Contrary to popular opinion, the first of the Ten Commandments is NOT “to believe in God.”
In the Mishna Torah, Maimonides teaches that the first commandment articulated as “I am the Lord your God…” is be understood as an obligation “to KNOW there is a first Being.”
To confuse matters further, Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto (Ramchal) teaches in Derech HaShem (Way of God) that “it is the obligation of every member of Israel to BELIEVE and to KNOW that there exists a first Being…”
Belief versus Knowledge
‘Simple belief’ (emunah peshuta) means to accept something as true based on the testimony of a trusted witness or tradition.
‘To know’ (lada’at) on the other hand, is to accept something as true based on an accumulation of enough factual evidence so that there is no other rational conclusion. Refuting the evidence would be an irrational act, even though there may be a small gap in the evidence.
Many people grew up “believing in God” because that’s what their parents and teachers taught them. The children and students didn’t “know” it to be true. They never accumulated their own evidence to the point where there was no room for reasonable doubt. They simply trusted someone else’s say so.
What’s wrong with that?
If you live your life based on the truths and opinions of others, when you leave the security of your parents’ house, your culture or your country and encounter many more people with other opinions, the logical thing to do would be to accept the ideas held by the most people as the truth.
If the Torah only required “simple belief” (accepting someone else’s say so) how long do you think Torah Judaism would survive in a world of 1.5 billion Christians and 1.5 billion Muslims?
Avraham grew up in an idol worshiping home, culture and country. That was the “belief” of his society. But he rejected that based on his own accumulation of evidence and logic. The only rational conclusion he could come to was that there was a “First Being” that caused everything to come into existence.
The “belief” that idols had power over people or nature had no rational basis in Avraham’s mind. He rejected idol worship even though it went against everything his father and country stood for.
Avraham KNEW there was a First Being, as clearly as he knew there were five fingers on his hand as my Rosh Yeshiva, Rabbi Noah Weinberg used to say.
Knowledge becomes Belief
You might think that once Avraham taught his children and students what he knew to be true, then they would know it to be true as well.
But that is where we often fail as parents and educators. If I KNOW there is a First Being and teach that as an axiom to my children and students, and they accept it… they now BELIEVE it to be true.
They are accepting my say so. They don’t KNOW it to be a fact, they simply believe me and therefore they are vulnerable to all the other theologies in the world.
That’s why Luzzatto teaches us that it is the obligation for every Jew to use as our starting point what our parents and teachers tell us. We trust them to be telling the truth as an act of emunah peshuta (simple belief).
But as members of the Nation of Israel and descendants of Avraham, we have an obligation to accumulate our own evidence to take it beyond Belief, so that we KNOW it to be true.
That kind of rational knowledge brings us to the level of Avraham and gives us the strength and conviction to teach the world about God as the Creator and Sustainer of the Universe just as he did, and we truly become a Light to the Nations.