Monday, December 03, 2012

God: Facsimile of our Ignorance or Infinitely Beyond our Grasp?

I wrote this response to Yoram Hazony's recent Oped in the New York Times:(  

Yoram Hazony makes one excellent point in his editorial: “The belief that any human mind can grasp enough of God to begin recognizing perfections in him would have struck the biblical authors as a pagan conceit.”  This, I believe, is an astute and accurate understanding of the biblical text.  I also found myself agreeing—at least to some degree—with the following line of reasoning:

[God] is portrayed, ultimately, as faithful and just. But these are not the "perfections" of a God known to be a perfect being. They don't exist in his character "necessarily," or anything remotely similar to this. On the contrary, it is the hope that God is faithful and just that is the subject of ancient Israel's faith: We hope that despite the frequently harsh reality of our daily experience, there is nonetheless a faithfulness and justice that rules in our world in the end.

Though there is room to argue about his formulation of ancient Israel’s faith, from a philosophical perspective I would have to agree that being faithful and just are not perfections that “exist in his character “necessarily”.” Maimonides pointed out a long time ago that being faithful or just (or any other “perfection”) are ways of describing what we can perceive in this world as the work of God—that which is Providential—and not by any means a description of God Himself. 

However, as much as I agree with Dr. Hazony about the lack of perfection in our knowledge of God, I would not draw his other conclusion: that the ancient Israelites had, what he calls, a more realistic conception of God—a God who is “incomplete and changing.”  As Hazony knows, there are no simple interpretations of any biblical text, or any text for that matter.  Every interpretation rests within an interpretive frame which grounds the reader and determines what is and is not seen and heard.  In Hazony’s frame the beliefs of the ancient Israelites and the philosophers are placed in opposition—the ancient Israelites’ view of the world being realistic and the philosophers’ idealistic.  However, I do not understand why the ancient Israelite’s conception, as he would have it, is any “more plausible a conception of God” than the conception he has attributed (and I am not convinced he is correct in this attribution) to the theists.  What evidence is there in the biblical text that God is “as Donald Harman Akenson writes…an “embodiment of what is, of reality” as we experience it”?   Though I am loathe to try and get into the mind of the ancient Israelite—a hermeneutic of futility at best—is it reasonable to attribute to them such a conception of God?  Does this conception of God really emerge from the biblical text?  Was God, in the mind of the ancient Israelite, just another word for how they experienced reality? 

I argue that Hazony’s interpretation does not emerge from the text at all—he has brought forth a notion of God that is to his liking and has summoned forth the text to support his argument.  Beyond philosophical objections (of which there are many), I believe his interpretation is poor because I do not see how this constructivist notion of God emerges from the text or how it leads to a better interpretation of the text.  

At the end of the day we must ask ourselves—as the so maligned theists did in their day—who, or what is God?  We will find the answers to that question from a number of sources: our traditions, our philosophical reflections and our readings of the text.  Each source informs and is informed by the others.  There is no way to avoid this hermeneutic circle.  However, we must avoid creating straw-men out of sources foreign to our own beliefs and traditions and live up to the interpretive call.  As I already mentioned, I agree with Hazony’s contention that “perfection” is a poor category to apply to God.  But isn’t claiming that God is incomplete and changing and “coming-into-being” just as—if not more—misguided?  Is he not falling prey to the same mistake the theists made—namely, attributing our own limited categories to God?  

Did the “biblical authors” (a construct, I am not, for a number of reasons, comfortable with) assert that God is perfect?  No, they obviously did not.  But Hazony seems to have confounded/equated the fallibility of our grasp with the object we seek to grasp.  Hazony points out that when “God responds to Moses’ request to know his name” the King James Bible is incorrect in its translation of that name as “I am that I am.”  He writes,

The Hebrew "I will be what I will be" is in the imperfect tense, suggesting to us a God who is incomplete and changing.  In their run-ins with God, human beings can glimpse a corner or an edge of something too immense to be encompassed, a "coming-into-being" as God approaches, and no more.

His translation is, of course, better than the KJB.  However, this is precisely the point at which he loses me.  How would it follow from this translation that God is incomplete and changing?  Let God be Who He will be and let man’s conception be that which is incomplete and changing.  Why would it follow from the fact that our grasp is limited that God himself is limited?  We need not be philosophers to have problems with this line of reasoning.  

One final question—this time from the text: If Moses could only see God’s back, doesn’t that imply an imperfection in Moses’ knowledge not an imperfection in God?  Isn’t the notion that God is always more than we can comprehend, always beyond our conceptions only possible if God is actually something more and something beyond? As Zophar the Naamathite says, “Canst thou find out the deep things of God? Canst thou attain unto the purpose of the Almighty? (Job 11:7, JPS 1917 Edition)  Let us not make God a facsimile of our own ignorance.  


Rabbi Jonathan Sacks said...

Well said Yehuda. Hazony mistakes the primitive projection of psychological limitations on Hashem of חֲדָשִׁים מִקָּרֹב בָּאוּ -a Galut based based interpretive framework- for the true ancients, our Fathers who were the antithesis of such notions לֹא שְׂעָרוּם אֲבֹתֵיכֶם.

This mistake of Hazony was already anticipated by Moshe Rabbenu in Haazinu. He foretold that the Ancients notion of a perfect God whose every act reflects justice would be confused with an alien notion.
32:1 Listen heaven! I will speak! Earth! Hear the words of my mouth! 32:2 My lesson shall drop like rain, my saying shall flow down like the dew - like a downpour on the herb, like a shower on the grass. 32:3 When I proclaim God's name, praise God for His greatness. 32:4 The deeds of the Mighty One are perfect, for all His ways are just. He is a faithful God, never unfair; righteous and moral is He. 32:5 Destruction is His children's fault, not His own, you warped and twisted generation. 32:6 Is this the way you repay God, you ungrateful, unwise nation? Is He not your Father, your Master, the One who made and established you? 32:7 Remember days long gone by. Ponder the years spanning all generations. Ask your father and let him tell you, and your grandfather, who will explain it. 32:8 When the Most High gave nations their heritage and split up the sons of man, He set up the borders of nations to parallel the number of Israel's descendants. 32:9 But His own nation remained God's portion; Jacob was the lot of His heritage. 32:10 He brought them into being in a desert region, in a desolate, howling wasteland. He encompassed them and granted them wisdom, protecting them like the pupil of His eye. 32:11 Like an eagle arousing its nest, hovering over its young, He spread His wings and took them, carrying them on His pinions. 32:12 God alone guided them; there was no alien power with Him. 32:13 He carried them over the earth's highest places, to feast on the crops of the field. He let them suckle honey from the bedrock, oil from the flinty cliff.
32 :14 [They had] the cheese of cattle, milk of sheep, fat of lambs, rams of the Bashan, and luscious fat wheat. They drank the blood of grapes for wine. 32:15 Jeshurun thus became fat and rebelled. You grew fat, thick and gross. [The nation] abandoned the God who made it and spurned the Mighty One who was its support. 32:16 They provoked His jealousy with alien practices; made Him angry with vile deeds. 32:17 They sacrificed to demons who were non-gods, deities they never knew. These were new things, recently arrived, which their fathers would never consider. 32:18 You thus ignored the Mighty One who bore you; forgot the Power who delivered you. 32:19 When God saw this, He was offended, provoked by His sons and daughters. 32:20 He said: I will hide My face from them, and see what will be their end. They are a generation which reverses itself and cannot be trusted. 32:21 They have been faithless to Me with a non-god, angering Me with their meaningless acts. Now I will be unfaithful to them with a non-nation, provoking them with a nation devoid of gratitude.

Yaakov said...

This is a shame, I heard that he wrote a book on the philosophy of tanach over the summer, but if he has such basic confusion about the yesod hayesodot it would seem that any of his "philosophy" and push to restore tanach as a philosophical book will be useless.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks said...


It is important to remember that Hazony is a victim of living in a dark age. His experience of Judaism is through the prism of academic Philosophy rather than Rambam, obviously.

Academic Philosophy certainly has its place, but it is no substitute for the Mesorah of Mi'Moshe ad Moshe.

As perhaps a quintessential victim of darkness in our age foretold by Mishe Rabbenu in Haazinu, Hazony may well have very valuable lessons to offer, by way of formulating the problems of our generation.

To quote from his piece in the NYT:

1. "Philosophers have spent many centuries trying to get God’s supposed perfections to fit together in a coherent conception, and then trying to get that to fit with the Bible. By now it’s reasonably clear that this can’t be done." Is this true? Is there a sense of "perfection" Rambam teaches that stands the test of time?

2. In fact, part of the reason God-bashers like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris are so influential (apart from the fact they write so well) is their insistence that the doctrine of God’s perfections makes no sense, and that the idealized “being” it tells us about doesn’t resemble the biblical God at all. Is this bashing really applicable to Rambam as well?

I think this is the thread Yehuda is exploring. Perhaps we could explore the problems Hazony raises more fully on the way to understanding the solution of the Mesorah Mimoshe ad Moshe?