I heard a story from R’ Gavriel Friedman about when he was once giving a philosophy-oriented class. He got up and began: “So you all believe in God, right?” Someone in the back piped up: “Of course we believe in God!” R’ Friedman continued, “And what about that He wrote the Torah?” “Of course!” the person said. R’ Friedman pressed on, “So you’re telling me you know there’s a God and He wrote the Torah.” The student said, “Yeah.” R’ Friedman concluded: “So then why don’t you follow it?” Now the person exclaimed, “Well how do you know there’s a God!”
Although belief in God is a simple matter, denial can sprout when a person feels that the belief in God and what that belief encompasses “interferes” with his personal agenda and desires, which can then all of a sudden make “belief” a bit more complicated. The subjective philosophical questions and challenges arise when one feels that his liberty to live life his own way is challenged and threatened.
To know there’s a God is obvious—it barely even takes intellect: Chazal say that Avraham Avinu—at the age of 3—came to the realization that there’s a God, and Rav Yaakov Neiman (“Darkei Mussar,” Yitro) explained that this is teaching us that even the “brains” of a 3-year-old suffice to grasp the awareness that God created the world.
To know there’s a God is logical: The midrash records an incident where R’ Akiva was asked by a heretic, “Who created the world?” R’ Akiva said, “Hashem.” The heretic responded, “Prove it.” R’ Akiva retorted back, “Who made the clothes you are wearing?” The heretic said, “The tailor.” R’ Akiva said, “Prove it.” The midrash says that essentially R’ Akiva’s point was that just like an article of clothing attests to its tailor, and a door attests to its carpenter, and a house attests to its builder, so too, the world attests to Hashem who created it. In other words, when you see a shirt, you know there was a tailor who wove it. When you see a house, you know there was a builder who built it. When you see a world, you know there’s a God who created it. The proof is literally in the pudding.
If thats so, asks Rav Elchanan Wasserman, how could it be that brilliant philosophers, for example Aristotle, who the Rambam says was on a level below prophecy (which means that besides those who contain ruach hakodesh and prophecy, he ranks as the most brilliant of men) didn’t believe in God?!
Rav Wasserman explains that a causative factor behind those who claim they don’t believe in God is one internal dynamic: Bias. Meaning if a person’s personal desires and will to lead his life his own way instead of the One up high’s way is strong enough, then it can lead one—even geniuses and brilliant minds—to deny there’s a God. As we know, desire is blinding, and therefore someone steeped in the pursuit of self-gratification can become like a drunk person who doesn’t see straight, and thus won’t be fully capable of discerning the truth. (See “Kovetz Ma’amarim V’igarot,” 1:1.)
Indeed, belief in God does not necessarily hinge on intellectual abilities more than it does on being honest, objective and rational, all of which are a byproduct of not being engrossed in pursuing self-gratification, and instead being in control of one’s impulses.
Interestingly, Rav Wasserman’s fundamental question and explanation perhaps arises in our parsha, in a context that seems quite glaring and amplified. The warning is out for the seventh makka of hail. Not one, not two, but even after six mind-boggling and nature=defying miracles, many of the Mitzrim still stick to their guns and ignore the warning. Wouldn’t at least some minimal level of belief lead one to bring their possessions inside so they don’t get destroyed? As bewildering as it is, many of the Mitzrim went on with their lives, paying no heed whatsoever to this warning, as if they didn’t just see with their own eyes six clear-cut, blatant experiences of pure, unadulterated evidence that God created and runs the world. Thus asks R’ Yaakov Yisrael Kanievsky (a.k.a. “The Steipler”): How could such a thing be? [This question can seemingly be extended: After all 10 makkot, shouldn’t that have sufficed for all the Mitzrim to come to the belief in Hashem and join the Jewish people? Moreover, according to R’ Akiva, there were a grand total of 50 makkot in Mitzrayim and an additional 250 makkot by the sea! What more does one need to get the point?]
The Steipler says that we see from here that denial of God does not stem from a lack of knowledge or information, but rather from one’s personal will to believe or deny what he wants, and because one is steeped in immorality. To believe or not to believe is dependent upon what a person wants, not on what a person knows intellectually or even sees with his own two eyes (see “Birkat Peretz,” Va’eira). What’s particularly fascinating is that the Targum Yonatan explains the pasuk of those who didn’t heed the warning of hail to be referring to Bilaam! What this might indicate is that even someone like Bilaam, who was a prophet, could come to deny God.
We see an incredible dissonance that can take place in the human: One can be exceptionally intelligent, even witness the Hand of God, and perhaps even have a personal interaction with God, but still not believe in God because of his biases.
It would therefore seem to emerge from all the above that when one who says he doesn’t believe in God, that claim does not necessarily stem from fact, but rather from feeling. He doesn’t necessarily deny because he “knows” it to be true, but rather because he wants to do what he wants to do. As Rav Elya Dessler (“Michtav m’Eliyahu,” 1) says: Deep down, in his heart of hearts, the non-believer knows he’s hiding from the truth; and although he claims that he doesn’t believe, what that really means is that he doesn’t want to believe.
Binyamin is a graduate of Yeshivas Rabbeinu Yitzchok Elchanan, and Wurzweiler School of Social Work.