Is It Enough to Believe in God?

How seriously should we take discussions regarding specific Divine intervention into human affairs? Is the entire issue a purely academic anachronism, with little practical relevance? Or is it important to develop a systematic understanding of the extent of God’s involvement in our lives? This was a hot issue for medieval theologians, but has been much less so during the past couple of centuries.

It is the opinion of this writer that the issue does have real relevance. A fundamental understanding of the parameters of God’s Providence is inextricably linked to a belief in His existence. In other words, in striving to develop and maintain a belief in God (to the Rambam, belief in God constitutes the first of the 613 Commandments; to others, it is a threshold condition that hovers over each of the Commandments), it is critical to incorporate into such belief the governing principles of Divine Providence.

A belief that is limited to God’s existence, without staking out a position as to His interaction with the world, is empty and hollow. There is neither risk nor responsibility in a belief that is limited in such a fashion. No consequence stems from such a belief. This was always the problem with the “philosophical” god that was declared to exist in a state of self-contemplation, without any awareness of, or any interaction with, humanity. A god so constrained could never meet the minimum qualifications to be considered a Deity in the eyes of common believers. Such a god was even too irrelevant for philosophers to expend much effort validating.

The essence of the Divinity, in other words, is Its providential engagement with the world and its inhabitants. God is God primarily because He rewards, punishes, loves, protects, challenges, responds to, and generally cares for, His creations. In the words of Rabbi Abraham J. Heschel,

Divine concern means His taking interest in the fate of man; it means that the moral and spiritual state of man engages His attention. It is true that His concern is, to most of us, one of the most baffling mysteries, but it is just as true that to those whose life is open to God, His care and love are a constant experience.

In truth, too much Divine involvement can be fatal, as God is described as a “consuming fire (Devarim 4:24)”. However, too little involvement, in the sense of God “hiding His countenance (Devarim 31:17)”, is equally catastrophic. There is a safe middle ground, probably a range for different individuals, where people can safely co-exist with God. Understanding the contours of this optimal level of engagement should comprise the essence of a well-developed belief in His existence. The main part of believing in God is a belief that He is part of our lives in a very specific sense. For this reason, no doubt, the first of the Ten Commandments links the belief requirement to the Divine role in the Exodus from Egypt.

The prophet Yirmiah expressly mandated more than faith in God’s mere existence; glory, he said (Yirmiah 9:23), comes to those who “understand and know” the Almighty. The traditional commentators have been similarly explicit about the inseparable link between belief in God’s existence and His involvement. For example, when God promises (Shemos 6:7) that “I will be for you as a God”, the Netziv points out that the essence of this Godliness is “the exercise of individualized Divine Providence”.

In his recent book, Professor Moshe Halbertal argues that the Rambam innovatively broadened the notion of idolatry from the external to the internal. Eight hundred years ago, the most prevalent theological problem was anthropomorphism. The Rambam posited that worship of a god to whom human characteristics are attributed is actually a more egregious version of idolatry than standard idol worship. And if the attribution to God of incidental physical and emotional features so adversely taints religious belief, it may be just as idolatrous to attribute inertness to God or to have other dramatically incorrect beliefs as to Divine Providence. These elements go to the heart of what the Deity represents. Similarly, agnosticism as to God’s role should be at least as intolerable as agnosticism as to His existence.

This is not to say that it is feasible to develop an ironclad perception as to whether God stands behind any specific event. To the contrary, it is impossible to do that. While anything at all may be Providential, one cannot know for sure which events are in that category and which are not. But an awareness of the fundamental principles that shape Divine Providence, as prescribed by the Sages, does seem to be an inherent element of the belief requirement. And, interestingly, developing a sensitivity to God’s involvement is one of the best ways to fortify the belief in His existence.

It certainly is not fashionable to talk seriously about God’s direct presence in our lives. True, there are times when we subconsciously acknowledge God’s involvement, say when we speak of something being “bashert”, or when we say that our course will follow “whatever is meant to be” or when we protest that “we are not deserving” of a given misfortune. But generally, most people do not bother trying to develop a systematic understanding of the general parameters that govern Divine Providence. In large part, that may be because the exercise is assumed to be fruitless. We typically are content to rely on religious faith as support for the relatively benign belief in God’s mere existence, but we are reluctant to place credence in faith when the belief affects the practical and day to day. We should not be surprised, then, that in the recent Pew report, over two thirds of Jews surveyed said that it is not necessary to have a belief in God in order to be held in good standing as Jews.

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