"A Definition of God"
by Rabbi Benjamin H. Englander
It is related that when the Gaon of Vilna was still a small boy he was asked by his elders, "Where is God?" and he is supposed to have answered, "Where is He not?" The accepted Jewish teaching is that God permeates the universe with his presence.
Albert Einstein once said,"The loftiest way of coming to the God Idea is the way of the scientist through cosmic religion" It is interesting to note that the Rabbis follow this rule and say that Abraham, the first who taught monotheism, discovered God through cosmic experience. The Rabbis tell us in the Midrash that Abraham was impressed by the vastness and orderliness of the Universe. Studying the skies, he first thought the sun was the regulating power. But then, it set at night. In the evening he saw the moon and stars, but again on the morrow they were gone. By process of elimination Abraham came to the conclusion that there must be a power higher and above all the powers that are visible to the eye Who rules and guides them and orders the universe.
Our forefathers did not discuss the existence of God. They took it for granted. We cannot prove His presence by syllogisms of logic, nor can the order found in the universe prove God to the cynic and nonbeliever. Prof. Heschel in his book "Man Is Not Alone" writes, "It is a matter of no great difficulty to discover some subtle fallacies in the speculative proofs of the philosophers and scientists." God to the Jew was not the result of reasoning, but the essence of life, which he felt even as he felt all the needs of life. "My soul thirsted for God," the Psalmist exclaims.
Baruch Spinoza begins his philosophy not by trying to prove the existence of God, but by accepting him a priori: He is! To know God, one must feel his presence. One must be able to penetrate the hidden mysterious realms of his heart and soul where He will be found.
In the Sifri -- a collection of Rabbinic teachings -- we find this beautiful allegory:
"Until Abraham, our forefather came upon this world, the Holy One, blessed be He, was only king of the heavens, but when Abraham came, he made Him King of heaven and earth." It is man alone who has an awareness of God, who can bring God down to earth.
I recall a conversation in class during my Seminary days when one of my fellow students questioned his own conviction or faith or belief in the Divine because of his
constant search for meaning and definition or a formulation of the concept of God. Professor Mordecai Kaplan, our teacher, pointed out to him that this very search for God points to an awareness of and a true faith in the Divine. In his thought and through his conscience, man projects the God idea. God's presence is everywhere where man is present to accept it, to exalt it, to be aware of it.
Hashamayim m'saprim k'vod kel, u'maasei yadav magid harakiya. "The heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament shows the work of His Hands." To those who would listen, the heavens tell of the glory of God, and the works of His hands are revealed to those who would see them.
In a world of many gods, the Jew taught the one God. When man still worshipped the mountain, the tree, the sun, the moon and the stars, when he was still making physical manifestations of the gods in the form of idols, the Jew spoke in terms of the abstract idea of a One God who has neither form nor matter, but is the creator of heaven and earth and all therein. At a time when people spoke of the gods being confined to Mount Olympus or limited to some other sphere, the people of Israel and their prophets already stressed the universality of God -- Ribbono shel Olam -- "The Master of the Universe."
Because the most distinctive note of the Jewish God idea was always its ethical monotheism, the Jew did not concern himself with theological speculations as to what God is. The Torah tells us that Moses asked to see God, to which God replied, "Man shall not see Me and live." It is not for the human eye to penetrate the essence of God. "If I could describe God -- He would not be God," Maimonides cries out, and another wise man said, "Did I possess this knowledge of God, I would be God."
God is One, but there is no fixed concept of God in Judaism. Conceptions of Him have grown and developed and changed from the dawn of Jewish life to our own day. A child talks of God in childish language, but as he grows older, his ideas, his concept becomes more abstract, and the idea takes shape.
Eheyeh asher eheyeh. "I will be what I will be", is the definition God gave of himself when Moses asked him for an identification. There is no fixed concept for the Jew. His credo speaks for him: "Hear O Israel, the Lord our God the Lord is One."