Eliezer Shemtov
Trying to make a difference

Faith and Reason: The Two Pillars of Judaism

Embed from Getty Images

“Tell me, Rabbi: is Judaism based on logic or faith?”


One of the great challenges for the Western Jew is to reconcile “Faith and Science”, especially if he or she was raised in Uruguay, one of the most secular countries where the separation between Church and State was installed so “religiously” early on, at the beginning of the 20th century.

Are faith and reason two irreconcilable approaches or can they be complementary?

It depends on what one understands by “reason” and what one understands by “faith”.

Faith and science are both based on axioms that are neither provable nor refutable. They are truths that are “self-evident” to those who regard them as such. It is based on such axioms that theories are constructed and will later be proven or disproven.

So, both science and faith have unprovable aspects as well as logical aspects that can indeed complement each other.

Abraham and Moses are the two key figures in the foundation and consolidation of Judaism. Abraham rediscovered and spread Monotheism in the world and seven generations later, at Mount Sinai, Moses brought us the Divine Law, consolidating thereby a process initiated through his ancestor Abraham. It was at the foot of Mount Sinai that the Jewish people was born; a nation whose definition as such and raison d’être is its commitment to live according to that law and to transmit and spread its teachings and values to all of mankind.

The “machete” that Abraham used to cut a path through the thickets of the dark ominous jungles of paganism was logic. “This complex and perfect world could not have created itself and implies a Creator,” he reasoned. Such was his conviction that he went out to challenge the powers to be prancing at the forefront of the pagan and idolatrous culture prevalent at that time. This is, by the way, one of the reasons that he is called Abraham Haivri, or Abraham “from the other side”. In addition to the implication that he came from the “other side” of the Euphrates, it implies the idea that everyone was on one side of the ideological and religious divide, that of Polytheism and Paganism, whilst Abraham was —alone— on the other side, that of Monotheism.

It was, no doubt, a great achievement; but from there to knowing details about the Creator and His reason for creating us was beyond the reach of human logic. We cannot deduce by logic anything beyond the fact that the world has a Creator and that the Creator (Mechuyav hametziut) cannot have the limits that a created being (Efshari hametziut) has, for if He did, who, then, created Him and defined His limits?

While G-d eventually reveals Himself to Abraham and enters into a covenant with him and his descendants, it was merely the beginning of a process.

It took seven generations —including 210 years of Egyptian slavery and the Exodus therefrom— before the conditions were right for G-d to reveal Himself to the Jewish people at Mount Sinai and transmit His wisdom and desire to us through Moses, as documented in the Torah. According to our tradition, this happened exactly 3 334 years ago.

So, we can quite easily understand the logical dimension of Judaism that was articulated by Abraham. When it comes to the supra-rational dimension revealed through Moses, however, which cannot be proven by logic, we accept it on the basis of faith.

Now, why should a rational being believe in something that cannot be proven or disproven?

The key to the answer can be found In the very formulation of the question. Faith —by definition— is not based on a “why”. If there were a “why”, there would be no need to resort to faith. People say that “seeing is believing”, but does that make sense? If I see something, there is no need to believe!

So, how do I decide whether or not to believe in something?

There is a biblical story that I find very illustrative and helpful to understand the essence of the issue.

In the story of Samson and Delilah we read [1] about Delilah’s attempts to get Samson to reveal the secret regarding the source of his superhuman strength. Her intention was to neutralize him and turn him over to the Philistines, her people of origin, enemies of the Jews living in Israel at the time.

On three separate occasions he lied to her when asked about it. The fourth time that she asked him, he revealed to her that he was consecrated as a Nazarite from birth and had therefore never cut his hair. If he were to cut his hair, thereby violating his status as a nazarite, he would lose the extraordinary Divinely bestowed strength that resulted from his condition as a nazarite. Delilah informed the enemies that she already had the answer and that they should prepare to take him prisoner. While Samson slept she cut off his hair, and when he awoke he had indeed lost all of his power. The Philistines took him prisoner.

The Talmud [2] asks: Being that he had already lied to her three times regarding this matter, how did Delilah know that Samson was telling her the truth this time around?

The Talmud documents several opinions on the matter. The first answer quoted consists of three words: “Nikarin divrei emet”, meaning: words of truth are recognized [as such].

How simple and yet how powerful! The truth simply resonates differently. It does not need to be validated by external proof.

A contemporary example I use often in conversations about this subject is the certainty people have about the veracity of the atrocities that took place during the Holocaust.

How can we know for certain whether or not it is true that the totally incomprehensible and unimaginable atrocities we hear and read about actually occurred in the Nazi concentration and extermination camps?

When I ask the question, people are shocked. “What?!” You don’t believe that six million Jews perished in the Holocaust?” they ask incredulously.

“Take it easy. I have no doubts about it,” I reply. “My question is simply: on what do you base your certainty? How do you know it was so?”

The answer I usually get is that there is evidence, documentation, photos, etc. My next question is: “Did you investigate all the documentation and verify that it is not forged? After all, Schindler’s List looks like a documentary while in reality it was produced in Hollywood!”

“Well, Rabbi, how do you know, then, that it is true?”

“This is how it works for me,” I reply. “I did not see the events personally, but I saw the eyes that saw them. I heard first-hand testimony from those who experienced it. I don’t need documentation to prove the veracity of the events or the eyewitness accounts I heard. Nikarin divrei emet.

I often wonder: while this is a valid answer for all of us who heard about the Holocaust firsthand and saw the eyes that saw it, what about the next generation, who will not have that opportunity? How will they have that certainty? There will be those who will turn to archives and there will be those who will base their conviction on trusting the account they heard from someone who ‘saw the eyes that saw it’…

Something similar happens regarding our faith in the Giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai. One who has doubts regarding the historical truth of the story, will not be helped much by all the documentation that exists. On the other hand, one who believes in the veracity of the story because he is sensitive to that recognizable and unmistakable ring of truth that resonated when hearing the account from someone who saw the eyes that saw the eyes that saw the eyes…, does not need any proof and nothing can refute or shake his faith in this regard.

In Judaism, both logic and its role and faith and its role are more complex, sophisticated and challenging than they appear at first glance. They are like the two wings of a bird that together allow it to fly. One without the other is incomplete and dysfunctional.

I invite you, dear reader, to dedicate some time this Shavuot to analyze how you are handling these two components in your life; how much do you know about them and how they work, and how can you cultivate and develop them further.

Looking forward to receiving the Torah once again with “joy and inwardness”, as the uniquely Chabad salutation goes; perhaps inspired by and reflecting the symbiosis of faith and reason.


  1. Judges, Ch. 16

  2. Sotah 9b

About the Author
Rabbi Eliezer Shemtov, born in in Brooklyn, NY in 1961. Received Smicha From Tomchei Temimim in 1984 and shortly after was sent by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, may his merit shield us, together with his wife Rachel to establish the first Beit Chabad in Montevideo, Uruguay and direct Chabad activities in that country. He has authored many articles on Judaism that have been published internationally. Since publishing his popular book on intermarriage, "Dear Rabbi, Why Can't I Marry Her?" he has authored several books in Spanish, English and Hebrew dealing with the challenges that the contemporary Jew has to deal with.
Related Topics
Related Posts