Rav Hirsch: God’s Personality ‎

What is God? | Total Comments: 0 | Total Topics: 28

			During the first decades of the 19th century most of the Eastern European Jews were living ‎their precarious lives as a barely tolerated and frequently oppressed minority. Most of the ‎leaders wanted nothing more than to remain with their Talmud study and Hasidic courts. ‎Mysticism and philosophy lost most of their previous role of steering Jewish theology. The ‎Talmud and the Hasidic Master ruled the roost. This was not the case in Central Europe, ‎where Napoleon’s social reforms were most strongly felt. In France and in Germany the Jews ‎were free to be French and German citizens. They could enter many professions that had ‎previously been closed to them. They studied secular subjects openly and avidly, becoming ‎leaders in many fields by the beginning of the 20th century. The temptations of the secular ‎world were overwhelming, and many Jews, especially in Germany but also in England, ‎France, Italy, and America, were falling into its clutches. Judaism was at a crossroads. ‎
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Into this crossroads stepped Samson Rafael Hirsch, the largely unchallenged leader of ‎German Jewry for almost 40 years in the middle of the century. He faced his share of ‎challenges, of that there is no doubt, but his role as a leader was always acknowledged and ‎respected. He faced challenges from Reform and Conservative on the left and from strict ‎Talmudic and Hasidic traditions on the right. But he successful emerged from the turmoil as ‎the founder of what can be called a new branch of Judaism – Modern Orthodox, or simply ‎Orthodox as it was called during his time. ‎
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Rav Hirsch only rarely waxed theological. His emphasis was on the obligations of a Jew in ‎this world, not on God’s hidden essence. He rarely quoted or restated anything Kabbalistic, ‎though there are exceptions to this. As Hirsch himself wrote: ‘For I (Hashem) have not come ‎in order to reveal supernatural secrets that can be glimpsed only in feverish dreams or to bring ‎a new mystic faith to mankind. I Hashem speak forth righteousness; I proclaim the upright ‎path.’ Hirsch is frequently associated with Maimonides, though he was by no means a Jewish ‎philosopher. He was an ethicist and his God was ethical. ‎
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Occasionally, something comes out of Hirsch’s writing that gets right into the subject of God. ‎These little diversions from all the ethics and morality are not easy to spot, but they are there. ‎One is found towards the beginning of his commentary to Bereshit (6:6), commenting on the ‎emotionally charged statement, ‘And Hashem regretted that He had made the man in the ‎world, and it grieved Him to his heart’: ‎
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‎‘Regarding this and similar anthropomorphic expressions of God we would like to make a ‎general note. For so long people have philosophized about these expressions to remove the ‎danger of the slightest thought of any physicality or corporeality of God, that at the end one ‎runs very nearly into the danger of losing all idea of the personality of God. Had that been ‎the purpose of the Torah those kinds of expressions could easily have been avoided. But this ‎last danger (philosophy) is greater than the first (the literal reading). The two anthropomorphic ‎expressions here save the two essential conceptions: the free will of God and the freewill of ‎man. Not for nothing does it say, ‘And Hashem saw the great evil of man’ (verse 6:5) – the ‎wickedness of man was not a matter of necessity. God had to see it before he knew it. This ‎expression gives for us the guarantee of human free will and the fate that overtook mankind ‎was not the result of physical causes which follow set law, it was preceded by an examination ‎and His decision. The decision itself pained the Decider. All this presupposes the personality ‎and free will of God and keeps this clear in our minds…’ ‎
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Analysis ‎
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This is a truly amazing paragraph. Hirsch is known as a supreme rationalist, usually in the ‎tradition of Maimonides. According to him, the goal of the Torah was to produce an ethical ‎nation which would inspire other nations to reach their own ethical potentials. God was ‎simply God, with no reason to speculate on the details. The important thing was to know ‎what God expected of us and how God would facilitate making that happen. For the most ‎part, our doings were in our own hands. God would show us the path but we have to make ‎the choice to go on it. ‎
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There is nothing in this paragraph that goes against any of that. It doesn’t give us any deep ‎insight into what God is all about or how God caused creation to unfold. But it does tell us ‎something vital about God. Based on the verse that it is commenting on, it tells us that God ‎has a personality. This verse isn’t just any old verse. It is a verse immediately preceding the ‎great Flood. It is the verse that zeroes in on Hashem’s reaction to the coming scenario, the ‎impending failure of Hashem’s great plan. Mankind had failed, and with them, Hashem ‎failed. ‎
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What was Hashem’s reaction to all this? It was to regret having made man and to be grieved ‎over the failure. Is this something that one would expect the rational God of the philosophers ‎to be doing? The philosophers were quick to jump on this verse and to declare that we cannot ‎read it literally. God does not possess anything resembling human feelings, etc, etc. It is only ‎written in a manner that people can relate to, etc, etc. If human beings were going through the ‎same thing this is what they would feel, so we ascribe to God that same reaction if as this is ‎what actually happened, etc, etc. But it really didn’t happen. ‎
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We know why the philosophers pull this trick. It is to avoid having God subject to change ‎and to be forced to react to things that happen. God has to be above such mundane ‎weaknesses. Most post-medieval Jewish thinkers were quite content to go along with this ‎sleight of hand. The mystics, for the most part had no major problems with it. They would ‎interpret every verse along some Kabbalistic inner meaning, but the basic understanding that ‎God is not subject to change was part and parcel of their theology also. ‎
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So along comes the rational ethicist, Samson Rafael Hirsch, and says that this approach is ‎problematic. The problems they are causing are worse than the problems they are trying to ‎solve. In an effort to avoid ascribing physicality to God, a prime concern of the philosophers, ‎they have negated from God anything resembling an individual personality. God is just a ‎divine machine that is above all this mundane stuff. To this, Hirsch says, I prefer what it says ‎in the Bible. If it says that God grieved, it means that God grieved. This way we get a God ‎with some feelings. ‎
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The two advantages that come from taking the verse literally as opposed to the philosophical ‎approach are the assertions of the free will of both human beings and God. The free will of ‎man is something that the philosophers will readily agree to. The second advantage concerns ‎the free will of God. This is a subtler matter that isn’t as clear or as universally agreed upon as ‎the first. What does it mean for God to have free will? Hirsch reads the key verse as ‘Hashem ‎consulted with His own mind before deciding, and grieved over the result’. Hashem had to ‎think about it before acting. The Torah does not describe the decision to bring the Flood as an ‎instantaneous process that required no thought on the part of God.  Hashem had to weigh out ‎the possibilities and come to a decision. Even when the decision was reached Hashem was ‎not happy with the result. ‎
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What does this say about God? It says that God has a personality. God has feelings and ‎tough choices and regret and resolve. While all this may seem impossible for the infinite En ‎Sof or the Unmoved Mover or the Source of existence, the Torah makes no attempt to hide it. ‎God has a personality. How do we reconcile these two conflicting images? Hirsch does not ‎attempt to answer this question but he makes no secret about which image he prefers. If God ‎has to take some time to weigh out a tough decision and if the result of that decision leaves ‎God grieving, this shows that God is real to us and not some philosophical concept that bears ‎no relationship to the human personality. This ‘realness’, this almost human-like persona, is ‎more important for us to know and to believe in than the contrasting image of God being ‎above all such limitations and beyond the understanding of the human mind. ‎
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The contrast between the two images could not be starker. The first - that with a personality, ‎is almost human. The second he describes elsewhere as empty philosophical ideas which ‎‎‘eliminate the being of God’. Ultimately, according to Hirsch, this is what the philosophical ‎approach does. It is direct road from an infinitely perfect, infinitely unknowable God to no ‎God at all. If God is just the rule of nature then why not just have the rule of nature and leave ‎out God? These are Hirsch’s questions to the philosophical/deist view: if your image of God ‎is just a divine machine, then who really needs God? ‎
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Perceiving the Image ‎
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How is this very human God to be understood? Is it a God with a personality that still ‎somehow maintains all those infinite qualities that Jewish thinkers always associated with ‎God? Or is this image forced to abandon those qualities and settle for a more finite God who ‎somehow has the power to do what He chooses even though He is subject to whims and ‎emotions. Before attempting to answer this question, it must be stated that the Chumash itself ‎supports this image wholeheartedly. Until later Biblical, rabbinic, philosophic, and mystical ‎images started popping up that insisted on God’s infinite unknowable essence, God was quite ‎knowable and even quite finite. It looks as though Hirsch was reverting back to those images ‎in an effort to make God’s image more real than the increasingly distant unknowable God ‎that Judaism had produced. ‎
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In stating very clearly that he prefers the human image to the philosophical image, he is really ‎saying that we, as human beings, need an image of God that we can relate to on our own ‎terms. It may be logical from a philosophical standpoint to have an unknowable God, but it ‎doesn’t do much for people on an everyday level. It doesn’t do much for the average person ‎seeking some spirituality in life. If the price to pay for a completely non-physical, completely ‎unknowable God, is that God is ‘eliminated from reality’ - Hirsch was not willing to pay that ‎price. A God that cannot be perceived on human terms is really no God at all. It is a ‎buzzword. ‎
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This conflict that Hirsch sensed in the middle of the 19th century would haunt the Jews in the ‎‎20th century. The question was the same but the answer seemed more and more implausible. ‎Could we be satisfied with a human God who deals with us on very human terms and can be ‎spoken to and bargained with like a human being? God’s survival was on the line. Would ‎God fade into the background or would God remain real and present. Hirsch knew which ‎route God had to take in order to survive. ‎
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Reflections ‎
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Is there only one way to keep God from fading from all reality? Is this the choice that every ‎religious person must make – to imagine God with a personality in order to keep God real? ‎



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