Introducing God is one of the most difficult things to do. It is like presenting a three-dimensional reality on a flat surface. God is the most captivating figure in human history with a very unusual track record. His deeds are unprecedented but often very disturbing. He is to be loved yet often irritates. He is above all human limitations but gets angry and outright emotional. Though beyond criticism, He is judged by the strictest criteria of justice. Religious people believe that He is the only One who really has it all together and knows what He is doing.
Others, however, are convinced that He is absent-minded, allows things to get out of hand and causes unnecessary pain to many of His creations. Nobody has ever been the subject of so much controversy or the object of such admiration. And no one is so conspicuous while using an ingenious hideout called the universe. God is the great mystery in man’s life, yet some human beings have a relationship with Him like that of a best friend, one with whom they converse and to whom they can complain. He is the personal psychologist of millions of people but is ultimately blamed for anything that goes wrong. Who is this strange figure called God?
The first thing to realize is that the term God is used arbitrarily. It often stands for completely opposing entities used by people of religious and quasi-religious ideologies. All of them agree that “God” affirms some Absolute Reality as the Ultimate. But they fundamentally disagree as to what that reality is all about. For Dutch philosopher and Jewish apostate Benedictus Spinoza, and for other pantheistic thinkers, He is really an It: a primal, impersonal force, identical with all of nature; some ineffable, immutable, impassive Divine substance that pervades the universe, or is the universe. God is only immanent, not transcendent; a Divine spirit that has little practical meaning in man’s day-to-day life.
This is not the case for Judaism and other monotheistic religions. In the Jewish tradition God is not just an idea or blind force. God is the Ribono shel Olam, Master of the Universe, immanent but also transcendent, surpassing the universe which is His creation. He has the disturbing habit of being everywhere and anywhere and is known to interfere with anything and everything. He is a living God, a dynamic power in the life and history of man; moving things around when He sees fit; smiling at his creatures when they please Him, getting annoyed when they have blundered yet again. But most importantly, while He does not fit into any category, He has “personality” and His own consciousness. His essence cannot be expressed, but He can definitely be addressed.
This radical difference in the conception of God makes for an equally profound divergence in attitudes about all of life and the universe. While in pantheistic and other non-monotheistic philosophies He has no moral input, nothing could be further from the Jewish concept of God. In Judaism He is the source par excellence of all moral criteria, although He seems to violate some of these very criteria, such as in the case of earthquakes and tsunamis.
According to pantheism, the world is eternal, without a beginning. As such, it does not have a purpose since purpose is the conscious motivation of a creator to bring something into existence. It therefore follows that in the pantheistic view man, too, has no purpose. He, like the universe, just is, so moral behavior may have a utilitarian purpose but no ultimate one. For pantheism it is not the goal of man to be moral; it is just a means to his survival. Would moral behavior no longer be needed, it could be dispensed with.
On a deeper level, pantheism views the universe as an illusion – an unreal, shifting flux of sensory deception that needs to be escaped. Made from a purely Divine substance, it cannot accommodate any physical reality and therefore can have no real meaning. Neither, then, can man. Once his physical existence is branded as an illusion, he can no longer exist as a man of flesh and blood, nor are his deeds of any ultimate value. Since it is the body that gives man the opportunity to act and man’s body is seen as part of the deception, it must follow that all of man’s behavior belongs to the world of illusion as well. It is this view that Judaism rejects. God is a conscious Being who created the world with a purpose. This world is real and by no means a mirage. Man’s deeds are of great value, far from an illusion; they are the very goal of creation. Judaism objects to the pantheistic view of man because it depersonalizes him, which ultimately leads to his demoralization. If man is part of an illusion, so are his feelings. Why, then, be concerned with a fellow man’s emotional and physical welfare?
Paradoxically, this pantheism infiltrated Western culture via the back door. When we are told by certain modern philosophers that man is only physical and his body a scientific mechanism in which emotions are just a chemical inconvenience, we are confronted with pantheism turned on its head. While pantheism denies the physical side of existence, this so-called scientific approach rejects the spiritual dimension of man. In both cases, emotions are seen as part of an illusion and are therefore to be ignored.
Judaism, on the other hand, declares that it is emotions that define man; they are real and of crucial importance. In fact, emotions are central to man’s existence, since they are the foundation of moral behavior. While pantheism teaches that moral criteria belong to the veil of illusion, Judaism says they are basic and essential. It is for this reason that Judaism views God as an emotional Being. When God is seen, metaphorically, as possessing emotions, these emotions are raised to a supreme state. If God has feelings such as love, mercy, jealousy and anger, then they must be real and serious and are not to be ignored when found in man. While some philosophers considered such anthropomorphism as scandalous, the Jewish tradition took the risk of granting God emotions so as to uphold morality on its highest level and guarantee that it would not be tampered with. For the sake of man, even God is prepared to compromise His total Otherness, albeit not to the point that He would be projected as a human being.
It was the great philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein who pointed to the inherent danger in Western society in which God became a makeshift. While the vast majority of mankind in the Western Hemisphere declares that it believes in God, this majority seems to add two words to its declaration of faith. Instead of saying, “I believe in God,” it says, “I believe in God; so what?” In this manner, the most radical encounter man could ever have with the Master of the Universe has been reduced to a senseless blur of charlatanry. Against this Judaism protests.
“God is of no importance unless He is of Supreme importance.” (Abraham Joshua Heschel)