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Notes from Limmud 2005

Who is God anyway and how can I believe in Him/Her/It?

Shira Batya Lewin Solomons

[Standard disclaimer: All views not in square brackets are those of the speaker, not myself. Accuracy of transcription is not guaranteed.]

The speaker's take on [R. Mordecai] Kaplan's The Meaning of God in Modern Jewish Religion. This talk is aimed at giving some way of connecting to the spiritual benefits of belief in God without necessarily believing in God. To an extent it is not necessarily relevant whether God exists or not.

In order to understand Kaplan's approach to God, you have to understand where he is coming from in terms of philosophy. He believes Judaism has always changed; he holds Judaism to be a civilisation. In previous generations as it has evolved and changed, it has changed through the denial of change. If the rabbis wanted to change halacha, they don't change the halacha, we say things don't work the way they did when the law was set down; so we don't follow the halacha, but don't change it either.

Transvaluation consists in ascribing meanings to the traditional content of a religion or social heritage, which could neither have been contemplated nor implied by the authors of that content.

(The same thing is seen in the anachronisms of midrashim.) Kaplan finds this intellectually dishonest. (The speaker is not entirely convinced.) Instead, Kaplan proposes revaluation:

Revaluation consists in disengaging from the traditional content those elements in it which answer permanent postulates of human nature, and integrating them into our own ideology. When we revaluate, we analyse of break up the traditional values into their implications, and single out for acceptance those implications which can help us meet our own moral and spiritual needs; the rest may be relegated to archaeology.

A pick and choose philosophy.

Kaplan is now going to take God—the Creator, the King, etc—and revaluate God. Which of these aspects does he find useful, which not, which need tweaking? He feels God is in danger of being found irrelevant, and needs to be revaluated to allow Judaism to survive in today's world.

He says Judaism has ascribed many notions to God as a result of transvaluation. Hence the conflict between the personal and generic concepts of God. Is God the God of Israel, who will protect us, or the God of all humanity? Are we going to focus in on ourselves as Jews, or are we going to look out at the rest of the world? We are all descended form Adam and Eve and in the image of God, but elsewhere God talks about Israel only.

So we have a conflict based on the accumulation of incompatible ideas.

Also, theodicy: God can't be both omnipotent and beneficent: these two ideas come from different places.

We need to stop thinking of God as an entity, but as a quality of the world. The speaker holds that this is more important than whether God actually exists: believing in God the Kaplan way is more religious than if you believe God exists but has nothing to do with you.

To modern man, religion can no longer be a matter of entering into relationship with the supernatural. The only kind of religion that can help him live and get the most out of life will be the one which will teach him to identify as divine or holy whatever in human nature or in the world about him enhances human life.

We have to identify as godhood, or as the divine quality of universal being, all relationships, tendencies and agencies which in their totality go to make human life worthwhile in the deepest and most abiding sense. The divine is no less real, no less dependable for personal salvation or self-realisation, if we think of it as a quality than if we think of it as an entity or being.

To Kaplan God is very real—he is a deeply religious man; he kept Shabbos and kashrus (though many of his followers don't)—just not the traditional supernatural entity. He is writing in the context of the objectivism in science of the 1930s, but has a deep spiritual yearning, trying to find a God he can belief in and still be intellectually honest.

To believe in God is to reckon with life's creative forces, tendencies and potentialities as forming an organic unity, and as giving meaning to life by virtue of that unity.

The world is not all just random chaos; it has purpose to it. This is Kaplan's faith.

Kaplan's way of believing in God is not incompatible with the traditional Jewish view: you can believe in God as an entity and believe in God Kaplan's way too.

Quality to the world which means that God is in it. What makes your belief in God Jewish is what qualities you believe God gives to the world. In his book, he examines the concepts of God being King, etc, one by one and analysing what this means for the world.

Relate this to the Rambam's concept of the indescribability of God. The מהות, the whatness, of God, cannot be described. Whatever you say about God can't be true; you can't perceive God directly. The whatness of God is hidden from us.

So what can we do to understand God? What we perceive is not God Himself but, to use Kabbalistic language, the emanations from God. God's existence can be seen in those qualities of the world which relate to His being; and by perceiving these, you are helping to make God more manifest in the world.

If you can't understand the whatness of God, forget about it; and concentrate on the qualities of God. From the speaker's point of view, if you believe in all the qualities of God, but believe the whatness of God can't be described, it doesn't matter whether you believe in God or not, so Kaplan isn't so radical after all (even though he describes himself as so); his views are compatible with a traditional way of looking at God.

The speaker believes that belief in God as an entity can help... but jumping straight to that without going via the divine qualities can lead to idolatry, in the Jewish sense, as sinful.

The two main qualities of God, which which all other ones derive, are God as Creator and God as King.

God as Creator

The moral implicatoins of the traditional teaching that God created the world is that creativity or the continuous emergence of aspects of life not prepared for or determined by the past, constitutes the most divine phase of reality.

The world is not static. Continuous creation; as the daily liturgy puts it:

[God] illuminates the earth and the generations upon it with lovingkindness; and in God's goodness renews every day continually the work of Creation. הַמֵּאִיר לָאָרֶץ וְלַדָּרִים עָלֶיהָ בְּרַחֲמִים. וּבְטוּבו מְחַדֵּשׁ בְּכָל יום תָּמִיד מַעֲשה בְרֵאשִׁית׃

Kaplan is standing with Rambam in opposing the Greek point of view.

Also, the Unity of God. There are not two forces, of good and evil. Evil is not God.

According to the version which the Jewish civilisation at its best has always given to man's place in the world, life is conceived not as the working out of a doom but as the fulfilment of a blessing. The process of that fulfilment is continually interrupted by all manner of evil. Evil is an interference, it is not Fate. "The die is cast," says the occidental man; and the Jewish religion retorts, "But the final issue is with God." For God is the creator, and that which seems impossible today He may bring to birth tomorrow.

Saying ברוך דין אמת to someone who has suffered a bereavement, is making a deep statement of belief in the nature of God.

The duty which Jewish religion imposes upon the Jew to bless God for the evil as well as for the good should be interpreted as implying that it is our duty so to deal with the evil in life as not to permit it to negate our belief in God. We should so identify ourselves with the divine in the world as to greet in the evil an occasion for reaffirming the reality of the divine. Evil is chaos still uninvaded by creative energy, sheer chance unconquered by will and intelligence.

God as King

[Kaplan] set up authoritarian monotheism (e.g. Christianity, as opposed to Judaism as ethical monotheism (though there are elements of that in Christianity too)) as a straw man to knock down. Instead of obeying God through fear, do so through love.

Similarly, in our religious life we must identify the sovereignty of God not with the expression of the will of a superhuman, immortal and infallible individual personality, but with that Power on which we rely for the regeneration of society and which operates through individual human beings and social institutions. Faith in the sovereignty of God comes then to mean faith that in mankind there is manifest a Power which, in full harmony with the nature of the physical universe, operates for the regeneration of human society.

...The traditional religious objective of 'perfecting the world under the Kingdom of the Almighty' must mean the establishment of a social order that combines the maximum of individiual self-realisation with the maximum of social cooperation.

...The religious attitude is one which seeks and, having found, clings tenaciously to that in human life which holds promise of redeeming it from chaos. It discovers in man with all his cruelty and viciousness the element of goodness which in the end will replace hatred and strife with reason and good will. To attain this faith in man, in the latent possibilities of his nature, is to accept the kingship of God.

On Rosh Hashanah we accept the Torah to behave in a way that crowns God as King of the world.

The view of God as king bossing us around can be dangerous, as it leads to a dogmatic attitude towards right and wrong. Likewise דעת תורה, the idea of rabbinic infallibility, which has currency in much of the Charedi world.

If we believe in God as simply a quality of the world, from where do we find foundations for morality? If God is not an entity, can God as a quality provide a foundation for morality, which is another important function that religion has to serve in our lives?

18-22 [??? References to a source sheet, perhaps? This was from eleven years ago; I have no idea now!]

Kaplan has a real problem with Godless humanism:

...the unreasonableness of a godless humanism. In the actual effort to live in conformity with what we regard as the right kind of life, we experience so many difficulties due to temptation, failure and discouragement that, without assumption of faith that our effort is in keeping with the inherent nature of reality, and is in the direction of what will finally come about, we could not possibly have the courage to keep on trying.

You can't be a scientist like Dawkins. Nothing means anything; what's going to keep you acting morally, when things are going wrong and morality is costly?

Most people, says the speaker, who say they are atheist and are deeply moral people, are not as atheist as they claim to be. They don't like using the word "God", yet have a form of faith.

Kaplan is using the word "God" to describe the beliefs in the world that people who tend to believe in God tend to have.

[Audience question: What about God as judge? In the framework of the High Holydays, rather than authoritarian monotheism?]

Kaplan interprets God as judge as crying out to God to come and judge the world in righteousness and come and make a better world. The main focus of repentance in the the High Holydays is on self-improvement. If God is judging us on our behaviour, unless this has a spiritual underpinning, it does not necessarily improve us, and can be dangerous (e.g. the philosophy of suicide bombers: they accept what they are told, and do not use their moral judgement).

What about teaching children יראת שמים; isn't this authoritarian? There is the need for discipline, for the speaker does not like fire-and-brimstone pedagogy, and does not believe it necessarily leads to religiosity.

Praying. Praying in a circle to create the presence of God in their midst.


[Handwritten notes]:

Comparison of Kaplan to Einstein: Einstein turned the idea of gravity on its head. But it still describes what we experience.

Me: Why has Reconstructionism not taken off here [i.e. in the UK]? Answer: (a) It was an offshoot of the Conservative movement, and Masorti here is not a big enough movement to have an offshoot. (b) Reconstructionism in the States has not been a very successful movement. Much of the influence it has had has been indirect, e.g. on egalitarianism in Reform.

Scientism: Science itself is great, but scientism describes the belief that thing ought to be the way they are because that is the natural way. Darwinism is good but the ?minute ?you mix it in with [illegible] you get Social Darwinism.

Jewish learning notes index

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