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 lies 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.
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