On the Depths of Being

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So it is, my dear friend. The first step towards faith is the most difficult thing in the world…

Published in 1922 in the short-lived Hebrew periodical Kolot, “On the Depths of Being” offers an exceptional window into Hillel Zeitlin’s understanding of faith. At this point, Zeitlin had long since returned to traditional observance and study, yet as the dialogue with his imaginary interlocutor in the second part reveals, his faith was not to be taken for granted.

The essay is composed of two sections. The first section is an affirmation of the goodness of God, and humanity’s corresponding obligation to act out of goodness in response.

The second section, which deserves further study, is an imaginary dialogue between Zeitlin and one who desires to have faith in God, although they feel themselves unable to come to it. It does not take much imagination to realize that Zeitlin’s interlocutor is himself at an earlier period of his life, as he sought for many years to recover the lost faith of his youth. Zeitlin’s answer is chilling in its simplicity: There is no path to faith other then faith itself. Pressed to offer a solution to this paradox, Zeitlin surprisingly states that the initial source of faith [Emunah] is denial [Kefira], the same Hebrew word used for heresy. Through denying all theories and doctrines, one empties themselves of all notions and turns to the God they seek to believe in. Zeitlin’s God is a personal God, whose presence is achieved through one’s individual experience, not through any doctrine which could be defined or communicated. Zeitlin’s embrace of pessimism and denial in this matter is likely influenced by the writings of Lev Shestov, the Russian mystic who was the subject of a monograph published by Zeitlin the same year.

The conclusion of the essay contains an interesting commentary on the relation between science and meaning. While Zeitlin accepts the scientific approach as a valid means to understand the physical world in order to better utilize it, he gives no place to science in determining the meaning or purpose of life. Such understanding is reserved for the ultimate denier [Kofer], who awaits the flash of the “lightning bolt” from heaven.

Zeitlin ends the essay rather abruptly, with the promise of further chapters to come. As is often the case with many such promises in Zeitlin’s writings, no future chapters were published.

It is worth noting the parallels between Zeitlin’s understanding of the nature of faith and that of Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein, writing in an essay titled “The Source of Faith is Faith Itself“. Zeitlin himself writes, “One can only come to faith through faith itself.”

The original Hebrew essay may be accessed here.

For more about Hillel Zeitlin and his life, click here.


On the Depths of Being

By Hillel Zeitlin

Translated by Sam Glauber

A.

A Dialogue with Myself

“What are you tasked with doing in your world?”

“I must fulfill my charge. I must fulfill the word of He who has sent me to the world.”

“And what is your charge?”

“To do good.”

“And what is good?”

“Goodness is that which bestows value and joy upon life and the world—sanctity, purity, love, and justice.”

“And how do you know that He who sent you to the world specifically loves goodness?”

“I know that He who sent me to the world loves goodness for He bestows and endows life. At every moment He creates all of the worlds from absolute nothingness. He sustains all of the worlds. The worlds are born, flourish, grow, wilt, and rise once more to life; He builds worlds, destroys them and forms better ones in their place, fair and whole are they in the vast expanses of eternity…

“And how do you see in this the good will of God?”

“In constantly bestowing life, He reveals a love of kindness. In constantly creating He reveals a love of joy. In elevating and bearing up life and the worlds from form to form, from guise to guise, from low to high, from high to ever higher; improving, enhancing and beautifying, refining and purifying; elevating the creations to the finest point of refinement they could reach—he reveals a love of glory. In refining humanity through suffering, breaking their beastly bones and through torment begetting within them a higher spiritual essence; in teaching them, reprimanding them, afflicting them; in slowly distancing them from their worldly sensual inclinations while planting within them the aspiration for truth most pure—He reveals a love of sanctity, purity, and justice; for His seal is truth.

B.

A Dialogue with My Friend Who Seeks

One cheerful morning, my friend who seeks came to me and said:

“Look, you always tell me, ‘Have faith!’ Am I not desirous of faith? Like you, I sense that faith contains wondrous power, sublime beauty, and great happiness. But how does one come to faith?

“I desire to have faith, but I am unable to. Thousands of doubts confuse my mind, for when I desire to come to faith it is hidden from me. I desire to hold this pure dove in my hands, but the moment I reach it—it soars off to the heights…a shining star hints to me from the highest heavens, but how might I reach it?

“Look, you always tell me, ‘Have faith!’ What is faith? Various scholars have defined and delimited the concept of faith in various manners. Let us assume I may choose one of the models or definitions—how would this thing I call faith be mine?”

“One can only come to faith,” I answer him, “through faith itself.”

“If so—it is like tongs made from tongs. The first tongs—who made them? [1] ‘One may only come to faith through faith.’ And how does one take the first step towards faith? If it is only possible to come to faith through faith itself, behold we feel in relation to faith, though it is not yet in our hearts, like one placed within a labyrinth with no exit.”

“So it is, my dear friend. The first step towards faith is the most difficult thing in the world. It is impossible come to faith through any inquiry in the world. It is impossible to come to faith through searching…”

“In the end, how does one reach faith?”

“One may only come to faith through special heavenly favor.”

“And how does one merit this favor?”

“The ways of God are beyond our comprehension. We, as humans, cannot perceive why one person merits this favor and the other does not. However, as human as our perception may be, we know first hand that one only reaches this favor through unceasing inner turmoil, through selflessly seeking the truth, through purifying one’s character, and through the thirst for God.”

“But there are many who wholeheartedly sought the truth, pondered in thought, investigated, sought, and delved into philosophy, laboring in exhaustion for decades in every scientific field—and they ultimately did not come to faith but rather to its opposite…

“As for purifying one’s character—behold there are many of pure character who lead holy lives, and yet they do not reach this ‘favor” you speak of. Why?

“And behold you state: ‘The thirst for God.” You admit, do you not, that Spinoza and Goethe had so very much of this thirst for God—and yet ultimately the faith of Spinoza and Goethe is not that which we call faith, nor that for which I desire, long, and yearn. Their faith, however much it could be called ‘faith’, recognized a God bound to the laws of nature, which themselves are the unchanging expressions of His wisdom; a God bound to nature and nature itself; a God which does not love, have mercy, comfort, nor have any contact whatsoever with mankind in their humanity, all the more so having no contact with the exhausted, belabored, suffering, tortured individual, wallowing in his own blood as he suffers the full weight of his pain—Behold this faith bears a stronger resemblance to heresy [K’fira] than to the faith you bear in your heart and which I seek and cannot find…

“And if indeed there was such a thirst for God in the hearts of Spinoza and Goethe—and you know that they did have such a thirst—why did not they not come to simple, pure, living faith?”

“There are two ways of seeking the truth, my dear friend. More precisely, there are two types of truth-seekers. There are those who only seek a human truth, though the thirst for God is in their hearts. Darwin, Spencer [2], and even Spinoza and Goethe themselves sought a human truth, and they found a human truth, each one according to his perception, labor, effort, sharpness, and perspective. However, one only comes to true faith, my dear friend, through the complete denial [K’fira] of all human truth. Only those who have forever lost their faith in human truth are ultimately emptied to receive the Divine truth…”

“If this is as you say, then the most faithful were also the greatest deniers [Kofrim]…”

“Yes, so it is my dear friend. Only one who has come to the most strident and extreme denial of all that humanity has fabricated, of all that humanity believes to be an eternal truth—to him the gates of heaven may be opened at a time of favor. To him alone may the lightning bolt suddenly flash…”

“How could that be? I’m struggling to understand you fully. How could a person reach such an utter denial? How could one utterly deny what one discerns through their intellect, reasoning, sharpness, diligence, abundant suffering, many experiments and tests, as they connect detail to detail and principle to principle to come to a broad knowledge of science?”

“Indeed, you did not understand me. It is possible to believe in all that one discerns mathematically, in their proficiency in all of the natural sciences—to whatever degree they collect, assemble, and analyze all the facts of nature, to whatever degree they order and describe these phenomena—yet still utterly deny whatever solutions come to one’s mind regarding the mystery of the world, the enigma of life; all the solutions which the human intellect offers for the puzzle of being in general, and the being of each person in particular.

“We are compelled to accept science to whatever degree it is an amalgamation of tests and experiments, but we are not compelled to accept all the various theories the scientists construct and form on the basis of these tests and experiments. These theories are nothing more than intellectual exercises, and in the best case sharp-witted speculation which some uphold while others refute them, establishing different ones in their place, while others simply state, ‘We do not know’; speculations upon which one generation builds its science and philosophy while the next generation denies them, destroying and nullifying. One can utilize these speculations as the basis for a scholarly discipline, professional use, or as a tool to understand the numerous facts of reality. One could utilize them as symbols, markers, or signs which we form in order that we not go astray in the perplexing expanse we call ‘the cosmos’—but not as a foundation for truth in and of itself, not as a foundation for perceiving the world and life in and of themselves, not as a foundation for understanding the world as it truly is, not as a key for solving the mystery of being, and all the more not as a source of truth, substance, and value for life…

[Further chapters will appear in future issues]


[1] A reference to Mishna Avot 5:6:

“Ten things were created on the eve of the [first] Shabbat at twilight. And these are they…And some say, also the [first human-made] tongs, made with [Divine] tongs.”

Tongs require a pre-existing pair of tongs in order to be made. If so, the first pair of tongs must have been made by God. Similarly, if generating faith requires pre-existing faith, from where is the pre-existing faith derived?

[2] Herbert Spencer (1820-1903) was a British scientist and political theorist who is associated with the concept of “Social Darwanism”.

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