Why the World Still Needs the Jews

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If you understand the mission of the Jewish people to include contributing some truths to the nations of the world, the latest Harris poll is a mix of good news and bad news. While the vast majority of Americans believe in G-d, the way they understand Him is somewhat quirky, to say the least. Jews come in a bit less quirky than the others.

Seven percent of Jews believe that G-d is female, while fewer than one percent of the rest of Americans do. Since the entire idea of gender in relationship to G-d is a primitive absurdity, Jews seem to be a bit behind there. Actually, that is not the case, because the alternative is not any better. Too many men (34%) and women (39%) think that G-d is male; 10% think G-d is both male and female; 17% haven’t figured out what they believe. Only 37% believe that G-d is neither, which according to latest authoritative Jewish sources is the way G-d himself weighs in on the issue.

G-d’s form is equally problematic. Nine percent said God appeared “like a human with a face, body, arms, legs, eyes,” though only 1% of Jews bought into this. (Surely this is a sign that Jews picked up some small amount of enlightenment in Sunday School.) Many – 41% — were comfortable with a G-d Who is a “spirit or power that can take on human form, but is not inherently human.” A majority of born-Again Christians- 60 percent agreed with this. At the other end, 49% of Jews said that G-d is “a spirit or power that does not take human form.”

G-d’s control of human events, and the certainty of His existence, came in for some equally ambiguous results.

My own experience, especially with people of religious faith, runs along the same lines. The one conversation that I both yearn to have at the right time with Christian friends – and dread being pushed into before that time – concerns the ultimate reason for the Jewish rejection of Jesus. Most Christians I have met figured that it was something historical about the life of Jesus himself. They are usually surprised when I explain that the (standard version of the) Jewish idea of the absolute Oneness of G-d precludes the possibility of G-d ever taking human form. With some exceptions, most people with whom I have had the conversation had not previously considered the idea that human form – any form – is inherently limiting. A perfect G-d does not, cannot, have any boundaries or limitations. G-d can create an apparition, but He cannot “become” something less than He is. Becoming flesh means becoming undivine. Judaism will brook no compromise on that.

For aficionados of the Ramchal like myself, the results of the poll may seem a bit bleak. Daas Tevunos (in his Sod HaYichud) asserts that human civilization can be reduced to a single theme: clarifying the absolute Unity of G-d. All phenomena in a universe that seems to the untrained eye a potpourri of random and decidedly opposing forces, must come to be understood as flowing from a single Source. The final sticking point is evil itself, the very opposite of G-d, and the traditional bane to belief in the all-good G-d of Judaism. Belief in the Oneness of G-d will ultimately become so clear, that even the existence of evil will no longer be seen as contradictory. To get to this final triumph, people need to acquire a more sophisticated understand of Divinity. The first step, it would seem, is to know what He isn’t.

According to this latest poll, it looks like Jews may have to be around somewhat longer.

[Thanks to Dr. Harold Brackman for the tip.]

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13 Responses

  1. Raymond says:

    I have always taken the idea of the limiting nature of physicality precluding G-d from ever taking a human form as being too obvious to even question, but that may be because I was raised with a strong Jewish awareness. Yet I still have some questions left unanswered, for example, the sephirot. If G-d effects His universe through the mechanisms of the sephirot, why could He not do the same through a human form? Either way, there seems to be an intermediary between G-d and man. And then I seem to recall that one of the prophets had a vision of G-d that took on a human form. I do not remember who experienced this (Yechezkel?) or what were the circumstances surrounding it, but I am wondering how this is explained according to Jewish tradition.

  2. Jewish Observer says:

    “I don’t know what R’ Moshe Taku would say if he were alive, but I don’t lose sleep over it”

    – not only do I NOT lose sleep over it … it actually helps …

  3. Yitzchok Adlerstein says:

    Ori –

    Ramchal’s Sod HaYichud goes far beyond asserting G-d’s unity. One thing this poll makes clear is that assertions of unity leave room for some very objectionable conceptions. The Sod HaYichud goes far beyond even a “correct” i.e. a traditional, majoritarian understanding of the nature of that unity. Rather, it is related to the pithy phrase “ein od milvado,” which in traditional circles does not mean “there is no other god besides Him.” It does mean that there is no existence, no phenomenon, no datum that exists outside of His Being. There is nothing but Him. It means not only understanding that G-d is the ultimate cause of all things for having created a universe, but that He is the immediate cause of, the kernel reality behind everything that we observe. (One passage in Chabad chassidus argues that there is no external reality. It is a façade. The only real existence is G-d’s Will, which to human eyes takes shape as shapes and objects.

    Bringing about this realization requires strong belief in G-d as a prerequisite, not as a final position. Starting with that belief, further thinking and contemplating matures one’s belief gradually, until he or she understands far more about the Creator

    One Christian perspective –
    You are quite right. G-d must limit. In Jewish tradition, one of His Names is taken to mean, “[the One that] said ‘enough!’ to His world. He limits His power, His creativity, His judgment, etc. He can limit the expression of Himself, but there is one limitation that is impossible. He cannot limit His very being, to “become” flesh. IOW, G-d can change what He does, not what He is.

    Baruch –
    I’m not mocking anyone. But I am not willing to accept the validity of all opinions expressed by Jews, even important ones. In the course of time, some ideas win out, just as certain halachic opinions triumph over others. As the Chasam Sofer (last teshuva in Yoreh Deah) points out, Hillel (the 2nd) believed that there would not be a human Moshiach figure. Hashem would bring about the final redemption Himself. This opinion was roundly rejected, and cannot be considered a legitimate expression of a Torah viewpoint, even though Hillel was greater than any of us.

    I believe in the argument advanced someplace by R Tzvi Hirsch Chajes, that if Hashem found it important for us to give us tools to determine a standard through which we act (i.e. halachic process), He certainly found it important to give us tools to determine how to conceptually relate to crucial questions. Yes, it took time to debate many of those halachic questions, and yes, it took time to clarify some of those conceptual areas as well. I cannot account for some of the opinions of major thinkers who held differently. That does not preclude coming to the conclusion that there is a set of approaches that remain within the pale of what Hashem wants us to work with, and some that fall without.

    Attributing physical form or properties to G-d lies well outside. I don’t know what R’ Moshe Taku would say if he were alive, but I don’t lose sleep over it. It does not detract in my confidence in a Standard Model of belief that reflects, I believe, Hashem’s guidance of history to give us the approaches He deems appropriate for us.

  4. Nachum Lamm says:

    katrina, for better or worse (really, by default, especially when you consider languages other than English), God has been referred to as “He” for all these years. To keep doing so is not making a statement that God is male; to change it to “She” is to make a conscious statement that God is *not* male, which in our experience means “female.” I think that’s the only reason people don’t want to change.

    The well-known theologian Ashley Judd, however, was quoted making your point in the paper today.

  5. Ahron says:

    Ori said: “Ahron, what did Ramchal mean by clarification?” Though I haven’t learned the Ramchal in depth, it seems that he’s talking about the emerging recognition that countless diverse and seemingly discrepant phenomena all stem from one Source and are all reflections of that Source. It’s certainly not about “the best and brightest” exclusively having awareness of this Unity–I think the brightest will have a different understanding than the non-brightest. But if we take seriously the concept that “da’brah Torah ki’lshon b’nei adam”, “the Torah speaks in the language of humans” then it means that every human is meant to have a share in it.

    Katrina said: “as a feminist I’ve kvetched about images of G-d as a white male”. It’s actually incredible to me that somebody could imagine God as mutatis mutandis a “white male”. What on earth “god” are they thinking of? However I do think there is a reason why in most prayers and in most of Tanach we refer to God using the male gender. This is undeniable, the prayer Avinu Malkeinu being only the most express example. There’s obviously a great deal to talk about why this is so (and we should also note that at some times like Shabbat we reintroduce the feminine gender more) but one approach that I think is a good start is simply to think about the psychological/emotional and conceptual roles that male and female occupy in our minds (assuming we have not yet been indoctrinated to believe that there is “no difference” between males and females). A male, as father, is the giver of direction, redirection, rebuke, discipline, guidelines, structure, and standards yet is also a refuge, a stronghold and a defender. A Deity that is going to give moral direction, probe our mistakes, deliver consequences and redirect us to the right path probably needs to be conceptualized primarily using a male gender. Keep in mind also that pagan/polytheist religions typically fixate on “mother” earth and “mother” nature. There are reasons for this as well. Consider particularly what Ramban’s comment on “Na’aseh adam b’tzalmenu k’dmutenu” might mean in this context.

  6. Baruch says:

    “Since the entire idea of gender in relationship to G-d is a primitive absurdity…”

    I’ll take the bait. You write as if you have in hand some conclusive scientific evidence of whether God is male or female or neither.
    Along with mocking people nowadays that believe God is this or that, you are essentially mocking the earliest Jews, who clearly thought “man in God’s image” and God being referred to in male pronouns to mean he was male. The fact that Rambam in Moreh Nevuchim (Guide to the Perplexed) among other palces had to write thousands of lines about these questions makes it plain that it is not a clear case.

    And of course mocking people opens you to mockery for believing in God (male or female, both or neither) in the first place, as Dawkins, et al would assert is quite “primitive” as well.

  7. katrina says:

    the article was misquoted-
    39% of women and 34% of men think G-d is male
    -not visa versa [since corrected – YA]
    which is odd since only 9% think G-d has a “humanlike” form
    so the idea of “gender” must be somewhat abstract

    as a feminist I’ve kvetched about images of G-d as a white male
    I’ve had people tell me that of course G-d isn’t actually a
    male (or female)and that when we refer to G-d as “Him” this is just a pronoun not to be taken literally- and yet these same
    people will vehemently refuse to refer to G-d as a “Her”
    so maybe in a survey they’d SAY they don’t think G-d has a gender
    but whether they truly believe this is another matter

    personally I think part of why 7% of Jews think G-d is female is in reaction to the prevaling xtian belief of G-d’s maleness-I think
    it’s a way to counteract the Michaelangelo image
    and I don’t think these people believe it literally

  8. Ori Pomerantz says:

    Ahron, what did Ramchal mean by clarification? To have the best and brightest people understand G-d’s unity as much as humanly possible? To have as many people in a society as possible understand G-d’s unity to the utmost of their personal ability?

    Chareidi Leumi (I assume the n is a typo), could you define “transcendent unity” and “immanent unity”? I don’t know what these terms mean.

  9. Chareidi Lenumi says:

    > where nobody disputes G-d’s existence and unity, would seem to be more civilized than the US

    The muslim concept of unity (except for some Sufi strands – all of whom are persecuted in Saudi Arabia) conceives only of transcendent unity and not the sort of immanent unity that the Ramchal (and later Hassidut) would preach to the world.

    So the answer is that the Muslims are as far from what the Ramchal was talking about as the Atheists of the USA.

  10. Ahron says:

    >“it looks like Jews may have to be around somewhat longer.” I’m glad our commission hasn’t run out yet!

    Ori said: “By this standard Saudi Arabia, where nobody disputes G-d’s existence and unity, would seem to be more civilized than the US.” Well keep in mind that Saudi Arabia is a homogeneous and tyrannized desert society. There are not a whole lot of diverse phenomena there that need reconciliation and synthesis. Ramchal is basically pointing to science as the process for coming to an understanding of unity–i.e. tracing all of the phenomena in the universe back to a single cause. How much scientific inquiry do you see coming out of Saudi? It is not Unity that animates Saudi society, but simple uniformity.

    It sounds to me like Ramchal’s idea can be described in some familiar Latin words: E pluribus unum. From the diversity of many, emerges One.

  11. One Christian's perspective says:

    I am a Christian [edited]Anytime G-d draws near to sinful men, He limits Himself…..other-wise, we would all be crispy critters. It is not about how much knowledge one has about G-d – anyone can read and study, but do you study G-d’s own Word and understand it by His Spirit or do you read what someone else wrote. It is ultimately all about knowing G-d so well that you trust in Him even when your own understanding is telling you something else. Isn’t this what the writer of Proverbe 3:5-6 said ? Saving faith involves knowledge of G-d from His own word, agreement to this truth and trusting in G-d’s provision for all things. I can think of many times where G-d limited himself in the Hebrew Bible. Maybe a better word for limit is humble initiation. Remember after Adam and Eve disobeyed G-d, G-d himself asked “where are you”; they were punished but not zapped ? Remember how G-d sent the prophet to David after his adultery and David confessed and wrote Psalm 51. It is truly amazing to me that the G-d who created all things wants a relationship with me. I can’t wrap my arms around that let alone my head but my heart knows this is true. It is for this reason that I can be bold to write to a Rabbi who probably has read much more than I about G-d and can argue me under any table and into the trash bin……but who I think really wants to understand what is in my heart.

  12. mb says:

    The attributing physicality to the Divine was rather easy during the Greeco/Roman culture in which Jesus lived. In fact( AFIK) the Greek word for good is beautiful. This lead later Christian theolgans such as Augustine and Gregory of Nyssa to conclude that the reason the Jews rejected him was that Jesus must have been ugly!

  13. Ori Pomerantz says:

    Yitzchok Adlerstein: Daas Tevunos (in his Sod HaYichud) asserts that human civilization can be reduced to a single theme: clarifying the absolute Unity of G-d.

    Ori: Seems like a strange standard. By this standard Saudi Arabia, where nobody disputes G-d’s existence and unity, would seem to be more civilized than the US. The US has many professed Atheists and Polytheists, and even most Monotheists here believe that G-d is one and three at the same time.