Tuesday, March 21st | 29 Adar 5783

January 3, 2019 7:00 am

The Non-Existent God and Our Need to Serve Him

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avatar by Nathan Lopes Cardozo


A Torah scroll. Photo: RabbiSacks.org.

According to one quote, “God is a circle whose center is everywhere and circumference nowhere.” Indeed, to describe God is like trying to present something that is more than a three-dimensional reality on a flat surface.

People say that God exists, but if there is nothing more to Him than simply existing, we would have to deny His being God. His Being is totally different from anything else, and even the word Being evaporates into a philosophical impossibility. All we can say is that His essence cannot be expressed, but that He definitely can be addressed. For if we were able to grasp Him, that would be a defect in Him, said Yehudah Halevi. As a sage once remarked, upon being asked to describe God’s essence: “If I knew Him, I would be He.”

All God-talk is impossible. Jewish tradition forbids the pronunciation of the four-letter name of God. This name, rooted in the Hebrew word for “being,” consists of the Hebrew letters Yud, Heh, Vav, and Heh. According to the sages of Israel, the name reflects the different dimensions of “being” related to time: past, present, and future. As such, God figures as the One who lives in these three dimensions simultaneously, making them one and the same, which means that He is beyond all of them. The notion of time, then, becomes empty of all meaning.

Since this name of God expresses the idea of otherness, Judaism does not allow this name to be uttered. Man, after all, lives in time — a kind of broken eternity. If he were to pronounce the four-letter name, it would give the impression that he actually grasps the unfathomable concept called God. That would be an untruth, and Jewish law forbids lying.

The great Kabbalist Rabbi Moshe Cordovero (1522-1570) elaborates on this:

When your mind conceives of God, do not permit yourself to imagine that there is really a God as depicted by you, for if you do this, you will have a finite corporeal conception, God forbid. Instead, your mind should openly dwell on the affirmation of God’s existence and then it should recoil. To do more than that is to allow the imagination to reflect upon God as He is Himself, and such a reflection is bound to result in imaginative limitations and corporeality. Therefore one should put reins on one’s intellect and not allow it great freedom, but assert God’s existence and deny the possibility of comprehending Him. The mind should run to and fro — running to affirm God’s existence and recoiling from any limitations, since man’s imagination pursues his intellect.

And herein lies the great paradox. Is God really perfect as we always maintain? God Himself tells Moshe “Eheyeh asher eheyeh” I will be what I will be. Not “I am what I am” as the Septuagint mistranslates. But how can that be? It means that He is not yet what He should be and that He never will be. Apparently He is incomplete, because He seems capable of changing and moving toward perfection, but He will never be able to actually reach perfection. God is trapped in a contradiction. So, is God a verb?  Always “godding?” Always imprisoned in a becoming mode? What then is God? An unending trial to be God?

When looking in the Torah, we see no indication that God “is” or that He is perfect. Instead, He is always on the move. He changes His mind, regrets what He did, gets annoyed, and does things that are downright disturbing and often irritating. That is far from being perfect.

Indeed, what does “perfect” mean? Perfect by what definition? Something can be perfect only within its own category. A bottle can be perfect as long as it is a bottle. That is its limitation. It can’t be a motorcycle. When it is made so large that it loses the measurements of a bottle and you can no longer use it as such, it is not imperfect; it has simply ceased to be a bottle.

In terms of absolute perfection, God cannot be perfect, because He must include the possibility of change. If He can’t change, He can’t be perfect. But if He is able to change, how then can He be perfect? Moreover, can God put an end to His existence? And If He can’t, how perfect is He?

This is exactly what God tells Moshe: You cannot see My face, only My back. I am a contradiction that is unsolvable. What you see of Me is only a shadow of what I should be but never will be. You can only see Me in human terms. Spinoza is correct when he writes, “I believe that if a triangle could speak, it would say, in like manner, that God is eminently triangular, while a circle would say that the divine nature is eminently circular. Thus each would ascribe to God its own attributes, would assume itself to be like God and look on everything else as ill-shaped.”

But is God not a Being “than which no greater can be conceived,” as Saint Anselm of Canterbury 1033-1109) taught us? Isn’t He the perfection of all perfections?

So why does God appear in the Torah with human attributes, which are not applicable as far as His absolute perfection is concerned?

God appears to experience all the human emotions: love, anger, involvement, indignation, regret, sadness, and so on. By so doing, He gives the seal of divinity to the very essence of our humanity. He implicitly says to man: “You cannot know what is above and what is below, but you can know what is in your hearts and in the world. These feelings and reactions and emotions that make up human existence are, if illumined by faith and rationality, all the divinity you can hope for. To be humane is to be divine: as I am holy, so you shall be holy; as I am merciful, so you shall be merciful.” Thus, there is only one kind of knowledge that is open to man — the knowledge of God’s humanity.

All of this forces us to radically rethink the concept of God.

In God there is nothing that justifies the word “exist.” When we say that He exists, we mean that there is something in God that is projected on the world screen as God’s existence, but in God there is no such thing. When we say that God changes His mind, regrets what He has done, or gets angry, it only means that on the world screen something in God has been translated to state that God is changing His mind, regretting His earlier decisions, or getting angry. For God to be meaningful to man, He must appear in ways through which man can identify with Him — “In the image of God He created him.” But God’s essence is something totally different about which we mortals have no clue.

The idea that God is perfect, beyond time and space, while simultaneously entering this world and possessing emotions is as paradoxical as relativity, quantum physics, black holes, Higgs bosons, and other counter-intuitive phenomena. They are inexplicable but as real as they can be while lacking the character of “conventional” existence.

So, does God exist? God forbid! And precisely for that reason we should pray to Him and observe His commandments. Were He to exist, our prayers would be meaningless and our adherence to the mitzvot would be idol worship.

Rabbi Dr. Nathan Lopes Cardozo is the Founder and Dean of the David Cardozo Academy, as well as the author of 13 books and numerous articles in both English and Hebrew.

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