- Alfie Marcus
G-d is Unknowable, Shake that Lulav.
2nd day sukkot 5778
So, we shake the lulav and Etrog and we sort of proclaim like Chabad, G-d is here there and everywhere. And we observe nature sometimes and we say surely there is a G-d in the world. This beautiful sky, these beautiful trees they could not be here were there not a Maker and a Master of the Universe who created them.
We are in such moments, whether knowingly or unknowingly, making an argument about the existence of G-d, one of the oldest arguments in the books. Look around you, contemplate it all, you will find a thing of infinite beauty, intricately divided into parts, finely tuned to perfection, a work of exquisite grandeur and perfection. Such a work could not exist by accident. It must have a maker. That creator of the universe as we know it is G-d.
Here is a quotation from the Maharal of Prague, from a dvar torah he delivered in 1588:
The grass and trees praise Hashem. How can something like grass, which completely lacks intelligence shout for joy and praise? It is teaching that no created thing can exist in its own behalf. Hashem created each and everything in the universe and everything attains significance through Hashem and without Hashem nothing would exist…Hashem is the ultimate crafter and the master crafter is praised through its creations in that they show the crafter’s abilities. The crafter gives attributes to its creations, beauty, values, and a remarkably wide range of amazing qualities. This applies to all of the crafter’s creations …which reflect in them modest simplicity, divine grace, and beauty.
What the Maharal is saying is we must see beyond appearance and acknowledge the deep and profound presence of G-d that has brought everything in the world into being. Looking back from the effect and we see the cause of it all.
This insight is very beautiful. I love it. David Hume, the Scottish skeptic, of the late 18th century tears it apart. If you are of the opinion that philosophy leads to apikorsos now is the time for you to leave this dvar Torah.
Hume observes that when we think we know G-d through G-d’s works we are exhibiting a high level of hubris. We are reasoning from the analogy that G-d’s creative process is like that of a human being. Just as a human being uses his or her talents and exerts powerful effort to bring into being various objects -- bridges, clocks, windows, doors, toilets, walls, carpets, you name it – so too G-d does the same thing.
But is it not demeaning of G-d to think that G-d functions like a mere mortal? It is hard to imagine G-d as a bricklayer. It is more like G-d speaks and then his creation, the world comes into being, as in first chapter of Bereshit or the Barukh Sheamar. No physical exertion is involved.
Moreover, the actual process of human creation is more belabored than that of the genius crafter. Paraphrasing Hume, the actual work of creation proceeds with error and incoherence. If we set our eyes on a ship, Hume writes, we are to find behind it a stupid and coarse crafter with little talent. This person copied a mode of shipbuilding that went through a long succession of trials, mistakes, corrections, and errors. Hume writes, “Many worlds might have been botched and bungled.” He indicates that much labor may have been lost and many fruitless attempts made before the ship was built.
Perhaps this is how G-d works. There is even some indication in our Tradition that it is so, that G-d created many worlds before our own.
Hume also suggests that the epiphany we have that G-d is the master craft person of a nearly perfect world usually arises on beautiful sunny day when plants are in bloom and everything is perfect. Are we still as enamored of the Creator on those terrible dismal, stormy, sub-freezing winter days in Minnesota?
What were the people of Houston, Miami, and Puerto Rico thinking about the maker when they faced hurricane like winds and rains that spread a path of destruction from which they still have not completely recovered?
If we are searching for a G-d of justice, then what do we make of Jewish history? Should we think of the design of this world as we know it as faulty and imperfect, the product of an inferior or perverse deity, whose governance is sporadic, perhaps even mean spirited?
Hume argues we cannot entirely know the maker from the made. He does not take the next step. We should be willing to have a perspective that finds G-d ultimately mysterious and unfathomable. That view may have some similarity to the Rambam or Kabbalah, if I may mention them in the same breath. Rambam made the point that G-d is unknowable and the mystics often referred to G-d as the great nothing or Ayin. We know G-d when we do not know.
In any case, Judaism is a religion of praxis. Take the lulav and etrog and shake it, not exactly knowing why, but ascribing meaning nonetheless.