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"TRYING TO GRASP GOD"
By Rabbi Mordechai Katz
 
 
What is God? Is God the clockmaker deity of 18th century philosophers -- the deists who believed that God created the world, set it in motion, and then left it to run of its own accord? Is He the "ineffable" of certain Eastern philosophies, sometimes described as "allness" and sometimes as "nothingness?" Is He(or She) the mysterious "force" of contemporary science fiction?
 
It is difficult to find the right descriptions for God, so it may be easier to begin by saying something about what God is not. Our ancestor Abraham set the pattern nearly 4,000 years ago when he rejected idol-worship. God, Whoever He was, could not be identified with the sun, moon, stars, or other natural phenomena. The Divine cannot, in fact, be represented in physical form.
 
This accords with the second of the Ten Commandments which states, "You shall not make for yourself a sculptured image." God cannot be reduced to human form either, as some religions have held. As the Torah states, "Take good heed of yourselves, for you saw no manner of form on that day when God spoke to you at Horeb..." (Deuteronomy 4:15)
 
God has neither body, nor shape, nor form. Therefore He must be beyond space and time, which are the coordinates that define form. "He" must also be beyond gender. Use of the masculine pronoun is a convention with metaphorical meaning, but only a convention. Indeed, all the Bible's  descriptions of God having physical form such as an "outstretched hand" are meant symbolically.
 
God cannot be many Divine beings (not even a trinity), since more-than-oneness is a feature of physicality. He must be only One. "The Lord, He is God -- there is none else beside him" (Deuteronomy 4:35). The great medieval philosopher Maimonides (known to Jews as the Rambam) went so far as to state in his code of law, "Whoever conceives God to be a corporeal being is a heretic and an apostate."
 
To say that God is not anything in the world of space-time helps us expand our thinking. We can then say that God is both omnipresent and transcendental, two words that express the idea that God is not in space-time. Omnipresent means He fills all the universe, as Isaiah the prophet states in Prophets, "Holy, holy, holy is God of hosts -- the whole world is filled with His Glory"(Prophets, Isaiah 6:3).
 
Further, since God has no physical properties and is beyond the laws of nature, He is transcendental, meaning that God must be prior to everything else, "outside" space-time, so to speak, such that God makes everything else possible. He has no beginning and no end. He always has been and always will be. This is difficult for our minds to comprehend, and is one among many wonders that we may never fully understand.
 
Since God is before and above all, we also affirm that He is Creator, and that His power in the universe is unlimited. We therefore speak of God as being omnipotent (all-powerful) and refer to Him in prayer as "King of the universe." He created space, time, and everything that is in it.
 
 
HOW IS GOD KNOWN?
 
The fact that God cannot be seen or pictured, touched or heard, is not proof that He does not exist. The human neurological system, however intricate it may be, operates within a limited pattern. In fact, the brain screens out many perceptions in order to give us a functional picture of reality, ensuring our ability to survive in the ordinary physical world.
 
In fact, we know from our everyday experience that there are nonphysical forces in the world. We cannot see love or touch hate, but they certainly exist. Even in what we call the physical world, there are some things that cannot be directly sensed with our physical form. We cannot, for example, hold onto an isolated electrical current or put it into a dish with our bare hands. Yet we know this current produces light and heat, and we can observe its effects even though the wire through which it passes looks no different from any other wire.
 
Invisible physical forces and emotional vibrations are analogous to Divine power in that they are beyond the physical senses but have results we can feel and observe. Similarly, we can prove God's existence through His creations and perceive through our higher intelligence His guiding of history, without being able to perceive God directly. To look at what is around us and deduce that there must have been an intelligence behind it is a classic proof of God's existence called the "argument from design." Although philosophers have offered challenges to this proof, it is still the strongest rational argument for God's existence, beginning with the observable physical world and appealing to everyone's natural reasoning ability.
 
The emperor of Rome once chided Rabbi Yehoshua ben Chananya: "You call your God all-powerful? Why, I am much more of a god than He. Your God cannot be seen anywhere, and I am visible to all. If your God is so great, why can't I even see him?"
 
The rabbi did not try to argue. He simply smiled and asked the emperor to join him outside. The emperor was puzzled, but he complied. Once they were out in the street, the rabbi asked the emperor to look up at the sky. The emperor stared up toward the blazing noontime sun for but a brief moment, and then was forced to look away.
 
"Is something wrong?" asked Rabbi Yehoshua.
 
"How can I look up?" complained the emperor. "The sun is blinding me. I can't see!"
 
The rabbi nodded knowingly. "I regret your discomfort, Your Majesty. I just wanted to point out that even so great a man as you cannot look at the sun for more than a moment. Yet the sun is only a creation of God, Who is the real source of all light, power, and energy. If man can hardly gaze at God's creation, how can he hope to see God Himself in all His Glory?"
 
The emperor smiled. He knew that he had been bested.
 
 
CREATION AND SCIENTIFIC UNDERSTANDING
 
The Torah, in the first chapter of the Bible, states that in the beginning of the creation of what we know as "heaven" and "earth," God created the universe from nothing. Beginning with the creation of light, God then made and shaped everything in its position, resulting in the world as we perceive it. The events of this creation are presented as follows:
 
First Day: Creation of light (and darkness).
 
Second Day: Separation of the "waters," thereby making the upper and lower waters.
 
Third Day: Accumulation of the lower waters, allowing dry land to emerge.
 
Fourth Day: Creation and placement of sun, moon, and stars in the sky.
 
Fifth Day: Creation of sea life and birds.
 
Sixth Day: Creation of reptiles, animals, and finally man.
 
Seventh Day: God "rested" from His work and sanctified the seventh day as the Shabbos, a day of rest.
 
Several things are notable here. Before God acted, nothing existed, not even the basic elements or their energy particles. At God's command, things sprang into existence. This was the most spectacular of miracles, one far removed from our experience or imagination. The simple words in which it is described are an enormous understatement.
 
Second, the concept behind this description is enormously sophisticated. In contrast to the creation stories of many other cultures, the description given in the first chapter of Genesis is very abstract. A formless God manifests through the energy of sound ("and God spoke"), and His first creation is light. This is nothing like the humanoid deities of many other stories.
 
Third, the creation story moves forward in a precise order, from the energies of sound and light to the concept of atmospheres and fluids (upper and lower waters), then to the congealing of what we know as earth and into the regular motions of celestial bodies. Finally it moves to recognizable features of our planet's inhabitants -- sea life, birds, reptiles, land animals, and human beings. While many questions can be raised about scientific theories of the origin of the universe and the evolution of life, what is remarkable here are not the differences, but the amazing similarities between the way the creation is portrayed in the Bible and the understandings of the most advanced branches of science -- physics, quantum, physics, etc.
 
There are, of course, difficulties with most scientific hypotheses about the origin of life. Most problematic is the insistence of some scientific theorists that evolution occurred by chance. Many biologists have argued, on the contrary, that evolution by chance is mathematically impossible. Random mutation -- the mechanism that supposedly resulted in billions of different species -- could not produce the complexity of life on earth in the time span (4 billion years of earth time) that science has allotted for it. J.W. Sullivan, one of the world's most brilliant physicists, has written that "the only possible conclusion so far as actual evidence goes is that the origin of life results from a supernatural, Godly creative act."
 
 
AGE OF THE UNIVERSE
 
Another frequently mentioned problem is that the Bible describes creation as occurring in a matter of days, while science holds that the universe is 15 billion years old. Interestingly, long before current scientific methods were invented, some of our sages discussed whether the time frame of "seven days of creation" in Genesis actually corresponds to seven days as we know them. They noted that the sun and moon, which were created "for [measuring] times and seasons," did not appear until the fourth "day," so what was the "day" like before then?
 
Moreover, if we have to understand every later description of God as metaphorical, certainly the acts of creation that occurred before a human being was present to witness them can only dimly be understood in human terms. To support this point, they bring a number of statements elsewhere in the Bible suggesting that God's measure of time is not like ours: "A thousand years is but a day..." and "God's thoughts are not our thoughts."
 
We need not debate the time frame of creation with today's scientists, whose own theories are very much in flux. The crucial point is that Judaism insists that God authored the universe, created its orderly systems, and continued to be involved in every aspect of creation, phase by phase. The clockmaker deity who wound up the machine and left it alone is not the God of Judaism, Who cares for every element of creation, Who directs each plant and animal in its growth and development, and Who planned the entire world as an arena in which human beings -- the unique beings with free choice -- could accomplish their destiny.
 
 
WHY DON'T WE HAVE CLEARER PROOFS OF GOD'S EXISTENCE?
 
The argument from design is very persuasive on a common-sense level. But we often wonder why God does not speak even more clearly about His existence, to reassure us at least that He is present. In ancient times, it seems, people saw miracles and heard God's voice, or at least knew people who were clearly connected to the Divine force, like prophets. Why don't we have a few miracles in our day?
 
Humanity is, in a sense, an experiment. When God created Adam, He made a being who could decide whether to be like the rest of creation, acting on an animal level, or to be like God Himself. The crux of the human experiment, the one independent variable, was that we should have free choice. If miracles were commonplace and the Divine Presence was indisputable, humans would have no choice but to acknowledge God. It would be as if we were compelled to believe in God.
 
Miracles did happen long ago, because they were needed to demonstrate God's existence to a world that had no concept of God at all. Once the Jews were launched, manifest miracles were less necessary. Human beings were then free to make their own decisions on the evidence available.
 
Still, open miracles do occur at times. Interestingly, many people who say "Why don't we have miracles?" refuse to believe in them when they do occur. It is tempting to pass off miracles as coincidences or as something that science will eventually explain. This is, again, part of the test of our free choice.
 
In fact, there is a completely different way to look at reality -- namely, that everything is a miracle. If we accept the fact that God created the world and cares about it, then we can see God's contributions to the world as being continuous and ever flowing. We are surrounded by unrecognized miraculous events emanating from God. Indeed, we can see the continued existence of all things as dependent solely on God's will. We live from one miracle to the next.
 
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Excerpted with permission from "Understanding Judaism" -- A basic guide to Jewish faith, history, and practice. By Rabbi Mordechai Katz. Published by ArtScroll/Mesorah Publications Ltd., Brooklyn, NY. http://www.artscroll.com