Rav Hirsch: God’s Personality
What is God?
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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.
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.
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.
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’:
‘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…’
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
Perceiving the Image
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.
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.
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.
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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