Judaism's "Other" Gods
After the trains rolled out empty from Aschwitz. After so many froze or starved to death. After the medical experiments were over. After the door of the gas chambers were cleaned. After all this, the sky remained indifferent. Except, to those Jews who survived, something was different about the sky. Those Jews who remained had to reckon with their faith: how could God have allowed this to happen?
According to the International School for Holocaust Studies, there emerged various theological responses to the holocaust. Some Jewish thinkers considered the holocaust a punishment for Jewish sin. Others interpreted the holocaust as a Biblical test of faith, comparable to Abraham and the binding of Isaac or the suffering of Job. But some, like Richard Rubenstein, took the holocaust as proof God did not exist and became atheists. Others, like rabbi Irving Yitzchak Greenberg, continued to believe in God but interpreted this as something so unforgivable that it broke the covenant between the Jewish God and the Jewish people. They still believed in a God, but were no longer obligated to follow Him or keep His commandments. Theologian Arthur Cohen believed that the very notion of God had to be re-conceptualized. Others chose to remain silent — silence being the “only thinkable response to the unthinkable.”
In their hour of darkness, Jews looked to the sky; nothing. And the fact that nothing happened is monumental in itself. If the divine order does not act as we expect it, then perhaps we misunderstand the divine order. Because of how universal the questions surrounding God are, we tend to assume that there is a consensus about the concept of “God” — that we all mean the same thing when we use this word. But although the questions are virtually universal, the answers and descriptions of God differ quite widely, not just across religious traditions but within them as well. And the Jewish tradition is no exception. God, YHWH, Allah, the One, Brahman, the Tao — absolute reality is spoken of with many names by many voices. Whether we hear concordance or discord in these many names has important consequences for the future of our species.
To Struggle with God
In “American Grace,” Robert Putnam and David Campbell claim that half of all American Jews doubt God’s existence. In Israel, 43% of the population identifies as “Hiloni” or “secular” — this includes about 20% who either believe in god “only sometimes,” or are convinced atheists.
The fact that Judaism is considered a hereditary ethnicity likely factors into this. I am one among many Jews who consider themselves Jewish, but who do not believe in a traditional notion of God and who don’t hold the religious practices too tightly, if at all. We can deny God all we want; that does not change our identity as Jews. This is different from a purely faith-based religion like Christianity, for example, where if you stop believing you essentially stop being Christian. In this respect, cultural Judaism has parallels in other religions such as Hinduism, in which there is no mandatory deity or number of deities someone must believe in to be considered Hindu.
But there’s another reason that Judaism is somewhat unique: its long history of grappling with traditional notions of God.
According to a commentary on the book of Genesis, “Jacob wrestles all night with a mysterious angel representing God. Because Jacob successfully survives this encounter, his name is changed to Israel. The translation of Israel is “to struggle with God.’” Struggling with God has been a theme of Jewish thought for thousands of years and some of the notions of God that have come out of those struggles are very different than the stereotype we’re familiar with today.
Not Talking About Him
Even in the 12th century, Maimonides, one the most respected medieval scholars of Judaism, did not like the literal interpretation of God.
Among his most famous works is Guide for the Perplexed. In his own words, it was meant “to guide those religious persons who, adhering to the Torah, have studied philosophy and are embarrassed by the contradictions between the teachings of philosophy and the literal sense of the Torah.” In other words: if you study philosophy and read the bible literally, thought Maimonides, it just doesn’t make much sense.
Maimonides anticipated the potential crisis of faith that advances in philosophy and science would precipitate. The bible has to be read in large part metaphorically. And to conceive of God as anthropomorphic was naive. The main distinction Maimonides made was between “true beliefs” and “necessary beliefs.” By “necessary beliefs” he was mostly referring to the anthropomorphic descriptions of God which — while not literally true — were useful in compelling people to behave in certain ways, follow certain laws, and feeling like they could relate to an abstract non-human order that pervaded the universe and maintained the foundations of existence. The complexity of the universe is reduced to a humanly-comprehensible metaphor.
For example, it’s very hard to have a emotional, personal connection to electromagnetic fields. It’s much easier to feel things about a personification of the god of lightning, a la Zeus. And many more people have cried tears of joy and sadness over the story of Jesus Christ, or Harry potter for that matter, than have ever cried over the force of gravity that’s responsible for the formation of all stars, planets, and thus life in the universe.
That’s the trouble with trying to worship the laws of Nature: it’s hard to get excited about them. People relate to people. Maimonides understood that descriptions of God in human-terms help people relate to that abstract ground of being which permeates and sustains the universe.
For Maimonides, if you want to truly talk about God (i.e., the realm of Absolute Reality), well, you couldn’t. He was what’s called an apophatic: someone who believed that the attributes of God are far beyond human comprehension. To talk about what Absolute Reality “is” or “is not” with human language is to necessarily make a mistake. To an apophatic, the only responsible thing to do is to remain silent about the Absolute.
Note that this is not the same as atheism. Saying God does not exist is itself claiming you know something about Absolute Reality. While it’s relatively easy to poke holes in specific religious arguments and historical claims, if you’ve never tried to prove that a God definitively, absolutely, positively does not exist, it’s very hard. Instead of naysaying, saying nothing means you are neither preaching about God in front of stadiums nor publishing book after book trying to disprove God’s existence.
The apophatic stance — or negative theology as it’s also called — is that the whole metaphysical realm is beyond our knowledge. This isn’t just a claim about the Jewish God, it’s also about all metaphysical concepts and deities. Reincarnation, afterlives, notions of fate, super-dimensional libraries of total knowledge, supreme energies and intelligence — all of it lies beyond our ability to verify or disprove. It lies outside the “magisteria” of the natural sciences, as the historian of science Stephen Jay Gould put it. Not only that, but according to the apophatic stance, we may not even be able to think about the metaphysical realm — if such a realm even exists. And so, the apophatic stays mum. “The only thinkable response to the unthinkable is silence.”
God is Nature
Four-hundred years after Maimonides, Dutch-Jewish philosopher Baruch Spinoza took a different but comparable perspective on the question of God. In the simplest terms, Spinoza equated God to Nature.
Spinoza’s God was about as abstract as they come — based upon a complex philosophical system of attributes and qualities. Spinoza understood, much like Maimonides, that human beings tend to anthropomorphize God. In general, he observed, we make humanity the model of what’s best.
In a letter to a friend, Spinoza wrote:
“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.”
Spinoza’s conception of God was not merely equivalent to the laws and forces of nature, but more basic: the sum total of the possible attributes of the universe — whatever it is that makes straight lines straight, time tick forward, and space spacious. This notion of God was so impersonal, so non-human and seemingly detached from Jewish Orthodoxy at the time that Spinoza was excommunicated by the rabbis of his community for heresy.
Maimonides and Spinoza represent two philosophical responses and solutions to the naive notion of an anthropomorphic deity. But it’s not just philosophers that brought the vision of God closer to a vision of no-God. The mystics of the Jewish tradition also pushed the boundaries of their religion into similar waters.
Inching closer to the modern day: Gershom Scholem lived between 1897 and 1982 and is regarded as among the most important scholars of Jewish mysticism. He brought the academic study of Kabbalah into the realm of serious scholarship.
Scholem argued that there is a constant tension between mystical innovation and rabbinical authority. In Scholem’s most famous book “Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism,” he writes: “It is hardly surprising that, hard as the mystic may try to remain within the confines of his religion, he often consciously or unconsciously approaches, or even transgresses, its limits.” Mystics claimed to have access to the source of religion itself — the divine fount — and that source often told or inspired them to contradict or even desecrate religious norms. In the depths of mystical experience and thought, the notion of God is smelted down into an all-pervading abstract entity (a God known primarily through a mystic’s own experience rather than one mediated by philosophical logic, like that of Spinoza). The talking, walking, thinking God disappears, and instead, the mystic experiences an ineffable reality that cannot properly be expressed in words.
Mystical theology that appears to be heretical, or even “atheistic,” in which the traditional notion of God is all but annihilated, is in fact the expression of a faith so deep that it has transgressed the limits of the religious tradition it arises out of. And yet, it can also be said to be the most “Orthodox” expression of the religion in that the intention is to recapture the kernel of the religion and its scriptures — the most essential truths and messages that permeate and perhaps established the tradition.
One example of this is the concept of Nothingness, or Ayin in Hebrew. It is embodied in the highest of the ten sefirot, or components of God: Keter, the “Crown” of God. According to the Kabbalistic emanation story, it is from Ayin, from this divine nothingness, that the rest of God’s components emerge. To say “God comes from Nothingness” may sound like an atheistic claim, but in reality, it points to a conception of God that has nothing to do with a bearded man in the sky and everything to do with God as the pre-conceptual source of all being.
An alternative mystical conception of God is Ein Sof — the infinite. Seemingly the polar opposite of Ayin, the notion of God as Ein Sof may have been influenced by gnostic and Neoplatonic conceptions of an infinite, overarching “true God” that has neither agency, will, nor any resemblance to a human being. In this conception of Ein Sof, Jewish mysticism understands God as the abstract, all-pervading order prior to existence.
Nothingness and infinity — these concepts are closely entwined in kabbalah. Both lie outside the bounds of human imagination. And that’s the point. Try and imagine “nothingness.” You can’t. Try and imagine Infinity, after a certain point your head starts to spin. That’s what these mystical concepts are getting at. Like the apophatic, negative theology of Maimonides: they’re trying to get us to understand that all our concepts and notions about what we think “Absolute Reality” is, are inadequate.
As a result, to preach about Ultimate Reality — to claim privileged knowledge of what lies behind the curtains of existence — that’s not for us to do.
Albert Einstein, a fellow Jew, came to a similar conclusion. When asked by a New York Rabbi in 1929 if he believes in God, Einstein said: “I believe in Spinoza’s God who reveals Himself in the orderly harmony of what exists, not in a God who concerns Himself with fates and actions of human beings.”
Einstein may have done more to pierce the mysteries of our universe than anyone who’s ever lived. But in his writings, he showed a great respect for that mystery. He saw grand, rational patterns in the universe that we only faintly understand. Einstein thought the dominant response to this mysterious realm we live in — especially for a scientist — ought to be wonder and reverence. We do not know where all this order came from; we do not know for certain if it was designed, arose by chance, or took this form out of necessity; but it is magnificent. While the circle of our knowledge is growing, there’s no way to measure how vast or deep are the seas of our ignorance. But taking part in the search, thought Einstein, is true religious work.
Speaking personally, the only way a religious perspective would feel relevant in my eyes today is if it acknowledged this mystery without pretensions of having “seen beyond the curtain.” To re-mortalize all its prophets, saints, gurus, living gods. To acknowledge that they were either humans believing they had found an answer, imagined legends, or a mixture of both.
To acknowledgment our ignorance is the only authentic way forward. It does not contradict science, but sees it as a revelation of reality. It does not require religion to concede to atheism or vice versa — both must enter into the temple of reality with the same humility and quietude.
Luckily, most religious traditions have developed a set of similar concepts. Buddhism and Taosim have put these concepts at the forefront of their philosophies and practices. In Christianity, Islam, and Judaism, they exist primarily (but not exclusively) in their mystical traditions. You find comparable notions in Hinduism’s conception of Brahman: the infinite, all-pervading entity that sustains reality. You find it in ancient Greek philosophy and Neoplatonic thought. It’s not just Judaism that has to grapple with its conception of God. And it’s not just Judaism that has an answer for how to move forward with an authentic and believable religion. Virtually all traditions have a path that can help them move forward — or perhaps return to — the kernel of what religion is about: an authentic, unpretentious confrontation with the mystery of reality.
From this perspective, when we look back at the holocaust, the Rwandan Genocide, the horrors of the Khmer Rouge, Stalin’s ethnic famines and purges, or the mass extinctions that all of us are responsible for, there should be no crisis of faith, because the very notion of faith, of God, is fundamentally altered. It’s not about a fatherly King, a motherly Earth-goddess, nor a pantheon of gods with whom we must barter. No. Reality comes from nothingness, it ranges out into the infinite, and we exist briefly between these two vanishing points. We make whatever headway we can in the obscure traffic of time and space, of whose fundamental nature we are still uncertain.
The tools with which we make meaning out of ultimate questions, like those about the nature of God, have evolved over time. After the advances we’ve made in astronomy, biology, history, neuroscience, and so forth, we can no longer accept the myths and dogmas of the past as literal and definitive truths. Rather, we must re-interpret them as occupying a small sliver of the vast spectrum of methods by which human beings have attempted to describe the indescribable.
As we patiently expand the bounds of our understanding, let’s refrain from shouting about things we know nothing about. As the part Jewish philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein said in the last line of his Tractatus: “whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must remain silent.”
Read more about secular spirituality and listen to the Re-Enchantment podcast at reenchantmentpod.com