Avos 2, 14: “Rabbi Elazar says: Be diligent (and/or persistent) in the study of Torah. Know what to answer a heretic. And know before whom you toil, and who is your employer – for he will compensate you the reward of your labors.”
This mishna is one of a series in each of which one of the disciples of Reb Yochanan ben Zakai articulates three ideas. In this mishna Reb Elazar is clearly enunciating three succinct ideas: 1) the importance of diligence and persistence in Torah study, 2) that one must be able to fend off those who challenge the integrity of the Torah, and 3) that people recognize that they are learning Hashem’s Torah and that Hashem will duly remunerate those who study His Torah. While these are clearly three distinct thoughts (see Avos 2, 10 and Rashi on this mishna) there seems to be some sort of linkage between them. Each of these ideas is intellectually oriented. Yet there appears to be some sort of unspoken paradoxical contrast of credo, or simple faith, blended with something of a more cognitive nature. In order to gain a better understanding of the mishna let us analyze the mishna part by part.
Reb Elazar tells us that we should study Torah with great diligence. Torah study is an intellectual exercise. It does not necessarily entail believing in it whatsoever (of course Reb Elazar maintained that one needs to believe in the Torah in its entirety, but that isn’t necessarily implicit in his first directive). However, when Reb Elazar tells us that we should know how to fend off heretics, he has made it clear that he intended that we should study Torah as believers to the extent that no one should be able to shatter or even shake our conviction in the Torah. Reb Elazar then tells us that we should be cognizant that we are delving into the Torah in Hashem’s presence and that Hashem will duly compensate us for our Torah study. What is the meaning of this last statement? After telling us that we should study Torah to an extent that our faith should be rock solid why does he need to tell us to be conscious of Hashem’s presence and Hashem’s remuneration?
The Rambam on the mishna touches on this point. The Rambam maintains that when Reb Elazar says that we should know what to answer the non-Torah-believer this means that one should study the non-believer’s claims against Torah Judaism (the Rambam maintains that the non-believer mentioned in the mishna, refers to one who believes in a non-Torah theology to the exclusion of someone who just doesn’t practice Judaism). Therefore the Rambam explains that Reb Elazar is weary of the dangers posed by studying materials that challenge Torah Judaism. Therefore the Rambam says that Reb Elazar is reminding us to always keep focus on an uncompromised belief in Hashem and His Torah. While the Rambam does somewhat explain what Reb Elazar is communicating, this doesn’t fully explain why such a focus should help? In other words: if someone begins to explore theology and through that exploration begins to have doubts in Judaism, why would focusing on Hashem and His rewarding us abet such notions?
If one has questions in faith what should one do? One cannot merely shelve such questions because by doing so one is saying “I am acting as if I believe but I don’t really believe.” Belief has to be utter conviction (see the Rambam in his prelude to perek Chelek). If one isn’t fully convinced of a certain reality then one does not believe in it. In other words, one may have a notion that there might be a god. Similarly one may believe that there is certainly a god and even go a step further and have an inclination that Judaism is the correct approach to worship “the God”. While one of these so-called believers entertains the possibility chalila that there isn’t a god, the other contemplates the possibility chalila that Judaism isn’t the singular unmistakable way to worship “the God”. There are infinite other combinations of doubts and quasi theologies one can have. Thus one cannot live with questions in faith but must rather search out the answers to all such uncertainties of faith one has.
One of my Rebeim, Rabbi Chaim Cohen Shlita, in a discourse he gave discussed the issue of a youngster deciding that because he has doubt with Yidishkeit he is going to stop practicing Judaism. Rabbi Cohen said this youth is seemingly right: why should one practice something one does not believe in? Rabbi Cohen went on to explain that this youth is nonetheless acting foolishly. A youngster may be a very smart, but no matter how much of a genius he might be, he has an extremely limited vantage point. He does not have the wisdom of years, he lacks hindsight. Rabbi Cohen elaborated: there have been many great thinkers whose genius have been unchallenged, such as the Rambam, Ramban, Chovos Halevavos (Rabeinu Bachyei) and many others. They certainly did not ceremoniously practice Judaism without having complete faith in it. Not only that, but many of these great Torah personalities even wrote essays and books on the very subject matter of answers to questions in faith. Thus said Rabbi Cohen the enlightened approach would be to say: I will explore Judaism to its core and I will leave no shell unturned in the process.
Rabbi Cohen explained that questioning faith isn’t per se wrong. The question is how one does so. Is one delegitimizing faith or is one qualifying faith? To delegitimize an age old faith is downright stupid, but to qualify it, on the other hand, is essential to being a believer.
Reb Elazar seems to be making this very point. He is telling us that we must study Torah diligently to the point that there is no way even the most skilled and wise non-Judaism believer (see Rambam and Rabeinu Yona on the mishna) could shake us. However, he is also saying that in our study and quest toward this goal we should not lose focus that we are attempting to qualify our belief in Hashem and His Torah and not Chalila the converse. If we believe this we certainly believe that Hashem will duly repay us for our efforts in this everlasting mission of unshakable faith. While the mission is threefold it is a singular quest. We must yearn and strive to know and love Hashem.