Part 5: Yisro—Exodus 18:1–20:23
I am HaShem your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt. (20:2)
The existence of the One God is the first and most fundamental principle of Judaism. Maimonides begins his Halachic Encyclopedia, the Mishneh Torah, with “The foundation of foundations and pillar of all wisdom is to know that there exists a First Being, and He brought into existence all that exists.” Maimonides also lists this as the first Positive Commandment in his Sefer HaMitzvos (Book of Commandments). The Sefer HaChinuch says that “the roots of this commandment need no explanation—it is known and revealed to all that this is the foundation of religious belief.”
Can Belief in God Be a Commandment?
Countering the position of Maimonides, major commentators and legal works such as Nachmanides, the Ba'al Hilchos Gedolos, and the Kina'as Sofrim commentary all argue that knowing God is not a Commandment. The Kina'as Sofrim explains that the concept “was problematic to many writers—how can it be correct to count the belief in the existence of a Commander among the Commandments? It is impossible to have commandments without first clarifying that a commander exists!” In their eyes, knowledge of God is not a Commandment, but the prerequisite upon which all Commandments depend.
This helps us to better understand why Maimonides calls belief in God's existence the “foundation” of all the Commandments, and not simply the first, greatest, or most important. To have Mitzvos, Commandments, we must have a Metzaveh, a Commander. The translation of Mitzvos as “good deeds” is figurative at best. It is true that Mitzvos are good deeds, but only because we know that God is good and His Commandments are good.
Now, I'm Not Aristotle!
Philosophers both ancient and modern have attempted to create systems of morality that depend upon human wisdom to determine what is correct and good, and to do those things. Judaism says “the inclinations of the heart of man are evil from his youth” (Gen. 8:21). We know that external compulsion is not always successful (have you never violated a local ordinance?)—but it is far more powerful than our own devices.
The Commandment to know of God's existence is thus not merely a religious value, but—in the Torah view—a moral obligation, that which compels moral behavior even when it is difficult. “These are the things which Hashem commanded you, that you shall do them …” (35:1)—even when it is not easy.