A manual of Jewish belief (a guide to real Judaism) for the thinking individual.

Copyright © 1977 by R' Avi Shafran

[Web Page Last Revised: Sunday, June 19, 2005 07:44 PM ]


Chapter 1. G~d's Existence

No one has ever seen Him. Evil occurs constantly and nothing seems to interfere with the ugly course of things. Some great masters of logical thought maintain that He simply isn't. Sinners prosper while saints starve. Science has explained all. Why come on to G~d?

Because He is there. Or, better, here. Or, better yet, everywhere.

That we cannot see Him should not bother us. By very definition G~d is incorporeal and therefore cannot be detected by human senses. If he could be, He couldn't be G~d.

Human experience is through the detection of matter or energy, things of a purely physical nature. Even the nose, by far one's most sensitive sensory organ, operates on the same basic principle of the detection of matter, though it is capable of picking up very minute particles of stuff.

We cannot smell Hate. Nor can we hear Jealousy. Yet these things do exist. So does G~d. However, unlike these abstract concepts, G~d is not a creation of humanity's mind, dependent upon its existence; He is rather the creating force of all, the maintaining force of all, the Master of the Cosmos. However, not being comprised of physical matter, G~d can be detected only by that part of us which, like Him, is incorporeal and intangible, namely, our intelligences, or souls.

The word "intelligence" as we use it has nothing directly to do with intelligence as modern usage defines it. Regardless of his level of comprehension, his ability for grasping ideas, of retaining or of using them, regardless of his "intelligence", every person is endowed with an "intelligence-soul" which is not just capable of realizing G~d and wanting to do His will, but which naturally strives to have its owner devote himself to G~d.

A person, however, if he lets his passions take control of his actions and mars his soul with sin, prevents his battered and aching soul from reaching its true fulfillment. The result is a feeling of depression, boredom, uselessness and general blah-ness which the subject in turn seeks to relieve by distracting himself further – temporarily but constantly – by trying to satisfy his base desires. The cycle gains momentum and the person loses out in the long run, left with only a broken soul and a pocketful of useless memories and regrets. This sad state is the condition of many people today.

Though such a person is not lost, unless he takes drastic measures the odds are against his spiritual recovery. Though the natural inclination of each person is to unquestionably realize G~d, to love Him and to serve Him, one polluted with sin finds seemingly intellectual obstacles in the way of belief. To clear the way before him, one must clear the way behind him, that is, repent and resolve to do G~d's will in the future. A person who wants to feel G~d but finds it difficult to do so should change to an observant lifestyle and faith will come of its own accord. Simply but truly, doing G~d's will is faith's catalyst. The action of fulfilling a commandment, regardless of how insignificant or odd the obligation seems to be, replenishes the soul, bringing it that much closer to reaching its true fulfillment.

The fact that each human is naturally inclined to realize G~d does not mean that there is no way for His existence to be proven logically. On the contrary, there are several different philosophical methods by which G~d's existence can be proven.

R. Saadiah Gaon, the first recognized Jewish philosopher (892-942) and the head of the great academy of Jewish learning at Sura, proved G~d by first proving that the universe is not eternal: If the world was never created but rather has existed for eternity, then it follows that eternity has elapsed up until now, which is a subtle but clear contradiction in terms. Therefore the cosmos must have come into being at some point. Things cannot create themselves (for at the moment of creation the created does not yet exist) so there must be a Creator.

R. Saadiah's proof is of course more complicated, especially the side proofs of the other basic tenets of Jewish faith but what we have mentioned is his basic proof for the existence of G~d. R. Saadiah brings other proofs for the non-eternity of the cosmos. For instance, he proves that nothing that is subject to time can be eternal, thereby excluding the universe. Then he proves, as we have said, that a Creator must exist and necessarily is not subject to time Himself. Though we cannot understand how something can not be subject to time, we are forced to assume that G~d possesses this quality, to philosophically explain the existence of anything.

R. Bachya ibn Pakuda, the next key figure in Jewish philosophy, follows much the same argument in his famous book, The Duties of the Heart but spends the better part of his philosophical energies demonstrating the unity or oneness of G~d. R. Bachya also adds a new element towards the realization of a Supreme Being: seeing Him in nature, in His creation.

This is not to be confused with pantheism, the equating of G~d with nature, which is nothing more than renaming nature "G~d" and then worshipping it as a sort of advanced idol, much as many primitive peoples worshipped the sun or moon. They lacked the insight necessary to realize that these great and intricate creations do attest to a holiness, but to a holiness altogether different: that of their unseen Creator.

R. Bachya, on the other hand, writes voluminously of the importance of studying nature and science as an aid and reinforcement to the realization of the perfection with which humanity and its surroundings were created. He urges the careful study of the wonders of the human anatomy, the conception of the child, its complicated development in the womb, and so on, so that the realization of G~d's power and perfect wisdom will dawn upon the believing observer. R. Bachya then concentrates on the intricacy and wisdom evident in the psychological composition of man and animal.

The same realization, points out R. Bachya, is just as readily available in the study of botany or astronomy or of any natural science. The intricate and fine skill contained in the universe could only have been created by a wisdom which is infinite and omnipotent. The man universally admired as the greatest medieval Jewish philosopher is R. Moses ben Maimon, or Maimonides. He, like R. Saadiah before him, uses a standard philosophy and universally accepted rules of logic in order to prove G~d's existence, but his school of philosophy, based in great part upon Aristotelian theory, is a bit different from that of R. Saadiah. In his first Aristotelian proof, Maimonides assumes two basic principles: 1) Nothing can move itself; rather all moving things must derive their energy of movement from outside sources. 2) An infinite series is impossible; the illustration of this point is embodied in a paradox written of by Zeno (490?- 430 B.C.E.), an ancient Greek philosopher: If an infinite series can exist then conceivably we can divide a length of board into an infinite amount of infinitely small particles. If so, then how is it possible for one to run one's finger along the length of board since, by so doing, one is passing over an infinite series of parts in a finite amount of time? Now, if nothing can move itself then all that we see moving must be supplied with energy by a source. This source, if also moving, must in turn have a source of its own. And its source, a source. And so on, ad infinitum. But we seem to have forgotten that an infinite series cannot exist. Therefore it must be conceded that there are a finite number of parts in this series as in any other, and that the original source of energy does not itself move (so that it does not require a source of its own). In Aristotle's terms, "it" is a primus movens immobile, or a "first unmoving Mover". From this point it can be proven that something which does not move cannot be subject to time and therefore is eternal. Furthermore, anything with even the slightest power which exerts that power forever is necessarily in possession of infinite power. No finite body can have infinite power. Hence the eternal and all-powerful G~d must be incorporeal. In this way Maimonides, as did Aristotle before him, proved all of Judaism's basic beliefs concerning G~d. (There are, incidentally, variations of this proof. The most important one results when the word "move" is replaced with the word "cause". In other words, everything which exists must have been caused by something [or created by something]; an infinite series of causes is impossible, etc. The point that these proofs share is that they rely on the impossibility of infinity or of eternity, an observation to which we shall return.)

There are seeming objections to Maimonides' proof. This proof concludes that G~d has infinite power, yet, a basic theorem of the entire proof is the impossibility of infinity. In truth, however, this objection does not really injure the logical progression of the Aristotelian proof, for infinity is only impossible for things under time, while G~d is above time and therefore has infinite power. The impossibility of infinity is interrelated with the impossibility of eternity; if a being or object is not subject to time, both eternity and infinite power (if it has any power at all) become not only possible but necessary.

Another problem with Maimonides' proof is the disturbing fact that it does not prove the existence of G~d, rather a mere Mover. This concept is rather limited and obviously more difficult to resolve with the traditional conception of the G~d of the Jewish religion.

Maimonides and a not-so-well-known predecessor of his, R. Abraham ibn Daud (who lived at the start of the 12th century) resolve these and other difficulties, elaborating on this proof as well as listing many other proofs, which we omit for convenience's sake; our purpose is not to undertake to explain even the very major schools of philosophy in detail. We make mention of them only in passing.

The reader should be informed that modern philosophy plays havoc with Aristotle's most basic thoughts, but, as history has repeatedly proven, modern philosophy doesn't remain "modern" for long. It is, as we will point out shortly, an irrefutable truth that any point can be philosophically argued, which makes philosophy a rather flimsy method of ascertaining truth and reality.

Any philosophical system can be obliterated from the realm of the logically plausible if the philosopher will only concede the inevitability of one simple point, which we shall refer to as the Ultimate Undermining Factor.

This factor is the disarming possibility that nothing our senses perceive is necessarily real or true. We readily accept the existence of optical illusions and do not deny the fact that our senses are not infallible. If so, how can we be so certain that anything we experience is true? Just because our different senses all indicate the same certain things doesn't mean that the perceived is true; perhaps all of our senses are lying – perhaps we are all living in a dream-world of unreal fantasy! Why, there is no reason for us to even trust our mental faculties to function accurately. We are denuded even of Descartes' "I think therefore I am". Who says? Maybe we aren't. And even if we are, what gives us the right to trust our human logic to proceed from there? The point we are making is simply that a theoretical totally orthodox philosophical system forbids even the most basic premises, everything being uncertain. The Ultimate Undermining Factor pulls the rug out from under any meaningful, practical philosophical speculation. We are forsaken by philosophy and left with only certain finer feelings and intuitions which we know inherently that we can trust. We know, by our feelings, without any doubt, that we exist, and, if we leave ourselves unbiased to the contrary, we will know, with the same absence of doubt, that G~d exists as well.

Another very important fact to keep in mind regarding the worth of philosophical thought is that the great philosophers, throughout history, have constantly been in intense disagreement with each other on major issues. If it were really possible for any intelligent man to obtain truth through thought, then all philosophers should be expected to work out generally the same system with the same results. But this does not occur in fact; they are always arguing. What is a priori to one is an impossibility to another. This universal philosophical inharmony is a clear indication that something is very unreliable about philosophy.

We have already noted that the Maimonidean proofs of G~d's existence are all dependent upon the impossibility of eternity (i.e. the assertion that the cosmos and all matter never had a beginning but rather always existed), and hence, the impossibility of infinity in a series. Some philosophers, and even people with no philosophical experience, are absolutely certain that the universe must have begun, and the thought of a universe having always existed seems absurd to them ("Where then did the original matter come from?"). Others see nothing silly about saying that everything has always been around. How can two groups of intelligent people think along such totally opposite and irreconcilable lines, each group so sure of itself? Where is the flaw in either argument? Why can't philosophers clear the matter up? The answer to these questions will make itself evident in Chapter 9.

The school with which we will deal now is very different from the aforementioned ones. All of the logical proofs, regardless of how sound or sensible, are by very nature and definition cold and impersonal, and so seems the G~d they prove. Each and every individual has a natural inclination to realize G~d and most philosophers seem to ignore this fact; they certainly absent it from playing any substantial role in their proofs. R. Yehudah Halevi was a different type of thinker.

R. Yehudah Halevi, a noted philosopher, and poet lived around 1100. His views differ from those of R. Saadiah or Maimonides, not in result, but in method. R. Yehudah Halevi's theosophy (he would not be happy with us were we to call his system a philosophy) is voiced by the Jewish character in his book The Kuzari which is the true story, as reconstructed by the author, of the king of a Turkish people who, together with all of his subjects, a few centuries before R. Yehudah Halevi's time, converted to Judaism. This occurred after the king systematically rejected the views of a Christian and Moslem spokesman. The Christian and Moslem each tried to convince the king of the truth of their respective religions. The king saw that they both relied heavily on the Judaic tradition. He therefore went against his previous rejection of Jews and decided to at least hear the Jewish viewpoint. The Jew in the story is R. Yehudah Halevi's mouthpiece and what he voices is very interesting and very different.

The king asks the Jew what he believes in and the Jew answers that "we Jews believe in the G~d of our forefathers Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the G~d who liberated our ancestors from the land of Egypt . . ."

The king takes offense at this seemingly dull example of his seemingly dull religion who, when asked a question, replies with the answer to another question altogether. The disappointed king sighs in resignation, "Why didn't you simply answer, 'in the G~d who created heaven and earth, the First Cause . . . ?"

Answers the Jew: "You speak of a rational religion established through logic, which is full of doubt and subject to philosophical arguments. The proper way to define one's religion and belief is to refer to actual experience."

What R. Yehudah Halevi means is that though I've never seen the Queen of England or Napoleon, I know without any shadow of a doubt that they, respectively, exist or once existed. How so? Obviously by what I hear of them and/or their deeds. It is for this reason that the Jew answered the king as he did, by citing the historical tradition of the exodus from Egypt as being all the proof he needed to believe in G~d. If one's entire life (and afterlife) depended upon one's affirming one's belief in the existence of the Queen, one would, no doubt, do so without any delay.

R. Yehudah Halevi's position as regards proving the existence of G~d becomes slowly but surely evident: philosophy and logic, regarding G~d and creation, are inadequate guessing and not the tools with which to build religions. Judaism, however, has a solid foundation in the form of historical tradition. The very existence of the Jewish People itself over the ages, and its survival through almost constant attempts and half-successes at destroying it bear more reliable witness than even the most accepted philosophy or logic to the existence of a supernatural Protector. As regards the historical traditions of other religions, see chapter 3.

All of the accepted Jewish thinkers – even the steadfast logicians and philosophers – maintained that what concerns G~d's qualities and attributes must necessarily be above man's comprehension and is not subject to the rules of human logic. R. Yehudah Halevi merely went a step further and applied this restriction to the very existence of G~d, relying on history's truths and the world's constant self-evidence for testimony in favor of G~d's existence and the existence of His chosen people.

The reader should conclude that there are two basic paths, both of which lead to the realization of, and belief in, a Creator of all: the path of the philosophers and that of the emotion-experience believers. Though we've dealt with only one – R.Yehudah Halevi – most of Maimonides' critics are of this school of thought.

However, not even Maimonides and R. Saadiah Gaon did actually base their belief on logic. The source of their faith, not less than that of R. Yehudah Halevi, was the truth of tradition. Yet, unlike their critics, they felt it worthwhile – indeed a duty – to proceed, after the fact of faith, and formulate a logical system to prove and strengthen their belief.

No one path can be singled out as "right" quite obviously, for each person must examine both, and then adopt the one of his choice, or, preferably, a measure of both with one in the foreground. Though the philosophical approach entails some rather difficult and dangerous problems and is in essence lacking the human feeling for G~d which the other path readily affords, to be sure, if fully understood and if carried out to the utmost degree, all roads lead to G~d.

As regards the second problem, that of the existence of evil in the world, punished saints and prosperous sinners, let it suffice for the moment to state that:

1) one's condition in this world is of little consequence as regards true reward and punishment, and

2) everything in this world, from the mosquito bite on my left arm to the development of the nuclear bomb, fits into the larger scheme of things, and therefore we have no right to judge any event as inherently good or bad.

Also mentioned was the difficulty of why there are some very intelligent and well-versed men who insist upon denying the existence or essential attributes of G~d. The answer was actually mentioned in passing at the very start of this chapter. If the good reader cannot think of it after a moment's cogitation then he has not been treating our subject with the seriousness it deserves, and would do well to return and reread it before proceeding just as carefully. The answer will be elaborated upon in chapter 7.

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