Foundational Jewish Teachings

Thursday, January 4, 2007

1. God doesn’t need anything from us. This is a biggy, and was the first lesson my rabbi learned when he started studying in Israel. (He was raised in a Reform home, and “found” religion when he was in college. He dropped out of an architecture bachelor program and spent the next ten years in Israel studying traditional Judaism.)

God by definition cannot need anything from us because we cannot give anything to an infinite being (see number 2 for a discussion of what an infinite being is).

This is one of the big understandings that Judaism provided the world when it introduced monotheism.

Paganism was a response to nature. Humans lived in perpetual fear of nature. Pagans believed that they could appease nature (in the form of their gods) by sacrificing, praying, and praising these gods. The gods in return received pleasure from this worship and according to their whims may answer some of these prayers. Since there were many gods, pagans believed there was jealousy among the gods as they fought one another for power.

The Jewish God does not need those things because as an infinite being he (I’ll use the masculine pronoun because that’s what most people do—obviously he’s neither male nor female nor a thing—see number 2) does not have needs. Additionally, there’s nothing that we could provide an infinite being that he doesn’t already have. That’s the nature of infinity. (Of course, there’s a huge paradox called the creation paradox, one of many paradoxes when you begin discussing an infinite being: how can we and creation exist outside of God if God is infinite. Wouldn’t everything necessarily be part of God and therefore infinite? And, no, I don’t have any answers to that.)

Some examples: When Jews praise God, they do not praise him because God needs or even enjoys their praises. They praise him because it is the humans that need to praise God to understand whom they stand before. The last part relates partly to humility, and is more complicated and a very interesting but separate discussion related to prayer and principle number 3 below.

I use the next example because it is so foreign to modern peoples. When Jews presented animal offerings at the holy temple (which was destroyed many thousands of years ago), they did not present the offerings because God liked the smell of burning animals or because the slaughtering of animals amused God. Instead, it was the humans that needed this offering. This is an even more interesting discussion that I can only provide a taste for. According to Orthodox belief, at the time of the Messiah, there will be a return to animal offerings. The Orthodox firmly believe this and even pray for it to happen. The rabbis explain that the term “sacrifice” was mistranslated form the Hebrew. It is not a sacrifice because the animal offerings are not for the benefit of God. This is a departure from the Pagan belief, where the Pagans were providing the sacrifices to appease the Gods and nature.

2. The only thing humans can know about God is that he is infinite.

I probably should have started with this one. While Jews may describe other aspects of God, we usually do that by referring to human characteristics, e.g., merciful, good. This is because we have a limited view, not because God is human. There are huge ramifications to God being infinite. God’s infiniteness is the basis of God being one because to be infinite means there can only be one.

I’ve written about this before, but during college I came up with what I thought was a strikingly original and deep insight into the existence of God. First premise: since most people believed God was omnipotent (all powerful), he should be able to do anything. Second premise: since most people believed God to be infinite, God must exist outside of human’s perception of time. If you think of time as a physical timeline, God would be floating above that timeline. Contradiction: If God exists outside of time then he cannot “do” anything, since “doing” something involves changing from one state to another. And changing states requires existing within a timeline. Conclusion: An infinite, omnipotent God does not exist.

because he is an infinite being. Going further, God doesn’t do anything because “doing” involves existing within our perception of time.

he is infinite and therefore outside of our conception of time. But I’ll return to that in a moment.

3. The meaning of life is an opportunity to move close to the infinite.