What is God?
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The twin books of Ezra and Nehemiah represent the close of the Tanakh, and to some degree, the end of the Biblical period. The two books were probably one at some point in time. In the traditional grouping of the Tanakh they are considered one book. Ezra was the religious leader of the new group of returnees from Bavel around the year 450 BCE. He was joined a few decades or so later by Nehemiah, a former servant to the Persian king. Upon being overcome at hearing the dire situation of his co-religionists in Judea, he begs the king to be allowed to join them and assist them. The king not only agrees to this request but grants him safe passage and access to the timber in the forests.
The dire situation of the Jews was due to their lack of physical protection. They had no city walls, an essential feature of ancient communities. Nehemiah’s express purpose in going to Israel is to build walls around Jerusalem. While it was a long and difficult project, in the end he was successful by any definition of the word success. It was moment of great triumph for the new community, a major early step in what would become the center of the Jewish world for hundreds of years. They built a primitive version of a temple in the traditional spot of the old temple. They brought offerings to celebrate their achievement and to bless God for enabling them to reach this state. It was the first day of the seventh month, a time of celebration.
Finally on the 24th day of the month they are ready for a general commemoration not based on anything in the Torah. It involves fasting and confession, reading from the Torah and bowing before Hashem – very Biblical. The Levites and various other notables stand on the stairs and proclaim: ‘Rise and bless Hashem your God, from everlasting to everlasting; and bless the name of Your glory and exalt it above all blessing and praise. You are Hashem alone; You made the heavens and the heaven of heavens and all of its hosts, the earth and all that is on it, the seas and all that is in them, and You give life to all of them, and the hosts of heaven bow down to You’ (Nehemiah 9:5-6).
This sounds like a very fitting close to the Biblical era. It hearkens back to the dedication of the first temple during the glory days of King Solomon. During that celebration Solomon set the bar for these temple dedications, proclaiming: ‘Hashem, the God of Israel, there are no gods like You in the heavens above and the earth below, who keeps the covenant and the kindness to Your servants who walk before You with all their heart…Can it be that Elohim will dwell on the earth? Behold the heavens and the heavens of heavens cannot contain You, much less this house that I built’ (Kings I, 8:23, 27).
This is indeed about as Biblical a theme as there is. It’s all about God’s greatness and might and expansiveness and all that. This very prayer found in Nehemiah made its way into the daily morning prayers of Jews around the world in exile from the time of the temple’s destruction until today. This is probably the prototype of how Jews see God – great, mighty, awesome, patient, and faithful. The Amidah is really structured around this prototype. It is the bridge between the Biblical and the post-Biblical.
One has to wonder if all these accolades are really necessary. Does God need this praise and this horn-tooting? Isn’t this all just a big buttering up session to win God over to help the new community get on its feet, or to help Jews out in exile wherever they end up? What’s with all this praise anyway? Is it for God or for us, or for something else entirely? What’s with temples and shrines – if they cannot contain God to begin with, why bother building them? What’s with the heavens and the earth bowing to God? Don’t they have something more important to be doing than bowing?
Back in ancient times, people probably had major problems conceiving of what is ‘beyond’. The world was as far as one could see, and some distance beyond that, because it seemed to go on indefinitely. The sky went up to some ceiling that contained the sun, the moon, and the stars in some arrangement that only the gods or God could fathom. The waters descended to uncharted depths, but they had to have a bottom somewhere. This compact picture remained largely unchanged until the time of Copernicus and Giordano Bruno in the 16th century. They were the first to expand the borders to include the vastness of space to unimaginable distances. They started a trend that inevitably resulted in the Big Bang and the ever-expanding universe. This effectively did two things. It pushed God out beyond the edge of that infinite expansion and it ironically made God bigger than ever.
This is the irony of making God too great – it pushes God out beyond the realm of human imagination, thus making God inconceivable. This was a great risk for a religion to take. Is it wise to chance losing many adherents due to the inability to perceive an unimaginable God, or is it worth it for the extra greatness one gets out of the bargain? The Jews took the second side of the bet. It was riskier, but they were going for broke.
Limiting a deity to a given time and place may make that deity perceivable but it also disqualifies that deity from truly being God. It may be an angel or some other spiritual power, but it is not God. Zeus may have been a terrific shot with thunderbolts and Aphrodite might look fantastic coming out of that shell, but that’s all they were. To be God, a deity has to be willing to go all the way. Only the God of the Bible was willing to make this leap.
This is the theory behind the classic Biblical position on God. Now we have to get to the practical. How does one perceive such a God? It is easy to imagine God creating the heavens and the earth. It is easy to imagine God filling the heavens and the earth. It is even easy to imagine God running the whole show with a flick of His divine finger. But it’s a whole other ball game to imagine God beyond the edge of the universe. What’s beyond the edge of the universe anyway? Nothing, right? Or is it even nothing? Nothing is just more space, but that can’t be what’s beyond the edge of the universe. If that were the case it would just be more space of the universe, or maybe the border of the universe next door. If it’s beyond the edge of the universe and not part of another universe, and not just more empty space, then what is it? This is the problem in a nutshell?
The answer is contained in the expression ‘heaven of heavens’ that is found in Nehemiah. The heaven of heavens was beyond the regular heavens, whatever that might mean. Maybe there is also a heaven of heaven of heavens. However far you want to take it out, God is bigger than it. How does this help the situation? It tells us that God is greater, bigger, mightier, more awesome, etc. than anything we can possibly imagine. God exists beyond the scope of the human imagination.
Solomon, in making his dedication speech for the first temple was making this exact point. God cannot be contained in any human conception of the dimensions of reality. How can an earthly temple contain God? It can’t. So why build it? We build it not to ‘contain’ God, but to sense the reality of God in any way we can, even if it just a ‘piece’ of the greater reality. Even the heavens themselves must ‘bow’ to this greater reality. They also are trapped within the limited reality of creation. While the heavens may not be able to sense this in way that a conscious being can, the nature of their reality in comparison to God’s, forces them to bow to a greater reality.
This image, the image of an impossible-to-conceive greatness of God, is the best that the human mind can do to appreciate the ‘reality gap’ that exists between the dimension of God and the dimension of creation. Perhaps this is why it remained so prevalent in Judaism. It is all we can do to express this gap. It is our attempt to come to terms with a reality that is ultimately beyond our grasp. We call it God and we revere it, even though we cannot ever conceive its true nature.
Perceiving the Image
To realize that God’s exists on a plane of reality that is utterly beyond that which we exist on is to briefly catch a glimpse of a fundamental truth. We may not fully understand this truth but we sure can revere it. We do have the ability to recognize that our own scope of reality is limited. We can do that by trying to understand the vastness of the universe. But we can go beyond even that by trying to come to grips with the vastness of God. We cannot ever really get it, but we can appreciate it.
This may be frustrating for some. They may say that a God that is impossible to conceive doesn’t really exist. It is not even a figment of the imagination. It is simply the mind declaring that what it cannot conceive of, is God. This is a valid complaint and it has to be addressed. It was one of the reasons why Judaism never became as popular as pagan religions or Christianity. A limited God who exists on a dimension that we are familiar with is much easier to believe in. Is there a Jewish solution to the ‘conception’ problem?
It turns out that there is, at least partially. Consider a dream. In the dream there is an entire world filled with whatever it is filled with. There are people in that dream world. Imagine coming to one of them and saying that you, the dreamer, exist outside of that universe - you are bigger than that universe. While this is obviously true from the dreamer’s perspective, it is quite difficult for the person in the dream to accept. But the person in the dream may be able to appreciate that the dreamer is speaking the truth. That person may even be able to gain a glimpse of that truth by ‘stepping out’ of that dream into the world of the dreamer.
This, to a limited degree, is the Jewish version of God’s reality. It isn’t the most accessible way to perceive a deity, but it certain is free of human limitations. That is its true beauty. To perceive God is to go beyond the human conception. There is no need to remain trapped in that bubble. God is our ticket out. We may not be able to simply step outside of the dream, but we can know that there is a dreamer out there whose existence encompasses the dream-bubble. To revere that image is to see reality through an infinitely expanded vision. We do have conceptual limitations, but why allow them to restrict our horizons?
The theology of Judaism never really caught on among non-Jews. Why did Judaism insist on this inconceivable image when easier images were there for the taking?
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