Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Looking Back..."What is God?"

I was doing some "pre-Spring" cleaning....and came across my box of pre-conversion notes and research. Prior to my conversion I had engaged in many many spiritual and Jewish learning activities. A major activity was a class held by the The Hillel Institute, a collective endeavor supported by the Conservative synagogues and organizations of Long Island NY.

My then husband to be and I went every week, for both a Hebrew lesson and a lecture. this went on for months....some was interesting, and enlightening some confusing and difficult. At the end of this process there was a written test made by the Biet Din. I can't put into words my initial reaction to the concept of a "Jew" test! First I rebelled "how could they test me!..only god knows what the right answers are" I was worried then dismissive but it all was just because it had begun to mean so much to me. My conversion and subsequent marriage was all I could focus on and this test was the gate keeper.

As I re-read what I had written, I smiled....and thought I guess I will post this! (Another one of the questions is posted on the side-bar of this blog).....so here it is...

Brief Essay Questions

1) What is God?

A brief essay on “What is God’ appears to my mind to be an impossible task. Mankind has been struggling with this question since the first humans gazed at the night sky, or felt confused by the changing seasons. Many great thinkers, philosophers, theologians, psychiatrists, scientists have struggled with this question. I greatly question my ability to leave a mark on this, one of the greatest unanswerable questions of mankind. Perhaps a more aptly phrased question might be “What does mankind think about God? or “How do the Jewish people perceive God?”

The closest version to a unified code of Jewish beliefs and a definition of “What is God?” that I could find appears to be Rabbi Moshe Ben Maimon’s the “thirteen principles of faith.” This is a commentary on the Mishnah, which distilled the 613 commandments of the Torah into a concise list. Within that list, a generalized answer to the question “What is God?” emerged.
God is one and unique, God is incorporeal and God is eternal.
Yet even these basic statements by Maimonides have been debated and disputed and can not be taken as a unified statement of the Jewish people.
In the “Book of Jewish Concepts”, by Philip Birnbaum, a modern philosophical heir to Maimonide’s, “thirteen principles of faith,” (Hebrew Publishing Co. New York, 1964), the “What is God?”question is answered in the following way:
"The attributes of God include omnipresence, omniscience, omnipotence, eternity, truth, justice, goodness, purity and holiness”
The Chasidism, a sect dating from the 1700’s emphasized other, more personal experiences and mysticism as alternative routes to experiencing and defining God. This sect originated in a time of persecution of the Jewish people when many Jews became quietly focused on studding Torah. The founders of Chasidism felt that most expressions of Jewish life had become too academic and that they no longer had any emphasis on spirituality or joy. Their emphasis on the holiness of all experiences allows for another point of entry into the question “What is God?”
For the Chasidism, God not only encompasses the entire world, but that the entire world exists within God. They state that God existed before the world was created and that God is not changed or affected by the world. God’s existence is completely not affected by the happenings of the world. God never changes but humans do. They indicate It is in the daily expressions, events and activities of man in which God manifests and ultimately is defined by mankind.
Another approach to the “What is God” question is that of Mordecai Kaplan, the American rabbi and founder of Reconstructionist Judaism. He stated that “God is the power that makes for salvation.” Kaplan stressed that God is not personal, and that all anthropomorphic descriptions of God are, at best, imperfect metaphors. Kaplan's theology went beyond this to claim that God is the sum of all natural processes that allow man to become self-fulfilled.
And for my last example, in the kabalistic book “God is a Verb” Rabbi David Cooper writes about God as being a process not an object or subject. Clearly this view of God removes all possibilities of traditional definition.
In the end it appears that the answer to the question “What is God” is a personal answer informed by ones own theology, philosophy, psychology, ancestors and experiences. I do not pretend to have an answer but rather tend to lean towards the experiential definition of God. I believe that God is in our actions, as well as in our intent to do good and to help. God is in our sorrow and our pain, and our empathy for others with the same. I believe that ultimately God is in our ability to transcend hate, and evil with aspirations to find peace in all the moments of our lives.


Melissa said...


Thank you so much for the comments that you left me. Wow, you have given me lots to think about. That's what life is all about, isn't it? Always learning.

I grew up in North Miami Beach, Florida and moved to Idaho when I was 14. Living in Idaho is a challenge for our people, but we manage. Thank goodness for the Internet. I have found lots of kosher sites, however, I am just starting to look into keeping kosher.

I hope I get to know you better. Your words inspire me to keep going in rediscovering my heritage.

Thank you for that.


Ang said...

I enjoyed your thoughts. That is a tough question to answer. I never can come up with words to answer it. Thanks for sharing!

Dunking Rachael

Love, Faith and Life