Rabbi Weinreb's Parsha Column, Beshalach

"Simple Belief, Genuine Belief"

There was a time in my college days when I seriously considered majoring in philosophy. The rabbinic training program in the yeshiva that I attended did not include systematic study of the philosophy of religion. We focused instead upon the intensive study of Talmud and the Codes of Jewish Law. Our exposure to the thought of men like Maimonides was limited to his legal works, and we were never even introduced to his magisterial Guide to the Perplexed.

To rectify this void in my education, I took a few courses in the department of philosophy. They included an overview of the history of philosophy, a course on ethics, and an excellent course on the philosophy of religion. Although traditional Jewish philosophers were included in the syllabus, I certainly did not gain a thorough grounding in the philosophy of Jewish religion. Eventually, I abandoned my plan to major in philosophy because of the great gap I experienced between the religion in which I was raised and the religion I was studying.

I could not quite put my finger on what was troubling me about this discrepancy. It was when I came across a sentence in the writings of French philosopher, Blaise Pascal, that I understood my problem. He experienced the same unease with formal philosophical studies of religion that I did. He proclaimed that his was the search for the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob, and not the God of the philosophers and scholars.

Pascal helped me to understand that my courses avoided discussing "classical theistic belief." That is to say, the belief in a God with whom one could have a personal relationship, to whom one could pray, and with whom one could even argue. Whereas the courses I took were preoccupied with proving the existence of God, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and Moses and David after them, were interacting with Him, sometimes struggling, and sometimes even holding Him to account for having abandoned them.

This week's Torah portion, Parashat Beshalach (Exodus 13:17-17:16), contains a perfect example of religious faith as it is understood in our tradition. This example is based upon a biblical phrase which is elaborated by a Midrash and which, in turn, is further elaborated by a great Chassidic master.

The phrase appears in the verse immediately preceding the Song of the Sea, undeniably the highlight of this week's parasha. The Lord split the sea, allowing the Israelites to escape their pursuers. Israel saw the Lord's "wondrous power" and were inspired to join Moses in song. But first, "they had faith in the Lord and in His servant Moses."

The Midrash emphasizes that all of Israel had this faith experience. "The lowly maidservant saw by the sea what even the prophet Ezekiel was never privileged to see." (Mechilta, Shira, chapter 3) It does not take special philosophical erudition to have faith. The "lowly maidservant" exemplifies the most ordinary among us, and her example illustrates the capacity of everyone to achieve a sublime spiritual experience. Faith does not require the special religious credentials of an Ezekiel. It is available to us all.

This type of faith is known in Hebrew as emuna peshuta, simple faith.

My paternal grandfather, Rabbi Chaim Yitzchok Weinreb of blessed memory, introduced me to a book collecting the thoughts of a great Chassidic master of the early 20th century, Rabbi Israel Friedman, known as the Chortkover Rebbe. The book is entitled Ginzei Yisrael.

The Rebbe quotes the aforementioned Midrash, which implies that there are no differences between one Jew and another with regard to faith experiences. We are all capable of emuna peshuta. But, as we will read in next week's Torah portion, there are clear distinctions between various segments of the Jewish people as they stand at Mount Sinai, at the moment of the Torah's revelation.

Moses is instructed to stand alone, separate from his brother Aaron, who is to stand behind him. Aaron's sons follow in a separate area further removed from the mountaintop. Behind them stand the elders, and even further behind stand the rest of the nation. How are we to explain, asks the Rebbe, the discrepancy between the rigid hierarchy dictated at matan Torah, at the time the Torah is revealed, and the inspirational moment at the splitting of the sea, at which point there were no distinctions?

The Rebbe answers that when one wishes to advance his spiritual level through Torah study and observance, there are natural differences between individuals. Some people are gifted with intellectual strengths that enable them to comprehend the depths of Torah, whereas others are more limited and can only understand Torah superficially. Some have prodigious memories so that they can remember all of Jewish law, and others can barely remember the basics. With Torah, there are individual differences. Hence the prayer that we recite at the conclusion of the Amidah: “vetein chelkeinu betoratecha, grant each of us our unique portion in the Torah.” We do not have equivalent Torah portions.

But when it comes, the Rebbe concludes, to emuna peshuta, to simple faith, there are no individual differences. Everyone is capable of sincere and genuine belief in God. It takes no special genius and no special credentials. All it requires is a religious attitude of which we are all capable.

Much has been written about the faith which even the most simpleminded person can achieve. Many of us read as children about the illiterate shepherd boy who came to the High Holiday service. He wanted to join in the community’s prayers but could not read. However, he had his shepherd's flute with him and expressed his devotion by playing a simple melody on his instrument at the very climax of the liturgy. Whereas most of the congregation condemned his act as sacrilege, the leader of the congregation saw in an exquisite example of religious devotion, of emuna peshuta.

We possess an anecdote reported by the 16th century rabbinic sage Moshe Chagiz, who sojourned in the ancient city of Safed at the same time as the great Arizal, Rabbi Isaac Luria. A converso, an unfortunate Jew who was coerced by the Church to convert to Christianity during the terrible Inquisition in Portugal, he was reared as a Christian. He knew nothing of his Jewish religion. He fled to Safed and found refuge there. He soon was exposed to the sermons of the great rabbis who inhabited that holy city.

At one of those sermons, he learned about the showbread, the loaves of bread which were arranged upon a special table in the innermost precincts of the holy Temple in Jerusalem each week. In his ignorance, he did not know of the distinction between our ancient Temple in Jerusalem and his modest synagogue in Safed. And so, he decided that each week he would bring two loaves of bread, two challot, to the synagogue and put them in the holy Ark together with the Torah scrolls.

Naturally, the sexton noticed these two loaves and happily took them home to his hungry family. The next morning the poor converso came to synagogue, opened the Ark, and saw that the loaves were gone. He assumed that they were miraculously taken away by an angel, or perhaps by the Holy One Himself. So he persisted in his custom of depositing two loaves bread in the Ark every week with increasing enthusiastic devotion. Of course, the sexton consistently appropriated the loaves for his own family.

Finally, the rabbi of the synagogue discovered what the converso had been doing and criticized him severely for "such nonsense." The holy Arizal, however, saw in the converso's weekly offering not "nonsense," but an example of pure simple faith of the highest order. He rebuked the rabbi harshly and proclaimed to the entire community that this converso's act of worship was cherished on High as a precious example of an act done with total religious dedication.

Nowadays, we consider ourselves too sophisticated to relinquish the God of the philosophers in favor of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. But thereby we miss a wonderful spiritual opportunity. One does not need academic training to achieve spiritual experience, nor does one need to be a theologian to serve the Almighty. All one needs is emuna peshuta, the kind of faith that the simple maidservant of the Midrash on this week's Torah portion modeled for us.