Kovetz Maamarim (Collected Essays)

Rabbi Elchanan Wasserman zt'l

Excerpts from: An Essay on Faith

[In paragraphs 1-4, Rav Elchanan begins by asking a number of questions: What is the connection between our thoughts and our emotions? How can the Torah command us to believe in Hashem, something that is seemingly connected to the heart? How can a child be required to believe in Hashem when even the greatest philosophers have failed to grasp the true faith? How can non-Jews be required to believe in Hashem even if they have not been taught the truth?]

5. If you ponder it, however, you shall find that the belief that the Holy One, blessed by He, created the world is self-understood by any intelligent being -- unless a person is a complete imbecile. And there is no need for any [knowledge of] philosophy to grasp this principle.

The author of the Duties of the Heart (Shaar HaYichud 6) thus wrote:

There are people who say that the world came into existence by chance, without a Creator who caused it and formed it. I wonder how any rational being in a normal state of mind can entertain such a notion. If one holding such a opinion would hear a person expressing a similar view in regard to a water-wheel that revolves in order to irrigate a portion of a field or garden -- and were to say that he thinks it had been set up without any intention on the part of a mechanic who labored to put it together and adjust it, using all his tools to obtain this useful result -- the hearer would wonder, be exceedingly astonished, and think the man who made such a statement extremely foolish. He would promptly charge him with lying, and would reject his assertion.

Now, if such a statement is rejected in regard to a small and insignificant wheel, the fashioning of which requires but little contrivance and which serves for the improvement of but a small portion of the earth, how can anyone permit himself to harbor such a thought concerning the immense sphere that emcompasses the whole earth with all the creatures on it; which exhibits a wisdom so great that the minds of all living creatures, the intellects of all rational mortals, cannot comprehend it; which is appointed for the benefit of the whole earth and all its inhabitants – how can one say that it came into existence without a wise and mighty designer purposing and conceiving it? Whatever takes place without purpose shows, as is well known, no trace of wisdom or power.

Do you not realize that if ink were poured out accidentally on a blank sheet of paper, it would be impossible that proper writing should result, legible lines such as are written with a pen? If a person brought us a fair copy of script that could only have been written with a pen, and said that ink had been spilt on paper and these written characters have come of themselves, we would charge him to his face with falsehood, for we would feel certain that this result could not have happened without an intelligent person's purposeful action to produce it. Since this appears to us an impossibility in the case of characters whose form is conventional, how can one assert that something far finer in its art, and which manifests in its fashioning a subtlety infinitely beyond our comprehension, could have happened without the purpose, power and wisdom of a wise and mighty designer?

How could anyone say that the universe came into existence on its own, seeing that everywhere we look we see signs of such inconceivably profound wisdom? How wondrous is the wisdom and design in the human body, how wondrous the arrangement of its limbs and organs, as all doctors and surgeons attest. How is it possible to say, with regard to such a wondrous machine, that it came into existence on its own without a purposeful designer? If anyone would claim that a watch had just come into existence on its own, he would be considered insane.

We see this in the Midrash (Midrash Temurah in Midrash Aggadot Bereshit):

An athiest came to Rebbi Akiva. "Who created the world?", he queried. R. Akiva answered, "The Holy One, blessed be He." The athiest replied, "Show me proof." R. Akiva said, "Come back to me tomorrow and I shall prove it to you."

When the man returned the following day, R. Akiva began by asking, "What is that you are wearing?""A piece of clothing,"the athiest replied."And who made it?" R. Akiva continued. "The weaver", he replied. "Show me proof", R. Akiva demanded. "But how can I show you proof if it isn't already obvious to you that it is the work of the weaver?!"

With this R. Akiva said, "Have you not heard what your own lips have spoken? Isn't it obvious to you that the Holy One has created this world? Doesn't the clothing testify to the weaver; the house and the door to a builder and a carpenter? Just so does the world testity to the One who made it."

Imagine a human being born with a fully developed intellect. We can't imagine his great astonishment upon seeing, suddenly, the heavens and their hosts, the earth and all that is upon it. What would this man's answer be to our question: Did the world that he is seeing now for the first time come into existence on its own, without any conscious intent, or is it the work of a wise Creator? Behold, without a doubt, after contemplating for a moment, he would respond that all this was made with wondrous wisdom and extremely subtle order (fine-tuning).

[We find this concept expressed in any number places in our classical literature.] The Psalmist said, "The heavens declare the glory of G-d"(Psalms 19:2). [According the Duties of the Heart 2:5] this is also the meaning of Job's words when he declared, "From my flesh, I will see G-d!"(Job 19:26) [The Psalmist saw proof of G-d's existence in the magnitude of the universe. Job was saying that the very fact that something as wonderful as his body could exist demonstrates that it is the work of a wise Creator.]

In view of all this it is therefore extremely puzzling, a great enigma: How could some of the greatest philosophers who ever lived have concluded that the world was brought into existence by chance?

6. The resolution of this enigma can be found in the Torah. The Torah reveals something profound about human psychology when it commands, "Do not take bribes, for bribery blinds the eyes of the wise!" (Deuteronomy 16:19).

What is bribery? In legal terms, the smallest amount necessary to constitute a bribe is a "shaveh prutah"(not much more than a penny), similar to the minimum amount needed [for a court] to find a person guilty of stealing or of taking interest. This negative commandment, to never take a bribe, is directed not only at a judge, but at every man, even the wisest of men, even the most righteous, even Moses himself. Yes, if it could be imagined, even if Moses would take the tiniest bribe, a prutah, his perception of reality would be distorted; he would be incapable of bringing forth a just ruling.

At first sight, this is nothing short of amazing. Can we imagine Moses or Aaron twisting the law and judging falsely merely for the sake of receiving such miniscule benefit? But the Torah itself testifies to the possibility, and "the testimony of G-d is trustworthy" (Psalms 19:8).

We must therefore say that it is a psychological law: A person's will or desire [to gain some benefit] influences his mind [his ability to think straight]. Of course, it depends how strong the desire and how resolute the mind. A small desire will not exert much influence on a great mind, whereas on a lesser mind it will. A powerful desire [for gain] will exert even more influence. One thing is certain: no matter how miniscule, a desire for gain will always have some affect. Even the tiniest desire can cause the greatest mind to waver a fraction.

This is exemplified in the Talmud (Ketuvot 105b):

Rebbi Yishmael bar Yossi had a land tenant who used to bring him fruits from his [R. Yishmael's] orchard every Friday before Shabbat. Once, he came on a Thursday. R. Yishmael asked him: "What's changed this week?" "I have a court case this week", he answered."Since I was coming to town anyway, I thought I would bring you your fruits."R. Yishmael refused to take the fruits [even though they were his]. "I am disqualified from judging your case."Two [other] rabbis sat and began to hear the land tenant's case. R. Yishmael sat [on the sidelines] watching. At every turn in the discussion, R. Yishmael felt himself wanting to give advice to his land tenant. "If only he would say this now... if only he would say this..."After the case was decided, he exclaimed, "O that the spirit of those who take bribes would explode! I refused to take what was rightfully mine [and I still couldn't help being biased and wanting to see him come out winning]. How much more those who actually take what it is not theirs!

It is known that the sages [of the Talmud] were angelic in terms of their expanded consciousness and saintly character. We nevertheless see that the smallest degree of bias could cause them to incline away from the truth. How much more so the rest of us who are sunken in the desires of this world! The desire for gain literally bribes us, saying, "Hey, look, the world is free to do with as you please!"How powerful this bias is! How easily it distorts our perception and blinds us! For when a person has "bought into"a certain bias, he is incapable of recognizing any truth that flies in the face of that bias. As far as that truth is concerned, he might just as well be in a drunken stupor. He doesn't recognize its existence.

Now, of course, we shouldn't be astonished that so many great philosophers had difficulty believing that the world was created by a Purposeful Creator. Their minds were surely great, but their desire to gain benefit from the pleasures of this world overcame their ability to think straight. Such a powerful bias can divert a person's mind to the point that he can say two plus two does not equal four, but five. A person cannot judge whether something is true unless his mind is free from any distorting influence vis a vis the thing he wishes to judge. On the contrary, if recognizing a particular truth in any way contradicts a bias that a person has bought into, no amount of intellect, even the intellect of a great person, can remove or overcome that bias.

7. We learn from this that the foundations of true faith are simple and unquestionable for anyone who isn't an idiot. It is simply impossible to doubt their veracity. This is only true, however, on the condition that one does not allow oneself to be bribed. One must be disinterested in and free from the desires and allures of this world, and his own personal desires [for gain].

If so, the root of God-denial lies not in the distortion of the intellect in and of itself. It lies in the heart, i.e., in one's desire to gain benefit [from this world], which distorts and blinds the intellect.

It is clear now why the Torah commands, "Do not stray after your hearts..." (Deuteronomy 15:39), concerning which the sages commented, "Do not follow after the heart's desire to deny G-d"(Sifri Shlach 15:70). A person is obligated to subdue and sublimate his desires [for personal gain], because this is the only way his intellect will be free of any blinding influence! He will then automatically recognize the truth of the existence of a Creator. This is what Rebbi Akiva meant when he said that the world attests to the Holy One, blessed be He, who created it.

God-denial really has no place in a person's mind. Its place, if man allows it to exist there, is the heart; in a person's desire for gain. And if one would be careful not to allow his desires to overcome him, he could never come to deny G-d's existence or atttribute reality to any form of idolatry. It is a sign that one's desires have grown out of proportion if one is incapable of understanding this simple truth.

And the commandment to believe in G-d? It is a commandment not to allow one's desires to overcome his intellect so that he will automatically come to believe. In other words, there is no need to struggle to believe. One must simply remove the obstacles that stand in the way of believing. It will then come naturally, of itself...