In memory of Professor Rabbi Moshe Dovid Tendler z.l.
Introducing God is one of the most difficult things to do. It is like presenting a three-dimensional reality on a flat surface. Still, God is the most captivating “figure” in human history with a most unusual track record. His deeds are unprecedented, yet very disturbing. He is to be loved, but often His “behavior” can be highly disturbing. He is above all human limitations, and yet becomes angry and outright emotional. He is beyond criticism but is judged by the strictest criteria of justice.
Religious individuals and thinkers believe that He is the only One who really knows what He is doing and “has his act together.”
Others, however, are convinced that God is absent-minded, allows things to get out of hand and causes unnecessary pain to some of His creatures.
Nobody has ever been the cause of so much controversy, shuddering silence and admiration. And no one is so conspicuous while using an ingenious hideout called the universe. While He is the great mystery in the human beings’ lives, some maintain a relationship with Him as if He is their best friend, one with whom they can 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 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 this reality is all about. For Benedictus Spinoza (1632-1677), the Dutch philosopher and Jewish apostate, and other pantheistic thinkers, God 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; He is permanently pervading the universe but not transcendent— He is a Divine spirit that has little practical meaning in a human being’s day-to-day life.
This is not the case for Judaism and other monotheistic religions. For the Jewish tradition, God is not an idea or just a blind force, but the “Ribbono Shel Olam,” the Master of the Universe, who, aside from being immanent is also transcendent, surpassing the universe that is His creation. He has the disturbing habit of being everywhere and anywhere, and He is known to interfere with anything and everything. He is a Living God, a dynamic power in the life and history of the human being Who moves things around when He sees fit and “smiles” at or gets “annoyed” with His creatures when they have blundered yet again. But, most importantly, while He does not fit into any category, He has, for the lack of a better word, a “personality” and His own “consciousness.” God’s 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, the Divine has no moral input, nothing could be further from the Jewish concept of God. For Judaism, God is the source par excellence of all moral criteria. And yet, on occasion He Himself seems to violate these very moral criteria — such as in the case when He causes a devastating flood in the days of Noah.
According to pantheism and the like, 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 the human being cannot have any purpose either. He, like the universe, simply “is”; hence, moral behavior may have some utilitarian purpose but no ultimate purpose. For pantheism, a moral existence is not the human being’s goal but rather a means for his survival. Would moral behavior no longer be needed as a means for the human to survive, it could be dispensed with.
On another level, the pantheistic worldview sees the universe as an illusion — an unreal, shifting flux of sensory deception. As such, it needs to be escaped. Created from a purely Divine substance, it could not accommodate any physical reality and, therefore, could not have any real meaning. Neither can the human being. Once his physical existence is branded as an illusion, he can no longer exist as a creature of flesh and blood. The human being’s deeds, too, lack any real value. Since it is the body that gives one the opportunity to act, and the human being’s body is seen as part of the deception, it must follow that all of his or her behavior belongs to the world of illusion as well.
It is this view that Judaism protests. God is a conscious Being Who created the world with a purpose. And this world is real and by no means a mirage. The human being’s deeds are of great value, far from an illusion; they are the very goal of creation. Judaism objects to the pantheistic view of the human being since it depersonalizes him, ultimately leading to his demoralization. If a human being is part of an illusion, so are his/her feelings. Why, then, be concerned with the emotional and physical welfare of one’s fellow?
Paradoxically, this pantheism infiltrated western culture through the back door. When we are told by certain modern philosophers that the human being is only physical and the body a scientific mechanism in which emotions are just a chemical inconvenience, we are confronted with a kind of pantheism turned on its head. While pantheism denies the physical side of existence, this so-called “scientific” approach rejects the spiritual dimension of the human being.
Judaism, on the other hand, declares that it is emotions that make the human being into a real living being and that they are real and of crucial importance. In fact, emotions are central to his or her existence, since they are the foundation of moral behavior. While pantheism teaches that moral criteria belong to the veil of illusion, Judaism declares them to be critical.
It is for this reason that Judaism views God as an “emotional” Being. By assigning God, metaphorically speaking, “emotions,” these emotions are raised to a supreme state. If God experiences emotions such as love, mercy, jealousy, and anger, then they must be real and significant, 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 at its highest level and guarantee it would not be tampered with. For the sake of the human being, even God is prepared to compromise His wholly Otherness, albeit not to the point that He would be presented as a human being.
It was the great philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) who pointed to the inherent danger in western society in which God became a makeshift. While the vast majority of mankind in the western world 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 states: “I believe in God, so what?” In such a way the most radical encounter which the human being could ever have with the Master of the Universe has been minimized to a senseless blur of charlatanry. To this Judaism protests: “God is of no importance unless He is of Supreme importance. ” (A.J. Heschel).