A Chassid of the Tzemach Tzedek, Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Lubavitch (1789-1866), once lamented to him that he struggled with doubts in his faith.

“So what?” asked the Rebbe. “Why does it bother you?”

“But Rebbe, I am a Jew!”

Why Do We Grapple With Faith?

It’s not particularly surprising that we grapple so much with faith, given that G‑d created the world with the express purpose of hiding Himself from us. The Hebrew word for “world,” olam, derives from the word helem, “concealment.” And this concealment is not passive. The word olam is also related to ilem, which means “youthful, vigorous.” The world actively conceals G‑d by creating an illusion that it exists independently of Him.1

The fact that these questions bother us so deeply and we are motivated to dissect them endlessly reflects on how critical they are to us; how deeply we desire to believe in and connect with G‑d, and how troubled we are by the fact that our physical and intellectual senses cannot grasp Him.

What Is the Commandment ‘To Know G‑d?’

In the town of Berditchev lived a self-proclaimed atheist. Once, the great Chassidic master Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev heard him pontificate at length about why he doesn’t believe in G‑d. Reb Levi Yitzchak turned to him and said, “You know, the G‑d you don’t believe in, I don’t believe in either.”

The first mitzvah in Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah—his monumental compendium of all the mitzvot in the Torah—is “to know that there is a First Being, Who caused the existence of all beings.”2 It’s not enough simply to declare your faith in G‑d. It is a positive mitzvah to know G‑d; to engage with your mind and intellect to bring this faith into a level of knowledge and comprehension.3 By studying and meditating upon the teachings of Kabbalah and Chassidus, the mystical aspects of Torah, we deepen our awareness of G‑d and develop love and awe of Him.

The teachings of Chassidut are predicated on a simple principle: Elokut b’pshitut, olamot b’hitchadshut.4 In other words, usually, the starting point of intellectual inquiry is that the world we experience with our physical senses is real, and the existence of G‑d is up for debate. Prove it to me! In Chassidic teachings, the basic premise is reversed. It is self-evident that G‑d is real and the Torah is real. It’s the existence of the world that’s a novelty. In fact, a Chassid once said that he’s only sure that the world exists because it is written so in the Torah.

Moreover, belief in G‑d is the starting point, since as Jews we are maaminim bnei maamimin,5 believers and the descendants of believers. As a result, we don’t spend a whole lot of time pondering the existence of G‑d, or coming up with arguments and proofs for why to believe in Him. What concerns us a great deal is why does the world exist? What are we here for?

This perspective is not pure idealism; i.e., that only the spirit exists and matter is an illusion. All of creation—from the most transcendent spiritual lights to the coarsest physical material—was brought into being by G‑d, and that alone gives it existence and reality. The world exists because G‑d desires that there be a world.

G‑d Is Unknowable

An agnostic was once asked whether he believed in G‑d, and his response was: “No, I believe in something much greater!”

That agnostic may have accidentally stumbled on a profound truth. Whatever understanding of G‑d we have, it is by definition limited. Try to imagine whatever might be “greater than G‑d.” Whatever conception you have of G‑d, there is a level that’s beyond it, and when you’ve grown and learned and grasped that level of G‑d, there’s a still greater level beyond that.

Jewish philosophy sums it up as tachlis hayedia shelo neida6—the ultimate knowledge of G‑d is to know that He’s unknowable. And despite being unknowable, G‑d still wants us to use the tools of our intellect to grasp Him with the best of our ability.

Questions Are Encouraged

Jews by nature are a questioning lot. We aren’t particularly known for our credulity or submissiveness. Moses had his hands full in the desert dealing with the constant combativeness of the Israelites. We are blessed with the ability to think, to engage, to question, to want to know. And the Torah encourages us to cultivate and nurture that native curiosity.

One of the first commandments given to us as a people is to tell our children the story of the exodus, as prompted by their questions: “When your child will ask you … .”7 During the Passover seder, we perform unusual rituals just to spark the curiosity of our children; to get them to ask.

Questioning and grappling with challenges of faith is part of our heritage. Moses himself challenged G‑d when he witnessed the suffering of his people in Egypt: “Why have you done evil for this nation?”8

There is questioning, and then there is doubt. They are fundamentally different. Questioning is bracing and invigorating; it opens our mind to learn and discover more. But doubt? It drains the life right out of us, leaving us limp and deflated.

Where Does Doubt Come From?

The Hebrew word for “doubt,” safek, has the same numerical value as Amalek—the nation that ambushed the Jews as they left Egypt, an act for which we have never forgiven them to this day: “Remember what Amalek did to you on your way leaving Egypt … you must obliterate the memory of Amalek from under the heavens. You must not forget.”9

When the Jews left Egypt, they were on a high. G‑d had performed miracles for them and liberated them from Egypt with a mighty outstretched hand. He split the sea for them, rained on them manna from heaven and spread His clouds of glory over them. Nevertheless, as soon as they faced a bit of discomfort, they questioned, “Is G‑d with us or not?”10 Immediately after this, Amalek pounced.

Amalek, the voice of doubt, assails us when we’re “on the way out of Egypt,” trying to throw off the shackles of enslavement and self-limiting beliefs. Its purpose is to find our weak spots and dampen our enthusiasm. Amalek tells us to play it cool, not to get carried away. It’s that voice whispering, “Who do you think you are, anyway?”

The answer to Amalek is to recognize that doubt serves no useful purpose. Questions can be answered through further study, thought and analysis. Doubt functions only to weaken us, to cool us off, to leave us vulnerable and defenseless. When assailed by doubt, the Torah’s response is to shut it down. Refuse to engage with it; choose not to entertain the voice of cynicism. An honest question deserves an answer; doubt merits no response. The only antidote to Amalek is our rock-solid belief and commitment to truth and goodness beyond all reason.

How Can We Feed Our Faith?

So faith is not passive; it must be fed and nurtured. Since the world actively conceals G‑d, we must actively work to uncover Him. We may be tempted to sit around and wait for G‑d to make the first move; indeed, we constantly pray to G‑d asking him to come out of hiding. Until that happens, though, we need to use our full arsenal of intellectual and emotional tools to grasp G‑d.

Because faith is transcendent, it takes effort to integrate it within ourselves. Otherwise, we are like the proverbial thief who prays to G‑d for success before breaking into a house.11 Obviously, the thief believes in G‑d, but it hasn’t penetrated his consciousness enough to affect his behavior, to make him act as G‑d wants him to.

So how do we nurture our faith? Literally, by eating “food of faith,” as the matzah we eat on Passover is known.12 How does eating matzah accomplish this? For one thing, matzah is flat, bland and tasteless. We don’t eat it because we appreciate its flavor; we eat it only because G‑d has so commanded. On Passover night, the Jews left Egypt with such haste that their dough had no time to rise; it baked in the hot desert sun and turned to matzah. Thus, matzah is a reminder of the way we followed G‑d into the desert trustingly, unhesitatingly.

At that stage, the Jews were freshly redeemed slaves at the very beginning of their journey to receive the Torah. They had only rudimentary knowledge or awareness of G‑d. All they had was their faith and trust. Consuming and internalizing the matzah during our infancy as a people empowered us to apply the same level of faith to all the mitzvot to follow. The way to feed our faith is through mitzvot, through action. During times when our faith is weak and hope is waning, we can pull ourselves together and do a good deed, uplifting ourselves and the world in the process.13