Who is our God– Heavenly Father or the Infinite?

(Photo: Yakov Nagen)
(Photo: Yakov Nagen)

The Dalai Lama and the Prayer for Rain

The Western religions are based mostly on dualism, meaning a clear differentiation between the divine and the earthly. Creator and creation exist independently of one another – a distinctness that enables dialogue. God created the world, He steers it and acts upon it; man talks and prays to Him, and examines His ways in an effort to learn from Him and obey Him. The individual can maintain a real relationship with God, with room for feelings such as love and hate, fear and anger. These religions cast God in human terms, as Father, Lover, and Brother.

The Eastern religions, on the other hand, are non-dualistic. They consider God and the world to be one, and their religious experience is an awakening to the oneness underlying everything (Brahman, or “infinite expansion,” in Hinduism,  “emptiness” in Buddhism and the  Toa in Taoism).

My friend the late Rabbi Menachem Froman used to relate an anecdote that illustrates the difference between the two outlooks. During his first visit to Israel, the Dalai Lama took part in an interfaith conference by the Sea of Galilee. It was a drought year, and Rabbi Froman, who also attended the conference, convinced the other religious leaders to join him in a prayer for rain. They all stood together – rabbis, sheiks, and priests – and begged for rain. But the Dalai Lama whispered to Rabbi Froman that he did not believe “in this kind of thing.” When everything is one, he said, there is no room for such supplications. It is only when God is a separate entity that He can be approached with prayers and entreaties.

The difference between the two approaches recalls the fundamental gap between “being” and “doing.” In a world where everything is one, humanity’s purpose is to reveal the unity underlying reality, which to the naked eye seemingly comprises endless disparate elements. However, when God is conceived as being outside the cosmos and acting upon it, the individual’s challenge is to act and strive to rectify reality.

Two Aspects of the Divine

Rav Kook addresses this apparent dichotomy in his Shemona Kevatzim (1:65), and explains that the Jewish conception of the divine is composed of two aspects: on the overt level of reality, God is distinct from the world and maintains a relationship with it, but on a deeper, more concealed level, all is one; everything is divine. The sources of “overt” Judaism, including the Bible, Talmud, and halakha, deal mostly with a personal God, while Jewish mysticism – Kabbala and Hasidism – is concerned with the inner Torah, with uncovering the divine in all of reality.

The complex relationship between God and the world can be likened to the love between a man and a woman: In order for there to be a loving relationship, each must reserve a place in their lives and their personalities that is separate from the other. It is only from such a place that they can emerge, love, and carry on a relationship. At the same time, each aspires to feel, even within that separate space, a sense of unity and shared experience with the other. A great example of this ideal is Rabbi Aryeh Levin, who – as the famous story goes – went with his wife to the doctor and complained, “My wife’s leg hurts us.”

Love, it emerges, can be described as the fertile tension between being two and being one. On the overt level, the man and the woman are separate beings, each aware of the existence of the other. But inside they are one – “bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh” (Gen. 2:23), as Adam says in Eden. That is also the relation between God and the world.

The same tension is apparent in the Jewish Creation myth: at first, man was created as a single creature with two aspects – male and female – locked in a state that kabbalists refer to as aĥor be’aĥor, or “back to back,” in which neither was aware of the existence of the other. It was only afterward that God severed them into separate male and female entities, so that they could ultimately reunite: “And [he] shall cleave unto his wife, and they shall be one flesh” (2:24). Their renewed connection was what kabbalists call panim befanim, or “face to face.” Each saw the other, each loved the other.

About the Author
Yakov Nagen is the Executive Director of the Ohr Torah Interfaith Center, a division of Ohr Torah Stone. He also heads its Blickle Institute for Interfaith Dialogue and Beit Midrash for Judaism and Humanity. He is a Rabbi at the Yeshiva of Otniel and has written ten books about Jewish Spirituality, Talmud and Interfaith.