How do You Understand God and God's Presence in the World?

May 11th: Behar/Bechukotai
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

Though the word atheist is used for someone who does not believe in God, the technical meaning is one who does not believe in the Theistic Definition of God. This Theistic Definition is that God is an omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient, omnibenevolent, and conscious Entity which takes an interest in human and earthly affairs, occasionally breaking into the natural order to perform miracles—the purpose of which is to reward the good/obedient or to punish the evil/disobedient. Thus can many atheists describe in great detail the God in which/whom they do not believe. They know the definition of the word God, and they do not believe that such an entity exists. On the other hand, there are some a-theists who believe in God—but not the God described in the Theistic Definition. They believe that the Theistic Definition is an inaccurate description of the Divine Force; for them, God is best described in other terms.

Among the famous thinkers in this second category of a-theistic God believers are Aristotle, Rabbi Moses Maimonides, Rabbi Isaac Luria, Baruch Spinoza, Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, and Rabbi Harold Kushner. Some see God as conscious but uninvolved in the world—the Unmoved Mover. Others see God as a Force that contains and binds existence but that is not what we would call conscious. Others see God as extremely powerful but not all powerful—a conscious deity who is limited and thus in need of human assistance.

Each of these alternative understandings is in part a response to the biggest challenge to the Theistic Definition of God, the problem of Theodicy. If God is all-powerful and all-good, how can God cause/allow evil and imperfection to exist? Some may point to a cataclysmic event like the Holocaust to prove their point, but, philosophically, much smaller cases of unfairness or imperfection are challenging enough. While theists have answers to the question of Theodicy, some people find the answers satisfying, and other people do not.

This week’s Torah portion contains passages that support one of the Theistic answers to Theodicy. In Leviticus 26.3-5, we read: “If you follow My laws and faithfully observe My commandments, I will grant your rains in their season, so that the earth shall yield its produce and the trees of the field their fruit. Your threshing shall overtake the vintage, and your vintage shall overtake the sowing; you shall eat your fill of bread and dwell securely in your land.” “But if you do not obey Me and do not observe all these commandments, if you reject My laws and spurn My rules….I will wreak misery upon you—consumption and fever, which cause the eyes to pine and the body to languish; you shall sow your seed to no purpose for your enemies shall eat it. I will set My face against you; you shall be routed by your enemies, and your foes shall dominate you. You shall flee though none pursues.” (Leviticus 26.14-17) In other words, the problems in the world are not cases of unfairness or imperfection. Rather, the things that happen to us are consequences of our obedience or disobedience to God’s instructions.

This is one of the perspectives in the Book of Job when Job’s friends keep insisting, “You must have committed some sins.” It is a concern of the Psalmist who prays: “Who can 2 know all of one’s errors? Forgive me, O Lord, from accidental sins.” (Psalm 19.13) There is also the possibility that the sins might have committed by an ancestor, and we are the ones paying the price. Notice the way the second of the Ten Commandments introduces this notion of trans-generational reward/punishment: “I the Lord your God am an impassioned God, visiting the guilt of the parents upon the children, upon the third and upon the fourth generation of those who reject Me, but showing kindness to the thousandth generation of those who love Me and keep My commandments.” (Exodus 20.5-6) For many pious people, these verses and this thinking adequately explain the comings and goings of good and bad events.

However, for many other pious people, this kind of reward/punishment scheme just does not ring true, and these are the thinkers who have rejected the Theistic Definition of God and sought other descriptions of the Divine Presence they sense. William James, the 19th Century philosopher and psychologist, described this spiritual search when he defined religion. To James, religion is the human response to an undifferentiated sense of reality—to the “more” (an undefinable, non-empirical feeling of a Presence). I believe that all religious thinking is an attempt to understand this undifferentiated sense of reality and to live in conscious relationship with it.

The Theistic Definition of God is the Torah’s writers’ thinking on the subject, and many people over the centuries have agreed. To them, good fortune is a reward for obedience to God’s instructions, bad fortune is a punishment for disobedience, and both reward and punishment come in this world to either us or our descendants.

Do you agree with this scenario, or do we think that there are other more accurate ways to understand what happens in our lives? The history of philosophy is in many ways the history of people working on these issues. Why do things happen to us—bad or good, and what can we do to about our fortune? The Theistic Definition of God is one answer, but, for those who find it unhelpful or inaccurate, there are alternative definitions that can help express the Infinite that many find both attractive and compelling.