Moshe Chaim Luzzato: God is the Essence of Good
What is God?
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One of glaring problems with Jewish theology is that rarely, if ever, is an attempt made to clarify what God is. God is simply beyond definition. Did anybody make an attempt to get around this problem? The real answer to this question is probably ‘no’, since genuinely solving it would place the answer outside of Judaism. But the person who probably came the closest is Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzato (Ramchal), who devoted much of his extensive writing to the understanding of God. In one of his lesser known works called ‘The Way of Wisdom’, he writes: ‘Man’s chief study is reflection upon the Divinity…’
If anybody was able to collate the various schools of thought that comprise Jewish theology – the Bible, the Talmud, the Midrash, philosophy, and mysticism - it was Ramchal, who knew it all and created a system to synthesize the various opposing theories into a complete whole. This system is described in detail in his major work, Derech Hashem. At the end of the first chapter dealing with the reality of God he concludes: ‘There are six foundations concerning general knowledge (of God). They are: The reality of God’s existence, God’s perfection, the necessity of God’s existence, God’s existence is not dependent on anything else, and God’s oneness.’
Other than the sixth foundation, God’s oneness, none of them even attempts to tell us what God actually is. In fact, Ramchal writes in a number of places that we cannot know this at all. But he doesn’t let the matter rest there. He goes further in describing what God is as far as God’s manifestation in the created reality. In many of his books he uses the highly detailed and cumbersome approach of the Sefirot, but not in all. In a work that is usually placed third in significance to Derech Hashem and Path of the Just, entitled Da’at T’vunot (Knowledge of Understanding – it’s not an easy phrase to translate), he states an important characteristic about God that he touches upon in the better known works:
‘God, Blessed be His name, is the absolute essence of good. And in truth, it is the nature of good to bestow good. And this is what God intended – to create beings in order that He could bestow good to them, for if there is no recipient of the good, there is no goodness.’
Before any analysis of this dramatic statement, we have to place the statement in its proper context in the book. Da’at T’vunot is set up as an imaginary dialogue between the soul and the intellect. The soul comes across as having a solid but incomplete background in the foundations of Jewish theology, and asks questions of clarification to the intellect. This particular quote comes from a question the soul asks concerning man’s purpose in creation and why God desired creation to begin with. The answer to the second question, which leads to an answer to the first question, is the quote above.
Derech Hashem, which answers the same questions in the same way, states the key phrase slightly differently: ‘Being as God is the ultimate good that creation could receive’. The two statements obviously convey the same idea – that God is the ultimate good. This simple idea is the core of Ramchal’s theology. When one cuts through all the Kabbalah, and the many different modes that God works with to deal out divine justice in the world, etc., one ends up with this simple statement: God is the essence of good.
It still doesn’t actually say what God really is, but then again, it is quite difficult to say what anything really is. Try answering that question about anything – an atom, air, a cell, a frog, yourself, the world, the universe, time. So it isn’t entirely fair to accuse Jewish theologians of avoiding the big question with descriptions that talk around the subject, when it is an impossible question to answer about anything, let alone about God.
Perhaps Ramchal comes about as close as anyone to actually getting to the bottom of things. God is the absolute essence of good. The rest of these sections in Da’at T’vunot and Derech Hashem deal with how this definition plays out with the creation and the situation of human beings. Human beings were created as a perfect example of how God’s goodness works. They were not created perfect, for that would result in a creation that did not have to earn its own completion. This would present a situation in which man was not the true possessor of his perfection, and thus would not really sense that it was his. Free will and the reality of evil are necessary components of this system, as counterintuitive as it frequently seems.
Much of the rest of Derech Hashem covers how this definition manifests in the world. There is so much evil and injustice in the world that it is almost impossible to actually believe that God is the essence of good. Ramchal, when dealing with these matters, falls back on traditional answers such as things getting squared away in the World to Come, or everybody somehow getting what they deserve in this world, or reincarnation, to settle any unfairness in life. The problems start when one asks about the Holocaust or any other case of evil reigning in the world, and those pat answers no longer suffice. This is a core problem with this whole notion – one has to be a believer.
There is no question that Ramchal himself was aware of this problem. He surely knew that what he was proposing wouldn’t stand up to the scrutiny of a skeptical questioner. So what really was he proposing? First of all, it must be stated that there is no theological or philosophical or mystical system that will stand up to such scrutiny. They all have holes in them somewhere - it is simply a matter of finding them. Usually the holes are found by stepping out of the box and not accepting as a given something that the system proposes as a given. The real litmus tests for any such system are how far one can go without stepping out of the box, and how well does the system hold up when looked upon from outside.
We shall subject Ramchal’s system to such tests. God is the essence of good. There is evil in the world – a good deal of it. God should be preventing such evil, punishing it, eradicating it. God shouldn’t be tolerating it or looking the other way and pretending that He doesn’t notice it. How could God be the absolute essence of good if there is so much evil in God’s world?
The only avenue with some leeway on it is to redefine the word ‘good’ and consequently, to redefine the word ‘evil’. This approach, of course, runs the risk of trying so hard to defend Ramchal that what we say either doesn’t fit within his words or is simply not acceptable. Ramchal himself, in Derech Hashem, defines the ultimate good as nothing other than experiencing God. God’s plan in creation, he explains, was to enable creation to experience God to the greatest degree possible. According to this redefining of terms, God is now defined as ‘the experience of God’. Or more accurately, God, as manifested in creation, is the experience of God.
So what was God’s plan? That, he already stated clearly, was to bestow good to others. But God is the essence of good, so God’s plan was to bestow God to others. In other words, God’s plan was to enable others to experience God. Wherever and whenever creation experiences God, God is that experience.
Evil, according to this definition, is what goes against God’s plan, or whatever prevents creation from experiencing God. There certainly is plenty of that going around, so does that mean that all those evil things are not God? To this, Ramchal is absolutely clear. A few pages later in Da’at T’vunot he discusses God’s oneness: ‘It comes out that the only thing that is truly clear to us concerning God’s infinite perfection is God’s oneness. When we contemplate all things that happen under the heavens, we see the single direction towards which everything revolves, the end (goal) of which is solely the revelation of this truth.’
God’s oneness encompasses everything that happens under the heavens, even evil. So what really is evil if God’s oneness encompasses everything? According to this system, evil is a temporary state of things that obscures God’s plan by preventing creation from experiencing God. In the end, however, this also is encompassed within God’s oneness. Somehow, some way, that evil will reveal more God than it obscured, so it will turn out to have been a contributor to God’s ultimate plan. This, of course, is impossible to see under most normal circumstances, and consequently, is difficult to accept.
As long as one has faith that things will work out in the end, all is fine. God has things under control even if it seems otherwise. God is the essence of ultimate good. But if one steps out of the box and says that this is just too much to swallow, does the entire system fall flat on its face? No, because we don’t have a complete picture of reality. We live in our own little bubble of time and space and haven’t the scope to understand why things happen the way that they do. Is it so wrong to believe that we cannot understand everything, and that perhaps God has some greater plan that takes all these temporary lapses of evil into account? God’s plan is to enable creation to experience God. That plan is alive and well despite a constant stream of glitches.
Perceiving the Image
This image does succeed, to some degree, in defining God in a way that most other images came up short. God is the essence of good. The essence of good is experiencing God. God is the God-experience. However that experience comes about, it is God. It is a fascinating way of looking at God in that it transforms God from some ethereal, unknowable, and undefinable ‘being’, into a very real and very perceivable experience. All those experiences, in which one senses that there is something more, something spiritual, something of ultimate meaning and purpose, are experiences of God. They are the human being, a creation of God, encountering their Creator, their God, in as direct a manner as possible.
Ramchal makes a major point of how we have to make the crucial decision to choose to experience God. God could not hand us the experience on a silver platter, even though it seems like this would accomplish God’s plan just as well. He explains that no act of goodness reaches the ultimate of good unless its recipient appreciates it as such. The recipient must be able to sense God in the interaction. That only happens when the recipient also participates in the bestowal of good. Making the choice to experience God is an act of self-goodness. It is choosing to experience God, and thus, in a sense, is a godly action. Choosing to experience God is another manifestation of God.
No matter how much evil one encounters in the world, there is always the possibility of making a choice to experience God. It is there waiting for us, hovering in the air, biding its time, lingering in the back of the mind. A choice can always be made. It will be a choice to either experience God or to ignore God. Which choice do you want to make?
This definition of God does not sit well with many people. They see it as a divine cover-up for all the evil and wrong in the world and a way to take the responsibility off of God’s shoulders. Does this system really work or is it just one more way to avoid the central problem of religion?
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