A brief Torah theology – Part One: From Here to God

1.         I can only know God in the first person.

The most basic thing I mean by “God” is “that which I recognize as worthy of service and worship”. No matter how powerful something is, if I don’t think it’s worthy of service and worship, it cannot be what I mean by “God”. The reason for this is simple: Why would I serve and worship something that I don’t think is worthy of service and worship?

And so in order to tell you what I mean by God, I need to tell you what I think is worthy of service and worship.

Encampment of Israelites 1836, Mount Sinai, as in Numbers 33:15, intaglio print from "Landscape illustrations of the Bible" by Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851).
Encampment of Israelites 1836, Mount Sinai, as in Numbers 33:15, intaglio print from “Landscape illustrations of the Bible” by Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851).

2.         Things like love and justice are worthy of service (we’ll get to “worship” below).

I’m sure that there are things, like love and justice, that are worthy of my service. In fact, I’m sure that these things are more important than I am, and that my very worth as a human being is measured by my faithfulness to them. While I can’t offer linear definitions for these terms, they are clear enough when I encounter them. It’s very likely that what you intuitively think of when you see the words “love” and “justice” is more or less what I mean.

Love and justice are just examples. There are many other things similarly important, probably too many to write down, and they vary all the time. I don’t need a fixed list. I just need to know them when I see them. And I do. Other similarly important things are beauty, freedom, creativity and spirituality. These ultimately valuable things are an integral part of my life. They involve body and mind, emotion and intellect, and everything else that I am.

Love and justice are not physical things, so you could wonder whether they are “real” at all. What are love and justice? They are complex symbols that somehow reflect what it’s like to be a human being living in the world. In fact, all the things that are most important to human beings are complex symbols and not physical things. At this stage of our evolution, we live in a world of symbols, what some theorists call “fictions”, like law, money, marriage, nationality, citizenship, religion and so forth. One could argue that even our very identity, our “I”, is constructed from these symbols. For human beings, there is nothing more real than symbols. Through them we make sense of our lives. My argument is not that “love” and “justice” live up to some predetermined definition of what is “real”. My argument is that whatever love and justice are, they are the standard by which we should define what is “reality”.

3.         Love and justice point past themselves to mystery and infinity (and “worship” enters the picture).

In my experience of things like love and justice, I never feel that I’ve grasped the whole of them. In my love I see reflected a love that’s higher and more perfect than the love that I know. Sometimes, I get a glimpse of that higher love, and it blows me away. Similarly, when I explore justice, I always feel like there is a more perfect justice that I can’t quite grasp. It’s like the love and justice that I know are reflections of something higher.

Maybe it was because of this feeling that Plato came up with idea of “ideas”; that the things of our world are reflections of higher things. Be that as it may, the way that love, justice, beauty, creativity etc. seem to point beyond themselves – to be more than I can understand – endows them with mystery and infinity. Mystery – because there is something strange and enchanted about them. Infinity – because they seem to extend beyond the horizon of what I can imagine. It’s like I see the tail end of something much greater. For that reason, at least as a metaphor, I think of the “higher” love and justice as the source of the love and justice that I see.

When I encounter the mysterious, enchanting and infinite sources of those things that give my own life worth, I am struck with awe, and moved to worship. “Worship” is the attempt to draw close, even to touch, the higher things that I can only intuit. But just that intuition can bring happiness and inspiration. Worship – drawing close – usually involves some kind of meditation on symbols signifying the things that I know are worthy of service and worship. Without mystery and infinity, I am only moved to faithfulness. With mystery and infinity, sometimes called “the numinous”, I am also moved to worship.

4.         How do I know that love and justice and their higher sources are really worthy of service and worship?

What proof should I bring for my claim that I know that these things are worthy of service and worship? Maybe I should argue that since the universe has developed towards complexity, life and consciousness, it seems that being itself seeks higher spiritual things. Or maybe I should try another angle and argue that not being but truth requires that we love and be just. Some say that the essence of sentience and intelligibility leads to these values.

I’m open to these claims but agnostic about their validity. In any case, they strike me as beside the point. It is nothing outside of my experience of love, justice, freedom, beauty etc. (and their higher sources) that moves me to judge them worthy of service and worship. What moves me is contained in my encounter with them. The love that I know is its own justification. Everything I am – reason and emotion, body and mind – judges such things to be the measure of my worth. I don’t need to make any claim about the ultimate nature of being or truth to know their value. My recognition of what is worthy of service and worship is self-contained; it comes “everything included”.

What accounts for me being sure that these things are worthy? Is it not just that my mammal brain, produced by the mindless mechanism of evolution, is programmed to value these things? I expect that it is. In fact, I imagine that people are bio-robots with brains like super computers.  Maybe chance could have produced a different kind of bio-robo device that knew not love and justice but other things that I cannot fathom. But so what? I am human, however I came to be, and what I know applies to me. I make no claim about values for creatures whose inner life I cannot imagine.

Nothing in my (sci-fi) story about bio-robo humanity constitutes an argument that I should not seek love, justice and beauty. I don’t need an everlasting soul to value these things any more than I need the ultimate nature of being or truth. Love and justice are good enough on their own. What could there be in being or truth, or even in a supernatural soul, that deserves faithfulness more than they? To look for the value of these things as if it comes from outside of themselves is like looking for light in darkness.

5.         It is the One that reveals what is worthy of service and worship.

The bottom line of what I said above is that I think I know what is worthy of service and worship. I encounter things like love and justice that I am sure require my service and point past themselves to a higher “source” (at least metaphorically) that moves me to worship. I argued that whatever these things are, they are the standard for what I call “real”. Let me add now that whatever is the nature of my knowledge of the value of these things, it is the standard of what I call “knowledge”. The things that I recognize as worthy of service and worship are the realist and truest things that I know.

Where do real and true things come from? Let’s takes physics and numbers as examples. Where do they come from? Well, it seems like the world comes with them built-in. They are just there, integral parts of both our minds and the world outside. If there was a Big Bang 14 billion years ago, then physics and numbers were born in the strange point of “singularity” from which the universe sprang. And whatever “laws of nothingness” (those that predated the “laws of nature” which came with the world) that governed the birth of singularity, governed the emergence of physics and numbers, too.

What might I call everything all taken together? Is there a term that covers not only numbers and physics and the world, but also singularity, and what came before, and what will come after? I need a term that includes everything I know and the infinity of things that I don’t know. The term I use for “everything all taken together” is the “One”. The One is all things and all things are faces of the One. Physics and numbers, rocks and trees, even you and me; we are all manifestations of the One.

Love, justice and their higher sources, like physics, numbers and all other true and real things, are revealed to me by the One.

6.         The One is God.

Since everything is the One, and I entitled this section, “The One is God”, it’s clear that I’m a pantheist: everything is God. But I also said above that “God” is what I recognize as worthy of service and worship. Is that not a contradiction? Surely, not everything that exists is worthy of service and worship! In order to make sense of what I mean, I need to distinguish between two different aspects of what I mean by “God”.

The first meaning of “God” is “that which I recognize as worthy of service and worship”. I can now say a little more about this aspect of God. First, it consists of the things that I know that I should serve, like love and justice. Second, it consists of the higher “sources” of these things which move me to worship. Third, it consists of the creative power of the One which generated, sustains and contains the universe and reveals to me what is worthy of service and worship. All this taken together – the source of being, truth and ultimate value – is what I worship as “God”. This first meaning of God might be called “God as the Good”.

The second meaning of “God” is close to the kabbalistic notion of “ein sof”. This aspect of God is more about my picture of the world than about the values according to which I try to live. This meaning of God might be called “God as the One”. Since I know that the source of all being is also the source of that which I know is worthy of service and worship, I think of all being as a manifestation of God. Some of God is revealed to me as worthy of service and worship (like love and justice) and some is just the world.

Since there is evil and suffering in the world, it follows that there is evil and suffering in God (as the One). Does this contradict God as the Good? I don’t think so. Evil and suffering are the necessary flip sides of things that I think are good: freedom and sensual life. Since we want freedom, evil must be a possibility. And since we want sensual flesh-and-blood existence, suffering must also be possible. Maybe God could have given us freedom without evil and sensual life without suffering, but I can’t imagine how. Since these combinations strike me as impossible, I don’t question the goodness of God for not having done them.

7.         Is God a Person?

When I worship God in prayer, I focus my mind on symbols that signify the source of being, truth, love, justice, creativity and so forth. You might say that I’m trying to connect to the essence of these things all taken together. I do that through symbols because that’s how the human mind works.

For Jewish prayer, one important way that we connect to God is through approaching God as a “person”. That means speaking to God and using human imagery to think about God. Does that make sense given the idea of God laid out in this paper? I think it does. Approaching God as Person does not mean that we think that God is a person like us, which would require that God have a central nervous system like ours, etc. Rather, approaching God as Person means that we believe that the personal relation (talking to God and thinking about God as “person”) reveals real and true things about God that we could not access if we were to think of God as a giant mindless machine (the way that physics seems to imagine the world). But approaching the One as mindless mechanism clearly cannot capture the whole truth because the One includes the mind (yours, for example). If you think that the universe is in its essence entirely mechanistic, how is it that you exist? Approaching the One in the language of mechanism and physics reveals true and important things. But it seems to me that logic dictates that approaching the One in personal terms also reveals true and important things. We approach God as Person not because God has a human central nervous system but because using the personal relation reveals true and real things about God.

8.         I didn’t say that what you regard as worthy of service and worship is what I mean by “God”

A common misunderstanding of my position goes like this: “So you’re saying that God is whatever people think is worthy of service and worship; but what about Nazis?!” But this is a mistake: I began by explaining that I can only know God in the first person as “that which I recognize as worthy of service and worship”. That definition is not translatable into third person: I am in no way committed to the idea that what you recognize as worthy of service and worship is what I call God. The reason for this is simple: you might be a morally impoverished lunatic! I might think that what you worship is evil and not God.

I think it’s likely that you and I serve more or less the same things. But there’s only one way I can find out; by learning about what you recognize as worthy of service and worship and comparing that to what I know to be God. Sharing knowledge of God can only be inter-subjective: face-to-face encounters between living minds. There can be no third person “objective” definition of God (as understood here).

9.         An idiosyncratic “God”?

One might conclude from my argument that everybody has their own God. But I don’t think that’s right. First of all, as I said above, I will only call “God” that which I recognize as God. If your “God” isn’t mine, then I won’t call it “God”. What follows from my position is only that I worship God, not that anybody else does!

But if everybody followed my logic, would that not result in a religious war of all against all? If the earth’s cultures were really as different as we pretend that they are, it probably would. Luckily, however, I believe that Western popular discourse has become accustomed to wildly exaggerate the value-gap between cultures, as if the peoples of the world have no common human foundation upon which to build mutual understanding. In contradiction to this wide-spread assumption, it seems me that all the major cultures present ideals of love, justice, beauty, spiritual transcendence and so forth, and most people try to be faithful to them (at least sometimes). When I listen to other people describe what they recognize as worthy of service and worship, it sounds to me like they believe more or less in the same God that I do.

If so, why is there so much conflict? To argue that the members of our species generally seek love, justice and spiritual transcendence is not to argue that they generally make good judgments about reality. For instance, if the mainstream narratives held by Arabs and Jews about each other were true, both sides would be justified in attacking each other! If you really listen to the Jews and Arabs who justify victimizing each other, you discover ignorance of the injustice perpetrated by their own side, susceptibility to demagoguery, fear, hate and a host of other things, but not evidence that they don’t value more or less the same “justice” and “love”. In fact, it is the very commitment to love and justice, combined with badly distorted pictures of reality, that often motivates people to perpetrate crimes against each other. The fact that hurt, confused and ignorant people get into violent conflict with each other says very little about their foundational values.

We might pose the question at stake like this: if most human beings were well educated, protected from violence, and advanced in the spiritual practices of their cultures, would there still be so much conflict between them? I think not. Just as human beings look more or less alike on the outside, I think that the evidence demonstrates that they are more or less alike on the inside. At this stage of our evolution, global humanity is deeply interdependent through a web of shared fictions like money, states and laws. We are a closely knit species that shares a whole lot of culture. Maybe that was less true before colonialism swallowed up many of humanity’s more exotic pre-modern cultures. But I think it’s true today. The problem is not some unbridgeable value-chasm but rather that we as a species have yet to develop the material, moral, intellectual and spiritual faculties that will enable us to realize our shared foundational values.

And so the bottom line is that even though I can only meet God in the first person, I believe that the God that I meet is not an idiosyncratic personal God but rather the true God of humanity.

Stay tuned for:

Part Two: From God to Torah

Part Three: From Torah to Human Rights

Part Four: From Human Rights to ADAM (the divine-human image)

About the Author
Shaiya Rothberg lives with his wife in Jerusalem Al-Quds. He is a teacher of Jewish Thought and a human rights activist. Shaiya holds a PhD from Hebrew University in Jewish Thought and a B.A. in Jewish Philosophy and Talmud from Bar-Ilan University. He made aliyah in 1988 and served as a soldier and officer in the I.D.F. Shaiya's writing and teaching focus on the transformative potential of Jewish tradition.