How Can There be a Mitzvah to Believe in Hashem?
We have been studying the Ten Commandments in school, and something really struck me. The first commandment is to believe in God. This got me thinking. How can we be commanded to believe in God? If a person does believe in God then the command is superfluous, and if he does not, then there is no Commander (in his mind) to listen to! Basically, a person either believes in God or he doesn’t. How does a command make a difference?
The Aish Rabbi Replies
It’s a very astute question. This very issue appears to have engendered a famous disagreement among the medieval authorities, which I’ll summarize below.
The Ten Commandments begins: “I am the Lord you God, who has taken you out of the land of Egypt … You shall not recognize the gods of others before Me. You shall not make yourself a carved image … You shall not prostrate yourself to them nor worship them …” (Exodus 10:2-5).
Thus, the Ten Commandments do not clearly command us to believe in God. They merely state that the Lord is our God – as a declaration of fact. (The prohibition of idolatry, by contrast, is quite clearly commanded in the Torah.) Nevertheless, in Maimonides’ enumeration of the 613 Commandments, he lists belief in God as the very first positive commandment based on the first verse above (see also Yesodei HaTorah 1:6).
Other early authorities, however, disagree with Maimonides in part because of the issue you raised. (See Ohr Hashem [R’ Chasdei Crescas] 2:5:5 and Abarbanel [Rosh Amanah 11].) If we do believe in God, a command is purposeless and superfluous, and if we don’t, the fact that God told us to believe in Him would be equally meaningless! In fact, a different compilation of the 613 Mitzvos, known as Halachos Gedolos and written somewhat before Maimonides’ time, does not list belief in God as a mitzvah. (See Ramban to Sefer HaMitzvos 1 who explains the Halachos Gedolos’ position – that belief must of necessity precede the commandments.)
Based on this, what could Maimonides possibly have meant by listing believing in God as a commandment? We can perhaps answer based on analyzing Maimonides’ language in the two places he discusses this commandment. Maimonides does not write we are obligated to believe (“l’ha’amin”) that God exists but to know (“laida”) that he does. The command is not to believe in God per se – since that is a given: otherwise, Judaism has no basis. Rather, we must “know” that God exists. What exactly does knowing connote?
I’ve heard different suggested explanations. One is that “knowing” God implies going beyond simple belief and faith. It is not sufficient to simply believe that God exists. We must know it. This means we must make the effort to prove to ourselves that God exists and that it cannot be otherwise.
In fact, Maimonides himself, when he states the obligation to “know” God exists, further elaborates: We must know that there is an infinite First Cause of the entire universe – and that the world – as a finite place, with beginning and end – could not possibly exist nor continue to function without an Infinite Being which both preexisted it and continually maintains it. This Being is more “true” than all of finite reality – viz., everything else in existence. (The above is a brief and somewhat modernized summary. See Hil’ Yesodei HaTorah 1:1-6 for the original.) In other words, Maimonides describes this obligation to be not only that we believe in God but that we understand what God’s existence implies and how logically it could be no other way. (See several of the articles in this section for many more and up-to-date scientific proofs that the world must have a Creator.)
Another suggestion I’ve heard is that knowing God exists means that our belief in God cannot just be an abstract notion. It must be something we “know” in an active and practical sense. “Believing” in God might just be an intellectual matter – something our minds know logically but which has no bearing on our actual lives. “Knowing” God means God is real to me. I live with the conscious awareness that there is a God – one who furthermore takes an active interest in my life and behavior. Sefer HaChinuch (#25), a compilation of the 613 Commandments based on Maimonides, likewise explains that the obligation to believe in God means bringing my belief from the abstract to the actual. God’s existence must be so real to me that I would be prepared to give my life for my beliefs.
The Hebrew word Maimonides uses here for knowledge – da’as – implies knowledge in a personal and intimate sense more so than in an intellectual one. I don’t just believe in God. I know He is there. I feel it. He is there for me and with me, whatever I do and wherever I go. And such knowledge makes all the difference in my life.