Friday, April 21, 2006

The God of Abraham - A concept that needed fine tuning.

I hope everyone enjoyed Pessach. I had a great time getting a chance to catch up with my reading without interruptions from the web. I hope to resume periodic postings sharing ideas and looking for feedback. Here is an excerpt of a paper I wrote for Hakirah a few years back. (edited for this post)

Avrohom Avinu’s concept of G-d.

Man’s search for G-d begins in his analyzing his surroundings "כיון שנגמל איתן זה ... והי' תמיה האיך אפשר שיהיה הגלגל הזה נוֹהג תמיד ולא יהיה לוֹ מנהיג וּמי יסבב אוֹתוֹ As Avrohom grew up... he wondered how it was possible for the sphere (Rambam is referring to the revolution of the planets and stars as observed in the sky) to continuously turn without it having a driver or someone to make it turn”.( הל' ע"ז פ"א ה"ג )

As one begins to understand how all things depend on each other, are interrelated, and each thing is brought into being by its precursor, “apprehends their nature and the way they are mutually connected”[1] one arrives at the conclusion that there must be a First Cause, “that there is a mover, which has moved the matter of that which is subject to generation and corruption so that it received its form”[2]. This kind of speculation results in the recognition of G-d’s attributes (names) אל and שדי. An attribute is a term man uses to describe G-d, a being he only knows exists because he sees results of His acts. When there is a strong storm for example, and as a result of his meditation man realizes that it is the result of the laws of nature G-d put into the world at time of creation, man describes G-d as powerful (גבוֹר). Rambam defines אל as follows: “As for the expressions, the G-d [Elohe] of the heaven and also G-d of the world [El olam] they are used with respect to His perfection, and theirs [heaven and the world]. He is Elohim - that is He who governs - and they are those governed by Him, not in the sense of domination but with respect to His rank, in relation to theirs.”[3] אל is a relative term which indicates a high position in a hierarchy. It is an understanding of G-d as the highest ranked existent in relation to other existents. The concept of rank is the placement of a being as a precursor of another. A parent is higher in rank than an offspring. G-d who is the cause of all being is the highest rank in this type of evaluation. (It is important not to see rank and percursor in a temporal setting - who came first in time or later - but rather as a cause and effect idea. Water is composed of oxygen and hydrogen with the addition of energy, thus they are higher in rank than water)

The other concept of G-d that results from this speculation is represented by the attribute Shaddai. All other existents are necessary due to their position in the hierarchy of things. If there is an offspring there must be a parent thus a parent is necessary by virtue of the offspring’s existence. The two are interdependent. There is no offspring without a parent and no parent without an offspring. On the other hand G-d, as the First Cause, is not an “offspring” nor is He necessarily a “parent” until He created of his own free volition the first being. G-d is therefore an independent existent. “Accordingly the meaning [of Shaddai] is he who is sufficient; the intention here being to signify that He does not need other than Himself with reference to the existence of that which He has brought into existence or with reference to prolonging the latters’ existence, but that His existence, suffices for that.”[4] These two concepts, El and Shaddai, see G-d as an existent, supreme and independent entity. Avrohom and his children developed this concept of G-d as expressed in the verse “וארא אל אברהם אל יצחק ואל יעקב באל שדי - and I appeared to Avrohom, Yitzchak and Yacov as El Shaddai[5]”.

Understanding G-d in this way, without further conceptual development, carries with it an inherent risk. “As for the other names [other than Yud Heh Vov Heh], all of them, because of their being derived, (as opposed to a proper name.) indicate attributes; that is, not an essence alone, but an essence possessing attributes. For this reason they produce in one’s fantasy the conception of multiplicity; I mean to say that they produce in one’s fantasy the thought that the attributes exist, and that there is an essence and a notion superadded to this essence.[6]” An attribute understood literally would mean that, for example, when one says G-d is angry, the statement means that G-d is in a state of potential anger at one point and in a state of anger at another, implying a relationship between G-d and time and, depending on the situation, place. “There is no relation between G-d and time and place; and this is quite clear. For time is an accident attached to motion.... Motion, on the other hand, is one of the things attached to bodies, whereas G-d, is not a body”[7]. Seeing G-d as having a body automatically implies multiplicity.
a body is divisible and therefore it is conceivable that one body will be made into two. Understanding G-d’s attributes literally, negates the concept of unity which is the basic idea developed by Avrohom. The very method used to develop an understanding of G-d carries within itself the seeds of misunderstanding and reversal. That is exactly what happened to the Jewish people in Egypt.
"עד שארכוּ הימים לישראל במצרים וחזרוּ ללמוֹד מעשיהם ולעבוֹד עבוֹדה זרה כמוֹתן .... וכמעט קט היה והעיקר ששתל אברהם נעקר וחזרוּ בני יעקב לטעוּת העמים וּתעייתם[8] . As time went by for the children of Israel in Egypt, they once more learned their ways [of the Egyptians] to serve idols like them ... and it almost came to pass that the tree [literally: root] planted by Avrohom was uprooted and the children of Jacob returned to the errors and misguided ways of the nations”. Although Avrohom taught his children the ways of finding G-d through observing nature, the process could not withstand the challenges of time and exile. The internal contradictions that came about from describing G-d based on His attributes alone, eventually erased the memory of the Unique Creator. Clearly the understanding of G-d as אל שדי was not sufficient.

What we can take away from this discussion is how dangerous a misconception of God can be. Avrohom developed an idea of a unique God but not having developed the proper tools in teaching this concept risked losing it all. It is only when Moshe took the Jews out that a better way was developed and resulted in the long term survival and development of Judaism. I will address this in my next post. Good Shabbos.

[1] Moreh I, 54.

[2] Moreh II,1 page 243..

[3] Moreh II, 30 pages. 358 - 359

[4] Moreh I, 63 page 155

[5] שמוֹת ו' ג'

[6] Moreh I, 61.

[7] Moreh I, 52 page 117

[8] הל' ע"ז פ"א ה"ג