, Newburyport, MA

November 17, 2012

Jewish agnosticism

In the Spirit
Rabbi Avi Poupko

---- — The impossibility of commanding faith is one of Judaism’s more radical theological assertions. The Torah, also known as the Hebrew Bible, is packed full with commandments. The first five books of the Bible contain 613 commandments, to be exact. Thou shall do this, thou shall do that. Astoundingly, not one of these commandments, or mitzvot in Hebrew, speaks of an obligation to believe or have faith in God. For a religion, such as Judaism, that is quite comfortable with the idea that as human beings we are born with various responsibilities and obligations to the world around us, the absence of such a mitzvah is indeed remarkable.

You are probably thinking to yourself, “Wait a second, what about the first of the Ten Commandments (which are given slightly more prominence than the other 603 due to the fact that these 10 were spoken to the entire People of Israel on Mount Sinai): I am the ETERNAL one, your God, who brought you out of the Egypt and out of slavery.” Jewish scholars throughout the centuries have never understood this verse to be commanding anything; they have rather seen it as an introduction. Speaking to the People of Israel, God said, “Remember, just 50 days ago when you guys were all slaves and then all these miracles happened that made you free people? Well, that was me and I’m back now and I have a few things to tell you.” The language of this “first commandment” is different from the other nine. The latter say, “Keep the Sabbath, respect your parents, don’t steal.” They command action; the first commandment, though, is God simply saying hello.

Getting back to our original point, why does the Torah refrain from commanding belief in a One God whose presence can be felt throughout the universe? Part of the answer is that belief in some kind of transcendent power is by its very nature amorphous and highly personal. The word “God” means so many different things to so many different people (and perhaps therein rests its power).The Bible feels comfortable commanding a person to give at least 10 percent of their income to a charitable cause. This kind of mitzvah is easily quantified and easily performed. This is certainly not the case when it comes to belief in God.

Another reason why the Torah does not include belief and faith in God as one of the 613 commandments is because such a thing is simply impossible. I can tell my hand to reach into my pocket and pull out $10 to help someone in need. But how do I force myself to believe in God? How do I tell my heart to think one thing of the world and not another?

None of this means that belief in an Infinite Light (the Kabbalistic term for God) is not of paramount importance to Judaism or the Hebrew Bible — just the opposite. Other than the creation of an ethical and loving society, nothing is of more importance to the Torah than having a community of people believe that there is something that ties us all together and instills in us goodness and a loving heart. However, such a thing cannot be commanded; it can only be felt and nurtured in the deepest recesses of our soul.

But perhaps the absence of a belief commandment’s greatest outcome has been the flexibility that it has given Jewish thinkers and communities throughout the centuries. We can all check our theological beliefs at the door and focus on the more pressing task: building ethical and loving communities.


Rabbi Avi Poupko of Congregation Ahavas Achim, Newburyport.