Sunday, November 2, 2008

1:5:35 - Different Manifestations of God

The Torah does not say much about the nature of God. Instead, it seems to suggest that we cannot really know God's nature. Our midrash here follows suit.

"I am the Lord thy God" Because the Holy One appeared to them at the Red Sea as a mighty man waging war, at Sinai as a pedagogue teaching Torah, in the days of Solomon as a young man, and in the days of Daniel as an aged man full of mercy, the Holy One said: Because you see Me in many guises, do not imagine that there are many gods --- for I am He who was with you at the Red Sea, I am He who was with you at Sinai, I am the same everywhere. "I am the Lord thy God."

For a long time, philosophers tried to understand things. Aristotle, for example, wrote books on physics, metaphysics, rhetoric, politics, ethics, and (of all things) botany. Medieval philosophers relied on rich and complex logical arguments to explain --- and even to "prove" --- the nature of things, including God. Enlightenment thinkers shifted towards a more empirical basis for such analysis, and this latter approach worked extraordinarily well in some areas, like science.

But all this took a sharp turn in the late 18th Century, when Kant argued that we never perceive something in and of itself (the "ding an sich"), but instead all our knowledge of things is really based on our subjective knowledge of the idea of the thing. That is, we do not experience a tree directly; we experience our perceptions or ideas of trees. So Kant wrote books on some of these mental processes: reason, judgment, etc.

Kant's insight led to all sorts of shifts in thinking, most of which I do not understand (and most of which my co-blogger Diane does understand). But one theme that emerged from this is the importance of subjective perceptions and perspectives. This is not to suggestive that everything is subjective and relative, but certainly some things can be differently, and perhaps better, understood from a subjective and relative point-of-view.

Our midrash here is perhaps 1500 years ahead of its time. It suggests that the Jewish people (and us, by extension) did not experience God objectively, They did not accurately perceive and understand all His properties. Instead, they experienced God subjectively and contextually - this way at Sinai, that way at the Red Sea, etc.

The same is true now. In our world, we do not regularly experience supernatural miracles. But we experience goodness, awe, and beauty all the time. And each of us experience these things differently. That is how we experience God now. And this midrash emphasizes that these are all in someway connected and unified.

The skeptic will argue that this is not God; this is simply goodness, awe, and beauty. Perhaps. Sometimes I feel that way, and sometimes I don't. But I think it ultimately makes no difference on a practical level. Our midrash and Kant both remind us that it is futile to try to determine the precise nature of God. Instead, we are better off focusing on the manifestations of God. Even if someone is a conventional atheist, that person can think of God as a collective source of all manifestations of good things, and on that basis still be religious and participate in Jewish life. (Sometimes I feel more that way; other times I don't.)

In an odd way, one prayer in the Amidah makes this same point. "Baruch atah Adonai, hatov shimcha ulecha naeh l'hodot" means "Praised are you, Adonai, whose name is good and to whom it is befitting to give thanks." This blessing mentions God's goodness, but then does not does not seek to explain or elaborate on this. The blessing is not for medieval scholastics. Instead, the blessing describes God by noting our reaction (or at least what should be our reaction) to God: God is the being to whom we should give thanks. And it makes no difference what the exact nature of God is, or even whether or not God exists. We all should be thankful for goodness in this world.

Judaism can enrich our lives. It gives us a framework for experiencing and thinking about pretty much everything: family, friends, ethics, beauty, education, raising children, community, ethics, sickness, death, disappointment, nature, happiness, etc. The list is endless. But many people miss these important parts of Judaism because they get hung up on more abstract questions: does God really exist? Is the creation story literally true? Etc.

This midrash reminds us in a small way that perhaps these are the wrong questions to ask.

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