What Kind of God is Best? Perfect or Imperfect?

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Yoram Hazony wrote a very interesting article for the NY Times Opinionator Blog. I am big fan of Yoram Hazony and I really like his original thinking.

In his article he attempts to address the perfection of God.

The familiar view to orthodox Jews today is that God is All-Knowing, All-Powerful, and All-Good. Hazony makes two primary arguments against this view. One is that it’s fairly evident Jewish thought on this has evolved. The God the Bible seems to be more limited than the God we talk about today (and have talked about for at least 2000 years). Second, there are philosophical problems with calling God “All-Everything”.

The great rabbis of post-Biblical Judaism have done an incredible job of interpreting the passages in the Bible that seem to limit God. Yet, even some of the medieval commentators were comfortable with an anthropomorphic God. This idea has completely fallen out of favor and is now considered heresy almost unanimously.

But we are less adept at dealing with the philosophical concerns of an “All-Everything” God. Here there are newer issues that arise out of a better understanding of the world. Perfect is now understood in terms of balances. It is not understood as unlimited quantities of stuff. Further, to assert perfection requires us to have a complete vision of God. We don’t. God obscures Himself and even God’s favorite prophet Moses only caught a glimpse of God from the rear.

So Hazony proposes that we resurrect the idea of an imperfect God. The idea is that we hope that God will deal with us faithfully and there is justice. This creates a more true relationship with a more realistic God.

But the reason this idea has fallen out of favor, Hazony proposes, is because philosophers and religious leaders recognize that it is much more powerful to believe in the “All-Everything” God than the imperfect God. Hazony concludes:

Instead, they have preferred to speak to us of a God consisting of a series of sweeping idealizations — idealizations whose relation to the world in which we actually live is scarcely imaginable. Today, with theism rapidly losing ground across Europe and among Americans as well, we could stand to reconsider this point. Surely a more plausible conception of God couldn’t hurt.

This is the core issue of contemporary orthodox Judaism. Is plausibility and minimalism a better weapon against atheism or is mysticism and maximalism a better tool? The ultra-orthodox camp firmly believes that the key is insularity and an expansion of required beliefs. It asks that their adherents shield themselves from the outside world and empirical evidence. The more progressive orthodox groups embrace the challenges of modernity by looking for less familiar views on God and Judaism that are more compatible with modern thinking. It asks their adherents to work through any potential conflict and accept scientific inquiry and some of its conclusions.

The question raised by Hazony is which track is more likely to produce the desired result of devout believers. It’s a good question. It’s a different question that what is most comfortable, or what is easier, or what is more intellectually honest. He is simply asking which track has a better chance of survival.

I think he is correct that eventually it will be nearly impossible to ignore the outside world and the conflicts between it and the more maximalist positions. Granted, there will be contradictions to the minimalist positions as well, but it is easier to swallow a small pill than to swallow a beach ball.

Read Hazony’s article and join the conversation.

Link: NY Times

  • Holy Hyrax

    Didn’t Gerald Schroeder write something like this in his book “God According to God’ where he talks about God growing, changing his mind to new insights, etc.

  • G*3

    The “All-Everything” God suffers from the Problem of Evil. In practice, the only way to solve the Problem and come up with a decent theodicy is to limit one of the Omnis. For example, the Ramchal in the Mesilas Yesharim states that we need to experience this world because we need to earn our reward in Olam Haboh in order to fully appreciate it. This implies that Hashem is incapable of creating us in such a way that we could fully appreciate Olam Haboh without earning it – a limit on His omnipotence. The frum world seems to tolerate the limitation without any problems. Possibly because most people don’t think about it at all.

    Which leads to, the answer to “which track is more likely to produce the desired result of devout believers” is without a doubt the mystical and maximal one. Firstly, people generally aren’t inclined to theological musings. Most people just aren’t interested. Therefore a simplistic, maximalist, idealized God is preferable for retaining the faith of the average person. Secondly, as a rule, the less people understand rituals, the more likely they are to perpetuate them. If someone can explain in practical terms why he is performing a given mitzvah, and the practical reason no longer applies, the reasonable thing to do is discontinue the practice. If the mitzvah is being done primarily for “deep” mystical, unknowable rasons that pull strings in the olam shel emes and have profound metaphysical effects, then the practice will continue even if there is absolutely no practical reason for it.

    • “This implies that Hashem is incapable of creating us in such a way that we could fully appreciate Olam Haboh without earning it – a limit on His omnipotence.”

      No, it only implies that He *decided* not to create us in a way that we can appreciate it without earning it. Not an inherent lack of omnipotence.

      • G*3

        If I remember correctly, the whole point of the discussion was to explain why, if the whole poiont of our existence is to go to Olam Habo so Hashem can give us pleasure, we have to experience this world, with all of its evils and temptation to sin, instead of going directly to Olam Habo. The answer is that for us to be able to get the most pleasure, we have to have earned it.

        If Hashem had merely chosen to create us with the need to earn reward, rather than it being a requirement imposed upon Him, the question remains.

        • I am not following your line of reasoning. What question remains by saying that he decided that the world and humanity should be this way? We are not defining Him but the creation itself.

          • G*3

            Premise 1) Hashem created mankind so that He could give them enjoyment in Olam Habo.

            Question 1) Why then are we in this world? Why didn’t Hashem place us directly into Olam Habo so that we can immediately fulfill our purpose?

            Answer 1) Because in order for us to fully enjoy Olam Habo, we must earn it.

            Question 2) So why didn’t Hashem create us in such a way that we could enjoy it fully without earning it?

            Answer 2) Because Hashem wanted to create being similar to Himself, “btzelem elokim,” and such being need to earn their enjoyment to fully appreciate it.

            Question 3) So why didn’t Hashem create beings btzelem elokim that can enjoy olam habo without earning it?

            Answer 3) Because that’s a logical impossibility, like making square circles.

            Conclusion) Hashem’s omnipotence is limited to what’s logically possible.

            You’re saying that Hashem could have made us btzelem elokim AND capable of fully enjoying Olam Habo without first earning it, but chose not to. Which leaves us still with Question 3, and ultimately with Question 1. If you answer that He chose to make us go through this world for some inscrutable reason, that’s fine, but that’s not what the Mesilas Yesharim says, and my original point was that the frum world accepts the MY’s limit on Hashem’s omnipotence without any complaints.

  • snowbird

    Oh my gods!

    It’s really true what I said last week about E Fink coming out as an Apikorus!

    Jesus! An “orthdox” rabbi, yet.

    • tesyaa

      I suppose if you passed a law preventing an Orthodox rabbi from using his brain, Rabbi Fink would be in violation of it.

  • Moshe

    Ah, the limitations of trying to use our language to make sense of G-d.
    I hear the point Hazony is trying to make and appreciate you bringing his piece to attention. However, I think there is something inherently wrong with with asking “which track is more likely to produce the desired result of devout believers” or “which track has a better chance of survival”. Trying to gain a greater understanding of G-d’s role in our lives is a personal struggle. While it is to be expected that Rabbis, philosophers, whomever, will try to create a framework to explain and resolve conflicts to the masses, using the aforementioned reasoning as a rationale to debate these questions sounds too much like an effort at brainwashing or potentially sacrificing honesty for what will be more readily and widely accepted.

  • To me it seems that there are two different conversations to have about G-d. One is in the abstract that He is perfect in every way, unfathomable by human beings. I don’t see where there is room for any derivation of this idea within Orthodox belief.

    The second is to talk about how He relates to the imperfect world and imperfect humanity that He designed. As we look through the course of history, sometimes He chooses to relate to the world and to man in a more natural way and sometimes not. Either way, He designed the world in a way that can only relate to Him in an imperfect way. When the Torah describes Him “changing his mind” or “surprised and frustrated”, it’s not describing Him at His essence, but rather man’s perception of Him. Is there any classic Jewish thought that does not have this approach?

    I don’t understand how this factors into what you are asking. It seems that Hazony is in a sense making a case for the richness of Judaism in understanding G-d as we relate to him as imperfect beings but what does that have to do with the Perfect G-d acting with more or less omni powers as he guides humanity?

    Who within Ultra-Orthodoxy actually believes that everything that we experience in this world is perfect? From my experience, what is believed is that the imperfect world that we see right now is the perfect system for what it was designed to do – namely, to challenge individuals to attain their purpose.

  • Without getting involved from the philosophical point of view, it seems like the gemara (and later halakha generally) has the assumption that revelation is perfect because God is perfect. Even if this pov solves many questions, do you think it’s possible to entertain this idea while accepting God as perfect for the purposes of halakha?

  • Dov Weinstock

    “The question raised by Hazony is which track is more likely to produce the desired result of devout believers. ”
    I submit that asking this question is self-defeating – this goal will always become transparent to at least some of those being indoctrinated. The better question to ask is, what is true?

  • B. Parnas

    Thanks for putting these interesting, timely, relevant (sp?), thought provoking discussions on your blog. Not just this one, but all of them.

  • I Tick

    Normally not a fan of Boteach whatsoever, but I always appreciated this piece:

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/rabbi-shmuley-boteach/the-tyranny-of-perfection_b_514338.html?view=print

    Judaism struggles, I think, with the problem of how to keep God immanent without making God into a Christ-figure, a God too material and too close and too humanlike, and how to keep God transcendent without making God too distant and empty and impersonal.

    This is also interesting, if a little listless:

    http://bernardavishai.blogspot.co.il/2007/12/merry-little-chanukah.html

  • Moshe Laster

    Hi, I just started looking at your blog. In case you might see this, I’m pretty sure Rav Kook deals with this issue at length. I believe he has a famous piece in Orot HaKodesh called “HaShleimut V’Hishtalmut,” where he says that being totally “perfect” itself is a lacking since it precludes the ability to become “more perfect.”