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

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

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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 Chanah Women's Institute of Jewish Studies.
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Discussion (50)
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.
Steve E Abraham
New York
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!
Anonymous
Aus
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.
ruth housman
marshfield hills, ma
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".
Karen Joyce Chaya Fradle Kleinman Bell
Riverside, CA, USA
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!
ruth housman
marshfield hills, ma
March 27, 2012
Ed
Yes, faith is beyond the human mind, and beyond anything this man says it is.
Anonymous
lexington, ma
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.
Karen Joyce Chaya Fradle Kleinman Bell
Riverside, CA, USA
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.
ruth housman
marshfield hills, ma
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!
anywhere, earth-supporter
January 5, 2011
Believing in Go-d means
Believing in good. Without G-d, the world is pretty mean, bleak and terrifying.
Karen Joyce Chaya Fradle Kleinman Bell
Riverside, CA, USA
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