Thursday, November 01, 2012

"Why Does The World Exist?" - Towards a Jewish Answer - Part 2.- Emulating God.

In the previous post I explained that Rambam sees the God of Judaism as an entity that we know exists but is so outside any category that we know that even the words “God exists” has no meaning in our understanding of “existence”. It just means that there “is” such an entity and that we hopelessly cannot ever even conceptualize His essence. The question is then what relevance does such an entity have to us? How can we relate to Him? What does worship, prophecy and knowledge mean as it relates to God? How do we ever propose to connect with Him? Paradoxically, the Halacha does demand of us that we get to know God, that we worship Him and that we love Him. How are we supposed to love an unknowable and incomprehensible entity? Rambam in Sefer Hamitzvot establishes that the first Mitzvah is to know God and he restates it in the short count at the beginning of Hilchot Yesodei Hatorah
הלכות יסודי התורה
יש בכללן עשר מצוות--שש מצוות עשה, וארבע מצוות לא תעשה; וזה הוא פרטן:  (א) לידע שיש שם אלוה

How are we supposed to know the unknowable? And to complicate matters further we are required to love Him too –
ב) שלא יעלה במחשבה שיש שם אלוה זולתי ה'; (ג) לייחדו; (ד) לאוהבו

How can we to do that? Hassidim report that this question was posed to Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, the first Lubavitcher Rebbe and Ba’al Hatanya by the child grandson of Rabbi Dovber of Mezritch. He asked; after having said the first verse of Shema where we declare the ultimate uniqueness and thus transcendence and unknowability of God by saying   ה' אלוהינו, ה' אחד, how can we immediately proceed and say
ואהבת, את ה' אלוהיך, בכל לבבך ובכל נפשך, ובכל מאודך

This question is addressed by the Ba’al Hatanya in his Sha’ar Hayichud Veha’emunah where he deals with the issue in great depth. A discussion of this great essay is beyond the scope of this post; the question however is very important and I will attempt to address it as I understand it.

Although we were taught by Moshe rabbeinu that God can only be known in the negative, what He is not, we still needed Avraham Avinu’s question to arrive at that by understanding what caused existence and who or what is behind it. If the answer to that question is that there must be an entity responsible for existence, it leads to the next one - what is the essence of that entity that is behind that existence? Rambam in MN 1:54 puts it as follows:

דע כי אדון החכמים, משה רבנו עליו השלום, ביקש שתי בקשות ובאה לו תשובה על שתי הבקשות. הבקשה האחת היא שביקש ממנו יתעלה שיודיענו את עצמוּתו ואת אמיתת מהותו. הבקשה השנייה - והיא זו אשר ביקשה ראשונה - היא שיודיענו את תאריו. וענה לו יתעלה בכך שהבטיח להודיעו את תאריו כולם ושהם מעשׂיו. כן הודיעו, כי אין להשׂיג את עצמוּתו כפי שהיא. אך הוא העיר לו על מקום עיון שממנו ישיג את מרב מה שיכול אדם להשׂיגו. מה שהוא, עליו השלום, השׂיג, לא השׂיגו אף אחד לפניו ולא אחריו.

THE wisest man, our Teacher Moses, asked two things of God, and received a reply respecting both. The one thing he asked was that God should let him know His true essence: the other, which in fact he asked first, that God should let him know His attributes. In answer to both these petitions God promised that He would let him know all His attributes, and that these were nothing but His actions. He also told him that His true essence could not be perceived, and pointed out a method by which he could obtain the utmost knowledge of God possible for man to acquire. The knowledge obtained by Moses has not been possessed by any human being before him or after him.”

Rambam describes Moshe’s thinking process. He begins with the question triggered by existence which we see as God’s actions – “His attributes, and that these were nothing but His actions” – or to put it in a simpler context – we know that there is an entity we call God because something or someone must be responsible for existence[1]. In this process, the path to God is through contemplating His actions which is existence. As we contemplate God’s actions we also develop a sense of how the world we live in is being run by Him. We are amazed by the complexity and at the same time the simplicity of the whole system, how each part is necessary for the existence of the whole, our environment how everything is interdependent and how finely tuned all the components of our universe are. As we are filled with wonder, we are humbled by our insignificance in the scheme of things and at the same time we want to get to know better this entity that is responsible for all this.

  והיאך היא הדרך לאהבתו, ויראתו:  בשעה שיתבונן האדם במעשיו וברואיו הנפלאים הגדולים, ויראה מהם חכמתו שאין לה ערך ולא קץ--מיד הוא אוהב ומשבח ומפאר ומתאווה תאווה גדולה לידע השם הגדול, כמו שאמר דויד "צמאה נפשי, לאלוהים--לאל חי".
ב  וכשמחשב בדברים האלו עצמן, מיד הוא נרתע לאחוריו, ויירא ויפחד ויידע שהוא בריה קטנה שפלה אפלה, עומד בדעת קלה מעוטה לפני תמים דעות, כמו שאמר דויד "כי אראה שמיך . . . מה אנוש, כי תזכרנו".

What is the path to love and fear Him?  As a person contemplates His wondrous actions and His great creations, seeing in them His immeasurable and unending wisdom, at once he is filled with love, praising and lauding [Him] as he is filled with a great longing to get to know the great name as David said “my soul thirsts for God – the living God”.  When one contemplates these matters he at once steps back as he is filled with fear and dread realizing that he is an insignificant small creature, low and somber, who stands with minimal intellect in front of the perfect intellect as David said “when I see your heavens …. What is humankind that you should notice it”?

Rambam depicts contradictory feelings that the seeker confronts. On the one hand there is a great urge and need to get to know God and to express one’s love for Him and at the same time he is humbled  as he realizes how insignificant and unimportant he is in the scheme of things and he is overcome with trepidation and wants to step back.  The urge to love gets translated into action as the person now wants to emulate the beloved by contemplating the beloved’s actions. He wants to partake in those actions and play a role in them. The humbling feeling on the other hand fills him with uncertainty and doubt, forcing him to question his understanding of God and His actions - עומד בדעת קלה מעוטה לפני תמים דעות. This constant tension between wanting to know and to emulate God and the deep knowledge that this is an impossible task, the uncertainty that this fosters is the impetus for self-improvement. It is only by striving for perfection that one can feel a little comfort in this attempt to emulate God. It also fills one with humility forcing the person to question his decisions on how to act, making sure that he is really trying to emulate God and not just act out of personal biases and natural inclinations. I always find it upsetting when people act with certainty criticizing and condemning others, stepping all over them and bulldozing through them as if they had all the answers. We never have all the answers and we never will; we just are trying our best to know how to act correctly and that does not give us the right to judge or step on others.

We started by asking what is the relevance of searching for the unknowable God and the relevance of this knowledge to our daily life. The answer is that the search is a goal in itself. It is through the search that one becomes acutely aware of our environment and how it works giving us a basis rooted in reality, not an imaginary mystical “spiritual” concept, for emulating that perfect entity responsible for existence. The urge to find God and the humbling knowledge of the impossibility of the task, the unknowability of God, see to it that our emulating Him is judicious and well thought out, done with the proper caution and realness.  

[1] I have to emphasize that it does not mean there must be a Creator but rather an entity that is not contingent and that has a hierarchal precedence to all existence (see my article in Hakirah).