Philosophy and God

    January 2012          
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Getting To Know G-d

By Mendel Weinberger

The philosophers ask a fundamental question about G-d. How can an infinite, all powerful creator create a finite, limited universe? According to their logic, if G-d is an infinite Being, then everything He creates must be infinite as well. And if He is not infinite, then the act of creation must make a change in Him. They answer this question by saying that there must be intermediaries between G-d and creation. These intermediaries in the ancient world were the sun and moon, the god of fertility, the god of war, and the god of rain, etc. In the modern world they would be the forces of nature explained as chemical, biological, and physical laws. It could also be the belief in romantic fantasies, economic forces, and political ideologies.

Judaism categorically denies this answer and views any belief in intermediaries who are independent of G-d as being the source of idol worship. G-d is one, absolutely transcendent; creation makes no change in His Being. Intermediaries like and angels or the forces of nature are merely servants of G-d.

So how does the Torah answer the question of the philosophers? Chasidic philosophy answers the question of G-d's Infinite Being creating the finite universe by using metaphors, metaphors from nature to help us to understand G-d's nature and the process of creation. The first metaphor for G-d's creative energy is the light shining from the sun. The nature of this light is to radiate out from its source and travel far away from it until it reaches the earth and illuminates it. The wonder of this light is that no matter how far it travels it always remains connected to its source. It doesn't change the sun or detract from it in any way. This metaphor teaches us that G-d can so to speak extend Himself in a defined and limited way to create worlds without losing the unity of His Being.

The deficiency of this metaphor is that light may travel far from its source and reach the earth, but it doesn't penetrate the material world. It remains on the surface, illuminating but never uniting with creation. And the source of this light remains a distant luminary that we cannot even gaze at without blinding ourselves. So if we say that G-d is one, then He must be present in the physical at the same time as He transcends it. So we need another metaphor .

The second metaphor is the light of a candle. The source of this light is fire which is one of the four elements that make up this world along with earth, wind, and water. Fire is held down by the wick and oil that feeds its flame. As long as the fuel lasts the fire will burn and shed its light. Candlelight is different from sunlight in that it is more intimate; we can move close to it and gaze at its glow. The metaphor of the candle teaches us about G-d's ability to in a sense come down to earth and even unite with the physical world. Though its direction and yearning is always to return to its source, Divine Light can be drawn down to illumine the world by our using the material world in service to G-d. Though this metaphor brings G-d closer to us in a more intimate connection there is still something lacking in teaching us about the process of creation. And that problem is the same one we had with the sun. The light rests on the surface of the earth and does not penetrate inside. So we need another metaphor .

The third metaphor is the soul in the body. By soul we mean the vital force that enlivens the body. This vitality gives life equally to the head, the body with all the internal organs, and the legs and feet. Each part of the body receives exactly the amount of energy it needs to live and thrive. This metaphor teaches that G-d is the life force of the universe and is literally inside the body of the world. Each part of creation receives exactly the amount of energy it needs to exist. A rock gets rock energy, a tree gets tree energy, and an animal gets what it needs to be an animal, and of course human beings get the vital force needed to be human. This brings G-d closer still to us reminding us that He is the truly the lifeblood of creation. But we don't live in a static universe so we need another metaphor that expresses action in the world.

The fourth metaphor is called in Hebrew 'koach hapoel benifal'. This means literally the power of action in the thing acted upon. One of the foundations of Chassidic philosophy is the idea of Divine Providence. Nothing happens by accident. Every blade of grass that grows has an angel that strikes it and says "grow". So our metaphor states that all occurrences in this world are divinely ordained. This brings G-d all the way down not only to be the life force of the world, but expresses the idea that G-d acts in history, both personal and collective. He is the G-d of nature in action and of human civilization as it unfolds in time.

Putting all these metaphors together we have a picture of G-d who is the transcendent source of the Divine Light that creates and illuminates the universe. He is the immanent light that can be drawn down and held here in the material world by our good deeds. He is the energy within all created beings. And He is present in everything that happens from a falling leaf to a rushing river, from a baby's smile to a dog wagging his tail. G-d is beyond our human understanding and at the same time as close as the beating of our hearts.

There is one more point to make in our understanding of creation. The first metaphor we used was the light of the sun illuminating the earth as being similar to G-d's Divine light. But G-d's light is more like lightning than sunlight. It is the flash that brings all creation into being and in the next moment creation vanishes as the light returns to its source. This process repeats itself constantly meaning that the universe is living and dying every moment.

When we contemplate the greatness of G-d through these metaphors we can come to know G-d in a deeper, more intimate way and then if we open our hearts, the natural love we have for the Creator will reveal itself. That is the goal of the Torah.


from the January 2012 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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