What kind of God do you want to believe in?

by Brian on June 20, 2017

in Jewish Holidays and Culture,Reviews

“It’s just an accident that we happen to be on earth, enjoying our silly little moments, distracting ourselves as often as possible so we don’t have to really face up to the fact that, you know, we’re just temporary people with a very short time in a universe that will eventually be completely gone. And everything you value, whether it’s Shakespeare, Beethoven, da Vinci or whatever, will be gone” – Woody Allen.

“Well it may be the devil or it may be the Lord, but you’re gonna have to serve somebody” – Bob Dylan.

Those two quotes helped frame what was for me an eye-opening Shavuot night lecture. Delivered by Dr. Elliot Malamet, co-founder of the Torah in Motion organization, the talk had the provocative title, “What We Talk About When We Talk About God.”

Malamet presented two competing concepts of the divine – a binary distinction that comes with a real-world twist. The first is the “transcendent” consideration of God, represented by the Woody Allen quote, where there is no connection whatsoever between God and humanity.

The transcendent God, says Malamet, does not interact with our world, does not listen to or answer prayers, does not create or destroy. As a result, a transcendent God cannot want anything of us, nor can we claim to know what God desires. It may not be an accident that we’re here, as Allen says, but if there is a meaning to our everyday earthly activities, it’s not coming from God.

The second concept is a God of “immanence,” one where human beings do have a personal relationship with a God who is involved in our daily affairs, rewarding good and punishing evil. An immanent God enables religious life to happen, with all of the rituals that come with it. To paraphrase Dylan, it’s a lot harder to “serve” a transcendent God who can’t tell you why (or even if) you should keep kosher.

Both conceptions have support in Jewish philosophy, but I was surprised by some of the big-name support for a transcendent God.

No less a scholar than Maimonides wrote in the 12th century, “There is no relation in any respect between Him and any of His creatures.” It’s like comparing “distance” and “smell.” There is no overlap “between 100 cubits and the heat which is in pepper,” Maimonides continues in his Guide for the Perplexed. Any statement attributed to God by a human being “has merely been invented by his imagination.”

Professor Yeshayahu Leibowitz picks up on Maimonides and intensifies it.

“Our source of information is science,” Leibowitz, the biochemist and iconoclastic religious thinker, wrote in Judaism, Human Values and the Jewish State in 1992. “To the extent that we possess any real knowledge, it is by way of scientific cognition…God did not reveal Himself, neither in nature, nor in history. [Faith] is an evaluative decision [that] does not result from any information one has acquired.”

Even Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the first chief rabbi of mandatory Palestine, has written in support of transcendence. “In relation to the highest truth, there is no difference between formulated religion and heresy. Both do not yield the truth.”

To be sure, the sources Malamet picked were not exhaustive of every direction expressed through thousands of years of Jewish thought. (The Bible exudes a very hands-on perception of God, he pointed out.) But I found myself – like Malamet – trending towards the transcendent.

The next day, at Shavuot lunch, I asked our guests which conception of God they most related to. There was silence at first, but then tentatively, one after another responded “transcendent.”

And that’s the twist – this way of thinking creates a paradox for those observant Jews who believe in their hearts in a transcendent God but still want an immanent kind of relationship. They want to believe that the reason they keep Shabbat is because God said so; that when they take three steps forward in prayer, there’s someone on the other side. Why should they follow religious rules if they’re simply “invented by the imagination,” as Maimonides says?

Leibowitz has an answer: “Performance of the mitzvot is man’s path to God,” he writes, even though it’s “an infinite path, the end of which is never attained and is, in effect, unattainable.”

Maimonides argues similarly – that you can move closer to a transcendent God, even if you can never quite get there. But it’s brains over halacha for the Rambam. “Providence is proportional to the endowment of the intellect,” he writes in The Guide.

I asked Malamet, who is observant, how he squares his own circle.

“Although enormous swaths of Judaism are humanly constructed,” he told me, “I do believe in a minimal metaphysical encounter between God and humans, with human beings then given great leeway to define and redefine the divine will.”

When confronted with the question of meaning, Woody Allen quipped that “the best you can do to get through life is distraction.”

Faith is another response, Malamet says. “Just because it is not empirical or material, does not make it invalid.”

Ultimately, he adds, “one makes one’s way through life with far less than full information. I think religion can be a very good force in the world, but because I do not think God is provable, I am a fierce proponent of freedom for all. All modern acts are voluntary. We need to reconstruct the conversation we have about religion keeping that in mind.”

I first wrote about transcendent and immanent conceptions of God at The Jerusalem Post.

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