Parshat Yitro: The Decalogue

“I am Hashem, your God, Who took you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.” (Shemot 20:2)

This week’s parasha includes the Decalogue. The above passage is the first pasuk of the Decalogue. According to Sefer HaChinuch, this passage is the source of the commandment to accept that Hashem exists. He explains that this commandment requires that we respond to any inquiry regarding our convictions that we wholeheartedly accept the existence of Hashem. He adds that we are required to relinquish our lives for the sake of this conviction. In other words, we must affirm our conviction in the existence of Hashem and that there is no other is G-d. We are even required to sacrifice our lives in affirmation of this conviction.

Sefer HaChinuch adds that we should strive to establish clear proof of Hashem’s existence. If we succeed in establishing such proof, then we have fulfilled the mitzvah at its highest level.[1] This is a troubling statement. It is understandable that complete fulfillment of the commandment requires basing our conviction on objective evidence. However, the implication of this statement is that even if we do not base our conviction on any evidence, the commandment has been fulfilled at least at to a minimal standard.

This implication presents two problems. First, Sefer HaChinuch acknowledges that conviction in the existence of G-d is the most fundamental element of Torah Judaism. All other elements of the Torah are based on this conviction.[2] If this conviction is not based upon evidence, then one’s entire adherence to the Torah and one’s observance of the commandments is based upon a solely subjective belief. Among the Torah’s commandments are various mitzvot that presume that the Torah is true and that other faiths are not valid. For example, the Torah includes many commandments directed against idolatry. These commandments include directives to execute idolaters. If our conviction in the Torah is based upon a completely subjective set of beliefs, then these beliefs are no more credible than those of the idolater. The Torah describes Hashem as a just G-d. How can a just G-d command us to execute those whose beliefs – although different from ours – are every bit as credible?

Second, the implication that conviction in Hashem’s existence based on subjective belief is adequate contradicts the position outlined by Sefer HaChinuch in his introduction to his work. There, the author explains that one of the unique elements of the Torah is the Sinai revelation described in this week’s parasha. The Torah was revealed by Hashem to the entire nation. All of the people heard Hashem address the nation. The objective of mass revelation was to establish a firm basis for future generations’ acceptance of the authenticity of the Torah as a G-d-given creed.

The details of Sefer HaChinuch’s argument are beyond the scope of this discussion, but it is sufficient for our purposes to summarize his thinking. Mass revelation endows the giving of the Torah with the standing of an objective historical event. In other words, the Torah’s account of revelation as a mass event is so fantastic that the very acceptance of this claim indicates that it cannot be reasonably assumed to be a fabrication. No generation would have agreed to be the first to accept this fantastic claim were it not part of its historical record.

According to Sefer HaChinuch, the objective of the Sinai revelation was to create a firm, objective basis for the authenticity of the Torah as a G-d-given truth. It is odd that, according to Sefer HaChinuch, Hashem gave the Torah through the Sinai revelation to provide an objective basis for our conviction in its authenticity – yet a subjective belief in Hashem’s existence is acceptable!

Let us consider another issue. Conviction in the existence of G-d is, in itself, a meaningless requirement. Such a requirement lacks any description of the specifics of the required conviction. In other words, what is meant by “G-d”? Without a response to this question, the requirement is too vague to be meaningful. Sefer HaChinuch delineates three elements to the mitzvah: 1) We are required to accept the existence of a G-d Who is the source of all that exists; 2) This G-d is eternal; 3) This G-d redeemed us from Egypt and gave us the Torah.[3] These elements provide the specific details that give meaning to the requirement to accept the existence of Hashem.

Generally, Sefer HaChinuch adopts the position of Maimonides. However, there seems to be a disagreement between these authorities regarding the specifics of the meaning of acceptance of Hashem. In his Sefer HaMitzvot, Maimonides defines the commandment to accept the existence of G-d as a requirement to acknowledge there is a G-d Who is the cause of all that exists. [4] He does not include within the mitzvah a requirement to acknowledge Hashem as the G-d Who redeemed us from Egypt and gave us the Torah.[5]

Rabbaynu Yehudah HaLeyve also deals with the requirement to accept that Hashem exists. His position is very different from that of Maimonides. He explains that we are required to accept the existence of a G-d Who redeemed us from Egypt and gave us the Torah. He does not include within this basic requirement that we accept Hashem as the creator. He explains that while the Torah requires that we accept the existence of Hashem, this requirement does not include acknowledgement that He is the creator. There is a compelling reason for the requirement’s exclusion of this element. Proof of a G-d Who is creator of the universe can only be attained through philosophical and scientific investigation and speculation. These investigations – and any proofs they provide of a creator – are subject to debate and criticism. According to Rabbaynu Yehudah HaLeyve, the Torah does not wish to base acceptance of Hashem upon speculations and investigations that can be debated and are not accessible to the average person. Instead, the Torah instructs us to base our acceptance of Hashem upon historically credible, public events and the Sinai revelation.[6]

It is important to note the Rabbaynu Yehudah HaLeyve does not intend to imply that acceptance of Hashem as creator is not a fundamental element of the Torah. This would be a rejection of the opening chapters of the Torah. The position of Rabbaynu Yehudah HaLeyve is explained by Rabbaynu Nissim Gerondi in his commentary on the Torah. He explains that acceptance of Hashem as the creator of the universe is an essential element of the Torah. However, this is a truth we know through revelation. The requirement to accept Hashem focuses on accepting Him as our redeemer from Egypt and the giver of the Torah. Once we accept the Torah as a revealed truth, it follows that we must accept the contents of this revealed truth. An essential element of this revealed doctrine is that Hashem is creator.[7]

Rabbaynu Yehudah HaLeyve seems to present a compelling argument for his position. Why does Maimonides insist that the essential element of the mitzvah to accept Hashem is the recognition that He is creator? In order to answer this question, we must address an astounding oddity in Maimonides’ Mishne Torah. Maimonides’ Mishne Torah is a codification of Torah law. However, the third and fourth chapters of this work can be described as a brief summary of physics and astrophysics. Why is this material included in this work of Torah law? Furthermore, as an introduction to each section of this work, Maimonides provides a list of the commandments that will be described and explained in the section. Presumably, the material in the section that follows is an elaboration on the details of these listed commandments. The first section of the Mishne Torah is preceded by such an introduction explaining that the section will deal with ten mitzvot. The list of these mitzvot includes acceptance of His existence and His unity. None of the mitzvot in this list seems to provide an imperative for instruction in and knowledge of physics or astrophysics. Under which of these commandments does Maimonides subsume his discussion of physics and astrophysics?

Maimonides deals with this issue in the final passages of the fourth chapter. He explains that this discussion is relevant to those mitzvot that require we accept Hashem’s existence and unity, and that we adore and hold Him in awe. How is Maimonides’ discussion of scientific matters relevant to these mitzvot?

According to Maimonides, acceptance of the existence of Hashem, His unity, and our adoration and awe of Him must be predicated upon an understanding of our universe and His centrality to all existence. We must understand the universe and His role as the source of all existence. It is not adequate to merely accept this assertion as true. We are required to understand the nature of the relationship between Hashem and the universe.

An analogy will help us understand Maimonides’ position. As I record these thoughts I am using my computer. I know that my computer is composed of a motherboard and various other circuitries. I have no idea how all these elements operate and work together. I know that these elements exist. I do not understand them nor do I have any appreciation of their operations. My acceptance of their existence is absolute; yet, my understanding of their nature and operation is negligible. Maimonides maintains that the requirement that we accept Hashem’s existence cannot be fulfilled simply through acknowledging the fact He exists. This acceptance cannot be akin to my acceptance of the existence of a motherboard and circuitries in my computer. Instead, my acceptance of Hashem must be akin to the engineer’s more fundamental comprehension of the computer. It must include an understanding and an appreciation of the nature of the universe and Hashem’s role and relationship with reality.

This is the essential difference in the perspectives of Maimonides and Rabbaynu Yehudah HaLeyve. According to Rabbaynu Yehudah HaLeyve, we are required to accept as a revealed truth that Hashem is creator and that He sustains the universe. We are not required to understand or appreciate the full meaning of this assertion. Maimonides rejects this perspective. According to Maimonides, the mitzvah to accept Hashem requires our appreciation of His relationship to the universe and an understanding of His centrality to its existence. In other words, this commandment addresses our overall understanding of reality. We are required to unmask the nature of the universe and the reality in which we exist.

We are now prepared to understand Sefer HaChinuch’s position. Sefer HaChinuch adopts a position that is a compromise between these two perspectives. He agrees with Rabbaynu Yehudah HaLeyve that the mitzvah to accept Hashem requires that we accept Him as our redeemer from Egypt and the giver of the Torah. He adopts this position for the reasons that he outlines in the introduction to his work. The Torah must be based on objective evidence. It cannot be reduced to a set of subjective beliefs. Mass revelation and public miracles experienced by our ancestors provide us with the objective basis for our conviction in Hashem’s existence. We do not need to resort of scientific proof and philosophical speculation in order to fulfill this most basic commandment.

However, Sefer HaChinuch is not willing to reject Maimonides’ perspective. Our acceptance of Hashem is not complete without acknowledgement of His role as creator and sustainer of the universe. Our acceptance of Hashem must include this element to be meaningful. Nonetheless, Sefer HaChinuch does not completely agree with Maimonides’ position. He asserts that although we should strive to achieve the level of understanding described by Maimonides, it is not essential to the minimal fulfillment of the mitzvah. However, an understanding of G-d in the manner explained by Maimonides is the highest fulfillment of the mitzvah.[8]

[1] Rav Aharon HaLeyve, Sefer HaChinuch, Mitzvah 25.

[2] Rav Aharon HaLeyve, Sefer HaChinuch, Mitzvah 25.

[3] Rav Aharon HaLeyve, Sefer HaChinuch, Mitzvah 25.

[4] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Sefer HaMitzvot, Mitzvat Aseh 1

[5] Maimonides also does not include in this description of the mitzvah acceptance of Hashem as eternal. However, in the first chapter of his Mishne Torah, Maimonides elaborates on this mitzvah. There he explains that we are required to accept that Hashem is the cause of all that exists and that His existence is unique. His existence is more “absolute”. This is apparently a reference to the eternity of His existence. In other words, it appears that according to Maimonides, this commandment requires us to accept that only Hashem’s existence is “absolute” or necessary existence. All other things exist as a consequence of His existence and will.

[6] Rabbaynu Yehudah HaLeyve, Kuzari, part I, sections 11-25.

[7] Rabbaynu Nissim ben Reuven Gerondi (Ran), Commentary on Sefer Beresheit 1:1.

[8] It should be noted that none of these authorities ascribe to the position that acceptance of Hashem and the Torah can be founded upon blind faith. To my knowledge, this popular position has no basis or antecedents in the writings of the classical authorities. These authorities were unwilling to equate the Torah to other religions that are based upon personal belief and subjective conviction. Instead, the introduction of blind faith as a basis for acceptance of the Torah seems to be a relatively modern development. Perhaps, this more modern perspective is influenced by modern, conventional theology and existential philosophy.