One of the major problems most thinking people have with the idea of God, is the way God is portrayed. He is a big Daddy in the sky, sitting on a golden throne amongst thick clouds surrounded by white gowned angels with oversized birds' wings. Once a year He takes out a huge tome and then, with a quill starts writing in the names of all the good people who He determines are going to have a good year. What do we really have to think about God?
The Bible could well be described as a book that is God intoxicated. But there is hardly any actual description. God is the hero, the beginning and the end. God is engaged with, argues with human beings. He is exalted and accepted. To us, moderns, it seems strange that nowhere does the Bible call upon us in specific words to believe or indeed tell us exactly what God is. And yet there is a very definite assumption that without God there would be nothing. God himself, or itself, uses different words to describe Himself and uses riddles in Self Description. What can we distill from the Torah?
"In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth." The word there used for God is "Elohim", a word that is elsewhere used to describe human judges as well as other gods in the idolatrous world. Other words used to describe God are "Adonai" ( My Master), "El" ( The God Above ), "El Elyon" ( The God above all others ), "El Shaddai" ( God of the spirits ) "Yah" and the full "YHVH", sometimes, erroneously, transliterated as "Yahweh". Various attempts have been made to systematize and explain the different usages. Wellhausen, the founder of so called "Higher Biblical Criticism" and the JEPD scheme of describing different editors of different parts of the Torah, thought that the different authors of the texts used different names for God and that this could identify them. But since different names often occur in the same sentence this does not work unless you set about a wholesale re-editing of the text which in itself is like the myth of trying to cut off the legs of a human being so that the body can fit onto the bed. Umberto Cassutto is excellent in demolishing Wellhausen but no quite so good in answering the questions that remain. He suggests that YHVH is used specifically in spiritual terms where a special engaged relationship between man and God is being described. There are many other theories offered. A popular one is that "Adonai" or "YHVH" is used in relation specifically to Israel, the Jewish People, whereas the word "Elohim" and its associate words are used to describe the more universal relationship of God to the world in general. A beautiful idea but one that does not work in every case. No theory really satisfies. We are left with the conclusion that God has many names, many facets and that a person sees God according to his or her own level of experience and intellect.
If we use the Torah as the basis for trying to understand what God is, we find two types of statements. Some statements describing God are really descriptions of His "qualities" as manifested to humans. So Moses' thirteen attributes of God , thirteen qualities he appeals to in asking God to forgive the Children Of Israel for the Golden Calf, cannot be taken as either Self Description or a formula for describing God objectively, otherwise God would have used them Himself when Moses asked for a description at the burning bush. And similarly the famous "Shema Yisrael"-"Hear Israel, YHVH is our God, YHVH is One," is Moses instructing the nation and providing it with an encapsulating formula, a sort of slogan. To say that God is "one" can mean that there is not more than one. Or, as the philosophers wanted to have it, it means that "God is perfect unity." Yet Maimonides, for example, asserts that one cannot give a positive description of what God is. As God says to Moses, "No man can see me and live."' So we have to try to create a picture in our minds that will help us towards understanding what we are talking about when we use the word "God". The primary source, of course, is the Torah itself.
God tells us about His actions. We see Him creating and instructing mankind and then, in a way, standing back and watching them destroy themselves. The Torah shows us a process of spiritual evolution that reaches to Abraham, the founding father of the tradition. We see how from the start mankind tried to find different ways of relating to God and God to mankind. Adam receives instructions. He disobeys. He is questioned by God and is simply punished. There is no dialogue. Cain tries to reach God through sacrifice. He fails, yet here at least God engages him and gives him words of support and encouragement. Abel's sacrifice is accepted but there is no communication. Various characters progress or regress through the early chapters of Genesis. Enosh calls in the name of God. Enoch walks with God and disappears. Humanity acts corruptly and God decides to destroy it. Noah and his family are saved. And yet there is nothing written about the nature of his relationship with God other than he was a god man in his generation and he walked with God. Before the flood God speaks to Noah, but only to instruct him. During the flood there is no dialog at all. And indeed, after the flood, God speaks to Himself (to His heart) rather than discuss anything with Noah. Noah, like Adam, is given instructions. He is a tool. It is not until Abraham that we find engagement with God.
His relationship is the example we are asked to idealize. Closeness to God influences and improves his closeness to mankind. He is able to argue the case as with the destruction of Sodom and yet he is unwilling to challenge God over the near sacrifice of his son. God introduces Himself to him, saying that He is the God who has taken him out of Ur of the Chaldees. Is this the first contact Abram has with God? Or is it simply the first statement of commitment? The Midrash has a tradition that Avram recognized God as a child and destroyed his father's idols but there is nothing of this said in the Torah. All we have is God appearing to Avram and He makes certain promises and predictions. But there is no self description or indeed command to believe. Yet there is the phrase that is usually translated to the effect that "Abraham believed in God and it was (He thought or considered it to be) a 'good thing'." In fact, if one looks carefully at the context, it really should translate, "And Abraham accepted what God had just told him and God was satisfied with him." Either way, there is still no description of God.
It is not until Moses, at the burning bush asks God to describe Himself, to help persuade the Hebrew slaves that salvation is at hand, that God obliges with a definition. "And God said to Moses, 'I will Be What I Am', and He said, 'Speak to the Children of Israel and tell them that 'I Will Be' has sent me to you." On first reading this sounds like a riddle. It is almost as though Moses is being palmed off with no answer. A sort of "mind your own business". But the Hebrew gives a clue. The Hebrew is EHYEH ASHER EHYEH which literally means "I will be what I will be", except that the future and the past are interchangeable and "I will be" could equally be "I was". In other words God is unlike anything material which is subject to change. A non-physical force can make guarantees of continuity that a physical power cannot. The Hebrew letters YHVH are the same letters that are used in the Hebrew words for Past, Present and Future. Given the times, this looks a brilliantly simple way of God describing Himself in a non physical way. But this first description is in response to a doubt. It is a reaction. Ideally one would not need to ask God for a description. God only gives one in response to Moses. Moses has to go back and face the Children of Israel. He needs something to say that will persuade them. Of course how this description of God will have been received by the slaves is a different issue, and we can see that despite Moses' assurances and God's miracles, there was plenty of room left for large numbers to question the nature of both Moses and God. Is this why God also presented Moses with a range of wonders, the burning bush, the staff that became a snake, the hand that became leprous and was cured, some of which the Egyptian magicians were able replicate ? God is indeed a wonder beyond the capacity of many to grasp. This is why we are sometimes presented with hints and images which on the one hand obscure the reality behind them and give excuses for doubt. On the other hand, only via these "miracles" can some people be brought closer to an understanding of the infinite power that is God. Something above and beyond humans, either needs to be shrunk for them to comprehend or it needs to be presented through its impact rather than its reality.
It is in response to one of these periods of national doubt that God admits that "(When) I appeared to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob it was as El Shaddai and I did not make known to them My Name YHVH." We may deduce from this that understanding God on one level is not enough. God manifests Himself on different levels to different people and one needs lots of names and lots of definitions to come close to understanding the wondrous complexity of YHVH. Which is one of the reasons that Maimonides, in his "Guide to the Perplexed", keeps on emphasizing that one cannot say what God is, only what He is not.
This is why normally, in my discussions about God, I prefer to use the word Makom, a rabbinic usage, for God, because it avoids both the history of the misuse of Gods name and the cultural particularism of a male, overlord. "Makom" is used in the Mishna primarily in the context of God's relationship and interaction with people. The Mishna describes God in the context of protectively passing over the homes of the Children of Israel as "Makom". Choni HaMeagel, the miraculous rainmaker who stood in his circle and would not move until rain came down, he treated God as a friend, much to the disgust of Shimon Ben Shetach, and there the Mishna also speaks of God as "Makom". Job is described as a fearer of "Makom", and the use of Makom in Pirkei Avot is primarily in the context of the link between those whom God loves and those who establish good relations with other humans.
The explanation for calling God "Makom" is in the Midrash: "The Holy One Blessed is the dwelling place of world but the world is not the dwelling place of Makom." And in the Pesikta Rabtai: "God is the Makom (place) of the world but the world is not the Makom (place) of God." The clear implication is that God transcends the material world. Unlike the Pantheist who says that God is the world and no more, this stresses that God is the world but also much more and beyond. And unlike the Deist who says that God is beyond but not here, Makom asserts the presence of God here. This very down-to-earth word, "Makom", place, gives a certain immediacy and intimacy. This why we comfort mourners with the phrase, "May HaMakom comfort you." It is why Makom recurs so much in the Pesach Haggadah. Now, how one intellectualizes this notion is very subjective. And precisely because it is so complex, the Torah nowhere commands us to believe, to accept a specific formula that defines God and requires our acceptance.
This is behind the beautiful explanation of why the Amidah prayer, the central piece of traditional prayer, said at least three times daily, starts off, "The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob." The phrase is unnecessarily repetitive and could have simply been, "The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob." It is also strange that the word for God is "Elohei" which literally means "The Gods of". Leaving aside the poetic rhythm of the beat of the repetition, there is a message here. The Midrash describes each one of the fathers as having a different character and being defined by a different adjective. Each one saw God through his own experience and character and so each one had a subjective, perhaps a different, concept or understanding of God. By thinking of this at the start of "prayer", we are invited to discover our own route to God.
The first of the Ten Commandments says, "I Am the Lord your God who took you out of the Land of Egypt." It is a statement. But it is not a command. It is the primary statement and foundation of Torah. But it is not phrased as though it were a theological statement. It is as much a requirement to feel and to experience God as it may be to construct a theological definition. And it is true that the Torah commands us to love and to respect God, but love and respect can be achieved through experience and feeling and not necessarily by abstract thought. On the contrary, as Chassidism loudly proclaimed, it is feeling that can find the way directly to God rather than abstruse reasoning. Similarly, when the Torah says that we should "Know the Lord your God." It continues, "and you will bring to your heart (the realization) that YHVH is God…" Bringing to one's heart is a metaphor for feeling rather than thinking, which is usually associated with the brain. This emphasizes the emotional. Knowledge need not be intellectual. After all if Adam "'knew" his wife and she conceived, we do not assume that this was an intellectual process.
The Torah, therefore, in my view, intentionally, takes God out of abstraction and puts Him firmly in the realms of experience. But then what are we to make of the incident after the Golden Calf where God says to Moses, "No person can see Me and live," and then God places Moses in a crack in a rock and passes by so that Moses can see the back, or the afterimage of God? The message seems to me to be clear. Communication between God and man is possible through various means and channels. It is true that the level of specific revelation that Moses attained was the highest achieved in the Bible. As God says to Miriam and Aharon, Moses was unlike any other person that God communicated with. "Mouth to mouth I spoke with him." Nevertheless this does not mean that the totality of God was circumscribed in these encounters or that Moses was able to fully comprehend beyond the very limits of human understanding. So Moses was put in this cleft in the rock. God covers Moses' face as He passes by and then lets Moses see His afterimage. The implication of this, though, is that when God was talking mouth to mouth Moses, on Mount Sinai, Moses was not even experiencing an afterimage. He was receiving a message, a whole series of laws and ideas from God but through channels that had no recognizable physical shape or representation. This experience Moses had of God's afterimage, happened only once. This illustrates the limits of human understanding, however great the human or how close the relationship with God. It also raises one of the issues that makes the nature of Divine communication so complex. To adapt the well known aphorism, "The God that is small enough for my mind is not big enough for me." We, as humans, can therefore only imagine and we can only use human, material terms to describe what we experience.
At the time when God received Moses on Sinai, some of the high ranking Israelites "saw the God of Israel (and It was) like sapphire stone and as pure as the sky". Did they really see God? How could that be if Moses, for all his closeness to God could not? Or did they get some sort of blinding flash, some sort of awareness that God was beyond anything earthly and therefore only symbolically describable in earthly terms? It is like our concept of "perfection". Can we really imagine absolute perfection? Or can we just think of something better, or faster or more beautiful than anything we have come across so far? It is not possible, despite the assertions of the Greek influenced theologians, to have a positive concept of perfection. I would argue that it is not possible to have a positive concept of unity. The idea of a "perfect unity" can only mean, not more than one. The limits of human understanding are best illustrated in the mystical tradition.
We have already mentioned in the previous chapter, the episode of the four people who entered the Orchard. They were Ben Azai, Ben Zoma, Acher and Rabbi Akiva. Rabbi Akiva said to them, "When you reach the pure marble stones do not say, 'Water, Water,' because 'No one who speaks falsehood can abide in My presence' (Psalms 101)." The narrative uses the word "Orchard" as a synonym for the mystical experience of God, or sometimes for After-Life, an existence beyond this world, entering into the closest possible proximity to the palace of the Divine ("This world is like an orchard before the palace."). But this experience, because it is a mystical one, cannot really be understood on a rational level. The similarity with the experience the elders had with the sapphire stones in Exodus 24 is remarkable and certainly not coincidental. What Rabbi Akiva is saying is that one must not judge by appearances. If one sees stones and they look like water one must be careful not to give expression to what one thinks is the case because of the human capacity for delusion or miscomprehension. Then one would be excluding from one's mind the possibility of a totally different kind of experience. The elders who thought they saw the "feet of God" and thought it was like pure sapphire stones might have made the mistake that Rabbi Akiva was warning about a thousand five hundred years later. Those earlier seekers were able to translate their experience into their own physical realm and that is why the Torah says that they responded or celebrated by eating and drinking, the archetypal way of linking spiritual and physical pleasure as reflected in the way our tradition celebrates festive occasions. For some, however, a profound mystical experience is too much to handle. Ben Azai and Ben Zoma in their different ways illustrate this. For others, it offends one's rational preconceptions. Elisha Ben Abuya, the great rabbi, becomes Acher, "Some One Else", when he abandons Judaism for Greek philosophy. Only Rabbi Akiva's balanced and considered view allows him to go through the experience and come out unharmed. Precisely because he is open to the mystical--as illustrated by Rabbi Akiva's claim in the Mishna Yadaim that the Song of Songs is the holiest book of the Bible because it is an analogy for the experience of God.
The Talmud consistently presents God in quasi human ways. The aim is to intensify the immanence of God and His presence, close to and involved in His people and in humanity. The Talmud has God praying, to mirror the way humans pray. As we pray to God so He prays to Himself that His qualities of mercy should override His anger at human frailty and that He should judge us leniently. And a little earlier God is said to wear Tefillin. As our Tefillin celebrate our commitment to God in the choice of excerpts from the Torah that are included in the four compartments on the head and rolled into one on the arm, so God's Tefillin celebrate His commitment to us by including a quotation, "Who is like you Israel, a unique nation on earth?" The idea of mutual engagement, of a relationship, is the crucial issue here. This relationship can only be on a mystical level. Similarly, the idea that God appears to humans in different ways at different times can only be understood in human, mystical terminology. It makes no sense rationally. "God appeared at the Red Sea as a Fighting Warrior but on Sinai as a Merciful Elder." Neither can we understand other than metaphorically, the idea that God suffers because of our failures. This is a recurring theme, beautifully illustrated in the story of how Elijah encounters Rabbi Yossi who turned into a ruin to pray and asks him what he hears. "I said that I heard a voice moaning like a dove and saying, 'Woe to My children because of whom I destroyed My house and burnt My Halls and exiled them amongst the nations.' He said to me, 'As you live and by your head lives, not one hour only but everyday.' Three times the voice says this but whenever Israel come into the synagogues and study houses and reply, 'May His great name be blessed,' The Holy One Blessed Be He nods His head and says, 'Happy is the king who is praised in his home, but what of the father who has exiled his children and woe to the children who are exiled from their father's table.'"
This state of alienation and yet closeness is affirmed in this Midrash. And this is how the Rabbis characterize the relationship with God. This is the meaning of often used phrase taken from Ezekiel's vision of God. In the vision, God is described as, hovering towards "wanting to come close and drawing away". This has been taken to mean that God is trying desperately to come closer to us but as He approaches us He withdraws. This withdrawal is either because of our imperfections and we "drive God away". But it can also be understood as being in the nature of the difference between the Divine and the human. There is an inherent attraction and yet an inevitable distance. The yearning to get closer to God is a recurrent feature of the mystical tradition. This is beautifully illustrated by the phrase in the haunting poem by the sixteenth century mystic Eliezer Azikri, that some congregations sing on Shabbat eve, Yedid Nefesh, "My soul thirsts for my eternal, living God." Yet there is the inevitability of distance simply because of the different natures and realities of humanity and God. And the rabbis have God, equally, almost desperately wanting humans to come closer in order to consummate the union of the spiritual and the material. This is hardly rational. But this is the way to use language to draw us nearer to a real understanding of what God is. Like someone deprived of a sense, talking about it, trying to describe butter to someone who cannot taste it, is pointless. Trying to describe an experience does not work. One can only encourage others to try for themselves and then the talk can be based on common ground.
All the other names that used to call or describe God in the Torah are similarly approximations that will make sense to humans in their cultural contexts. They are neither meant to be taken literally nor meant to be definitions. Rather they are pointers, hints at something greater. A God that is like a superman, capable of doing wonderful things whenever and wherever a priest requires it, makes sense in a context of idol worshippers. A God of spirits makes sense in a world of spirit worshippers. This is why the very word "God" in English, is so disturbing. Its context is now one of two thousand years of others using this word to mean different aspects of a supposedly monotheistic concept but one that has been divided and trinitized and used as an excuse for political oppression and torture and domination and hypocrisy. It is only if we break from using this word that we can free ourselves from cultural imperialism and try to rediscover the specifically Jewish idea of Makom.
But in effect, like any experience, there is always some doubt and uncertainty. There will always be moments when we are less convinced or more convinced. The experience of God is an encounter that involves us in constantly trying to get closer and to understand. It is not a matter of affirming a formula and then entering a new state of certainty. It is not a matter of discovering formula and that is it. This is why the Torah shows a constant struggle in the minds of its greatest personalities. From Abraham's uncertainty as to what God wanted when he went up the mountain to sacrifice his son, to Moses's struggle with God and need for reassurance after the Golden Calf episode. It is this struggle that is the paradigm for us to follow, not the medieval philosophers formulae of certainty as though God were a mathematical proposition like a Euclidian proof.
It is for this reason that "proof" of the existence of God is irrelevant and unnecessary. Proofs are to show others. Proofs are the medieval tools of theologians. They are the abstractions that obscure the emptiness, the vacuum that an absence of experience creates. Judaism calls on us to feel and to experience God rather than to play fanciful intellectual games with Him.
Some people think they can prove the existence of God. Personally I doubt it. "Something must have started it all" is conjecture. It is not proof. It may even be probable but it is not proof. Of course the contrary is equally true. It is impossible to disprove God also. But proof is a weak tool. There are many things in science that we accept despite an absence of theoretical proof. Theories help scientists progress but they are only theories. And yet there are many things we rely on without proof, love for example. Experiencing God is an example of something one knows with great certainty and is convinced about from the wealth of ones experiences. But God could not prove His existence to the satisfaction of the Children of Israel, I doubt He can do it for us and despite all this; the presence of God influences and enriches our lives.