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). 


  1. Holt notes that people generally never ask themselves: "why is there something rather than nothing at all"?

    Much as we might wish it to be otherwise,in fact only very isolated individuals ever ask the existential question seriously, it is certainly not a major topic of general conversation.

    Jewish people are just as disinterested in this profound question regarding "existence" as anyone else, everyone assumes some sort of ideology that is comfortable and secure, instead of really exploring the issue.

    Since Judaism is a way of life for a nation and ultimately mankind, we are not expressing it accurately so long as we deal in issues that are the province of isolated individuals.

    Perhaps we should deal with the more preliminary question implicit in the beginning of the Holt book. How do ordinary people ever come to ask the question "why is there something rather than nothing at all"?

    If we answer this, we will be more justified in saying we have identified Judaism's approach to the matter.

  2. You are describing an Utopian situation. As you know Judaism is a process that has as its long term goal to bring humanity to its highest potential. The process however is over millennia and generations. Actions, which are the Mitzvot Asseh are the tool that trigger eventually in some the existential questions while the negative commandments, some are supportive of the Mitzvot Asseh while others are communal and for self-improvement. That is the Jewish answer to the first question you refer to.

  3. It is not utopian to expect Jews to know how to remove the obstructions to ordinary people asking the existential question. As Holt points out, what holds people back is a false security born of a simplistic worldview. Becoming aware of the enslaving nature of this simplistic worldview is the first step in serving Hashem, understanding the concept of "redemption".

    חייב אדם לראות את עצמו כאילו הוא יצא ממצרים

    Each and every person is obligated to be relate to do higadita libincha, the process of understanding and transmitting knowledge of the process of redemption. If this transmission of redemption is to be properly done,each and every father must be able to intelligently speak about the false security of ideological worldviews and be able to explain his ow redemption to his children.

    Once the concept of "redemption" is brought into focus, reading the Torah and doing mitzvot inexorably leads ordinary people to the existential question.

  4. Very thoughtful post. I noticed that both in this post and the last you mention Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi. It is useful to take note of his statement in Lekutai Amarim (Tanya Part 1), Chapter 36: "The ultimate purpose of the creation of the world is due to G-d's desire to have a dwelling place in the lower realms." As he goes on to explain that dwelling place is embodied in the mind that seeks G-d, and in the speech and actions that emulate his ways and fulfill his commandments. This is a theme that is expounded upon throughout Chabad chasidic literature and I believe that it resonates well with the ideas articulated in this post.

  5. I thought you might be interested in a comment I made to a 10/17 post on the Rabbi Maryles blog. I linked to your blog as an example of one way to teach Jewish philosophy, and I sketch a different alternative. Though I haven't commented here lately I continue to follow your blog with interest.
    All the best, evanstonjew

  6. EJ, Thank you. it is nice hearing from you every so often. Hope all is well.

  7. The question is how to conceive of a world with meaning in a universe, about which the physicist Steven Weinberg, quoting another physicist Richard Feynman (sounds Talmudic no ? maybe it's no coincidence that both were Jewish) said (I paraphrase), 'the more we understand of the universe the more meaningless it seems.'

    Yet as human beings we 'hope against hope', or in the words of the Italian Marxist thinker Antonio Gramsci, 'pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.' I see no easy reconciliation between the scientific, rational explanation of the world, and the human, emotional need for meaning.

  8. Ira there is a fine line between looking for a theological explanation for what seems a meaningless existence and doing so with the purpose of giving meaning to our life. it is the difference between searching for truth and soothing one's anxiety. Objectivity is therefore always to be questioned. It is to address this human frailty that Torah and Mitzvot are there to help us improve ourselves to the point that we overcome our natural narcissism and self interest. I am no Chassid but I believe Chassidus refers to that as Bitul Hayesh. It is extremely difficult as you say but one has to strive towards achieving such a state. Feinman et al - the great scientific thinkers are aware of that human need and are therefore wary to the extreme and see meaninglessness where it does not necessarily have to be. They are biased to the other extreme. That is the deep meaning of Rambam Hilchot Teshuvah 10:2
    ג [ב] העובד מאהבה, עוסק בתורה ובמצוות והולך בנתיבות החכמה--לא מפני דבר בעולם, לא מפני יראת הרעה, ולא כדי לירש הטובה: אלא עושה האמת, מפני שהוא אמת; וסוף הטובה לבוא בכלל.

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