Dialectical ways of understanding God’s nature

One may consider three opposing tendencies which categorize Jewish theological positions; combinations of these tendencies can generate many possible viewpoints:

(1) Mystical vs. Rationalist

(2) Immanent vs. Transcendent

(3) Omnipotence vs. Limited theism

Jewish theologians have often explored these tendencies in a dialectical framework. This is to say, with systematic reasoning they have juxtaposed these opposing tendencies, and have developed philosophies to resolve these conflicts.

Mystical vs. Rationalist

Rationalists believe that the ethical and religious-intellectual beliefs imparted by the Torah are attainable by human reason. Rationalism is “a method of inquiry that regards reason as the chief source and test of knowledge and, in contrast to empiricism, tends to discountenance sensory experience. It holds that, because reality itself has an inherently rational structure, there are truths – especially in logic and mathematics but also in ethics and metaphysics – that the intellect can grasp directly.”
[“Rationalism” Encyclopaedia Britannica CD, 1999]

“In the period between Sa’adiah and Maimonides, most Jewish writers who speculated on the nature of the Torah continued in the rationalist tradition established by Sa’adiah. These included Bahya ibn Paquda, Joseph ibn Zaddik, Abraham ibn Ezra, and Abraham ibn Daud.”
[Torah, Encyclopaedia Judaica]

In contrast, mystics believe that human reason will not allow one to discover ultimate religious truths. Rather, many religious truths can only be discovered through a mystical experience, a direct human communion with God. Kabbalists believe that this is achieved through annihilation of individuality, bittul ha-yesh. “Kabbalah may be considered mysticism in so far as it seeks an apprehension of God and creation whose intrinsic elements are beyond the grasp of the intellect, although this is seldom explicitly belittled or rejected by the Kabbalah. Essentially these elements were perceived through contemplation and illumination, which is often presented in the Kabbalah as the transmission of a primeval revelation concerning the nature of the Torah and other religious matters. In essence, the Kabbalah is far removed from the rational and intellectual approach to religion.” [“Kabbalah”, EJ]

Immanent vs. Transcendent

Biblical and rabbinic literature sometimes describe God as immanent, and other times as transcendent. This would seem to be a paradox: If God is fully transcendent, than God cannot be known in any way; if God is fully immanent, then God has no transcendence, and is not greater than His own creation. However, classical Jewish texts do not actually say that God is fully one or the other; rather, they imply that God has a di-polar nature. God has both transcendent and immanent characteristics, and one or the other is more apparent depending on the situation involved, or the question asked.

To those versed in modern physics, this is analogous to the Heisenberg uncertainty principle. The uncertainty principle was based on the finding that there is a fundamental limit on what data we can know about any particle (or aggregate piece of matter). The more precisely one determines a particle’s velocity, the less accurately that one can determine its position (and vice-versa). However this is not simply a practical limit on observations; the idea here is that no object in the universe really has an absolutely defined velocity and position! While it seems as if these are two separate properties, the reality is that these two properties are both aspects of a greater phenomenon, inherently bound together. As hard as it is to imagine, simply observing one aspect of this duality affects the other aspect; this is an observable physical fact of how the universe operates. God, then, can be understood in a similar sense: immanence and transcendence are not incompatible properties, but are simply different aspects of God’s full nature.

The term “transcendence” is often used to mean that God is above and beyond our universe, beyond both space and time. However, this definition is not philosophically or logically rigorous; saying that God is “above” or “beyond” the universe has no precise meaning, and may not have any meaning at all. Since transcendence and immanence are inherently exclusive properties, such speculations may involve a paradox. Thus, some religious thinkers have attempted to define a more philosophically rigorous understanding of transcendence.

One alternative to this paradox is to affirm pantheism, the belief that God is identical with the universe, the sum total of everything in existence. There is no transcendent nature to God, no possibility of God being “personal”. God is all, and all is God. However, this view has always been considered as outside of normative Jewish theology.

However, there is another view of transcendence which rescues us from the classical paradox. In this view, we can compare the relationship between God and the world to the relationship between a person and the individual molecules and cells of their body. A person is much more than the sum of their parts. One notes that the human mind – which possesses life, consciousness, intelligence and free will – transcends the mere matter of which it is made, which has no properties of mind at all. Similarly, God can be said to be to the universe as the mind is to the body’s cells. In this view, God is in some way identical to the universe, yet at the same time transcends it; the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, not just in magnitude, but in kind.

Some modern day philosophers refer to the transcendent aspect of God as God’s primordial nature. God is above and beyond what we can comprehend; God is eternal, and envisages all possibilities. This aspect of God is unchanging, independent, and as philosophers like to say, of necessary existence. Similarly, philosophers state that we must deal with the immanent aspect of God: how God acts in, and reacts to, the world. This is sometimes referred to as God’s consequent nature. God is said to be conscious, and is in process with the world. This is the aspect of God that is affected by events, the aspect of God that Heschel refers to as the divine pathos.
[See “Jewish Theology and Process Thought”, p.65]

Note that when religious Jews refer to God as being immanent they only mean that God’s immanence is stressed in their theology; they are not necessarily denying that God has a transcendent characteristic (and vice-versa.)

Omnipotence vs. Limited theism

When people ascribe omnipotence to God, or limits to God’s power, we find that the term “omnipotent” means different things to different people. It has been used to connote at least five distinct positions – shown below – and so we must take great care to precisely define what we mean by the words “omnipotent” or “limited” before we use these words in describing theological positions.

(a) Omnipotent (strong view): God can not only supersede the laws of physics and probability, but God can also rewrite logic itself (for example, God could create a square circle, or could make one equal two.) Maimonides make a devastating critique of this position in his “Guide for the Perplexed”, section 3, chapter xv, and very few Jews hold by this position today.

(b) Omnipotent (standard view): God can intervene in the world by superseding the laws of physics and probability (i.e. God can create miracles), but it is impossible – in fact, it is meaningless – to suggest that God can rewrite the laws of logic. Many Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews hold by this view.

(c) Qualified Omnipotence: It is impossible – in fact, it is meaningless – to suggest that God can rewrite the laws of logic. People in this category believe that God originally could intervene in the world by superseding the laws of physics (i.e. create miracles); in fact God did do so by creating the Universe. However, God then self-obligated Himself not to do so anymore in order to give mankind free will. Miracles are rare, at best, and always hidden, to prevent man from being overwhelmed by absolute knowledge of God’s existence, which could remove free will. This position is affirmed by many Kabbalistic texts. Many Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews hold by this view.

(d) Maimonides’s neo-Aristotelian rationalism: Maimonides writes that to the wise man, one sees that what the Bible and Talmud refer to as “angels” are actually metaphors for the various laws of nature; they are the principles by which the physical universe operates. “Guide of the Perplexed” II:4 and II:6.

“For all forces are angels! How blind, how perniciously blind are the naive?! If you told someone who purports to be a sage of Israel that the Deity sends an angel who enters a woman’s womb and there forms an embryo, he would think this a miracle and accept it as a mark of the majesty and power of the Deity – despite the fact that he believes an angle to be a body of fire one third the size of the entire world. All this, he thinks, is possible for God. But if you tell him that God placed in the sperm the power of forming and demarcating these organs, and that _this_ is the angel, or that all forms are produced by the Active Intellect – that here is the angel, the “vice-regent of the world” constantly mentioned by the sages – then he will recoil. For he [the naive person] does not understand that the true majesty and power are in the bringing into being of forces which are active in a thing although they cannot be perceived by the senses….[Giving more examples of the mention of angels in rabbinic writings, Maimonides says] Thus the Sages reveal to the aware that the imaginative faculty is also called an angel; and the mind is called a cherub. How beautiful this will appear to the sophisticated mind – and how disturbing to the primitive.”

God never interrupts the set laws of nature: “In the eighth chapter [above] we mentioned to you that they (the sages) did not believe in the periodic change of the Divine Will. Rather, they believed that at the beginning of the fashioning of the phenomena, God instituted into nature that through them there would be fashioned all that would be fashioned. Whether the phenomenon which would be fashioned would be frequent – namely, a natural phenomenon – or would be an infrequent change – namely, a sign – they are all equal.”
[“Perush ha-Mishnah”, Commentary on the Mishnah, Avot 5:VI]

Maimonides envisioned a connection between the realm of the physical and the intellectual. In this worldview all physical events are the results of “intellects”, some of which are human, some of which are “angels” (as described above.) These intellects can interact in such a way as to seemingly violate the laws of nature, to produce miracle). Since God Himself created the universe and the laws therein, this is how God works in the world. However, God does not actively intervene in a temporal sense. It has been noted that this view veers away from traditional theism, and moves towards deism. This is why some scholars have pointed out that the theology of Aristoteleans such as Maimonides may not be not compatible with the classical Jewish theology of the Bible and Talmud. Such critiques are not new, and they were made both by Maimonides’ supporters and enemies during the Maimonidean controversy.

Related reading:
“On Knowing God: Maimonides, Gersonides, and the Philosophy of Religion” Norbert Samuelson, Judaism Vol.18, 1969, p.64-77

“That the God of the Philosophers is not the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob”, Norbert Samuelson, Harvard Theological Review, Vol.65(1), January 1972, p.1-27

“Is the God of Maimonides Truly Unknowable?” Shubert Spero, Judaism Vol.22, 1973, p.66-78.

“Maimonidean Controversy” entry in “The Encyclopaedia Judaica”

(e) Liberal Jewish theology: In a religious view common in Conservative and Reform Judaism, God is said to act in the world through persuasion, and not by coercion. God makes Himself manifest in the world through inspiration and the creation of possibility, and not by miracles or violations of the laws of nature. See the works of Harold Kushner and Milton Steinberg for examples.

This includes ‘process theology’

What views of God can follow from these dialectical tendencies?

1. Mystical – Immanent – Omnipotent
Examples: Yitzchak Luria; most adherents of Kabbalah; most sects of Hasidic Judaism; Abraham Isaac Kook. This position could be further broken down into Immanent-Perceivable vs. Immanent-Non-Perceivable, which would be the crux of Allan Nadler’s distinction between the hasidic position (the former) and the Gra’s position (the latter).

2. Mystical – Immanent – Limited
Examples: Abraham Joshua Heschel; Martin Buber; Arthur Green.

3. Mystical – Transcendent – Omnipotent
Examples: Some adherents of Kabbalah. The older schools of Kabbalah, before the writing of the Zohar, fit into this category. The original understanding of the sefirot, before Lurianic Kabbalah developed, indicated a large separation between God and the created universe, including Man. Lurianic forms of Kabbalah have outcompeted the older schools, so this theology is not as widely held as it used to be.

4. Mystical – Transcendent – Limited
Examples: Eugene Borowitz. Epicureanism, as defined by Maimonides, fits here, as well as gnosticism, but these latter positions are classically defined as archetype heresies.

5. Rationalist – Immanent – Omnipotent
Examples: Many rabbis within all modern Jewish denominations have this view.

6. Rationalist – Immanent – Limited
Examples: William E. Kaufman; Levi Olan; Milton Steinberg, Harold Kushner; adherents of process theology, and this author.

7. Rationalist – Transcendent – Omnipotent
Examples: Sa’adiah Gaon; Joseph B. Soloveitchik; Louis Jacobs.

8. Rationalist – Transcendent – Limited
Examples: Maimonides, Gersonides, Abraham Ibn Daud, probably Moses b. Joshua of Narbonne, and Elliot N. Dorff.

* Classical Reconstructionist Jews who follow Mordecai Kaplan’s naturalism do not seem to fit into any of these categories.

“Jewish Theology and Process Thought”, edited by Sandra B. Lubarsky and David Ray Griffin, State University of New York Press, 1996

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