The truly great need no synthesis. They absorb whatever experience offers them. Their intensely creative personalities act like a fiery furnace, melting away contradictions. What emerges is either a harmonious whole or a creative parallelism with parts that mutually fructify and supplement each other. The truly great do not need to trim edges, as it were, to make genuine experiences fit with each other. They preserve them intact. And if their experiences appear contradictory, they build an emotional bridge spanning them allowing both the landscape and the water to be seen. Lesser mortals resort to logical means of harmonization. - David Weiss Halivni (1)
“God is a circle whose center is everywhere and circumference nowhere” (2). Indeed, to describe God is like trying to present something that is more than a three-dimensional reality on a flat surface. People say that God exists, but if there is nothing more to Him than simply existing, we would have to deny His being God. And even to argue that He is more than just existing is a serious understatement.
His Being is totally different from anything else, and even the word Being evaporates into a philosophical impossibility. All we can say is that His essence cannot be expressed but that He definitely can be addressed. For if we were able to grasp Him, that would be a defect in Him, said Yehudah Halevi (3). As a sage once remarked, upon being asked to describe God’s essence, “If I knew Him, I would be He” (4).
All God-talk is impossible. “To say too much, without qualification, is to fall into the trap of gross anthropomorphism. To say too little is to court the opposite risk of having so many reservations that the whole concept [of God] suffers, in Anthony Flew’s pungent phrase, ‘the death of a thousand qualifications’” (5).
Jewish tradition forbids the pronunciation of the four-letter name of God. This name, rooted in the Hebrew word for “being,” consists of the Hebrew letters: Yud, Heh, Vav and Heh. According to the Sages of Israel, the name reflects the different dimensions of “being” related to time: past, present and future. As such, God figures as the One Who lives in these three dimensions simultaneously, making them one and the same, which means that He is beyond all of them. The notion of time, then, becomes empty of all meaning (6).
Since this name of God expresses the idea of otherness, Judaism does not allow this name to be uttered. Man, after all, lives in time, a kind of broken eternity. If he were to pronounce the four-letter name, it would give the impression that he actually grasps the unfathomable concept called God. That would be an untruth, and Jewish law forbids lying.
The great Kabbalist Rabbi Moshe Cordovero (1522-1570) elaborates on this:
When your mind conceives of God, do not permit yourself to imagine that there is really a God as depicted by you, for if you do this, you will have a finite corporeal conception, God forbid. Instead, your mind should openly dwell on the affirmation of God’s existence and then it should recoil. To do more than that is to allow the imagination to reflect upon God as He is Himself, and such a reflection is bound to result in imaginative limitations and corporeality. Therefore one should put reins on one’s intellect and not allow it great freedom, but assert God’s existence and deny the possibility of comprehending Him. The mind should run to and fro – running to affirm God’s existence and recoiling from any limitations, since man’s imagination pursues his intellect (7).
And herein lies the great paradox. Is God really perfect as we always maintain? God Himself tells Moshe Eheyeh asher eheyeh – I will be what I will be. Not “I am what I am” as the Septuagint mistranslates. But how can that be? It means that He is not yet what He should be and that He never will be. Apparently He is incomplete, because He seems capable of changing and moving toward perfection, but He will never be able to actually reach perfection. God is trapped in a contradiction. So, is God a verb? Always “godding”? Always imprisoned in a becoming mode? What then is God? An unending trial to be God?
When looking in the Torah, we see no indication that God “is,” or that He is perfect. Instead, He is always on the move. He changes His mind, regrets what He did, gets annoyed, and does things that are downright disturbing, and often irritating. That is far from being perfect.
Indeed, what does “perfect” mean? Perfect by what definition? Something can be perfect only within its own category. A bottle can be perfect as long as it is a bottle (9). That is its limitation. It can’t be a motorcycle. When it is made so large that it loses the measurements of a bottle, and you can no longer use it as such, it is not imperfect; it has simply ceased to be a bottle. In terms of absolute perfection, God cannot be perfect, because He must include the possibility of change. If He can’t change, He can’t be perfect. But if He is able to change, how then can He be perfect? Moreover, can God put an end to His existence? And If He can’t, how perfect is He?
This is exactly what God tells Moshe: You cannot see My face, only My back (9). I am a contradiction that is unsolvable. What you see of Me is only a shadow of what I should be but never will be. You can only see Me in human terms. Spinoza is correct when he writes, “I believe that if a triangle could speak, it would say, in like manner, that God is eminently triangular, while a circle would say that the divine nature is eminently circular. Thus each would ascribe to God its own attributes, would assume itself to be like God and look on everything else as ill-shaped” (10).
But is God not a Being “than which no greater can be conceived,” as Saint Anselm of Canterbury 1033-1109) taught us (11)? Isn’t He the perfection of all perfections?
So why does God appear in the Torah with human attributes, which are not applicable as far as His absolute perfection is concerned?
God appears to experience all the human emotions: love; anger; involvement; indignation; regret; sadness; and so on. By so doing, He gives the seal of divinity to the very essence of our humanity. He implicitly says to man: “You cannot know what is above and what is below, but you can know what is in your hearts and in the world. These feelings and reactions and emotions that make up human existence are, if illumined by faith and rationality, all the divinity you can hope for. To be humane is to be divine: as I am holy, so you shall be holy; as I am merciful, so you shall be merciful.” Thus, there is only one kind of knowledge that is open to man, the knowledge of God’s humanity (12).
All of this forces us to radically rethink the concept of God.
Consider the relationship between a computer’s chip and hard disk (the inside), on the one hand, and what you see on the screen when you view the computer… What you see on the screen is the result of what is inscribed in the inside. Change the contents in the inside and you will see something different showing on the screen. What is inscribed in the inside is nothing like what you get on the screen. Inscribed in the inside are no colors or shapes of the picture on the screen…. You can peer into the inside through the most powerful microscope and you will see no pictures of people or words. [Still] the computer has a translation mechanism from inside to the screen…. In God there is nothing like what you get on the world screen. If we knew God as God is, we would not see what we see when we see God on the world screen (13).
So, in God there is nothing that justifies the word “exist.” When we say that He exists, we mean that there is something in God that is projected on the world screen as God’s existence, but in God there is no such thing. When we say that God changes His mind, regrets what He has done, or gets angry, it only means that on the world screen something in God (the hard disk) has been translated to state that God is changing His mind, regretting His earlier decisions, or getting angry. For God to be meaningful to man, He must appear on the screen in ways through which man can identify with Him—“In the image of God He created him” (15). But God on the hard disk, in His essence, is something totally different about which we mortals have no clue (16).
This analogy is far from perfect, but it gives us a better picture of what we are discussing when we contemplate God.
The idea that God is perfect, beyond time and space, while simultaneously entering this world and possessing emotions is as paradoxical as relativity, quantum physics, black holes, Higgs bosons and other counterintuitive phenomena. They are inexplicable but as real as they can be while lacking the character of “conventional” existence.
So, does God exist? God forbid! And precisely for that reason we should pray to Him and observe His commandments. Were He to exist, our prayers would be meaningless and our adherence to the mitzvot idol worship.
(1) Rabbi Professor David Weiss Halivini, “Professor Saul Lieberman z.l.,” Conservative Judaism, vol. 38 (Spring 1986) pp. 6-7. (Prof. Halivni taught Talmud and Classical Rabbinics in the Department of Religion at Columbia University until 2005. He now lives in Israel and teaches at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Bar Ilan University. He is one of the greatest Talmudic scholars of our time.)
(2) Voltaire: It is a pity that God allowed this profound statement to come from the mouth of a person who was an arch anti-Semite.
(3) Kuzari, 5,21.
(4) Joseph Albo, Sefer ha-Ikkarim 2, 30.
(5) Louis Jacobs, “God,” Contemporary Jewish Religious Thought, ed. Arthur A. Cohen and Paul Mendes-Flohr (New York: C. Scribner’s Sons, 1987) pp. 291-8.
(6) See the remarkable narrative in the Talmud, Yoma 38b, where Ben Kamtzar wrote the four-letter Name in one go, by taking four pens between his fingers. For the Rogatchover Gaon’s unusual interpretation of this narrative, see “The Gaon of Rogatchov: A study in Abstraction” by Dovber Schwartz, Hakirah, The Flatbush Journal of Jewish Law and Thought, vol. 15 (Summer 2013) pp. 245–270.
(7) Elima Rabati 1:10,4b.
(8) See Yoram Hazony, Jerusalem Letters, no. 21, November 26, 2012.
(9) Shemot 33:23.
(10) Benedictus de Spinoza, The Letters, tr. by Samuel Shirley (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1995), “Letter to Hugo Boxel, 1674.
(11) Proslogion (1077–1078), ch. 2. This is the famous ontological argument.
(12) Dr. Yochanan Muffs, “God and the World: A Jewish View,” in his book The Personhood of God: Biblical Theology, Human Faith and the Divine Image (Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights Publishing, 2009) p. 177.
(13) Jerome (Yehudah) Gellman, God’s Kindness Has Overwhelmed Us: A Contemporary Doctrine of the Jews as the Chosen People (Boston: Academic Press, 2013) pp 20-21.
This remarkable book is required reading
(14) Bereshit 1:27.
(15) Hopefully one day I will explain why this is also true when God speaks, or gives the Torah at Mount Sinai. God does this only on the world screen, but in God there is no such thing.