of the Rabbinical Assembly in Israel
HASHKAFAH STUDY GROUP
A Masorti (Conservative) Theology
Rabbi Simchah RothHerzliyya, Israel
I N T R O D U C T O R Y N O T I C E
This series of essays does not claim to be an "official" theology of Masorti (Conservative) Judaism. It is one rabbi's personal viewpoint, and this should always be borne in mind by the reader. Nevertheless, I do hope that even those points with which the reader might disagree will afford him or her an opportunity for thought and evaluation.
For many thinking Jews today belief in God presents a problem. If we do not solve this problem we can go no further, for, as Rambam says at the start of his great work on halakhah, Mishneh Torah [Hilkhot Yesodé ha-Torah 1:6]: belief in God 'is the fundamental principle upon which everything else depends'.
Basically we may divide thinking Jews into four groups:
Our study here will not deal with the first two groups: the members of the former group, who have a traditional belief in God, do not see themselves as being in need of our help, and the members of the latter group, who do not believe in God at all, ask none. In both these cases the question at issue is reasons for belief: for the believer they are already irrelevant and for the non-believer acceptable ones cannot be offered, for what he requires is 'proof'.
Our concern here is oriented towards the problems that face the members of the other two groups. They are not looking for reasons for belief; they are seeking grounds for belief. (For this distinction between reasons for belief and grounds for belief see Sacred Fragments, Niel Gillman, 1989.)
They have a basically positive attitude towards some kind of religious affiliation, but they need to be able to justify this intellectually. They need a conception of God that they can find intellectually acceptable and that will give them a basis for a meaningful religious affiliation.
Man has always had an awareness of the existence of deity, but his comprehension of its nature has undergone development. From believing that the god was a spirit inherent in stocks and stones, man (insofar as he believes in God at all) has progressed to an understanding that God is unique and non-physical. Most modern Jews who do believe in God will accept, at least catechismally with their lips, a conceptualization of God as non-physical. Very few, I suspect, realize the full implications of that acceptance. So, I am going to start by discussing what we mean by the term 'God'.
Everyone has his own personal idea of what the word means, and it is this personal conceptualization that has a direct bearing on one's willingness to believe or not to believe in a deity. In order to believe in something (or to reject a belief in something) you must first have some idea of what that something is. The only important thing is what you think it is, because it is on that basis that you will accept or reject the idea. I once had a great-aunt (my grand-mother's sister) who was a staunch member of the Communist Party. She believed that the basic tenet of Communism was that everything belongs to everybody. Since she knew that in Judaism a saint is someone who says 'what's mine is yours and what's yours is yours' [Avot 5:13], it followed that the basic tenets of the Communist party were what the ancient Jewish sages defined as those of a saint. Therefore she thought that she ought to be a staunch Communist, since thus she was also being a Jewish saint.
Her acceptance of Communism was a direct result of what she thought Communism was all about, and a different mental picture of Communism might have brought her to different conclusions. Perhaps she should have read George Orwell's Animal Farm. Unfortunately, she did not read English, and to the best of my knowledge Orwell's near-classic has not been rendered into what was her native tongue, Yiddish - a language in which she was perfectly literate!
So, at the risk of being over-repetative, I will state yet again: in order to believe in something (or to reject a belief in something) you must first have some idea of what that something is. The only important thing is what you think it is, because it is on that basis that you will accept or reject the idea.
If we are going to talk about 'God' we must first of all define our terms.
When I was young there was a programme on the radio in which a team of savants expressed their views on a variety of subjects. There was one participant who invariably began his dissertation in the same way. It made no difference what the topic was, he always began with the words: 'It all depends on what you mean by ...' Of course, in some circumstances we can view that as an attempt to avoid dealing with the real question. But in other circumstances it could really be important that all the people taking part in a discussion agree on the meaning of the terms and concepts used.
If we are asked to express our opinion on who is going to win the next election, it would be an annoying prevarication to start off with 'It all depends on what you mean by an election'. It is to be assumed that everyone knows what an election is. However, our interlocutors might be more inclined to patience if we started off with 'It all depends on what you mean by winning'. We would then explain that in the political set-up of our country, when the result is a very close call (as most times it is) small parties may well be the real winners when it comes to seting up a coalition government. After such an explanation our listeners might agree that it is necessary to define our terms.
There is an added complication. Most of us come to this discussion with certain preconceptions that do not derive from Judaism. There are concepts that are common to all the monotheistic religions (and others too). However, that does not mean that the adherents of those religions have a common understanding as to what those concepts mean. Jews use certain terms in common with other faiths. The word 'Bible', for instance, is common to both the Jewish and the Christian world. Yet there is a substantial difference between the Bible of the Jew and the Bible of the Fundamentalist Protestant: there is a difference of content, of relevance and of hierarchy - to name but three important differences.
For the Jew understands by the term 'Bible' what the Christian terms the 'Old Testament'. (Personally, I try not to use the term 'Old Testament', preferring the Hebrew terminology Tanakh, since the appellative 'old testament' presumes that there comes after it a new dispensation, a 'new testament'. Furthermore, the acronym Tanakh serves to remind me that the Jewish bible is a three-tiered work, its three Hebrew letters standing for Torah, Nevi'im (prophets) and Ketuvim (Holy Writings or Hagiographa).
Although Jews and Christians use the same word, the exact contents of 'the Bible' vary considerably, depending on the faith of the speaker or writer. The believing Christian thinks that the Bible is a book that includes within its covers four gospels, several epistles and so forth. The believing Jew cannot even imagine such books as part of his Tanakh. This difference also has historical implications: 'the biblical period' for the Jew ends long before 'the biblical period' ends for the Christian!
There is also the difference of relevance: to the fundamentalist Christian the whole of the Bible (and specifically what he terms the 'Old Testament') is the directly revealed word of God; while ancient Jewish tradition has ascribed that quality to the Torah, that is not true of the prophets and writings.
Then there is the difference of hierarchy: to the Jew the three segments of the Tanakh are arrayed in their relative importance; to the Christian the order is almost the opposite: the old Law (Torah) has been superceded; the prophets and writings are more important; but all of the 'Old Testament' pales in importance and is understood only in the light of the 'New Testament', to which the old is deemed an ancient precursor.
I make no apologies for this long excursus concerning the Bible: it admirably serves to highlight the substantial differences that there are as to the implications of this word for people of different faiths and backgrounds. We could have illustrated the problem of common terminology with terms other than 'Bible' - 'Heaven', 'Hell', 'Law', 'Messiah', 'Prophet', 'Saint', and so many others. So we must always bear in mind that people may come to the discussion with certain preconceived ideas that do not derive from Judaism.
Now we may return to our discussion.
Obviously, the question 'What do you mean by ...?' is most important when we come to discuss the term 'God'. We may not assume that all people who use the term in common intend it to convey the same conceptualization. For example, if one person thinks of 'God' as a little green creature looking somewhat like a horse, but without a tail and with flippers instead of legs, that lives all alone in a cave at the bottom of the Pacific ocean; and if another person thinks that 'God' is a personality somewhat like her grandfather only somehow immensely greater; and if yet a third has a god that is some form of universal energy that may be tapped at will by 'plugging in' spiritually - if these three people predicate something of 'God' (omniscience or omnipresence, for example) could they truly be considered to be making a common statement?
This point is not nearly as farfetched as one might think: the Jew, the Moslem and the Christian all use the term 'God' (capitalized, as a proper noun), and it is assumed that they all intend to indicate the same thing. But do they? When the unitarian Moslem conceives of God does his conception match that of the trinitarian Christian? Obviously not.
So, what might we Jews mean by the term 'God'?
We have already suggested that this is a word that may mean something different to each person. One person might envisage God as an old man with a long white beard, in long white flowing robes, seated majestically on a great marble throne in the centre of the vastness of Heaven, surrounded by winged humanoid figures similarly dressed (but probably beardless) floating around the throne playing harps. Another will consider this to be plain heretical nonsense. Yet another will consider such a vision to be a caricature, and would prefer the quite blatent anthropomorphism to be toned down somewhat. (Anthropomorphism is the use of terms appropriate for a human being in connection with something that is not human: "Come along dear, the mummy lion is now going to wash her babies, clean their teeth, tell them a story and put them to bed; so it's time to go home.")
The Tanakh itself - indeed the Torah itself - is not consistent on this point. Sometimes God is portrayed in distinctly human terms: 'He' (a blatant anthropomorphism that people usually miss!) sees [Genesis 1:4], speaks [Genesis 1:6], goes for an evening stroll [Genesis 3:8], has a good sniff [Genesis 8:21], comes down to inspect [Genesis 11:5] - to cite but a few instances from the first few chapters of the Torah. On the other hand, we also find even a more elevated anthropomorphism rejected (see, for instance, the citation from Deuteronomy a few lines hence).
However, one theme is so clearly evident thoughout the Hebrew scriptures that we may be permitted to present it as the 'authoritive', 'accepted' view and to categorize the other as poetic licence. One of the most impressive expressions of that thematic and authoritative view is to be found in the book of Deuteronomy [4:14-19]. (Moses is speaking.)
And God commanded me at that time to teach you those laws and judgments that you are to keep in the country that you are about to take possession of. Be extremely careful: you did not see any image on the day that God spoke to you on Horeb out of the fire! Do not become corrupt by making yourselves a statue that represents any image, be it in the shape of a male or a female, or the shape of an animal of the ground, or the shape of any reptile of the land, or the shape of any fish of the subterranean waters. Nor should you raise your eyes heavenward and seeing the sun, the moon and the stars - the whole heavenly horde - bemean yourself by worshipping them ...
According to this passage, God may not be physically represented, because physical representation would be misrepresentation! Surely that statement alone is enough to bring into question at least one of the conceptualizations of God that we described above. The picture of 'an old man with a long white beard, in long white flowing robes, seated majestically on a great marble throne in the centre of the vastness of heaven' does not fit in with the proscriptions of Deuteronomy. And yet, how many people do not believe in God because the God that they don't believe in is an old man with a long white beard, in long white flowing robes, seated majestically on a great marble throne in the centre of the vastness of heaven...?
Strictly speaking, the real reason for the Torah's insistant prohibition of the making of physical representations of God must stem from the fact that we cannot know what representation could possibly be made. Judaism only has two real teachings concerning God as is: that God indeed is, and that God is not physical (and therefore cannot be multiple); i.e. that the Deity exists untrammelled by the consequences of physicality such as place and time. Apart from that Judaism has no teaching about God as is. Everything else that Judaism says about the characteristics of God is metaphor and simile.
Of course, these literary devices have greatly influenced our thinking about God. From the Bible onwards people have found helpful images that describe God as King, Father, Judge, Saviour and so forth. But these are only images, literary devices designed to make the almost incomprehensible somewhat comprehensible. If in our day and age these images are no longer helpful, if they are a hindrance to comprehension, then they may be replaced by more useful literary devices. And, of course, they will remain just that - literary devices.
There is one aspect here that there is little point in discussing: the teaching of Judaism that God actually is (what we called at the start of this essay reasons for belief, as opposed to grounds for belief). If Judaism teaches that God is non-physical, this means that God cannot be appreciated by physical means. There is no more point in trying to prove God's existence to someone who insists upon a 'scientific' proof than in trying to prove the existance of the id, the ego, the superego, the unconscious and the preconscious. We cannot say that the id, the ego, the superego, the unconscious and the preconscious are to be found in a certain place there to be exhibited for the confusion of all agnostics. For the purposes of our discussion we may say that Judaism teaches that 'God' is very much like the id, the ego, the superego, the unconscious and the preconscious: we assert that it's there, but cannot demonstrate empirically.
This, however, certainly does not mean that those who believe that God exists do not have logical and scientifically acceptable grounds for that belief. At the beginning of our discussion we noted that the concept of God is rooted in history, but that the manner in which we conceive of God changes from person to person and from age to age. We can perceive two main perceptual approaches. From man's earliest understanding of God one approach was what we now call theistic. This approach views God as a personality that relates to this world and is intimately concerned with what is done in the world.
Ever since the beginning of modern times in the west - for the sake of argument let us say about 500 years ago - another approach has been discernable which we now call deistic. This approach views God as the origin of creation but as not involved with developments in the universe, as far as we can judge. (Theism is a term derived from the Greek word for God, θηος; deism is a term derived from the Latin world for God, deus.)
This deistic approach developed as a result of modern scientific investigation: the more science learned about the nature of the universe in general and about this world in particular the more it seemed impossible to some to maintain a belief in a theistic God - as an old man with a long white beard, in long white flowing robes, seated majestically on a great marble throne in the centre of the vastness of heaven who relates to this world and is intimately concerned with what is done in it.
And not only scientific discovery made this simple and traditional conceptualization increasingly difficult for thinking people; tragically cruel events, incredible acts of carnage, wanton destruction of humans by humans on scales unprecidented in the history of man made it impossible for some to see God as being intimately concerned with what is done in this world.
It is, however, interesting that the more science learns about the universe and its origins the more science seems to be pointing in the direction of a deity in order to explain the origin of the universe. It is not just the old Aristotelian 'proof' of the 'unmoved mover' that requires an uncreated originator of everything else that exists. Fred Hoyle [1915-2001], one of the greatest astro-physicists of recent times, was an ardent proponent of the 'steady state' theory, which could have obviated the need to posit an original creation. However, subsequent discoveries led in the opposite direction, and the 'working hypothesis' of astro-physics today is the so-called 'big bang' which posits an origin for the material universe and therefore re-opens the discussion concerning an 'originator'.
It was the discovery of radiation background by Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson in 1965 that was the first step in the growing realization that it certainly could be that the existence of the universe and life in it is not just happenstance. Many highly respected names in the world of modern science have expressed opinions that point directly and clearly in the direction of a 'purposeful originator' of the universe and of life that exists in it. The liklihood that life 'just developed' in the universe is so improbable that Michael Turner, a renowned astrophysicist at the University of Chicago and Fermilab in USA has said of the conditions that prevail in the universe that permit the existence of life:
the precision is as if one could throw a dart across the entire universe and hit a bullseye one millimeter in diameter on the other side.
Perhaps we can better understand what has prompted Turner's remark if we consider the following statement by Dr. David Deutsch, from the Institute of Mathematics at Oxford University, England:
If we nudge one of these constants just a few percent in one direction, stars burn out within a million years of their formation, and there is no time for evolution. If we nudge it a few percent in the other direction, then no elements heavier than helium form. No carbon, no life. Not even any chemistry. No complexity at all. If anyone claims not to be surprised by the special features that the universe has, he is hiding his head in the sand. These special features are surprising and unlikely.
Sir Fred Hoyle, once one of the most ardent advocates of the steady-state theory, later revised his views in the opposite direction, and is even more explicit:
A common sense interpretation of the facts suggests that a superintendent has monkeyed with the physics, as well as chemistry and biology, and that there are no blind forces worth speaking about in nature. I do not believe that any physicist who examined the evidence could fail to draw the inference that the laws of nuclear physics have been deliberately designed with regard to the consequences they produce within stars.
Dr. Paul Davies, professor of theoretical physics at Adelaide University, Australia, concurs:
The really amazing thing is not that life on Earth is balanced on a knife-edge, but that the entire universe is balanced on a knife-edge, and would be total chaos if any of the natural 'constants' were off even slightly. You see, even if you dismiss man as a chance happening, the fact remains that the universe seems unreasonably suited to the existence of life - almost contrived - you might say a 'put-up job'.
There are many other such statements available, but I think that I have given enough room to substantiate the claim that those who believe in God (whether their belief is theistic or deistic) certainly have grounds for their belief, grounds that derive from highly respectable scientific opinion. (These grounds were not available only just a few decades ago.)
Let us recapitulate. Judaism teaches that we have no means of understanding or describing the reality of God even if we are convinced that we have solid grounds for positing the existence of the deity. Any terms that we might use would be misleading and far from the real truth - for we cannot know the real truth as far as the nature God is concerned. Kabballah refers to God as is as Ein Sof, the Endless, the Unlimited, the Boundless. This must surely be the case. We cannot even begin to talk about what God really is. What we all try to do is to describe how we imagine God, how we try to condense into some form comprehensible to our finite minds what is otherwise incomprehensible. To all intents and purposes the concept of En Sof is a desitic concept.
It would be sheer folly to mistake the metaphor for the reality. We are concerned with how best to find a formula that will make conceivable the inconceivable, for without conceptualization it can have no influence on our minds and on our lives. What we shall be attempting to do in what follows is not easy. There is a danger that my reader will think that I am writing about God, i.e. God as is; actually I shall be writing about how we may imagine God, how we may conceive of the Deity in a manner appropriate to thinking people of our own times. In other words, there is a danger that some of my readers may think that the metaphor is the thing itself.
In the preface to one of his plays Bernard Shaw [The Apple Cart, 1930] describes how he solved a similar problem. He wanted to discuss another concept, democracy, objectively. Realizing that many people would mistake his description for opinion he asked his audience to consider that he was going to talk about the sea!
We all have our own views of the sea ... but certain facts about the sea are quite independent of our feelings towards it. If I take it for granted that the sea exists, none of you will contradict me. If I say that the sea is sometimes furiously violent and always uncertain, and that those who are most familiar with it trust it least, you will not immediately shriek out that I do not believe in the sea; that I am an enemy of the sea; that I want to abolish the sea... If tell you that you cannot breathe in the sea, you will not take that as a personal insult and ask me indignantly if I consider you inferior to a fish. Well, you must please be equally sensible when I tell you ... about Democracy...
And I too crave your indulgence when I come to write about God. For, like democracy, deity (certainly as En Sof) too must be for us an abstraction. This statement, I am sure, caused many raised eyebrows, but it need not and should not. The idea was put very succinctly by the father of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, in his book "Moses and Monotheism" :
Among the precepts of Mosaic religion is one that has more significance than is at first obvious. It is the prohibition against making an image of God, which means the compulsion to worship an invisible God... It was bound to exercise profound influence. For it signified subordinating sense perception to an abstract idea; it was a triumph of spirituality over the senses; more precisely, an instinctual renunciation accompanied by its psychologically necessary consequences.
What we are concerned with is not how people conceived of God in the past or how some people conceive of God in the present. We are concerned with the search for an explanation of the phenomenon of deity that is acceptable to rational and empirical thought. At the start of our discussion we said that man has always had an awareness of the existence of deity, but his comprehension of its nature has undergone development. From believing that the god was a spirit inherent in stocks and stones, man has progressed to an understanding that God is unique and non-physical. In a later essay we shall see that man has always had the intuitive feeling that behind and beyond this world, behind and beyond the physical universe that we observe and investigate there is some immense reality that gives to the whole its ultimate meaning. Somehow, somewhere beyond the reaches of his rational awareness, man knew that something in the universe was positively demanding the realization of certain values: harmony, wellbeing, fairness, brotherly love and so forth. This intuitive knowledge was actualized into the traditional concept of deity. The psychologist Erich Fromm, in his book "You Shall Be As Gods" , explains:
Words and concepts referring to phenomena related to psychic or mental experience develop ... with the person to whose experience they refer. They change as he changes... That concepts ... grow, can be understood only if the concepts are not separated from the experience to which they gave expression. If the concept becomes ... separated from the experience to which it refers - it loses its reality and is transformed into an artifact of man's mind. The fiction is thereby created that anyone who uses the concept is referring to the substratum of experience underlying it. Once this happens ... the idea expressing an experience has been transformed into an ideology that usurps the place of the underlying reality within the living human being... The foregoing considerations are important if one wants to understand the concept of God... I believe that the concept of God was a historically conditioned expression of an inner experience. I can understand what the Bible or genuinely religious persons mean when they talk about God, but I do not share their thought concept; I believe that the concept 'God' was conditioned by the presence of a socio-political structure in which tribal chiefs or kings have supreme power. The supreme value is conceptualized as analogous to the supreme power in society.
In its early stages Judaism's concept of deity was opposed to another conceptualization: idolatry. The basic difference between heathenistic idolatry and the Judaic monotheism is in the nature of the conceptualization of the deity. The heathen gods are 'mere man writ large'; they are man, with all his faults, idealized; they are ourselves as we dream that we would be could we but assume omnipotence and immortality.
The God of Judaism is the exact opposite. God is the model that man must attempt to reach up to, the enshrinement of the very best that man must ever strive to be. Rather than the god being 'mere man writ large', man should ever strive in utmost sincerity to be 'God writ small'. The One of Judaism represents a concept to be realized, not 'a consummation devoutly to be wished'. Judaism seeks to raise man into the actualization of the values that the concept of deity represents, something greater than man; heathenism had deities that were a mere idealization of man himself.
The biblical book of Isaiah contains prophecies that may be attributed to three different prophets. One was the original Isaiah, who was active in Judah in the last half of the eighth century B.C.E. The second was active among the exiles in Babylon around the middle of the sixth century B.C.E. The third was active in post-exilic Judah around the middle of the fifth century B.C.E. The second prophet whose prophecies are preserved in the book of Isaiah, is the author of a wonderful passage in chapter 44. In a section radiant with the essence of pure monotheism and the intellectual folly of idolatry the prophet states in the name of his God (verse 8):
You are My witnesses that there is no deity apart from Myself.
In the following verse he says of the idols:
They are their witnesses.
The idols are their worshippers' witnesses: they only bear dumb witness to the follies and weaknesses of their worshippers, for they are merely 'man writ large'. On the other hand the Jewish people bear witness to the wisdom and holiness of God as long as they strive to live up to the standard thus set. In this sense God is the apotheosis of man's most sublime and most worthy aspirations.
It should now be easier to understand what we said earlier:
After these clarifications we may resume our discussion.
Like the id and the ego and democracy, the Deity is not perceivable by our senses, only by our sense. It follows that in the following pages we are not trying to describe God; we are trying to describe a conceptualization of God - which is not the same thing. Other people may have a more traditional conceptualization of God: that is their privilege and blessing, as long as it helps them to bring the influence of the fact of the existence of God into their lives. What we have to say here is for those who do not find the more common conceptualizations of God helpfully meaningful.
We have seen that there are two approaches in the Tanakh to the question of how to conceptualize God. One is philosophic and the other is poetic. The first posits that God cannot be seen or represented; the other describes God as majestic King, loving Father, imposing Lord, righteous Judge and so forth. The Tanakh intends us to understand that the Deity is non-physical - there is nothing to see, there is nothing that can be physically represented. This is also the theme of most of the great medieval philosophers in general, and of Rambam in particular, especially in his 'Guide for the Perplexed'.
We must carefully distinguish between our intellectual perception of the Deity and our emotional perception. Surely there can be nothing wrong with people imaginatively thinking of God in human terms, provided that they know intellectually that this is only an emotional perception. The relation of our emotional perception of God to our intellectual perception is comparable to watching an animated cartoon movie which presents in simplistic and humorous terms our latest knowledge in astrophysics, for example. Such a movie is a fine educational tool, unless we begin to relate to the cartoon movie as the real thing! When a cartoon strip on astrophysics becomes actual for us (that is to say, when we begin to think that the stars and planets really do dance around to a catchy little jingle), then we can say that we know nothing at all about astrophysics. Similarly, if for someone the God of Israel really is an old man with a long white beard, in long white flowing robes, seated majestically on a great marble throne in the centre of the vastness of heaven, who will answer our every wish if we only wish it hard enough - then he knows as much about God as our cartoon-lover knows about astrophysics! He is an old-time idolator!
Note, that we have said nothing positive about Judaism's concept of the Deity: we have only ruled out one conception as being unaccaptable even on biblical terms. Judaism has never really insisted that one particular conceptualization of God, Torah or Israel is the only correct one (at least, not until the arrival of modern orthodoxy). Traditionally, what has always decided whether one was within the pale of acceptance or outside of it was one's attitude to the mitzvot (commandments) and their observance. Provided that one was seen to observe the mitzvot one was considered to be an integral part of the community, and no one really was interested in your theology. For example, Rambam [1135-1204] and Israel ben-Eliezer Baal-Shem-Tov [1700-1760] had, I think, completely different conceptualizations of the Deity (and each probably would have classed the other as a heretic), but they are both accepted religious heroes of the Jewish people because they both were observed to observe the mitzvot.
The medieval philosophers, for whom rationalism was not a method but a weltanshauung, defined the Jewish religious ideological collective as 'the community of believers' or 'the community of monotheists'. This, of course, is completely erroneous from the historical-empirical point of view. 'Belief' was a bone of severest contention inside this community, and extreme polarizations existed within it as regards the interpretation of 'monotheism'. Nevertheless the community never ceased to be one community. What would actually define Judaism was 'the community of the observers of Torah and its mitzvot'; and this was a community whose identity was never affected by extreme philosophical exchanges. Great and good Jews who came after Rambam and who are crowned by historical Jewish religious consciousness as holy and pure, would have been viewed by Rambam himself as idolators. [Yeshayahu Leibowitz, "The Practical Mitzvot", in Judaism, the Jewish People and the State of Israel, 1976.
The ordinary Jew has a very physical conceptualization of the Deity, whether this conceptualization is the source of his belief or of his disbelief. For him or her God is a personality (at the very least) whose main functions may be expressed as listening (to prayer), granting (requests), sympathizing (with the suffering), commanding (laws), punishing (disobedience) and exercising overall control of the physical universe (hence miracles) and of history. Again, many do not believe in God (particularly after the holocaust or in consequence of more advanced reading in astro-physics) because they do not feel that there is 'something out there' that is 'listening, granting, sympathizing, commanding, punishing and exercising overall control of universe and history'.
But this very personalized view of God is not the conceptualization of the Deity as ultimately formulated in the middle ages in the heyday of classical rabbinism, where God is conceived as being absolutely non-physical. That means that the Deity is conceived as being without physical form, and as being untrammelled by the consequences of physicality such as place and time. The most systematic presentation of this formulation is that of Rambam. In the more general sense, his conceptualization permeates all his writings that touch upon God, particularly in Mishneh Torah and the Guide for the Perplexed. It is true that the rabbi-philosophers of the middle ages had a conceptualization of the Deity that was much less physical than that held in earlier times; but the seeds and first growth of the Maimonidean concept of the Deity are clearly perceived in the Tanakh and in classical rabbinic literature.
This brings us back full circle to where we started. At the very beginning of our discussion we said that
most modern Jews who believe in God will accept - at least catechismally with their lips - a conceptualization of God as non-physical. Very few realize the full implications of that acceptance.
We must now investigate the full implications for our age of Judaism's insistence on a non-physical Deity.
Since God is non-physical, 'He' is not personal and is not possessed of personal attributes as humans understand them. We cannot comprehend God as is; but God as a concept most certainly can be apprehended by us, with our intellectual apparatus. In a very noble sense we can say that the Deity can only be perceived in the human mind. An entity that has no physical existence, but that nevertheless is very real, can often be perceived in the way that people react to its existence. Democracy, patriotism, love, hate, treachery, happiness, distress are not physical entities that can be dissected in the laboratory or whose real existence can be proven 'scientifically'. Yet no one doubts that there is such a thing as love, because it manifests itself in our behaviour. We are intelligent enough to understand that love exists 'in the heart', that patriotism exists 'in the breast', and so forth. Similarly the God-idea 'exists' in the human intellectual apparatus.
Of course, I have used here a very imperfect analogy. Firstly, it must be noted that it is the 'God-idea' that exists in the human intellectual apparatus and not God; secondly, love and hate, and so forth, are emotions, and as such are created in us and by us, while God is only manifested in our perceptions. But I believe that the analogies we have used do help to make it easier for us to conceptualize the Deity. The most important point, however, is that it is relatively unimportant to define what God really is (and, in any case, as we have already stated, that is impossible): God is to all intents and purposes when manifested in the universe as the macrocosmos and in human behaviour as the microcosmos.
We have already addressed the manifestions of the Deity in the macrocosm (see the comments of Turner, Hoyle and others quoted above). As far as mankind is concerned, seen as the microcosmos, for practical purposes God may be described as that assumption that informs our ethical behaviour.
Some people refrain from wrongdoing for fear of being apprehended by the authorities and brought to justice. In their case the image of the police officer is 'the assumption that informs their behaviour'. Others may do the 'right' thing in order not to lose standing among their associates and dear ones. In their case social standing is 'the assumption that informs their behaviour'. God, however, represents the 'right thing' for its own sake - doing right (or refraining from doing wrong) just because it is right. The rabbis of the midrash were hinting at such an idea when they boldly improvised on that same verse in Isaiah 43:10 that we quoted earlier in this discussion. The original verse reads:
You are My [God's] witnesses.
The rabbinic elaboration [Pesikta de-Rav Kahana 12:6] of this verse reads as follows:
If you are My witnesses, I am God; if you are not My witnesses, I am not, so to speak, God.
Perhaps I can be permitted another very imperfect analogy. Let us imagine a very intelligent gentleman from the 'age of reason' in the eighteenth century, who has suddenly been transported through some miracle of science fiction into our own day and age. He sees in our living room a television and asks what it is. We explain that on the screen he will be able to see and hear people speaking and moving in real time, doing whatever they happen to be doing. He is incredulous. His reason tells him that people cannot be put into a space as small as a TV console. We tell him that we are in earnest, and that he will find that the case is indeed so be by pressing the button and sitting back to watch! His intelligence is now actually working against the proof. He is so suspicious that we get into a lose-lose situation. "First prove to me that it's possible, then I'll press the button". We try to explain that the wonders of modern telecommunications are far too complicated for the layman even to understand himself, let alone to explain to someone else - but that does not prevent us from watching and enjoying TV. But our visitor is adamant: "First prove that it's possible, then I'll press the button". Unfortunately, here the analogy breaks down, for we could convince him simply by turning on the TV. We cannot turn on God for the skeptic because God must be conceived or experienced, and the skeptic is looking (or not looking) for something else.
If God is not physical, and therefore not personal, we are reduced to using terms such as 'force', 'process', or 'power' to describe how we may conceptualize the divine, however stammeringly. But people are liable to be 'turned off' by such terminology - even though there are aspects of our own being, as humans, that may be described in similar terms.
One modern philosopher of Judaism who has grappled with this problem is Mordechai Menaĥem Kaplan [1881-1983]. Kaplan was one of the most influential religious thinkers in modern times. From 1909 and for 50 years (!) Kaplan taught at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York and influenced the thinking of several generations of fledgling rabbis. He conceived of a humanistic Judaism, devoid of the supernatural, a civilization rather than a religion. (It was Kaplan who defined Judaism as being 'an evolving religious civilization'.) When his views became too divergent to reside happily in the Conservative Movement he founded Reconstructionist Judaism. His most important works are Judaism As A Civilization (1934) and The Meaning of God in Modern Jewish Religion (1937).
We bring here some quotations from two of his works: Judaism as a Civilization (1934) and The Religion of Ethical Nationhood (1970). The quotations are unashamedly extensive and editorially arranged, in order to give a clear picture of Kaplan's ideas. The fact that I quote extensively from Kaplan should not be interpreted at all as an indication of my advocation of his philosophy in general. I suspect that deep down in the psyche there is a fundamental difference between his conception of the deity and mine - which I am trying very stammeringly to elucidate here. Perhaps the most salient (and material) difference is that Kaplan intends to present a view of God as is, whereas I repeat here yet again that I believe that Judaism teaches that this is impossible. After presenting Kaplan's ideas I shall try to suggest a synthesis of his view and my own. In the mean time I am utilizing Kaplan's ideas in order to present an avenue towards creating a conceptualization of God that will be meaningful to modern secular man. The quotations that I bring here certainly help, I hope, to clarify some of the ideas.
The approach to reality characteristic of modern thought has rendered the dichotomy of natural and supernatural irrelevant. The tendency nowadays is to enlarge the concept of the natural so that it might include that plus aspect of reality which the traditional outlook did indeed sense but not altogether apprehend. Man has come to understand that the act of contemplating reality in its wholeness does not place him outside reality. He now realizes that the inter-relatedness which is the source of his awareness of godhood operates within him, no less than outside him. There is only one universe within which both man and God exist. The so-called laws of nature represent the manner of God's immanent functioning. The element of creativity, which is not accounted for by the so-called laws of nature, and which points to the organic character of the universe or its life as a whole, gives us a clue to God's transcendent functioning...
God is the life of the universe, immanent insofar as each part acts upon every other, and transcendent insofar as the whole acts upon each part. How shall modern man reconstruct the traditional conception of God? Neither through mysticism nor reason, but through the emotional experience of responsibility can we become aware of His existence...
The cosmic process of universal reciprocity outside the human mind comes to be God only when it is experienced as cosmic interdependence, and, in the human world, as moral responsibility. (Man's) power to distinguish between right and wrong is not instigated by social convention but by some power that transcends it. Moreover, that Power or voice of God inheres in his own person as well as in the cosmos; it is integral to the order of the universe. Conscience is semi-conscious intellectual effort to experience Divinity, without recourse to anthropomorphic terms, rational propositions or mystic ecstasy - provided, of course, it is experienced as a demand for justice, freedom and cooperation.
Insofar as it has direct bearing on man's striving for salvation or self-fulfillment, personality is generally referred to as soul. The soul is the creative plus in human nature, as God is the creative plus of nature as a whole.
It seems to me that Kaplan makes three main points.
Firstly, God may be conceptualized as a force inherent in the universe ('cosmos'), a force whose expression is the 'laws of physics', which represent the immanent functioning of the Deity in the universe. I remember reading once a statement attributed to Albert Einstein; since I have not been able to locate the source I presume that it is aprocryphal. According to this statement, whenever the great physicist had a new understanding of a mechanism that was at work in the cosmos he would say to himself, 'Ah! so that's how God does it!'
While such an attitude admirably reflects the legitimate boundaries of the science of physics, it is not satisfactory from the metaphysical point of view. It is not sufficient merely to explain the mechanisms of the universe. It is not sufficient merely to know that something is or how something is; we also want to know why something is - why it is at all, how did it come to be, why did it come into existence? There seems to be a creative urge at work in the universe.
Let me give an example. Most books on 'origins' explain that life on this planet began through amino acids in the primaeval waters being activated somehow by an electric charge (probably lightening, during an electric storm) - a process which has been duplicated in the laboratory. This attempts to explain how. It says nothing about why. What force is at work in the cosmos that makes things come to be? Indeed, what force is at work that made the cosmos itself come to be? If we accept the view of renowned modern physicists such as Michael Turner we cannot attribute the why to sheer happenstance. We should recall Turner's statement concerning the conditions that prevail in the universe that permit the existence of life:
the precision is as if one could throw a dart across the entire universe and hit a bullseye one millimeter in diameter on the other side.
Now, Kaplan says that the term we use to identify that creative urge that is at work in the universe is God.
I would like to quote, again extensively, from an essay by Arthur Green, Seek My Face, Speak My Name, A Contemporary Jewish Theology, 1991.
We have no essential argument, I believe, with an evolutionary approach. But the way we see the evolutionary process will be somehow different. We will see evolution itself as the greatest of all religious dramas spoken in our time. Life's origins for us is no blind process. It is inconceivable to the religious mind that we are here, that we have reached this stage in human civilization through the development of life by an endless series of accidents and mishaps. Now there are voices within the scientific community that are beginning to say things like this, to describe the origins and evolution of species as manifesting the expression and growth of universal inner force...
This force ... seems to be described as an inherent force that lies within the universe. This force bears within it striving toward greater complexity, a drive toward consciousness, toward ever more varied self expression in the infinite forms of life. The evolutionary process itself is then the halting, complicated, struggling self assertion of such force, a source of existence that is within all life's varied forms...
Here we would have a new evolutionary vision, replacing the endless struggle of individual creatures and species against one another. Such a re-visioned evolution would explain the ongoing emergence of higher and more conscious life forms, as evidence of the cosmic self's struggle for self-expression. The process would be seen as an emerging success rather than only the result of the survival of the fittest. We recognize, in other words, that a new creation story is emerging in our society, in our century. This story begins with the very origin of matter, it begins with black holes and quarks. It goes through the beginnings of plant, animal and human life down to the origins of human civilizations.
The third point that Kaplan makes is that this force that is inherent in the universe may be considered in relation to it in a manner similar to the relation of the soul to man himself. Let us try to elaborate this last idea into more simple terms. We human beings are comprised physically of chemical substances in certain proportions that act together to produce our physical make-up. In the physical sense we are a mere amalgam of chemical substances. Yet, if in laboratory we were to take all the ingredients in just the right proportions and conditions - we would still be unable to make a real human being. Something (that is not hidden somewhere in the DNA) is missing, something that turns our body from a mechanical process into an integrated personality. That something is not physical, but is what links everything else together and makes it tick, that makes us 'us'. It is not our consciousness, it is not our intellect and (pace Kaplan) it is not our personality. It is something else, something more, something like the spark that sets the whole complex alight, the very spark of life, something that is the practical expression of the creative urge that we mentioned above. Traditionally, we call that 'something' soul. Just as there is that extra 'something' in us, so Kaplan perceives the whole physical universe as being integrated by an extra 'something' that makes it cohere and hang together. What we call in human beings 'soul', in the universe Kaplan calls 'God'.
This conceptualization is native to Judaism, not something that Mordechai Kaplan or this present writer are trying to 'foist' onto it; the intention is only to present it in terms consonant with modern knowledge and understanding.
There are two appellatives that have been used by Jewish sources to refer to the Deity from the very beginning: in Hebrew they are the Tetragrammaton, a four-letter-combination that is nowadays pronounced Adonai, and the word Elohim. Adonai is usually translated 'Lord' and Elohim is usually translated 'God'. However, for reasons that hopefully will soon become apparant, these translations are woefully inadequate. (They would be less inadequate, interestingly enough, if Adonai were construed as 'God' and Elohim as 'Lord'.) In the original Hebrew the Tetragrammaton (as the term derived from the Greek suggests) was a combination of four letters whose original pronunciation is now irretrievably lost. The last three letters come from the most ancient form of the Hebrew root which means to be, and the first letter is preformative, indicating tense and gender. The concensus of opinion is that the meaning of the Tetragrammaton is something like He or That which causes to be, brings into existence, injects being. The word Elohim, which is an amplification of the form El, which also occurs regularly in the sources, comes from a Hebrew root meaning power or capability.
One example may suffice.
When Laban, burning with righteous indignation, finally catches up with Jacob, his son-in-law/nephew, he upbraids him for the underhand way in which he has collected his family together and stolen away like a thief in the night. You can read the whole story in Genesis, chapter 31. However, what concerns us here is that in verse 29 Laban threatens Jacob:
It is within my power to do you harm
using the word El in its primal meaning. So when we refer to the Deity as Adonai what we really mean is that the term represents to our minds
the functioning in the universe of the eternally creative process which brings order out of chaos and good out of evil; the power in nature and in the human species that makes for the self-fulfillment (salvation) of men and nations and gives purpose and meaning to their existence; the power that assures man's survival, that impels man ever to transcend himself.
Everyone recalls the exclamation of the seraphim in the vision of God Enthroned as imagined by the prophet Isaiah (6:3); most translations of this famous phrase are inaccurate. What the prophet actually hears in his mind is the angels crying out
Holy! Holy! Holy is the God of Hosts: the plenitude of the earth is His glory!
That is to say, that God's glory does not fill the earth; the earth's plenitude is God's glory. When we refer to God as Elohim what we really mean is that the Deity
represents interdependence, or that moral responsibility which compels man so to control and direct his strivings so to satisfy all his life needs without reversion to strife and war.
The most fundamental statement about a Jew's concept of the Deity is to be found in the verse from the Torah that throughout the ages has served as his creed:
Shema Yisra'el Adonai Elohenu Adonai Eĥad.
He recites this formula twice daily in his worship; it is the first ritual that he teaches his infant child and it is his hope that he will be permitted to recite it as his last ritual before departing life. Rambam insisted that the implications of the Hebrew word eĥad are 'non-physicality'. He would, I think, have rendered the Hebrew phrase in modern English as follows:
Listen, Israel! God is the Ultimate Power; God is non-physical!
(Most modern Jews who believe in God at all, will accept - at least catechismally with their lips - a conceptualization of God as non-physical. Very few, I suspect, realize the full implications of that acceptance'.
God is only 'there' for us, active in history, in our individual and collective lives if we are conscious of God; and that means being aware of what we perceive to be God's requirements of us behaviour-wise. When we ignore God, when God has no place in our lives, or worse, when we replace God with an idol which is a caricature of God, we can descend to the abyss exemplified by the Nazi regime and the holocaust or suicide terrorists whose 'God' requires them to kill and kill and kill innocent bystanders in as large a number as possible to further ends which are purely political.
My own position is an amalgam of the deistic and the theistic approach to the deity. One of the earliest kabbalists was Azriel (or Ezra) ben-Menaĥem (d 1238). It was he, apparently, who first coined the term En Sof to describe the Deity. En Sof means 'infinite', 'limitless', 'endless'. Azriel contends that the Being that is the originator of all things can have no intention, no desire, no thought, no word, no action. That Being is infinite; the negation of all negations; the Endless. He then goes on to elaborate the theory of emanations in order to explain how it is possible that that 'Infinite' brought the very finite and very physical universe into being. That theory of emanations does not concern us here. What does concern us here is that wonderful term coined in order to delineate God 'as is': En Sof. Judaism teaches that we have no means of understanding or describing the reality of God even if we are convinced that we have solid grounds for positing God's existence. Any terms that we might use would be misleading and far from the real truth - for we cannot know the real truth concerning God's nature. God is En Sof: Endless, Unlimited, Boundless, Infinite. We cannot even begin to talk about what God really is. What we try to do is to describe how we imagine God, how we try to condense into some form comprehensible to our finite minds what is otherwise incomprehensible. God is non-physical, 'He' is not personal and is not possessed of personal attributes as humans understand them. We cannot comprehend God as is.
If God is a non-physical entity that is completely beyond our comprehension how can we know that God exists? Something that has no physical existence, but that nevertheless is very real, can often be perceived in the way that people react to its existence. Democracy, patriotism, love, hate, treachery, happiness, distress are not physical entities that can be dissected in the laboratory or whose real existence can be proven 'scientifically'. Yet no one doubts that there is such a thing as love, because it manifests itself.
Surely no one will seriously doubt that 'love' exists. Yet it can neither be seen nor investigated, because it is not a physical entity. We know that love exists because we can see and investigate its manifestations. Love manifests itself in certain chemical reactions in our bodies which create certain emotions; those emotions trigger behaviours which we call love. But what we call love is, in fact, only manifestations of love. Just as love exists 'in the heart', as it were, so the Deity 'exists' in the human intellectual apparatus. Just as love can be appreciated by its manifestations so the unknowable non-physical Deity can be appreciated because of God's manifestations.
How is God manifest?
As we have seen, Mordecai Menaĥem Kaplan described God as 'the power that makes for salvation'. For Kaplan this power is not some supernatural being, but a force or power that is inherent in the universe. 'Salvation' for Kaplan is the realization and actualization by man of his greatest and most noble potentialities. Thus, for Kaplan, God is a power inherent in nature that prompts mankind to actualize man's fullest potential for good. To me it seems that the power of which Kaplan speaks is the manifestation of En Sof. We are aware of the unknowable infinite Deity because that deity can be seen to be manifest in the creative urge that permeates the universe; that is manifest in man himself when he strives ever upward, always seeking the actualization of his greatest and most noble potentialities.
God may be thought of as a non-physical force, as the personification of the universe in its totality imposing upon us its absolute 'thou shalt':
Thou shalt do that which is absolutely and universally right, the right that is not relative but absolute; and you should feel yourself bound to it and by it absolutely.
The universal recognition of this 'thou shalt', this concept of universal justice, of cosmic interdependence, is for me one of the most certain signs that God exists - truly, not just as a concept of human intellectuality. Everyone knows, deep down in their heart of hearts, that certain things are 'wrong'. I am not so certain that we all have an innate sense of what is 'right'. In 1959, the American legalist Professor Edmond Cahn, in a lecture before the New School For Social Research in the USA, was surely right in preferring to assume that what we all have in common is a 'sense of injustice', rather than a sense of justice. Even a humanist so uncompromising in his professed atheism as the English philosopher Bertrand Russell [Notes on Philosophy, April 1960] had to admit this innate sense of injustice and ethics, even though he would rather not have done so:
I cannot see how to refute the arguments for the subjectivity of ethical values, but I find myself incapable of believing that all that is wrong with wanton cruelty is that I don't like it.
If the great thinker had not been so sold on his atheism he might have been able to see in the universal perception of injustice an indication of divinity and its absolute 'thou shalt'. (As regards the purpose of that great and momentous 'thou shalt, let us say at this point in the proceedings only that it concerns our elevation from being mere human animals to our becoming real human beings. We shall return to this question in a later essay.)
Modern man's dilemma is that he is too sophisticated to believe in a personal Deity, but not sophisticated enough to conceptualize effectively a truly non-physical Deity. I well recall the sneering comment made by the first man ever to be launched into space, reporting to ground control that he did not observe anything divine in space. The comment was obviously made to justify the atheistic stance of the then Soviet Union. Major Yuri Gagarin was still thinking of the God that he didn't believe in as
an old man with a long white beard, in long white flowing robes, seated majestically on a great marble throne in the centre of the vastness of heaven, surrounded by winged humanoid figures similarly dressed (but probably beardless) floating around the throne playing harps.
But if Gagarin had conceived of God in terms similar to those suggested by us above, he would have realized that God was right there with him inside his space capsule. There are none so blind as those that will not see! That power inheres in the very creativity in man that enabled the major to be launched into space! That power inheres in the very laws of the physical universe that make science possible.
Acceptance of this conceptualization of the Deity may solve an intellectual problem for many people, but it also creates an aesthetic one. Man today cannot believe in a personal Deity, because his scientific knowledge won't permit this; but he can't worship a cipher either. How can one worship a concept that represents 'the functioning in the universe of the eternally creative process' or 'the power in nature and in the human species that makes for the self-fulfillment of men'? On the other hand, if one is intellectually convinced that the Deity must be conceived as 'the power that assures man's survival, that impels man ever to transcend himself', how can one continue worshipping the Deity in terms that are based almost entirely on personalized conceptualization?
Furthermore, when God is conceived as "the universe in its totality imposing upon us its absolute 'thou shalt'", what relevance will this conceptualization have to the niceties of ritual? At this point I suggest that the solution must lie in the recognition by us that there is a dichotomy between philosophic and intellectual comprehension on the one hand and the use of metaphor and poetry in worship on the other. We shall return to this matter again in our discussion on prayer and worship in general.
To be absolutely honest I do not think that the modern person's real problem vis-à-vis the Deity is a philosophic one at bedrock. How one conceives of the Deity is less important than how one behaves. Indeed, how one worships the Deity is far less important than how one behaves!) The great Talmudic sage, Rav Huna, relates to a verse in the book of Jeremiah, 16:11 and adds his comment [Eikhah Rabbah, Introduction, 2]:
This is virtually the same as what Bernard Shaw was quoted as saying in Part 1, that if you want to know what a man really believes, do not ask him what his creed is - watch what he actually does. I suppose that what I am really saying is that if someone behaves in accordance with the dictates of Jewish tradition he actually believes in God even if he thinks of himself as an atheist! Conversely, if someone does not observe the major requisites of the Jewish tradition he might well be an atheist even if he claims that he believes in God. In both cases, what the 'man believes may be ascertained, not from his creed, but from the assumptions on which he habitually acts'.
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