Harry Freedman
Writing on Jewish history, Jewish books, Jewish ideas

God doesn’t need a granny flat

After he has given them the Torah, God instructs the Israelites to build him a sanctuary, out of materials that they will voluntarily donate.

The idea that the nation needs a sanctuary in which to worship is reasonable. What is harder to understand is the biblical idea that God needs a house to dwell in (Exodus 25,8). Equally difficult is  the rabbinic interpretation that implies God needs the sanctuary as much, or even more, than the Israelites.

The 15th century Spanish philosopher Isaac ben Moses Arama describes the relationship between God and Israel as one of interdependence. He illustrates God’s giving of the Torah to Israel by comparing it to a king whose daughter gets married. The king cannot bear to be parted from her and asks her new husband to build him a house alongside theirs, a sort of medieval granny flat, so that he can see his daughter whenever he wishes (Akedat Yitzhak 49). This is how God felt, says Arama, when he gave his Torah to the Israelites. He could not bear to be permanently parted from it. God, it would appear, is in some way dependent upon the Israelites to help him preserve his relationship with the Torah.

We see a similar example of God as being in some way dependent, or needy, during a discussion in the Talmud about Sh’mini Atzeret, the eighth day following the festival of Sukkot (Sukkot 55b). The Jews had celebrated the festival in the Temple for seven days. When the time came for them to leave, God could not bear to see them go. He asked them to stay for another day.

It is hard to reconcile these ideas with the Maimonidean idea of God as a transcendent and wholly self-contained being, beyond all description, imagination and contemplation. Such a God has no needs, he is dependent on nothing, even the idea of dependency cannot apply to him.

But if that is the case, why would God bother to create the world? He doesn’t need us at all. And if he is only transcendent how can we speak of God as loving, powerful or just, or indeed any of the other qualities we endow him with?

Judaism believes that God does act on the world, that he is immanent as well as transcendent, that he is, if you like, a personal God. The emotions that he seems to display are not feelings in the human sense, but attributes, they characterise the way that he acts on us and on the world. The kabbalists call these attributes sefirot, but this idea can be understood just as easily in rational terms. God’s love, power, justice are not expressions of his feelings or will, but a human way of describing the way that we perceive him.

The same applies to his apparent dependency. God is not dependent on people; he does not need a sanctuary to dwell in, or a granny flat so that he can stay close to the Torah. He does not need the Jews to stay in the Temple for another day before going home. Rather, these needs are ours. What we imagine to be God’s dependency on us is an attribute, a way he acts on us enabling us to imagine that he needs us to draw closer.

In the same way, we refer to God as a father. We imply that he has an emotional attachment to us, just as a human father has to his child. Calling him a father helps us to relate to him. Thinking of him as dependent does the same thing; it helps us to conceptualise that which is beyond all conception.

My latest book on the history of the Kabbalah has just been published by Bloomsbury UK. If you would like a signed copy of Kabbalah: Secrecy, Scandal and the Soul please contact me through harryfreedmanbooks.com

About the Author
My new book is Kabbalah: Secrecy, Scandal and the Soul, published by Bloomsbury. Bloomsbury also published my previous books The Talmud: A Biography in February 2014 and The Murderous History of Bible translations in 2016. I wrote Kabbalah: Secrecy, Scandal and the Soul to try to give some context to contemporary attitudes to Kabbalah. Kabbalah became fashionable at the end of the 20th Century, largely due to the interest shown in it by Hollywood celebrities and rock stars, the most famous being Madonna. But Kabbalah's history goes back two thousand years and its story is far more interesting and profound than some of things written about it in the popular media. You can find out more about my books and why I write them at www.harryfreedmanbooks.com
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