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Jewish World Review
August 17, 2007
/ 3 Elul, 5767
Introduction to the Divine
Rabbi Nathan Lopes Cardozo
Introducing G-d is one of the most difficult things to do. It is like presenting a three-dimensional reality on a flat surface. Still G-d is the most captivating figure in human history and His track record is most unusual. His deeds are unprecedented, yet very disturbing. He is to be loved but often irritates. He is above all human limitation but He gets angry and outright emotional. He is beyond criticism but is judged by the strictest criteria of justice. Religious people and thinkers believe that He is the only One who really has it all together and knows what He is doing.
But, others are convinced that He is absent-minded, lets things 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 man's life, some human beings have 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 G-d?
The first thing to realize is that the term G-d is used arbitrarily. It often stands for completely opposing entities used by religious and quasi-religious ideologies. All of them agree that "G-d" affirms some Absolute Reality as the Ultimate. But, they fundamentally disagree as to what that reality is all about. For Benedictus Spinoza, the Dutch philosopher and Jewish apostate, and other pantheistic thinkers, He is really an "It," a primal, impersonal force, identical with all nature some ineffable, immutable, impassive, Divine substance that pervades the universe or is the universe. G-d is only immanent; He is permanently pervading the universe but not transcendent, a Divine spirit which has little practical meaning in man's day-to-day life.
This is not so for Judaism and other monotheistic religions. For the Jewish tradition, G-d is not an idea or just a blind force but the Ribono shel Olam, the Master of the Universe, Who, besides being immanent is also transcendent, surpassing the universe which 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 G-d who is a dynamic power in the life and history of man, moving things around when He sees fit and smiling or getting 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, "personality" and His own consciousness. His essence cannot be expressed, but He can definitely be addressed.
This radical difference in the conception of G-d makes for an equally profound divergence in attitudes about all 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 G-d. For in Judaism, He is the source "par excellence" of all moral criteria. 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 man cannot have any purpose either. He, like the universe, just "is" and, so, moral behavior may have some utilitarian purpose but no ultimate one. For pantheism it is not the goal of man to be moral but just a means to his survival. Would moral behavior no longer be needed as a means for man to survive, it could be dispensed with.
On a deeper level, the pantheistic world view sees the universe as an illusion an unreal, shifting flux of sensory deception. As such, it needs to be escaped. Made from a purely Divine substance, it could not accommodate any physical reality and, therefore, could not have any real meaning. Neither could 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 real value. Since it is the body, which gives man the opportunity to act, and man's body is seen as part of the deception, it must follow that all man's behavior belongs to the world of illusion as well. It is this view that Judaism protests. G-d is a conscious Being who created the world with a purpose. And 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 since it depersonalizes him, which must finally lead to his demoralization. If man is part of an illusion, so are his feelings. So why 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 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 man. In both cases, emotions are seen as part of an illusion, and, therefore, they are to be ignored.
Judaism, on the other hand, declares that it is emotions that make man into man and that they are of crucial importance and real. 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 declares them to be crucial. It is for that reason that Judaism views G-d as an emotional Being. By giving G-d, metaphorically speaking, emotions, these emotions are raised to a supreme state. If G-d has emotions such as love, mercy, jealousy and anger, then they must be real and serious and not to be ignored when found in man. While some philosophers considered such anthropomorphism as scandalous, the Jewish tradition took the risk of granting G-d emotions so as to uphold morality on its highest level and guarantee it would not be tampered with. For the sake of man even G-d is prepared to compromise His wholly 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 G-d became a makeshift. While the vast majority of mankind in the Western Hemisphere declares that it believes in G-d, this majority seems to add two more words to its declaration of faith. Instead of saying: "I believe in G-d" it states: "I believe in G-d, so what?" In such a way the most radical encounter which man could ever have with the Master of the Universe has been minimized to a senseless blur of charlatanry. To this Judaism protests. G-d is of no importance unless He is of Supreme importance.
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JWR contributor Rabbi Nathan Lopes Cardozo is a world-renowned lecturer and ambassador for Judaism, the Jewish people, the State of Israel and Sephardic Heritage. Comment by clicking here.
© 2007, Rabbi Nathan Lopes Cardozo