The Road to Faith

  • Rav Chaim Navon
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Theological Issues In Sefer Bereishit

Yeshivat Har Etzion


By Rav Chaim Navon

In this lecture we shall deal with the road to faith. Finding one's road to faith is not a one-time event. Faith is an ongoing mission with which man must struggle every day. When a person buys a car, he sometimes thinks that all he has to do now is start the engine in the morning and drive off. He soon discovers that the car requires upkeep: tune-ups, payments, attention... In the same way, faith is not something that a person acquires in one shot and then puts away in his briefcase.

It is true, however, that it is easier to clarify the road to faith when we consider a path that is altogether fresh and new, and not the path over which we have already trodden many times. We shall therefore begin our discussion with the road to faith taken by the first Jew – Avraham Avinu. His trailblazing path has much to teach us about our ongoing journey.


We first meet Avraham at the end of Parashat Noach. The first time that God addresses Avraham is at the beginning of Parashat Lekh Lekha, when Avraham was already an old man:

Now the Lord said to Avram, Get you out of your country, and from your kindred, and from your father's house, to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great; and you shall be a blessing. And I will bless them that bless you, and curse him that curses you; and in you shall all the families of the earth be blessed. So Avram departed, as the Lord had spoken to him; and Lot went with him: And Avram was seventy-five years old when he departed out of Charan. (Bereishit 12:1-4)

It seems as if we have been brought in to watch a play that is already in its third act. What did Avraham do before he reached the age of seventy-five? Why did God choose to reveal Himself to Avraham of all people? Ramban relates to these two questions:

Now this portion of Scripture is not completely elucidated. What reason was there that the Holy One, blessed be He, should say to Avraham, "Leave your country, and I will do you good in a completely unprecedented measure," without first stating that Avraham worshipped God or that he was a righteous man, [and] perfect? Or it should state as a reason for his leaving the country that the very journey to another land constituted an act of seeking the nearness of God... (Ramban, commentary to Bereishit 12:2)[1]

It may be that the Torah chose not to write of Avraham's earlier deeds precisely because it wished to leave room for the imagination. The Torah did not want us to think that there is only one path to God. It, therefore, allowed us to think about the many ways through which Avraham may have come to recognize God.

Chazal already dealt with the question how Avraham found God. We, however, shall start with Rambam and Ra'avad, who followed in Chazal's footsteps with respect to this issue:

After [Avraham] was weaned, while still an infant, his mind began to reflect. By day and night he was thinking and wondering: "How is it possible that this [celestial] sphere[2] should continuously be guiding the world and have no one to guide it and cause it to turn round; for it cannot be that it turns round of itself." He had no teacher, no one to instruct him in anything. He was submerged, in Ur of the Chaldees, among silly idolaters. His father and mother and the entire population worshipped idols, and he worshipped with them. But his mind was busily working and reflecting till he had attained the way of truth, apprehended the correct line of thought and knew that there is one God, that He guides the celestial spheres and created everything, and that among all that exist, there is no god beside Him. He realized that the whole world was in error, and that what had occasioned their error was that they worshipped the stars and the images, so that the truth perished from their minds. Avraham was forty years old when he recognized his Creator.

Having attained this knowledge, he began to refute the inhabitants of Ur Kasdim, arguing with them and saying to them, "The course you are following is not the truth." He broke the images and commenced to instruct the people that it was not right to serve any one but the God of the Universe, to whom alone it was proper to bow down, offer up sacrifice and make libations, so that all human creatures might, in the future, know Him; and that it was proper to destroy and shatter all the images, so that the people might not err like these who thought that there was no god but these images. When he had prevailed over them with arguments, the king sought to slay him. He was miraculously saved, and emigrated to Charan. He then began to proclaim to the whole world with great power and to instruct the people that the entire Universe had but one Creator and that Him it was right to worship. He went from city to city and from kingdom to kingdom, calling and gathering together the inhabitants till he arrived in the land of Cana'an. (Rambam, Hilkhot Avoda Zara 1:3)

"Avraham was forty years old when he recognized his Creator." [Rabbi] Avraham [ben David] said: There is an Aggada [that states that] he was three years old. As it says: "Because [eikev] you have obeyed My voice" (Bereishit 22:18) – the numerical value of "eikev." (Ra'avad, Hassagot on Rambam, ad loc.)

Rambam and Ra'avad disagree about whether Avraham recognized his Creator only at the age of forty or already at the age of three. There are Rabbinic sources that support each of the two positions (Nedarim 32a, Pesikta Rabbati 21:81). We are clearly dealing with two very different paths to faith. Rambam's Avraham followed a very difficult road to faith. He searched and investigated, examined and scrutinized, until finally he arrived at the true faith. Avraham worked hard to acquire faith. In contrast, Ra'avad's Avraham already attained faith when he was three, which is just about the youngest age at which a child can even begin to conceive of the world. The disagreement between them is a disagreement about the nature of faith: Is faith implanted in man from the day he is born, or does it require hard work and continuous effort in order to be revealed?

There is another midrash that follows the same general direction as that taken by Ra'avad, emphasizing the naturalness of faith:

"But his delight is in the law of the Lord... And in His law does he meditate day and night" (Tehilim 1:2). Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai said: His [Avraham's] father did not teach him, nor did he have a teacher; whence then did he learn the Torah? The fact is, however, that the Holy One, blessed be He, made his kidneys serve like two teachers for him, and these welled forth and taught him wisdom. (Bereishit Rabba 61:1)

This midrash sharply emphasizes the naturalness of Avraham's faith. Avraham had no need for teachers or Rabbis; his kidneys, heart and feelings were his teachers. We sometimes come across a caricature of this position among ordinary people whom we meet on the street. While on reserve duty in the army, I often meet people without a kippa who say to me: "I don't need a Rabbi. I believe on my own." Unfortunately, not everybody is Avraham, and therefore we need Rabbis and teachers. According to this approach, however, Rabbis and teachers merely help us uncover the faith that is already found within us.


It is important to emphasize that the faiths of the two Avrahams – that of Rambam and that of Ra'avad – do not necessarily contradict each other. A certain layer of faith may be natural, while another may have to be acquired from the outside. There may also be certain people whose faith is simpler and more natural than that of others.

In his important book, "The Varieties of Religious Experience," the psychologist and philosopher William James brings many examples of such people, for whom faith was simple and natural. Thus, for example, writes the Christian author and preacher, Dr. Edward Everett Hale:

I observe, with profound regret, the religious struggles which come into many biographies, as if almost essential to the formation of the hero. I ought to speak of these, to say that any man has an advantage, not to be estimated, who is born, as I was, into a family where the religion is simple and rational; who is trained in the theory of such a religion, so that he never knows, for an hour, what these religious or irreligious struggles are. I always knew God loved me, and I was always grateful to him for the world he placed me in. I always liked to tell him so, and was always glad to receive his suggestions to me... (Dr. Edward Everett Hale, in William James, Varieties of Religious Experience, lecture IV)

In contrast, the philosopher Soren Kierkgaard emphasizes the complexity of faith and the great effort and devotion that it requires:

In our time nobody is content to stop with faith but wants to go further. It would perhaps be rash to ask where these people are going, but it is surely a sign of breeding and culture for me to assume that everybody has faith, for otherwise it would be queer for them to be ... going further. In those old days it was different, then faith was a task for a whole lifetime, because it was assumed that dexterity in faith is not acquired in a few days or weeks. When the tried oldster drew near to his last hour, having fought the good fight and kept the faith, his heart was still young enough not to have forgotten that fear and trembling which chastened the youth, which the man indeed held in check, but which no man quite outgrows. (Soren Kierkgaard, Fear and Trembling)

According to Kierkgaard, faith is a continuous mission, which cannot be easily acquired or maintained. Kierkgaard speaks of faith as a struggle, rather than a natural asset.

It is important to pay attention to another point raised by Rambam. Even if we agree that one must work and search hard in order to come to faith, the question still remains – where does one begin the search. Rambam describes a person who comes to faith through the intellect. According to Rambam, the road to faith is an intellectual search:

For it is not logical that man's major purpose is to eat or to drink or to engage in copulation or to build a house or to be a king because these are all passing occurrences and do not add to his essence. Moreover, he shares all these activities with other types of living creatures... For man, before he acquires knowledge, is no better than an animal for he is not different from other types of animals except in his reason. He is a rational living being. The word rational means the attainment of rational concepts. The greatest of these rational concepts is the understanding of the Oneness of the Creator, blessed and praised be He, and all that pertains to that divine matter. (Rambam, Introduction to his Commentary to the Mishna)

One only loves God with the knowledge with which one knows Him. According to the knowledge, will be the love. If the former be little or much, so will the latter be little or much. A person ought therefore to devote himself to the understanding and comprehension of those sciences and studies which will inform him concerning his Master, as far as it lies in human faculties to understand and comprehend. (Rambam, Hilkhot Teshuva 10:6)

This God, honored and revered, it is our duty to love and fear...

And what is the way that will lead to the love of Him and the fear of Him? When a person contemplates His great and wondrous works and creatures and from them obtains a glimpse of His wisdom which is incomparable and infinite, he will straightway love Him, praise Him, glorify Him, and long with an exceeding longing to know His great Name; even as David said, "My soul thirsts for God, for the living God" (Tehilim 42:3). And when then he ponders these matters, he will recoil affrighted, and realize that he is a small creature, lowly and obscure, endowed with slight and slender intelligence, standing in the presence of Him who is perfect in knowledge. (Rambam, Hilkhot Yesodei ha-Torah 2:1-2)

Rambam maintains that the path to God is through scientific-philosophical speculation about nature and the wisdom that it embodies. Intellectual speculation brings us not only to recognize the existence of God, but also to love and fear Him.

There are, however, other ways to reach God. The philosopher Immanuel Kant has shown that there is no rational proof for the existence of God. It would appear, then, that the entire approach that presents the recognition of God as dependent upon the intellect collapses. How then is it possible to know God? Must a person who does not find faith naturally implanted in his heart give up in despair? Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik thinks not:

While the philosophy of the Middle Ages and also that of the early modern period expressed the search for infinity and eternality in an objective manner, through the formulation of definitive proofs, which were thought to be logically valid, the modern view presumes to deny the logical-objective worth of these proofs...

This view came to uproot, but ended up planting; it came to deny, but ended up believing. It denied man's ability to draw indirect conclusions through proofs... But instead of eradicating all these proofs from its book, it accepted and reaffirmed them as non-mediated experiences that are not based on logic, but rather are expressed through sudden revelation and illumination. (Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Uvikashtem Misham, pp. 127-128)

The experience of God in man's confrontation with the world expresses itself not through proof based on an act of abstraction, but through a feeling of sudden revelation of an unmediated fact in the consciousness of reality. (Ibid., p. 131)

Rabbi Soloveitchik argues that Kant freed us from the need to tie our faith to our limited and restricted intellect. Our encounter with God is direct and experiential. We may encounter God through our existential experiences: the experience of standing before nature, the experience of moral strength, of esthetic pleasure – we may encounter God in all these experiences. The encounter is experiential, not intellectual. Imagine someone who must prove the existence of his mother through his intellect. Such an attempt would only limit and strangle his family relationships. We experience God's existence with full inner certainty, and there is no need to restrict it with logical mathematical formulas.

It should be added that even someone who doesn't experience God directly can often experience God's presence by process of elimination. Most people cannot really imagine a world empty of God, a world that is cold and cruel, arbitrary and haphazard.


We have seen that man's encounter with God can take place through nature, through intellectual analysis, or through experiential meeting. There is, however, another arena in which to meet God – history. It was Rabbi Yehuda ha-Levi who considered this point at length:

I believe in the God of Avraham, Yitzchak, and Ya'akov, who led the children of Israel out of Egypt with signs and miracles; who fed them in the desert and gave them the land, after having made them traverse the sea and the Jordan in a miraculous way; who sent Moshe with His law, and subsequently thousands of prophets, who confirmed His law by promises to the observant, and threats to the disobedient. (Rabbi Yehuda ha-Levi, Kuzari, I, 11)

Rabbi Yehuda ha-Levi emphasizes man's encounter with God through history, as opposed to Rambam, who stresses his encounter with God through nature.


Thus far we have seen several approaches to Avraham's path to faith. A) Faith came naturally to Avraham, who revealed it almost from birth. B) Avraham toiled hard to attain belief through continuous intellectual search. C) Man's encounter with God requires searching and effort, but not necessarily though the intellect, but rather through the experiences of standing before man, nature, and history.

We find yet another important approach to the issue in the words of Chazal. This approach is reflected in the following well-known midrash:

Said Rabbi Yitzchak: This may be compared to a man who was traveling from place to place when he saw a building in flames. "Is it possible that the building lacks a person to look after it?" he wondered. The owner of the building looked out and said, "I am the owner of the building." Similarly, because Avraham our father said, "Is it conceivable that the world is without a guide?" the Holy One, blessed be He, looked out and said to him, "I am the guide, the sovereign of the universe." (Bereishit Rabba 39:1)

This is a very interesting midrash. First of all, Rabbi Yitzchak describes a person who sees "a house burning" or "a house shining." It is not clear whether the fact that the house is burning strengthens his faith that it has an owner, because of the light that it gives off, or whether it plants uncertainty within him: the house is burning; perhaps then it is ownerless and of nobody's concern. According to this approach, Avraham is described as a man of doubts. The lesson of the midrash, then, is that it is possible to be a great believer even while harboring doubts and uncertainties.

Whatever the case, the man fails to resolve his uncertainties on his own: "The owner of the house looked out at him." According to this midrash, man is unable to climb up to God on his own. God must come down to him.

This is the way the midrash was understood by Rabbi Chasdai Crescas:

Chazal said in the Midrash: "This may be compared to a man who was traveling from place to place when he saw a building in flames. 'Is it possible that the building lacks a person to look after it?' he wondered... The Holy One, blessed be He, looked out and said to him: 'I am the guide, the sovereign of the universe.'" This means that while he was inclined to the truth, he did not remove himself from all uncertainty until God bestowed His light upon him, that is, prophecy. (Rabbi Chasdai Crescas, Or ha-Shem, I, 3, chap. 6)

This is the road to faith taken by the king of the Khazars, in Rabbi Yehuda ha-Levi's Kuzari:

To the king of the Khazars came a dream, and it appeared as if an angel addressed him, saying: "Your way of thinking is indeed pleasing to the Creator, but not your way of acting." Yet he was so zealous in the performance of the Khazar religion, that he devoted himself with a perfect heart to the service of the temple and sacrifices. Notwithstanding this devotion, the angel came again at night and repeated: "Your way of thinking is pleasing to God, but not your way of acting." This caused him to ponder over the different beliefs and religions, and finally become a convert to Judaism together with many other Khazars. (Rabbi Yehuda ha-Levi, Kuzari, I, introduction)

Rabbi Yehuda ha-Levi describes the Khazar king's journey to Judaism as starting with divine revelation. The principle of revelation is very central to Judaism. Revelation means that that God descends from heaven to earth. On the historical plain, God revealed Himself to us at Mt. Sinai. Rabbi Soloveitchik, however, emphasizes that God continues to reveal Himself to us at all times. We do not always hear His voice, and we are not always aware of His presence. But we often feel a sudden commitment to God and His commandments. We feel that suddenly we have become more intimately connected to God, without having done anything to deserve it. This is revelation. On the other hand, it is important to pay attention to the fact that the owner of the house only revealed himself to the man after the latter had already pondered the significance of the burning house. This is also what happened to the king of the Khazars: The angel appeared to him in his dreams when he was already very devoted to the Khazar religion. Faith makes two demands upon us: to search for God and to answer His call.


[1] In his answer, Ramban mentions the approach taken by Chazal that Avraham had fought against idol worship throughout the years that he had lived in Ur Kasdim.

[2] The reference is to the sphere in which, according to the scientific knowledge of Rambam's day, the stars are set.

[3] Aikev [ayin (70), kof (100), bet (2)] years – 172 years; namely 172 of the Avraham's 175 years – Avraham obediently obeyed the voice of God. Thus, we see that it took him only three years to reveal the true faith.

(Translated by David Strauss)