Thursday, October 23, 2014

The Middle Ground- Finding the balance in our relationship with God

“Yedid Nefesh, Av Ha Rachaman…”

The other night after my shiur on parshat Noach, I got into an interesting conversation with a student. We somehow ended up discussing the danger of viewing God as one who can be manipulated through things like davening, Tehillim and baking challah. I pointed out to him, that the rationalist side, a side that has become very common within the world of modern-orthodoxy, has its dangers as well. He asked what they were, and I responded off the cuff with a quick answer. What follows is an attempt to give a more complete answer to the question.

Rav Eliezer Berkovits zt”l wrote about the fact that the God of Aristotle is not the God of the Torah. Aristotle spoke of the Unmoved Mover, a God with whom man can not truly engage. On the other hand, the Torah speaks of a God who listens, commands and gives rewards and punishments. In short, a God who cares. While Rambam attempted to somehow merge the two ideas, for many he created a supercomputer of sorts with whom it is difficult for us to relate. While he moved Judaism away from a God who could be seen as too human, he left us with a God with whom it is hard to connect.

Rav Shimshon Raphael  Hirsch in his commentary on Bereishis, took note of this difficulty. On the pesukim found at the end of parshas Bereishis (6:6), God, in advance of the flood, is described as regretting the creation of man and feeling sad.

וַיִּנָּחֶם ה' כִּי־עָשָׂה אֶת־הָאָדָם בָּאָרֶץ וַיִּתְעַצֵּב אֶל־לִבּוֹ:

Rav Hirsch notes:

Let us here make a general remark about anthropomorphic expressions in Scripture. Scholars have philosophized about these expressions, in order to keep us far from ascribing to God material features.
He continues by noting:

This gives rise, however, to the danger that the Personality of God will become increasingly blurred and indistinct to our perception. Had that been the Torah's intention, it could easily have avoided such expressions. Rather, the second danger (that of blurring the Creator's Personality) is greater than the first (that of anthropomorphizing the Creator). (Emphasis added)

...All this affirms the Personality and freedom of God and preserves the purity of faith. This is also the view of the ראב''ד, the distinctively Jewish thinker: Belief in the Personality of God is more important than the speculations of those who reject the attribution of material features to God.

While it can be argued that in Rambam’s time the greater danger might have been in the opposite direction, it seems to me that Rav Hirsch is correct in noting that the pendulum has swung too far in our community. Why daven when God is unchanging and uncaring? How can we relate to His mitzvos when we can’t relate to Him at all? If all we know is what he is not, how can that be enough for the basis of a relationship?

It is time to think about finding a proper balance. While the God of the Torah is not a gumball machine from which we can receive what we want whenever we want, he is also not a supercomputer running the world. It is time to return to language that speaks not only of God’s perfection, but also of His concern, and for us to not see him as merely the creator, but also as a God who loves and cares about us.


  1. Balance? Dialectic!

    BTW, Yedid Nefesh opens with a three-way tension:
    Yedid nefesh -- Beloved
    Av haRachaman - Father
    Meshokh avdekha - Master

  2. Excellent post (even if you didn't quote RSRH.