Wednesday, May 24th, 2017

What Makes a Belief ‘Traditional’? The Case of Bittahon by Gidon Rothstein

November 8, 2010 by  
Filed under New Posts, Philosophy

In a recent article in Tradition (Summer 2010, 42:1) – now available for free download - R. Daniel Stein challenges Hazon Ish’s rejection of a particular definition of bittahon, trust in God.  A closer reading of the sources R. Stein references to prove his point shows that the topic raises thorny questions of when and how a completely new belief can come to be accepted as Jewishly plausible.

In his work Emuna u-Bittahon, Hazon Ish had argued against the view that “intense and unwavering trust in God can [itself] produce favorable results,” as R. Stein summarizes it.[1] In fact, Hazon Ish not only argued against it, he called it “an old misconception rooted in the hearts of many.”[2] “Misconception” means, we should note, that Hazon Ish was rejecting the reasonableness of any Jew believing that trust works this way, not just expressing his own view of the issue.

To be sure that we understand what is at stake: All traditional Jews value bittahon, trust that God runs the world in such a way that, at least in the long run, will guide it to the victory of the righteous and defeat of the wicked.  Further, all traditional Jews see trust as a merit that contributes to overall good outcomes for that person (whether in this world or in the next).  Just as the observance of the mitzvot redounds to a Jew’s good fortune, so, too, does that Jew’s trust in God.

The definition of trust, though, is unclear.  Can or should a Jew trust that, in the near and discernible future, s/he will see the positive fruits of bittahon, that those fruits will become clear in the course of his/her life, or is it more of a general sense that God works the world out as it should, the individual’s role in it never being assured?

Elu Va-Elu In Defining Bittahon

In an essay,[3] mori ve-rabi R. Aharon Lichtenstein understands Hazon Ish to be rejecting even a relatively moderate view of bittahon, which says that a person should approach life with the confidence that Hashem can and will help, unless other factors intervene.  In R. Lichtenstein’s words, this kind of trust is

antinomic, i.e., it contains opposing aspects.  On the one hand, trust demands that a person be convinced that God will assist him; on the other hand, it demands that a person be prepared for a time when, God forbid, help will not be forthcoming.[4]

In the face of his understanding of Hazon Ish, R. Lichtenstein asserts instead that this is a matter on which elu va-elu should apply, with Jews within their rights to adopt either view—that is, either that God works the world out as it should with no particular guarantee or hope for the individual, or that part of bittahon is a certain optimism, that God will likely help those seeking to serve Him.  For R. Lichtenstein, Hazon Ish adopts the first view, and too quickly dismisses the other view, despite clear sources in Hazal and the rishonim that allow for the more optimistic approach, for general confidence that Hashem will treat us well.

It is not for me to weigh in on whether Hazon Ish meant to go as far as R. Lichtenstein understands him to, but R. Stein takes R. Lichtenstein’s point a giant step further.  For R. Stein, even rejecting the view that trust itself can guarantee favorable results improperly erases a legitimate and well-attested opinion in Jewish literature.  For him, “both sides in this debate are legitimate…have solid sources, medieval and more contemporary, and both have, at least historically, been adopted in practice by certain segments of the broader Jewish community.”[5] He thinks this second option is so “widespread, or even traditional” he from then on refers to it as the traditional view.

Reviving our recognition of its Jewish plausibility, he argues, has “theological value,” reminding us that “there are two genuine version of bittahon, an example of our obligation to follow the principle of elu va-elu diveri Elokim Hayyim,” “these and those are the word of the living God.”[6] He then goes on to adduce the rabbinic, medieval and contemporary sources that, in his reading, adopt this “traditional” view.[7]

If I am understanding R. Stein correctly – and if he himself is correct – it would mean that one acceptable reading of Jewish tradition teaches that Jews have the right to assume not just that God will treat them well, but that the fact of their trusting God to do so will itself insure such treatment.  R. Stein further contends that he says Hazon Ish could not have meant his disparagement of this view literally.  Rather, for R. Stein, this was Hazon Ish’s “manner of expressing his strong views on the matter.”

How Old Makes a View Traditional?

I concede that from at least the 16th century (and perhaps the 15th, as we will see), major Jewish thinkers have adopted his “traditional” view; the question is whether it goes farther back than that.  Looking at the sources R. Stein cited, I believe, will show that the only way to find rabbinic sources that support this view is by reading them in a manner other than their plainest or simplest one.

If I am right, R. Stein actually forces us to grapple with how to react when radical new ideas enter the conversation of Torah and when to accept them as possibly accurate reflections of a Torah worldview.  To my mind, if rabbis of the 16th—or even 15th century—produced a new version of the nature of bittahon, it would more than justify Hazon Ish’s claiming that that is not a legitimate view, characterizing it as a misconception. Hazon Ish would have been saying—not unreasonably, although certainly arguably—that on a question as central to Judaism as the nature of bittahon, there is no reason to believe that we suddenly, in the 15th century, discovered a completely new perspective of what the word means.

Testing the Sources: The Paradox of Articles

Before we can consider that question, though, I need to show why I see the sources so differently from R. Stein.  And before I embark on that, I want to note something inherently paradoxical about the endeavor: the only way you, the reader, can judge between our perspectives is by going back to those sources and testing whose reading appears more correct.  Since that is a tedious task often outside of the scope of how we intend to spend our time, I think we as readers—I know I do—often fall back on saying, “well, there are two perspectives,” in this case, R. Stein’s and mine.

Except that the argument I am making here precludes that: I am arguing, first, that certainly up to the fifteenth century we have no medieval sources that held what R. Stein calls the traditional view.  Once I have shown that, I will note that the rabbinic sources do not obviously say what the “traditional” view would like them to. If I am right, in other words, R. Stein must be wrong about a significant chunk of what he claimed, which in turn significantly alters how necessary we find it to accept both views and dignify them with the appellation of elu va-elu. But all of this rises and falls on the reading of sources, not on how convincing a presentation I make here.

HaEmunah ve-ha-Bittahon: Does Proper Trust Allow for Unfortunate Outcomes?

As far as I am able to see, R. Stein adduces only three medieval sources for the “traditional” view of bittahon, with many rishonim on the other side.[8] Those three are the 13th century work ha-Emuna ve-ha-Bittahon, originally attributed to Ramban but, as R. Stein notes, “presently ascribed to another Geronese kabbalist of the same school, R. Jacob ben Sheshet”[9]; Ramban himself in the Commentary on the Torah; and R. Joseph Albo’s Sefer ha-Ikrim. Closer reading shows that neither ha-Emuna ve-ha-Bittahon nor Ramban were adopting this “traditional” position, and there is some question about R. Joseph Albo.

R. Stein excerpts the first paragraph of ha-Emuna ve-ha-Bittahon (the 13th century work, not Hazon Ish’s similarly named work that started this whole discussion), introducing it by saying that the author “initially characterizes Jacob’s fear prior to his encounter with Esau (Gen 32;8) as representing a lack of bittahon.”  He summarizes by saying

Ha-Emmuna ve-ha-Bittahon apparently believes that a byproduct of absolute bittahon is not only the calming of fear but the negation of fear entirely, most likely because the author understands that bittahon, when utilized fully, assures completely favorable results [emphasis added].

In a footnote, R. Stein concedes that “in later paragraphs of the same essay” the author “implies otherwise,” but chooses this reading because he believes “preference should be given to his explicit statements over vague insinuations.”[10] Fair enough, but the paragraph R. Stein excerpts itself reads explicitly very differently than he would like.

The only way I can show this, however, is by citing it extensively.  I will record the Hebrew and my best attempt at English so that readers can easily check my admittedly imperfect translation skills, and have emphasized in the translation the parts that seem to me most relevant to our discussion.  The paragraph reads in full:

האמונה והבטחון הם שני ענינים שהאחד צריך לחבירו ואין חבירו צריך לו, שהאמונה קודמת לבטחון ומתקיימת בלב המאמין, אע”פ שאין הבטחון עמה ואינה צריכה לו בקיומה, ולפיכך אינה מורה עליו. אבל הבטחון הוא מורה עליה, שאי אפשר לו להיות קודם לה ולא להתקיים בלעדיה. וכל הבוטח יקרא מאמין, אך לא כל המאמין יקרא בוטח. כי האמונה כמו האילן, והבטחון כמו הפרי. והפרי לאות על האילן או על עשב שגדל את הפרי ההוא. ואין האילן או העשב לאות על הפרי, כי יש אילנות שאינם עושים פרי, וכן עשבים הרבה, אבל אין פרי בלא אילן או עשב. וכמו שהחסידות שהיא מורה על החכמה שאי אפשר להיות אלא אם כן היה חכם כמו שאמרו1 אין בור ירא חטא ולא עם הארץ חסיד. אבל אין החכמה לאות על החסידות, שאפשר שיהא חכם והוא רשע. וכן הבטחון והאמונה: כל הבוטח מאמין, לפי שאין אדם בוטח אלא במי שמאמין בו שהיכולת בידו למלאות שאלתו, ואין כל המאמין בוטח, כי לפעמים ירא שמא יגרום החטא, או שמא קבל כבר על מעשיו הטובים בנסים שעשה לו הבורא. ומאשר מוצא עצמו חוטא ופושע כנגד חסדי הבורא יתברך אינו נושא נפשו לבטוח בו שיצילהו מצרתו, או שיתן לו רצון לבו ותאותו. ועל כן ישתדל בנוהג שבעולם להנצל מצרתו או להשיג שאלתו ובקשתו. ולולא היראה שמא יגרום החטא היה ההשתדלות להנצל אפילו על ידי נוהג העולם חסרון באמונתו, שהרי כתיב2 ולא ראיתי צדיק נעזב וזרעו מבקש לחם. ואפילו הלל ורבי חנינא בן דוסא וחבריהם שהיו עניים ביותר3, מעוטי ממון, לא היו נעזבים, לפי שלא קנו נכסים מעולם. שאין לשון עזיבה נופל אלא על מי שהיה סמוך ואחר כך נעזב, אבל מי שלא היה סמוך מעולם אין זה נעזב. ואין העזיבה חנם בלא חטא ובלא עון. על כן לא יתכן שיירא מי שבוטח בעצמו שלא חטא מעולם, אבל הירא מן החטא יתכן שיירא שלא תבא עליו צרה מצד אותו החטא. והיודע בעצמו שהוא צדיק אבל מתכוין למה שאמרו: “היה לך לעזרני”, הרי לבו לשמים, ויפה הוא עושה, ואין זה חסרון באמונה. וכן הירא שמא יגרום החטא, אחר שהוא מאמין שהיכולת בידו, אבל מאשר הוא יודע שאין לפניו משוא פנים, ושהקב”ה יכול לקיים הבטחתו מצד אחר ולגבות חובו מצד אחר, לפיכך ירא שמא יגרום החטא שלא ינצל מצרתו. כמו יעקב אבינו עליו השלום שהבטיחו ה’ ואמר: הנה אנכי עמך4, והיה ירא מעשו כדכתיב ויירא יעקב מאד וגו’5, והקדימו במנחה, וחצה עבדיו לשני מחנות6, והיה ירא שמא יגרום החטא. וכן מצינו בדוד שהיה מאמין לראות בטוב ה’ והיה ירא שמא יגרום החטא, כמו שאמרו ז”ל7: מפני מה נקוד על לולא, לפי שהיה ירא שמא יגרום החטא. נמצא כי המאמין יתכן שיירא שמא יגרום החטא, אבל הבוטח אינו ירא שמא יגרום החטא. כמו שאמר דוד: משמועה רעה לא יירא נכון לבו בטוח בה’8, ובפסוק אחר אומר: באלהים בטחתי לא אירא9.

Faith and trust are two matters, one of which needs the other, but the second does not need the first, for faith is prior to trust and is established in the heart of the believer, even if there is no trust with it, and it does not need it to exist, and therefore does not point towards it. But trust points towards it, for it is impossible to have trust without it [faith] preceding it, and cannot exist without it.  And anyone who trusts is a believer, but not every believer will be called one who trusts.  For faith is like the tree, and trust the fruit.  And the fruit is a sign there is a tree, or a grass [bush?] that grew that fruit.  But the tree or the grass [bush?] is not a sign of a fruit, for there are trees that do not make fruit, and many bushes, but there is no fruit without a tree or a bush.  And just as hasidut [supererogatory piety] demonstrates wisdom, for it is impossible to exist without having been wise, as they said, no boor has fear of sin and no ignoramus becomes a hasid.  But wisdom is not a sign of hasidut, for it is possible to be wise and an evildoer.  And so with trust and faith: everyone with trust is a believer, because one only trusts in one whom he believes has the power to fulfill his requests, but not every believer has trust, for sometimes he is afraid that sin will cause [his hopes to be dashed], or lest he already received [reward] for his good deeds in the miracles the Creator did for him.  And from seeing himself as a sinner as compared to the great kindnesses of the Creator, May He Be Blessed, he does not lift his soul to trust that He will save him from his trouble, or give him the desire of his heart and appetite.  And he will therefore strive in the ordinary custom of the world to be saved from his distress or to achieve his want and desire.  And if not for his fear that sin would cause [God not to act on his behalf], the striving to be saved even by natural means would be a lack of faith, for the verse says “And I have not seen a righteous man abandoned nor his descendants seeking food.” And even Hillel and R. Hanina b. Dosa and their friends, who were extremely ppor, lacking in money, weren’t abandoned, because they never had possessions from the start.  For the term “abandon” applies only to those who had been supported [to a certain level] and were then abandoned, but one who was never supported is not considered abandoned.

And the abandoning does not occur for nothing, without sin or transgression.  Therefore, it is not plausible that one should fear who trusts himself that he never sinned, but one who fears [his own] sin plausibly will fear lest times of trouble should come to him because of that sin. And one who knows himself to be righteous but intends to what they said: “you should have helped Me,” his heart is for Heaven, and he does well, and this is no lack of faith.  And so one who fears lest sin cause [him times of trouble], since he believes that the power is in His hands, but since he knows that there is no concession before Him [meaning: God does not simply ignore wrongs committed] and that the Holy One, Blessed Be He can fulfill His promise on the one hand and collect His debt [punish sin] on the other, therefore is afraid that sin will cause him not to be saved from his time of distress, like our father Jacob peace be on him, whom  God promised and said, “And behold I am with you,” and was afraid of Esau, as it is written “And Jacob was greatly afraid, etc.” and sent him an offering, and split his servants into two camps, and was afraid lest sin cause [a bad outcome].  And so too we find with David who believed he would see the goodness of God and [also] was afraid lest sin cause [punishment], as they said, may their memories be a blessing: “Why are there dots over the word lulei,” because he was afraid lest sin cause.  What we find is that the believer can be afraid lest sin cause [punishment or a bad outcome], but the one who trusts does not fear that sin will cause.  As David said: From a bad report he will not fear, his heart is fully trusting in God, and in another verse said “In God I trusted, I will not fear.”

The more extensive citation lets us see two important differences from R. Stein’s presentation: First, the author’s concern, as he opened this essay, was defining faith and trust—and how they differ– not prescribing the right version of each.  Along the way, he does mention that one who is confident of his complete righteousness should have to trust that God will take care of him; the only permissibility of human striving, for such a person, would be that God wants human beings to make efforts as well.

Aside from that, however, the author is not judging the right and wrongs of bittahon, he is defining the term: bittahon means one who has complete trust that God will produce a certain outcome. Since, however, he fully accepts the claim that one is allowed to worry that sin will cause a different outcome—as was true of Yaakov and, more importantly of David, even as David also had full trust that God’s promises would be fulfilled—it is clear that it is not the trust itself that produces these outcomes, it is God’s promises.

Ha-Emuna ve-ha-Bittahon, in these paragraphs, is not dealing with the power of trust to assure results.  He is struggling with how it can happen that a believing person will lack trust in the future. His answer is that sin can, in fact, legitimately lead to a different future than promised.  If so, it is not implicit that trust does not itself produce a favorable outcome, it is explicit: while the absence of sin obligates trust that God’s promises will come true—again, though, it is not the trust that does it, it is the prior promises combined with the lack of sin—the presence of sin alters the picture.

But if the author held the “traditional” view, why would he not just tell us (and Yaakov Avinu) to work on developing better trust?  The answer is that he did not hold any such view; he was defining terms, and, by definition, trust means confidence that God’s word will come true. There can be valid reasons not to have such confidence, but that person is not then trusting in God (legitimately).

Ramban: Is Living a Life Under Divine Providence the Same as Complete Trust?

This text is so related to the comment of Ramban that we might as well take it up here. R. Stein notes that the “traditional” view would seem to militate against hishtadlut, our working for certain conclusions, since God will bring good to us anyway.  In the course of that discussion, he notes Ramban’s commentary to Vayikra 26:11, which, in R. Stein’s reading,

asserts that bittahon can be self-sustaining, precluding the need for human intervention, as he writes, ‘when the entire people of Israel are perfect in their conduct, their matters are not governed by the laws of nature at all… Rather God will bless their bread and water and remove all manners of sickness from among them… the righteous people who lived during the period of the prophets would conduct themselves in this manner.

Here, too, I do not understand R. Stein’s reading.  Ramban does contemplate the Jewish people—or righteous individuals among them—ignoring nature’s ordinary operations, but that results from religious perfection, not the presence of bittahon. Ramban is claiming—and this is itself striking, a position we could understand R. Hayyim Soloveitchik being hard-pressed to believe, as R. Stein noted in his article—that religious perfection can free us of the need to worry about what we otherwise call nature, but that is much different than the claim that bittahon itself can do so.[11]

There is one more medieval source I have yet to discuss, but since that has complications of its own, I want to delay that analysis for a moment.  So far, I hope I have shown that two of the main medieval sources R. Stein cited do not, in fact, make the claim he was trying to.  This is equally true, I now wish to show, of his claim that the “plain sense” of some rabbinic sources promotes this view.  This is important, because any view recorded in classical sources (and not rejected by them) would seem to be inherently a legitimate religious option, one among the many divrei Elokim Hayyim tradition has bequeathed us.

R. Akiva and Nahum Ish Gam Zu: Paragons of What Kind of Bittahon?

While R. Stein starts with three midrashic comments, I want to turn first to the four Talmudic sources he references, since the hashkafic weight and authority of the Talmud so fully outweighs other sources.  First, he notes the stories about R. Akiva[12] and his teacher, Nahum Ish Gam Zu,[13] where each takes apparently disastrous incidents in stride, only to have it all work out in the end.  As R. Stein notes, Maharal saw these two stories as evincing the power of bittahon. According to Maharal, apparently, the stories worked out well because of the heroes’ bittahon.

This reading is problematic for several reasons, not least of which is another Talmudic story that forced Maharal himself to limit his view of the power of bittahon.  In bBerachot 60a, we hear of Hillel entering his city, hearing a loud cry of misfortune, and confidently asserting that it was not in his house.  Maharal assumes that this was because of his bittahon, his trust, but then notes that this kind of trust protects us only from cataclysmic misfortunes.  Interestingly, while R. Stein includes this in a footnote, he does not see what a limitation this is on the “traditional” view he has been pushing: one of its earliest explicit proponents envisioned it as applying only to calamitous disasters, but that ordinary life would go as it went, regardless of the person’s bittahon.

More significantly, though, Maharal’s reading of the stories—with all due respect—cannot be seen as the simplest intent of those passages.  I say this both because of the internal logic of the presentations as well as because of the lack of anyone having read these stories that way before Maharal.

In terms of internal logic, R. Akiva and Nahum Ish Gam Zu do not, in those stories, assume everything will turn out immediately well, they only assume that it will turn out well in the sense that God wants.  In fact, the Talmud’s citing those stories shows how extraordinary they were, in that the good end became apparent so quickly; mostly, the “good” of God’s operations are not so obvious.  This is particularly clear since both R. Akiva and his teacher met famously horrible ends, full of suffering– are we to believe this demonstrates a failure of their bittahon at later stages of their lives?

R. Stein notes[14] later authorities who argue that, indeed, such events occur only through a failure of bittahon, but that is not reflected in the sources themselves.  Especially since we have no medieval readings of those stories that take them that way, the weight of the logic and the lack of an earlier authority makes Maharal’s position no longer the simplest reading of the stories where they displayed their bittahon.  That does not mean he is wrong, just that he (and those who take his view) cannot point to this source as a proof of their position; they might claim it supports their view, but it does not prove it.

So, too, Hillel may have felt protected from great tragedies, but Ramban has already told us why—he had come to understand that his level of service of God meant he would not be touched by such sorrows.  That is, as I noted before, worlds different than just blindly trusting that God will protect us.

Shabbat Preparations as an Expression of Bittahon

R. Stein also brings up the discussion in bBeitsa 16a regarding Shammai and Hillel’s differing practices regarding preparing Shabbat food.  Shammai, we are told, would put aside any nice portions of food he found for Shabbat; if, later that week, a better portion came along, he would eat the first and put aside the second. Hillel, in contrast, ate food as it came, saying ברוך ה’ יום יום, blessed is the Lord every day.  As Rashi points out there, Hillel had bittahon that God would provide food for Shabbat in its time as well.

R. Stein deems this a good proof for the “traditional” view to the extent that he prefers a different reading of Hillel than even that advanced by Maharal.  Yet this sugya is not about the power of bittahon.  Rather, it is about when or whether we are required to be aware of, and preparing for, Shabbat. While Shammai required thinking of Shabbat all week, so that any good food be set aside, Hillel allowed enjoying God’s bounty as it came, leaving the future for the future.

This is an expression of trust in how the world works, as Rashi points out, but not an assertion about the power of bittahon.  It is not the bittahon that produces the Shabbat food, nor even the person’s merits; rather, Hillel held that God set up the world such that we need not always be worrying about tomorrow’s food.  We can take today’s blessings as they come, and trust that later blessings will come as well.

Midrashic Assertions About Bittahon

R. Stein also cites three passages in Yalkut Shimoni as evidence of this view’s pedigree.  I will come back to the first of those in a moment, since it calls for the lengthiest discussion, but one includes the comment[15] on Tehillim 9:11 “And they… will put their trust in you—based on what? Because You, Lord, have not forsaken those who seek You.” However, the only words added by the Midrash are “based on what.”  All the rest is in the original verse.

Unless we understand the verse itself to mean that trust is what produces salvation, the Midrash has not added that to it.  In fact, all the Midrash would seem to be doing is noting the structure of the verse, that the second half explains the experience of the first; since God does not forsake those who seek Him—and forsaking, we should note, is not nearly the same as promising an immediately positive outcome— it leads to trust.  But that could only be the trust of not being forsaken, not the trust of immediate salvation.

So, too, the comment on Psalms 91;2,[16] which R. Stein translates as “If you trust in My Name, your life will stand for you.” The actual language goes, אומר לה’ מחסי ומצודתי בשמי בטחת, חייך שהוא עומד לך, which seems to me to more properly translate as “‘I will say of the Lord who is my refuge and my fortress’—if you trust in My Name, by your life [a form of an oath], it will stand for you.”  Certainly, the Midrash is asserting that the merit of trusting in God’s Name will “stand” for us, but I see no commitment, implied or explicit, as to the time frame within which that “standing” will take place.  As before, bittahon creates merits and merits improve our standing with God and the likelihood of good outcomes—bounded by ordinary issues of theodicy—but the leap to bittahon guaranteeing immediate or near-immediate help is missing.

The Yalkut’s reading of Psalms 31;2 comes closest to what R. Stein seeks.  On a verse that connects relying on God to never being “put to confusion,” the Midrash does say that anyone who trusts in God, God will save that person, giving the examples of Hananiah, Mishael, and Azaryah being saved from the furnace and Daniel from the lions’ den.

The question is whether the phrase “put to confusion” means we can expect immediate salvation, especially since the continuation of the statement points to David as using this as the anchor of this faith, and the Jewish people, too, as having such a promise underlying their existence. In these latter two cases, though, God’s salvation was not always immediately forthcoming; while neither David haMelech nor the Jewish people were ever put to permanent embarrassment or confusion, certainly there were and have been long-lasting and trying stages along the way.

Convincing and Arguable Re-readings of Classical Sources

In sum, the classical sources R. Stein sees as reflecting the “traditional” view do so only in debatable ways.  R. Stein might respond that this is irrelevant, that as long as Maharal has classical sources he can cite, this becomes a view we can think of as being well-grounded in traditional Jewish thought.

The claim would take us too far afield to discuss fully.[17] Briefly, it raises issues of what we can consider legitimate or plausible readings of texts, and what those obligate us to accept as within the traditional corpus.  I believe that here we need not engage in that full discussion, since the only sources for this view are ones that have to be read arguably.

In contrast, for example, when Rambam re-read many verses in Scripture and statements in the Talmud to fit his rationalistic view of the religion, his claims were stronger for several reasons.  First, he was relying on philosophical principles that he believed were eminently clear prior to any reading of Scripture (that would not seem to be true of this version of bittahon). Second, and more importantly, there were other texts in those same literatures that unequivocally made the claims he was making.  Rambam was not trying to convince us to read sources his way; he was noting that unless we read sources his way, we would be faced with internal contradictions about fundamental matters of belief.  This is not the case with the extreme view of bittahon, that trust itself guarantees a good outcome, in the near term.

Back to R. Joseph Albo

Until now, I believe I have shown that the medieval sources do not, in fact, take bittahon as far as his “traditional” view.  I also pointed out that the readings offered by more modern thinkers—such as Maharal and those who came after him—do not render traditional texts in such a convincing way as to seem unarguable.  This is crucial  because without an ironclad classical source, we would have to consider whether what R. Stein refers to as the “traditional” view is actually a newcomer to the world of Jewish thought, with all the questions of legitimacy that come with that.

It is one thing for later thinkers to uncover or rediscover sources—or even just fuller ramifications of sources– that earlier thinkers had failed to emphasize.  It is a much different, and more tenuous, matter for later readers to claim that an earlier source makes a significant claim about the nature of faith that no earlier readers had realized.

Which brings us back to R. Joseph Albo, since a novel theological idea first attested in the fifteenth century is stronger than one first attested in the sixteenth.  As R. Stein translates him, R. Albo writes that if a person “had hoped properly, the hesed [of granting his wish] would not have been withheld by God.”

It is certainly possible that R. Albo meant what R. Stein understands, that God’s interest in performing kindnesses for humanity allows whoever has the right level of hope to get what they desire.  Yet it seems an odd position for him to take, given that he spends the rest of the chapter discussing two other, surer kinds of bittahon.  If trusting that it will come is the only barrier to securing God’s assistance—in a direct and immediate way, like being saved from a furnace— why would anyone doubt that?  Why would it be, as R. Albo himself characterizes it, the least certain of the three kinds of bittahon—surely, after a history in which trusting in God’s kindness is always rewarded, we would come to see it as equally certain as other kinds?

I suggest, therefore, that the words מקוה כראוי—which R. Stein understandably translates as “hopes properly”—actually mean “hopes for proper results.” That is, R. Albo’s presentation becomes significantly more comprehensible if we understand that he does not mean that God’s Attribute of kindness would lead God to give whatever someone truly wants; rather, the attribute is that God gives worthy outcomes, even if the recipient does not fully deserve them.

Bittahon ha-hessed, I am suggesting, is not trust that God will give me wealth, and access to temptations of the flesh, and other unworthy desires, simply because I trust in God.  God will give me those proper and appropriate things for which I long, as a kindness, even if I don’t fully deserve them.

“Proper and appropriate” can often, again, be a far cry from what the “traditional” view of bittahon claims.  If so, R. Albo might be a precursor of Maharal’s view, in that he does argue that bittahon can itself produce the hessed God looks to bestow, but it is not making the strong claim that bittahon itself produces absolutely positive outcomes.  Alternatively, R. Stein is correct, and R. Albo means exactly what he says.

Does Traditional Start in the Fifteenth Century?

Either way, I believe what we have is a view of bittahon that starts, at earliest, in the fifteenth century, and perhaps only in the sixteenth, with Maharal.  Maharal, too, is a significant Jewish thinker, with very broad shoulders, and many might feel that he has the standing to promulgate a major new claim about how God operates in the world.

Granted that he believed he had found classical sources that shared his perspective, we then are faced with this complicated question: does elu va-elu require us to accept such a latecomer to the world of Jewish thought?  Some might say yes, but others (such as, I believe, Hazon Ish) might argue that such ideas about trust in God cannot be posited anew when prior thinkers have dealt with them so often, so fully, and without mentioning this revolutionary version.

To believe in God is to rely on Him, at least in the broad sense that evildoers will not have permanent victory.  But as we try to go further than that, we run into thorny problems of Jewish faith.  Without insisting on a single vision of how God rewards such faith, we can still yet note that one such version—the one Hazon Ish called out as an old misconception rooted in the hearts of many—is a late addition to the group of ideas Jewish thinkers offered as ways of experiencing God in the world.

Some of us may not mind that late provenance, but others, including apparently Hazon Ish, think it raises the specter of a false idea, one God never asked or told us to believe, becoming a cornerstone of people’s view of how God runs the world.  And that, certainly, tests the limits of elu va-elu.


[1] R. Daniel Stein, “The Limits of Religious Optimism: The Hazon Ish and the Alter of Novardok on Bittahon,” Tradition 42;1 (Summer 2010), p. 33.

[2] Ibid, p. 41, a quote of Yaakov Goldstein’s translation of Hazon Ish’s Emuna u-Bittahon, titled Faith and Trust, (Jerusalem, Am haSefer, 2008), beginning of ch. 2.

[3] By His Light, Chapter 7, 134-161.

[4] Ibid., p. 154.

[5] Stein, p. 32.

[6] P. 48.  R. Stein notes that R. Aharon Lichtenstein also argued for an elu va-elu approach in his discussion of versions of bittahon; importantly, though, the approaches that R. Lichtenstein was arguing for did not include what R. Stein calls the traditional one.

[7] P. 33.

[8] I note that he claims that Rashi on Psalms 71:1 also says something along those lines, but I was unable to find that Rashi.

[9] P. 35.

[10] P. 35-36, with footnote 14.

[11] In addition, it is not clear to me that Ramban necessarily assumes that all outcomes will be perfect (unless the nation is perfect). When the righteous people in the times of the prophets conducted themselves in this manner, does Ramban mean their lives went with no bumps at all, or only with as many (or fewer) than in a natural life? For example, Ramban says that God removed illnesses from such people—does he necessarily mean all illnesses, or only enough such illnesses that there was no need to feel like a doctor had to be called in? If, for example, twenty percent of ordinary people would get cancer in a certain situation, and these righteous people had only a ten percent rate, and better rates of cure from those cancers, would that suffice for Ramban’s envisioned world? It seems to me it should.

[12] bBerachot 60b.

[13] bTaanit 21a.

[14] p. 39.

[15] Yalkut Shimoni Tehilllim, 643.

[16] Yalkut Shimoni Tehilllim, 842.

[17] I touched on some of these issues in my PhD dissertation, Writing Midrash Avot, available online at the Open Access Project.  As I noted there, the fifteenth century in Spain—and Maharal follows this school—saw the introduction of new rules for what constitutes legitimate readings of texts, treating Talmudic sources in ways that Midrash treated only Biblical ones.  When hermeneutics change, we might question where the resulting readings are theologically binding or even necessarily acceptable as options, regardless of the religiosity and importance of those who offer them.

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