Emunah: Biblical Faith

In the Torah, faith in God means trust, not belief in particular propositions.

Print this page Print this page

In God We Trust

No, the context makes it very clear: Abraham's act of righteousness is his demonstration of trust in God. There can be no doubt that, had he been asked, Abraham would happily have affirmed the truth of the four propositions listed just above. The Torah, however, gives us no reason for thinking that Abraham ever asked himself the sorts of questions to which our four propositions could be construed as answers. The emunah spoken of here is more than belief that certain statements about God are true; it is belief in God, trust and reliance upon God, all of which call forth behavior consistent with that stance of trust and reliance.

The point I am making here about the meaning of emunah is neither new nor controversial; it is just not often noticed. Yet perusing a concordance and examining the verses in context is enough to convince any reader that the basic, root meaning of emunah is trust and reliance, not intellectual acquiescence in the truth of certain propositions.

A few further examples should suffice to make the point clear. God is described as a God of emunah in the great poem Ha'azinu: "The Rock, His work is perfect; for all His ways are justice, a God of faithfulness [emunah] and without iniquity; just and right is He" (Deuteronomy 32: 4.). God is not being described here as agreeing to the truth of certain statements. The verse itself teaches us which of God's characteristics make it possible to appeal to a "God of faithfulness": God is free of iniquity, just and right.

Even in cases where the Hebrew can be construed in terms of "belief that" as opposed to "belief in," reading the verse in context almost always reaffirms the point being made here about the connotation of emunah in the Torah. In Deuteronomy 9:23 Moses berates the Jews: "And when the Lord sent you from Kadesh‑Barnea, saying, 'Go up and possess the land which I have given you'; then ye rebelled against the commandment of the Lord your God, and ye believed Him [he'emantem] not, nor hearkened to His voice."

This verse might be construed as saying that the Jews simply did not believe what God was telling them; i.e. they did not believe that God was speaking the truth. This, however, is an entirely implausible interpretation. In the first place, the parallel between "believing" and "hearkening" is clear; the Jews are being castigated for failing to do what God told them to do, not for their failure to believe some statement or other.

Why did they fail to do what God instructed? The Jews failed to trust God, and therefore they failed to obey God's, command. God commanded the Jews to ascend to the Land of Israel and conquer it, promising that they would succeed. The lack of emunahin this verse relates to the Jews' failure to trust God to keep the promise made. Furthermore, what was the content of God's statement concerning which the Jews showed lack of emunah? It was the command to ascend to the Land of Israel.

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

Dr. Menachem Kellner is Sir Isaac and Lady Edith Wolfson Professor of Jewish Religious Thought at the University of Haifa.