Judaism: Meaning in God

Reference: Judaism
Reference: The World’s Religions by Huston Smith

[NOTE: In color are Vinaire’s comments.]

Judaism provides a conception of God that was unique and much needed for the times, but it contains assumptions that close the door to many possibilities and future discoveries.

“In the beginning God….” From beginning to end, the Jewish quest for meaning was rooted in their understanding of God. 

Unlike Hinduism, the Jewish quest for meaning is rooted in their understanding of God.

Whatever a peoples’ philosophy, it must take account of the “other.” There are two reasons for this. First, no one seriously claims to be self-created; and as they are not, other people (being likewise human) did not bring themselves into being either. From this it follows that humankind has issued from something other than itself. Second, everyone at some point finds his or her power limited. It may be a rock too large to lift, or a tidal wave that sweeps one’s village away. Add therefore to the Other from which one has issued, a generalized Other that underscores one’s limitations.

Judaism starts out with the assumption that nothing in this world is self-created or unlimited, and concludes that there is an “other” beyond this world that is self-created and unlimited. This makes the later discovery of evolution controversial in Judaism. In comparison, Hinduism makes no such assumption and it does not look at the concept of evolution as controversial.

Merging these two ineluctable “others,” people wonder if it is meaningful. Four characteristics could keep it from being so; if it were prosaic, chaotic, amoral, or hostile. The triumph of Jewish thought lies in its refusal to surrender meaning to any of these alternatives. 

The Jews resisted the prosaic by personifying the “Other.” In this they were at one with their ancient contemporaries. The concept of the inanimate—brute dead matter governed by blind, impersonal laws—is a late projection. For early peoples the sun that could bless or scorch, the earth that gave of its fertility, the gentle rains and the terrible storms, the mystery of birth and the reality of death were not to be explained as clots of matter regulated by mechanical laws. They were parts of a world that was pervaded by feeling and purpose throughout.

Judaism assumes human-like characteristics for the “Other”. This is a completely arbitrary assumption. Judaism also projects matter to be completely inanimate and dead. This goes against the discoveries of chemical, electrical and quantum nature of matter.

It is easy to smile at the anthropomorphism of the early Hebrews, who could imagine ultimate reality as a person walking in the garden of Eden in the cool of the morning. But when we make our way through the poetic concreteness of the perspective to its underlying claim—that in the final analysis ultimate reality is more like a person than like a thing, more like a mind than like a machine—we must ask ourselves two questions. First, what is the evidence against this hypothesis? It seems to be so completely lacking that as knowledgeable a philosopher-scientist as Alfred North Whitehead could embrace the hypothesis without reserve. Second, is the concept intrinsically less exalted than its alternative? The Jews were reaching out for the most exalted concept of the Other that they could conceive, an Other that embodied such inexhaustible worth that human beings would never begin to fathom its fullness. The Jews found greater depth and mystery in people than in any of the other wonders at hand. How could they be true to this conviction of the Other’s worth except by extending and deepening the category of the personal to include it?

The Jews were reaching out for the most exalted concept of the Other that they could conceive. So they extended and deepened the category of the personal to include it. But how can an “other” that is beyond this world, have a worldly form? Evidence against this assumption are the obvious anomalies that it creates.

Where the Jews differed from their neighbors was not in envisioning the Other as personal but in focusing its personalism in a single, supreme, nature-transcending will. For the Egyptians, Babylonians, Syrians, and lesser Mediterranean peoples of the day, each major power of nature was a distinct deity. The storm was the storm-god, the sun the sun-god, the rain the rain-god. When we turn to the Hebrew Bible we find ourselves in a completely different atmosphere. Nature here is an expression of a single Lord of all being. As an authority on polytheism in the ancient Middle East has written:

When we read in Psalm 19 that “The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament showeth his handiwork,” we hear a voice which mocks the beliefs of Egyptians and Babylonians. The heavens, which were to the psalmist a witness of God’s greatness, were to the Mesopotamians the very majesty of godhead, the highest ruler, Anu. To the Egyptians the heavens signified the mystery of the divine mother through whom man was reborn. In Egypt and Mesopotamia the divine was comprehended as immanent: the gods were in nature. The Egyptians saw in the sun all that a man may know of the creator; the Mesopotamians viewed the sun as the god Shamash, the guarantor of justice. But to the psalmist the sun was God’s devoted servant who is as a bridegroom coming out of his chamber, and “rejoiceth as a strong man to run a race.” The God of the psalmists and the prophets was not in nature. He transcended nature…. It would seem that the Hebrews, no less than the Greeks, broke with the mode of speculation which had prevailed up to their time.

Judaism, however, was unique, in the civilization surrounding it, in introducing a single, supreme, nature-transcending will. The God of the psalmists and the prophets was not in nature. He transcended nature. It simplified all the speculation which had prevailed up to their time. 

This is very similar to the single and unique “impulse to evolve” (Brahma) in Hinduism that imbibes all nature. This impulse is distinct, yet it identifies the fundamental nature of all existence. But Hinduism patiently embraces a long drawn evolution; while Judaism rushes with a simple formula to explain everything.

Though the Hebrew Bible contains references to gods other than Yahweh (misread Jehovah in many translations), this does not upset the claim that the basic contribution of Judaism to the religious thought of the Middle East was monotheism. For a close reading of the text shows that these other gods differed from Yahweh in two respects. First, they owed their origin to Yahweh—“You are gods, children of the Most High, all of you” (Psalm 82:6). Second, unlike Yahweh, they were mortal—“You shall die like mortals, and fall like any prince” (Psalm 82:7). These differences are clearly of sufficient importance to place the God of Israel in a category that differs from that of the other gods, not merely in degree but in kind. They are not Yahweh’s rivals; they are God’s subordinates. From a very early date, possibly from the very beginning of the biblical record, the Jews were monotheists. 

The Jews were monotheists. But Hindus were neither monotheists nor polytheists because they were never theists in the first place.

The significance of this achievement in religious thought lies ultimately in the focus it introduces into life. If God is that to which one gives oneself unreservedly, to have more than one God is to live a life of divided loyalties. If life is to be whole; if one is not to spend one’s days darting from one cosmic bureaucrat to another to discover who’s in charge that day; if, in short, there is a consistent way in which life is to be lived if it is to move toward fulfillment, a way that can be searched out and approximated, there must be a singleness to the Other that supports this way. That there is, has been the foundation of Jewish belief. “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One” (Deuteronomy 6:4).

A person needs some certainty in a confusion to stabilize himself. The monotheism of Judaism provided that certainty. It was a way out of the confusion of life for many people. Monotheism has been the foundation of Judaism.

There remains the question of whether the Other, now seen as personal and ultimately one, was either amoral or hostile. If it were either, this too could frustrate meaning. Interpersonal life obviously flows more smoothly when people behave morally; but if ultimate reality does not support such behavior, if the world is such that morality does not pay, people face an impasse as to how to live. As to the Other’s disposition toward people, its power so obviously outweighs human power that if its intents run counter to human well-being, human life, far from being fully meaningful, can be nothing but a game of cat-and-mouse. This insight caused Lucretius, a short distance around the Mediterranean in Rome, to preach atheism on grounds that were actually religious. If the gods are as the Roman believed them to be—immoral, vindictive, and capricious—meaningful existence requires that they be opposed or rejected.

The God of Jews was not immoral, vindictive, and capricious as the Roman gods were.

The God of the Jews possessed none of these traits, which in greater or lesser degree characterized the gods of their neighbors. It is here that we come to the supreme achievement of Jewish thought—not in its monotheism as such, but in the character it ascribed to the God it intuited as One. The Greeks, the Romans, the Syrians, and most of the other Mediterranean peoples would have said two things about their gods’ characters. First, they tend to be amoral; second, toward humankind they are preponderantly indifferent. The Jews reversed the thinking of their contemporaries on both these counts. Whereas the gods of Olympus tirelessly pursued beautiful women, the God of Sinai watched over widows and orphans. While Mesopotamia’s Anu and Canaan’s El were pursuing their aloof ways, Yahweh speaks the name of Abraham, lifting his people out of slavery, and (in Ezekiel’s vision) seeks out the lonely, heartsick Jewish exiles in Babylon. God is a God of righteousness, whose loving-kindness is from everlasting to everlasting and whose tender mercies are in all his works.

Yahweh of the Jews was a God of righteousness, whose loving-kindness is from everlasting to everlasting and whose tender mercies are in all his works.

Such, then, was the Hebrews’ conception of the Other that confronts human beings. It is not prosaic, for at its center sits enthroned a Being of awesome majesty. It is not chaotic, for it coheres in a divine unity. The reverse of amoral or indifferent, it centers in a God of righteousness and love. Are we surprised, then, to find the Jew exclaiming with the exultation of frontier discovery: “Who is like you among the gods, O Yahweh?” “What great nation has a God like the Lord?”

It was a conception of God that was unique in that it promised an actual presence; it gave hope; and it brought stability and order into people’s life. 


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