Vzot Habrachah: Jewish Views of G-d

For this Shabbat, an intermediate day of the joyous Sukkot festival, our sages assigned a special holiday reading from Exodus and Leviticus.  The final Torah portion, Vzot Habracha, will be read on Tuesday for Simchat Torah, whereupon we will begin the Torah anew with B’reishit next Shabbat.  This, therefore, being my only opportunity to share thoughts about the final Torah portion, I’ll jump ahead and do so now.  

In Vzot Habracha, Moses dies and is buried by G-d.  The text comments: 

וְלֹא־ קָם נָבִיא עוֹד בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל כְּמֹשֶׁה אֲשֶׁר יְדָעוֹ יְהֹוָה פָּנִים אֶל־ פָּנִים:

“And there has not arisen since in Israel a prophet like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face.”

Although we could read “face-to-face” literally, and also refer to “G-d’s face” in our liturgy, such as the Priestly blessing, Judaism teaches (and we sing in Yigdal) that G-d has no physical existence.  We should thus understand “face-to-face” metaphorically, as in “whom the Lord knew so well.”

It’s interesting that the text doesn’t also say that Moses knew G-d “face-to-face,” or that “they” knew each other “face-to-face.”   Even so, it’s probably fair to say that, according to our tradition, Moses “knew” G-d better than any other human ever did or will. 

Can we “know G-d?”  It’s a bit of a loaded question, because it presumes both the existence of a “G-d” to be “known” and our ability, in principle, to be able to recognize, identify, describe, and understand whatever G-d is.  Perhaps surprisingly, although we constantly speak to and about G-d in our liturgy and elsewhere, Judaism does not dictate any single view of G-d. 

In their book, Finding God: Selected Responses [UAHC Press, Rev. 2002], Rabbis Rifat Sonsino and Daniel Syme summarize highly diverse characterizations of G-d by many of Judaism’s most respected thinkers. 

As just a few examples:

  • Judaism’s consensus greatest philosopher, Maimonides, argued that G-d is pure intellect, the “Unmoved Mover of the universe,” whom/that we can neither know nor describe (only able to say what G-d is not, e.g. corporeal, limited, etc.)  
  • Isaac Luria, founder of the most important branch of Kabbalistic thought, imagined G-d being revealed to us through ten types of energy emanations (s’ferot). 
  • Martin Buber described an “Eternal Thou” always waiting for us to relate to through genuine dialogue with others.   
  • Erich Fromm conceived of G-d as a symbol, an idea, of our highest potential, the most desirable good.  Per Fromm, we “know” G-d by seeking to imitate G-d through pursuing good. 
  • For Mordecai Kaplan, G-d is the totality of forces in the world rendering life worthwhile.  G-d is the Power or “Process” that makes for salvation, which he defined as the fulfillment of human potential. 
  • Abraham Joshua Heschel described G-d as the source of insight and intuition, but also as an entity or existence “in search of humanity” even as we/humanity are in search of G-d.        

The Amidah prayer suggests the Jewish view of G-d as monotheistic but not as monolithic.  It refers not to “the G-d of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob” but rather, individually, to the G-d of Abraham, to the G-d of Isaac, and to the G-d of Jacob.  The Rabbis infer from this that each patriarch experienced G-d differently … and that we must do so as well.    

Accordingly, whenever I encounter Jews who tell me “I don’t believe in G-d,” I always ask them to describe the G-d in which they don’t believe.  Chances are, I don’t believe in that G-d either.  But as suggested by the very diverse descriptions of our leading philosophers, the negation of one description need not negate the existence of another “G-d” concept acceptable to Judaism.  

I do believe that life/the world/the universe aren’t random; that there are “higher purposes” to life than survival, reproduction and pleasure; and that Judaism provides a wonderful, time-tested, ethical, and spiritual path (or paths) for pursuing and acheiving life’s higher purposes.  Perhaps to walk this path is to know G-d. 

May Sukkot and Jewish life, generally, inspire you to seek to “know” G-d in your own way, guided in your search by millennia of your Jewish predecessors. 

Shabbat shalom from Heathrow Airport!     

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A bird that you set free may be caught again, but a word that escapes your lips will not return.
Jewish Proverb