, some with antlers, are sometimes called harts. Now that's the same word aurally. And heart and heart and dear and deer, do seem related, don't they?

Listen to the spirit within, and what infuses all words, and maybe, a universe will open for you, in asking this question.

Human "kind" that is so about love. Yes, to have heart! Reply

ed palo alto, ca January 3, 2011

Great Great question - unrevealing answer. Reply

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