Excelling in Faith

By Avraham Edelstein

Judaism Unraveled: Answers to the Most Challenging Questions About Judaism
By Rabbi Gavriel Mandel
Feldheim Publishers
New York, 2016
288 pages

Emunah: A Refresher Course: A Step-by-Step Program to Increased Emunah
By Rabbi Dovid Sapirman
Mosaica Press
Beit Shemesh, 2015
227 pages

Reality Check: A Handbook of Hashkafah
By Yosef Segal
Mosaica Press
Beit Shemesh, Israel, 2016
96 pages



Chavakuk, says the gemara in Makkot, gave us a key to unlocking all of Judaism: “Tzaddik be’emunato yichyeh, a tzaddik lives by his faith.” Rav Tzadok HaCohen suggests that we put a comma after “be’emunato,” changing the translation to “He who is a tzaddik in faith, will live.” Perhaps we can be mediocre in chessed (acts of kindness), in gevurah (self-restraint) or in histapkut (being satisfied with less). But in faith we must excel. In faith we must all be tzaddikim.

Many books aim at teaching how to acquire faith, including three recently published works we will discuss here. However, no book can teach you how to excel in faith. Its place lies elsewhere. Emunah is not a zero-sum game, where we either believe or we don’t. There are not only many levels to faith but also many facets to it. There is belief in God’s hashgachah peratit (Divine providence), in the coming of the Mashiach, in Ma’amad Har Sinai and in the choseness of the Jewish people. Emunah, in fact, spreads a vast canopy that impregnates everything we do with meaning.

But there is more.

We live in a generation where mitzvah observance and Torah study have risen dramatically over previous generations. Yet, it is one of life’s great ironies that despite the explosion in Torah learning and observance, we seem more distant from the Ribbono shel Olam. We are missing something.

Judaism, says Rabbi Benzion Klatzko, the founder of and and outstanding outreach professional, is not a religion. It is a relationship—a relationship with God. Without that relationship, we have nothing. That is why the Behag does not even count believing in God as a mitzvah.1 It is the background context in which we live; the meta-principle on which everything is based.2 Rabbi Klatzko’s audiences are mixed—non-observant, traditional, marginally observant—and his words resonate with them all. We understand relationships. We understand we want them. Talking about relationships is the number-one kiruv topic. It is also numero uno in seminars, workshops and weekends appealing to a cross-section of the Orthodox world.

Stated this way, the opposite of faith is not apikorsut (heresy). The definition of kefirah (heresy), Rav Tzadok HaCohen states, is when one has no relationship with God, no deveikut (attachment to Him).3

Many of us believe in God but we don’t know how to have a relationship with Him. We believe that God exists but we don’t believe in Him. We observe all the mitzvot, but we don’t feel the spirituality and the closeness to God that they are supposed to generate. We have difficulty integrating the idea, so well put by Rabbi Yosef Segal in his book on emunah, Reality Check, that “the main purpose of doing mitzvos . . . is in order to have a relationship with Hashem.” We certainly have a hard time with Rabbi Segal’s declaration that “mitzvos provide more pleasure than anything else in this world.” We have emunah but we lack bitachon—faith in—in the sense of trusting that our Father really loves us and is looking for us to love Him in turn.

Emunah is not a zero-sum game, where we either believe or we don’t. There are not only many levels to faith but also many facets to it.

Of course, we cannot take our “belief that” for granted either. “Belief that” is the belief of the scientist, the belief of Avraham Avinu in his early years who observed the natural world to prove that God must exist. Avraham Avinu started with Einstein’s God, a God that “does not play dice,” a God of beauty and order. But the Torah only introduces us to Avraham Avinu at the age of seventy-five, when he was at a different stage of his faith—when he was already willing to take the leap of trust in God, and leave everything at His behest.4 We don’t need Torah to teach us the God of Einstein. We need it to teach us how to cleave to Him.

“Belief that” is usually associated with proofs. In the kiruv world, proofs that God exist are not often used. Many students who have just begun their journey in Judaism and who are struggling with God resolve “belief that” through their study of Torah and doing mitzvot, not by struggling with the evidence. Dovid HaMelech already told us “ta’amu u’re’u—taste and you will understand.” Engagement rather than philosophy is the true road to faith. Hence Rabbi Segal, who teaches and studies at yeshivot in Jerusalem, has only one chapter on proofs, while Rabbi Gavriel Mandel’s new book on faith, Judaism Unraveled, has none. Both authors aim at reaching the beginner to Judaism. Conversely, Rabbi Dovid Sapirman’s book Emunah: A Refresher Course: A Step-by-Step Program to Increased Emunah is primarily about proofs. But Rabbi Sapirman, a veteran mechanech who founded the Ani Ma’amin Foundation which is dedicated to reinforcing emunah among the religious population, is writing for those who already believe in God and need chizuk.

Campus outreach professionals and the ba’alei teshuvah yeshivot and seminaries teach faith by showing just how profound and relevant Judaism is to our lives, just how enriching are concepts such as kedushah (sanctity), shemirat halashon (guarding one’s speech) and Shabbat. The students tend to be more interested in why God created the world than in whether or not He exists.

Most ba’alei teshuvah jump into the mesorah, first as outsiders and then as insiders. They aren’t becoming Abrahamites (first the God of science, and then the God of Divine providence); they are becoming Sinaites! They start by learning why God created the world. They come to understand why it matters to God that we do the mitzvot. They are inspired by their partnership with God in the tikkun haBeriah (perfection of Creation). They are filled with a sense of meaning and purpose.

Where does that leave the Arachim seminar, founded by Israeli educators and scientists, which famously focuses on proofs of God’s existence? (Aish HaTorah’s “Discovery Seminar” was built on this.)5 The great secret behind these seminars is that they work best with one who at least suspects Judaism is true. He knows what the seminar is trying to achieve and he is interested in going along. He is looking for confirmation of his ideas, for an intellectual package to give him the emotional courage to take the next step.

It would appear that “proofs” are effective for those who already suspect that the Torah is true but want greater clarity. Rabbeinu Bechaya supports this type of proof. Start with tradition, he says, but end with intellect. Intellectually-based emunah gives us confidence, allowing us to be unflinching not only when confronting spurious arguments of the atheist, but also—interestingly enough—when confronted with various temptations. The clearer our faith, the stronger our faithfulness will be.6 If we want to truly internalize our faith, we have to first reach a level of intellectual clarity, as the Torah says, “Know it and place it in your hearts.”7

And so the order seems to be: Accept faith because it is tradition, then fortify it intellectually, then internalize it at a much deeper level. Here is how the Alter of Kelm puts it:

Once you have accepted this reasonable tradition, you should intellectually analyze it and study proofs as if you have never heard the concepts before. You should analyze it until you come to a point where your intellect is independently convinced of the foundations of Judaism . . . . In the end you are rooted in tradition but led by your reason and intellect.8

Over the years, I have heard hundreds of FFBs (Frum from Birthers) bemoan the fact that they lack the intellectual foundations of emunah. They don’t know the proofs—the empirical underpinnings of faith discussed by Rabbeinu Bechaya and the Alter of Kelm. (Rabbi Sapirman works hard to correct this in his work.) That would not be so bad, but the FFB often lacks the grand ideas of Judaism as well—the stage-one faith elements that are so attractive to the ba’al teshuvah. So many have been told, for example, that the reason not to sin is because they will be punished if they do. They have been educated to do mitzvot so they will be rewarded in the World to Come—al menat l’kabel sachar—which, according to Rav Eliyahu Dessler, is the lowest level of performing a mitzvah “lo lishmah” (not for its sake). If there is any relationship with God in all of this, it is that of a servant to a king—Malkeinu. Avinu—the relationship of a Father to a child, which always precedes Malkeinu—does not figure here at all. Lost is a sense of the grandeur of Judaism, its profundity and acute relevance to our lives as well as the loving God whose sole mission is to share His goodness with us.

Some of us begin to dread or resent God’s reign of fear over us. This accounts for part of the anger often found among “off-the-derech” teenagers. And so, when Gateways or Project Inspire or the Elevation Project offer FFBs a “new deal,” in other words, a new way to connect with God, we run in droves. We are, in fact, hungry for a real relationship with God.

We have to teach emunah as our friend, as that which will get us closer to the One who loves us. “Faith,” wrote Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, “is the ability to rejoice in the midst of instability and change, travelling through the wilderness of time toward an unknown destination.”9

That destination Rabbi Sacks speaks of perforce does not only involve our personal lives, but the life and history of the Jewish people as well. For a Jew, it is not enough to believe in hashgachah peratit, that God scripts all of our individual opportunities precisely. History is a revelation of God’s providence in this world. God not only knows the news, He creates the news10—and all according to a clear pattern. God has a clear plan for history, ending with the revelation of His Oneness in the world—giluy Yichudo.11 We don’t teach this perspective in a real and relevant way in most of our day schools and yeshivot. Interestingly, of the three books on faith, only Rabbi Mandel’s Judaism Unraveled has a chapter on the Jewish people in a historical context. Unfortunately, however, it is only when Rabbi Mandel, who serves as a campus rabbi for Aish HaTorah’s branch in Toronto, Canada, deals with anti-Semitism that he gives us a sense of the different rules of history to which the Jewish nation is subject.

We don’t effectively convey to the next generation the idea a Jew must believe that our history is God’s history, and that our physical well-being as a nation is linked precisely to our spiritual health (Rabbi Mandel makes this observation as well). We know only abstractly that we are the main instruments through which God will reveal His Oneness, and hence the normal rules of sociology and history do not apply to us.12 For a Jew to say, “You are my God” is to have an incomplete faith. He must finish his sentence with “and the God of my people.” A true definition of emunah involves the fusion of the personal and the national, where all of history is a history of hashgachah, as revealing the Oneness of God in the world.13

The skeptic may not be moved by all of this. In fact, the skeptic often demands a level of proof which does not exist, not only with respect to God and Judaism, but even with respect to physics and biology.14

Judaism never claimed to be able to prove itself at the level demanded by the skeptic. What it does claim (and this is the best a physicist can do for theories in his field as well) is that the idea of an involved God who gave the Torah to the Jewish people is the best possible explanation amongst all competing explanations. At that point, one has to take a leap of faith, not blindly, but as an extension of the rational and empirical underpinnings of what Judaism is claiming.

The story of Eliyahu HaNavi on Mount Carmel illustrates this so clearly. Eliyahu defeats the prophets of the Baal—he sets up a proof: if God is true then the fire will only come from Him—and things happen exactly as he sets it up. But the Jewish people shrug off this dramatic incident, so much so that Eliyahu flees to the desert in despair, and pleads with God to die. Why did the Jewish people not transform themselves and do teshuvah in the face of a clear proof of God’s existence? Because Izevel, queen of the Northern Kingdom, offered a different explanation. The gods of the Baal, she said, like human sacrifice. What happened was supposed to happen.15 Izevel found an alternative explanation, and that was all the skeptics needed.16

We have to teach emunah as our friend, as that which will get us closer to the One who loves us. “Faith,” wrote Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, “is the ability to rejoice in the midst of instability and change, travelling through the wilderness of time toward an unknown destination.”9

The Aish Kodesh17 warns that a faith built on logic and proofs alone will unravel at the first nisayon (spiritual challenge). And if we allow the nisayon to weaken our faith, we will lack the elements we need for salvation. Hence, Calev did not answer the reasonable claims of spies that the Jewish people were not strong enough to fight the well-armed and fortified Canaanim. Rather, Calev silenced them. He pointed the Jewish people to faith in a God that operates above human logic. This is not being irrational; it is transcending oneself.

Thank God, says the Breslover Rebbe, that we cannot understand the full depth of God’s wisdom and logic. For, if we could, we would be reducing His wisdom to ours. To compensate for our limitations, Hashem plants awareness of His existence into the mind of every man. Every man has this understanding from birth. For the soul knows its source. Anyone who looks deeply inside himself will find this awareness deeply entrenched in his soul.18

The three books above that deal with emunah show just how broad the faith-net really is. By their variation in approach and topics covered, they show just how difficult it is to define what faith is really all about. A Refresher Course is the most comprehensive, and deals mainly with proofs, including an outstanding presentation detailing how the prophecies came true. (Sixty pages of the book include a readable yet well-researched critique of evolution. Evaluative comments on this part of the book are beyond the scope of this essay.) This work is the only one of the three explicitly dedicated to the issue of emunah. The most concise of the three, Reality Check, a slim ninety-two pages long, moves through Olam Haba (the World to Come), Shabbat, prayer and other aspects of Judaism. For Rabbi Segal, “the more I understand how He works, the more I appreciate him. And true love only comes from appreciation.” Judaism Unraveled is really an excellent introductory text for those approaching Judaism from afar, though in today’s world so many of us who are Orthodox are lacking this aerial view of the nature of God, man’s purpose in the world, choice, the role of the Jewish people and the role of the nations of the world.

In the aftermath of the Mount Carmel story, after Eliyahu asks to die, God tells him that He is not to be found in the raging fire or in the mighty wind, but rather in the soft voice. There are people—entire generations—who will not find God through dramatic proofs and loud noises declaring the truth of the Torah. But they will respond to the still, quiet voice of kiruv, of the loving mechanech (teacher) and of the exemplary parent. We are most likely to become passionately observant through our connection with others who model this behavior than because of any intellectual exercise. Here is the great, open secret of kiruv rechokim: people become frum through other people, people they admire, trust and like. It is a secret that the wise of the Orthodox world have adopted as a basic principle of chinuch (education).

When the Gemara discusses Chavakuk’s exhortation that we should live by our faith, it states, “Chavakuk he’emido al achat, Chavakuk fixed it on one”—that is, Chavakuk provided that one vital key that will unlock all of Torah and mitzvot.19 We cannot afford to be second best in teaching emunah. And we cannot afford to be second best in our faith.

Rabbi Avraham Edelstein is the educational director of Neve College for Women in Jerusalem. He is a director of the Ner LeElef Institute and a senior advisor to Olami.

1. The first of the Ten Commandments is written as a statement—“I am the Lord, your God”—not as a command.
2. Ramban, glosses (hasagot) to the Rambam’s Sefer HaMitzvot, Positive Mitzvah No. 1.
3. Rav Tzadok HaCohen M’Lublin, Machashavot Charutz, Siman Zayin: “The denial of something is defined by the person not having a relationship with it. And this is why Chavakuk gave this one key as a gateway to the whole Torah, because through the belief of the soul in God, perforce one has a relationship with and a cleaving to God.”
4. We first hear of Avraham Avinu at the beginning of Parashat Lech Lecha when he was already very advanced in his faith. See my essay on this at
5. See, for example, the Ramban, Hashmatot to the Negative Mitzvot of the Rambam, Mitzvah Beit, where he says that it is an obligation not to forget the Sinai experience. In his “Torat Hashem Temimah,” the Ramban brings other ways in which the Torah “enlightens our eyes” (meirat eynayim). The Kuzari cites many other arguments validating the Torah (see Maamar Sheni, Siman Nun, for example), but only Maamad Har Sinai is given the status of an event that could not have been falsified. The Rambam, in Hilchot Yesodei HaTorah, says that the miracles of the Exodus were not performed by God as validation of the Torah. Only Maamad Har Sinai has this status.
6. Rabbeinu Bechaya: Devarim 13:7.
7. Rabbeinu Bachya ben Yosef ibn Paquda, Chovot Halevavot 1:3.
8. Alter of Kelm: Chochmah U’Mussar vol. 2, p. 76.
9. “The Festival of Insecurity: A Message for Sukkot,”
10. Rav Shimshon Pincus discusses this idea in his sefer entitled Sukkot (p. 13, in the Hebrew edition): “God says to the First Man: ‘The Tree of Knowledge’—to know news, politics, to expand horizons . . . . I have no interest in all of this—[like it says in Yeshayahu] ‘vachadashot ani magid; beterem tizmachna ashmia etchem—and new things [i.e., the news] do I declare; before they spring forth I tell you of them’” (42:9).
11. Da’at Tevunot of Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto is dedicated to this issue. See, for example, pages 161-178 in the Rabbi Chaim Friedlander edition.
12. Rabbeinu Bechaya 32:7.
13. “Every Jew must not only know this; he must understand this deep in his heart—Vehasheivota el levavecha.” Da’at Tevunot, Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto; Rav Chaim Friedlander edition, Siman Lamed Daled.
14. In fact, according to Sir Karl Popper, the best a scientific theory can do is to claim that it has not yet been disproven. What science can and does know is beyond the scope of this essay. The interested reader should read Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (Chicago, 1962).
15. Abarbanel on I Melachim.
16. I saw this explanation in an essay by Rabbi Yosef Bitton but I cannot seem to locate it.
17. On Parashat Shekalim.
18. Malbim, Shemot 20:1.
19. This is how Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe once explained it to me, and this is his intended explanation in his Alei Shur, Chelek Aleph.


This article was featured in the Spring 2017 issue of Jewish Action.
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