What Kind of God Is the God of the Jews?

For thousands of years both friends and enemies of Judaism have labeled it a religion of deed rather than creed, of law rather than faith. A new book firmly and fervently disagrees.


Observation
Nov. 6 2019
About the author

Neil Rogachevsky teaches at the Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought at Yeshiva University.


Since at least the 1st century CE, both friends and enemies of Judaism have labeled it a religion of deed rather than creed. “Christ hath redeemed us from the curse of the law,” wrote the apostle Paul, producing in the minds of some of his readers a distinction between an austere, legalistic, and even obscurantist tradition derived from the Hebrew Bible and a Christianity that, on this account, rises above the mundane in contemplation of the nature of God and of all that is.

In a provocative new book, Jewish Theology Unbound, James Diamond, a professor of Jewish thought at the University of Waterloo in Canada, defends Judaism from a charge often wielded against it as a calumny. Yet he does not adopt what might seem to be the natural first defense of the legal world that Judaism has built—namely, that by focusing on the practice and study of laws, the details of life, Judaism leads its adherents to apprehend and reflect upon God’s will and to live lives infused with moral and religious principle.

Instead, Diamond rejects the premise that Judaism is solely a religion of law. In his new book, he makes the case that the key texts of Judaism, especially the Hebrew Bible, present a sophisticated theology, one that lucidly and rigorously addresses ultimate questions about the character of God and His relationship to His creation, to human beings, and to the Jewish people.

 

Diamond is hardly the first thinker to draw out the “philosophical theology” of Judaism. The greatest attempt to do so was that of Moses Maimonides (1138-1204), of whom, as it happens, Diamond is one of the leading living interpreters.

And yet this work marks something of an anti-Maimonidean, dare I say “populist,” turn in Diamond’s thought.

Maimonides is famously slippery about how far theology can take us. His philosophical magnum opus, the Guide of the Perplexed, opens with what scholars call “negative theology”: the idea that we can’t describe what God is, only what he isn’t. Take, for example, the statement “God is mighty.” Philosophically, this is circular and therefore incoherent; all one can legitimately say is that “God’s might has no limit.” In order to reconcile this approach with the Bible, Maimonides insists on interpreting anthropomorphisms, angels, and even miracles metaphorically. The God of Abraham found in the Guide thus comes very close to the God of a philosopher like Aristotle, who called God “thought thinking itself.”

For his part, Diamond seeks to uncover and defend the reasonableness of the literal biblical descriptions of God, and even of such things as angels and the like. While he never firmly renounces Maimonides, he argues in effect that the God of the Hebrew Bible, understood more or less literally, is richer and thicker than the transcendent and nearly absent God we learn about in the pages of the Guide.

Above all, Diamond rejects the philosophers’ conception of God as utterly unchanging—“the unmoved mover,” to cite Aristotle again. Instead he maintains that the biblical God is “unbound” by any fixed attributes, positive or negative; a dynamic being, God changes and advances along with humanity. In his own words, Diamond is set on exchanging “austere rational notions of [God’s] perfection and immutability . . . for a vital, fluctuating God who is aided by human beings in the attainment of new cognitions and ever-developing states of self-awareness.”

 

Jewish Theology Unbound is divided into discreet considerations of specific biblical themes that could plausibly fall under the rubric of “philosophical theology.” Among the subjects it considers are the act of “questioning” God, freedom and slavery, love, death, martyrdom, political sovereignty, and the meaning and purpose of angels. Throughout, Diamond reflects on and endeavors to explain what we can coherently think and say about the dynamic God and His attributes. In particular, he focuses on the relationship between God and human beings—and Jews in particular—as the aspect most marked by creative flux.

In one example, Diamond shows how understanding God as dynamic is the only way to understand His covenant with the children of Israel. Thus, God’s command to Jacob to return from exile in his father-in-law’s house to his parents in Canaan expresses a double wish: to reunite Jacob with his father and to end God’s own exile. Having accompanied Jacob in his wanderings, He is now eager to return to His chosen land and His beloved Isaac. Human freedom, in this case Jacob’s taking action to return to the Land of Israel, is transformative at the most fundamental level since it can effect change in God Himself.

In still another biblical passage, this one from Exodus, Diamond analyzes Moses’ two youthful encounters with injustice. In the first, Moses sees “an Egyptian man beating a Hebrew man,” and in response looks around for an “ish,” any man, who might intercede to stop the abuse. But he finds no “man,” only a mass of individuals defined by their discrepant tribal groups and unwilling to be guided by their shared humanity and the obligations it imposes. In the next scene, Moses witnesses two Hebrew men fighting and asks the instigator, “Why do you strike your fellow?” This question, according to Diamond, is Moses’ acknowledgement of the incompleteness of his earlier view that injustice could be solved by erasing or transcending ethnicity and tribe. Moses, in short, is evolving to become worthy of the assignment soon to be placed upon him by an evolving God.

Diamond’s argument is spelled out most explicitly in a dense chapter on the meaning of God’s name. Here he points to Moses’ first encounter with God at the burning bush, where the prophet asks to be told His name and God answers with a Hebrew phrase that in its usual translation—“I am that I am”—seems to imply His transcendence and immutability.

But the Hebrew verbs, as Diamond points out, are cast in the future tense, “I shall be what I shall be,” suggesting a deity who “evolves” along with “His creation and His creatures.” This adumbrates a conception of God much closer to the mystical view later promoted by medieval kabbalists and their successors than to Maimonides’ perfect, immutable being; in fact, the two are almost complete opposites.

Diamond’s book ends not with the Bible but with a searching discussion of the theology of Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapiro (1889–1943), the martyred rabbi of the Warsaw Ghetto. (An earlier version of this discussion appeared in Mosaic). In a way, this section reveals the central motivation underlying the book as a whole.

How does the Holocaust, a catastrophe without precedent in the history of the Jewish people, change the kind of God that Jews can believe in? After Auschwitz, is it possible to assent to Maimonides’ transcendent God, the contemplation of whom is the highest human activity? Following Shapira, Diamond’s answer is no. Jews and indeed all people can believe only in a God who can change, a God who can alter previous plans and intervene directly in unfolding events and their human consequences.

According to Diamond, the evil that Shapira witnessed led to intellectual and religious “paralysis.” What he saw in the Warsaw Ghetto prompted in him a defiant but rational unwillingness to accept the idea of a transcendent God whose mercy or justice humans can pray for but can never fully understand. In the sermons he delivered in Warsaw, which were buried shortly before his deportation and later recovered, Shapira explicitly called on God to change. However the unprecedented suffering of His people may originally have fit into God’s plans, He must now alter those plans.

In the midst of the worst catastrophe ever to befall the Jewish people, Shapira rejected “passive resignation to a divine will.” Without abandoning God, he nevertheless demands that He reconsider His decisions. Shapira’s theological cry in the midst of the Warsaw Ghetto, from which he refused to escape when given the chance, was, according to Diamond, a form of resistance “equally as powerful as” the doomed April 1943 uprising of Warsaw’s Jews against the might of the Nazi army.

 

Whatever one makes of Diamond’s approach to theology, his interpretations of texts are powerful and learned. Fair-minded readers of any Jewish denomination or, indeed, of any religion will benefit from these novel and compelling approaches to some of the most mysterious and difficult subjects to appear in the Bible—and, as his concluding chapter demonstrates, not only there.

Which brings us to the present moment, when the numbers of people who saw and experienced the horrors of the Holocaust firsthand are rapidly dwindling. Without the benefit of their witness to remind us, it becomes ever harder to remember the unique evil represented by the Shoah. Meanwhile, today’s Jews are faced by other challenges, some of them directly related to that catastrophe, and perhaps the most severe of which is the rapidly spiraling, self-unbinding of Jews from their inheritance and faith.

It is understandable, and perhaps inevitable, that in the midst of these difficulties, some should reach for a “thicker” conception of a God who Himself joins with man to meet shared perils. And yet: I am not persuaded that we can abandon the transcendent God of Maimonides and like-minded thinkers.

The possibility of philosophical and theological dialogue across the centuries, with thinkers of the past as well as with those to come—a dialogue that figures prominently in Judaism—depends on the conviction that something permanent stands beyond the mortal realm of change and chance. To abandon the idea of a permanent God, to bring God down into our world of constant flux, is to lose the confidence that we can say anything about God or the permanent questions of life with any certainty.

It is certainly true that dangers lurk in thinking of God as transcendent, but thinking of Him as dependent on human powers can lead to subjecting the activity of wonder and contemplation to the demands of action. Incidentally, one could add that Diamond’s own continued reliance, here and elsewhere, on the philosophical terminology and categories that came into Judaism via Maimonides shows rather vividly that leaving Maimonidean rationalism behind is not so easy as one may think.

James Diamond is surely correct to claim that the transcendent conception of God found in Maimonides’ Guide is not robust enough to command wide allegiance among Jews or others today. But hasn’t that always been true? Maimonides himself never assumed that every Jew would be a careful reader of the Guide. Yet, from the Maimonidean point of view, creative responses to the challenges of history depend on a few individuals who can see clearly the difference between a God who stands above history and the necessities that arise out of the ebb and flow of change. It is through accepting the perspective of a permanent and transcendent God—a perspective that Diamond’s earlier studies of Maimonides have greatly illuminated—that we can engage in dialogue across the centuries with both our ancestors and our descendants and, though starting from very different historical points, reach a point where our thoughts and theirs meet.

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More about: Hebrew Bible, History & Ideas, Maimonides, Theology