Why Worship an Imperfect God?

Yoram Hazony’s thought provoking article in the New York Times has received many responses, some thoughtful themselves, others less so1. In short, he argues that the God of the Bible is an imperfect God, and that this is actually a more plausible God as well. However, philosophers have avoided this conception because such a God is less likely to win our allegiance.

Indeed, this was the question that popped into my mind when I read the piece: Why worship an imperfect God?

I’m aware the discussion is way over my head, so I’m really just putting down my reaction here, which I hope is valid. I can’t be clear enough that these are waters I’m not qualified to wade into, but since I haven’t seen anyone else write this, and I think I’ve given a clear disclaimer, I want to discuss the question.

Anyway, if God is perfect, then there really isn’t much to discuss, since it then seems obvious that we should worship Him: God is perfect, therefore His will is perfect, and therefore we should accept His will, which is to listen to Him. For the Orthodox Jew this means following Jewish law.

However, if God is imperfect then this little train of thought falls apart, and we have to wonder if it possible to worship God if this is the case. I want to be clear that I’m not advocating the position that God is imperfect, but simply asking if He could demand our worship if this was true.

I believe the answer is yes, and I will suggest that there are at least two ways to explain this in light of the classical Jewish relationship with God.

  1. God as Creator and Lawmaker: If God is imperfect this does not affect His role as unique lawmaker for the world. God may be imperfect, whatever that means, but as He is still the sole creator and arbiter of right and wrong, the necessary and unnecessary, and who may hold legal power, we are bound to follow His will. Objective reality has been imbued with His particular brand of meaning and therefore the rules He has determined are objective as far as we are concerned. In short, we are bound by them.
  2. God as Beloved: This is the other core aspect of the relationship between God and the Jewish people. God is our father, our Sheppard, and our concerned King in our liturgy, and we love Him with all of our hearts, our souls, and our strength. He took us out of Egypt and hears our cries, and we have a special bond with Him which was given legal status and meaning through Jewish law. This being the case, we do not wonder whether or not God is perfect, but rather we worship Him out of love.

There may be other ways to explain why we would still worship an imperfect God, including simply explaining that Judaism doesn’t really bother with this question, but merely assumes that we must fulfill our obligations from Sinai. I am not out to defend one particular view or another, but simply to argue that this concept may possibly be considered not only compatible with the traditional Jewish understanding of how we relate to God, but also with the concept that we must follow Jewish law.

Lastly, I should probably mention that this view violates Rambam’s 13 principles, and in his opinion, as noted earlier in this blog, this means that anyone who holds it should be hated and destroyed. See that post for the “on the other hand”…

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23 Comments

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23 responses to “Why Worship an Imperfect God?

  1. Regarding your first reason, if He is imperfect then why should we follow Him? Why should we not try to make a perfect Law to follow. The second reason I would stress more weight on. For the whole point of Hazony’s article is one cannot have a relationship with a perfect being. A perfect being via the philosophical definition would not be able to be in relation, for being in a true relationship means something is being given and received and if God is perfect He can’t be in relation.
    Which brings me to my point that the term worship may not be the best term in regard to Judaism, perhaps a better term would be the multifaceted term שמע, To listen, to worship has connotations that God doesn’t have a stake in this relationship,, worship etymologically speaking comes from the word worth, meaning something worthy of being revered, one does not worship their partner, one listens to their partner. This was the strongest expression of our relationship with God, as lover, as partner.
    We worship that which is dead, that which no longer speaks to us, that which has lost meaning for us; We listen to that which still calls us, We answer to that which still speaks to us.
    So in response to why worship an imperfect God? don’t, to answer though why have a relationship with an imperfect God, why listen, why respond? Because it is only with an imperfect God that one can hear, that one can respond to, and that one can enter into a true relationship with.

    • Yitzchak Sprung

      Hey Gene-
      My first point is that we should consider the law perfect and objective from our perspectives, since it is presumably the best law for this world.
      Secondly, i understand your reservations about the term “worship” as opposed to “שמע” but there are other traditional perspectives as well. As you know, the medieval Jewish philosophers would probably have found Hazony’s article to be horrendous (if well argued). Why write their perspectives out of Judaism?
      With that in mind, I also want to respond from my own perspective.
      Judaism may be a relationship, but it is not a relationship of equals, so “reverence” is proper.
      I may not feel like responding to God’s call, but as far as Judaism is concerned, I must. We may simply disagree on this point, but I think this kind of perspective argues that worship is part of the relationship with God.
      Finally, I don’t see why “worship” connotes anything being dead or not speaking to us…?

      • How could an imperfect God make a perfect law, also that would imply that everyone should follow the Torah and not just us, a view which almost across the board in every era Judaism has refuted. (See Devarim, Micha, Isaiah, Chazal, Maimonides and ect…)
        Also to be clear I was not saying that the many medieval philosophers are not to be considered part of Judaism, I was just stating why having a relationship with an imperfect God makes sense. Also if you would look at many of these thikners, many of them draw conclusions that you can’t have a relationship with God, the Rambam for instance says the only way to God is through His works, which is to say that not with God Himself, a God who is completely transcendent cannot by definition have a relationship with others, the Aristotelian defintion of perfection is God being the most perfect being can only do the most perfect of things which is thought. God cannot be in relation for that would involve an imperfection in his perfection. Once again not to say that we should erase these opinions from Judaism, as we don’t take out Beit Shammai.
        The word in hebrew for worship is סגד, each time that it is used in Tanach (Isaiah, 44: 15,17; 46:6; Daniel 2:46; every place in Daniel 3) it refers to worshiping an idol, (except for Daniel 2:46, where it refers to Daniel himself, still holding with referring to something other than God) Classically speaking from the text worship is not a proper term to be used when referring to God.
        There are many sources in Judaism that would say we are equals, mostly from kabbalistic and hassidic renderings of the Torah, but they can even be found in the pshat of the text and words of Chazal, as in the famous Abraham and Sodom episode (that he can hold God accountable) R Shimon Bar Yochai’s reading of Isaiah where he states,
        פסיקתא דרב כהנא (מנדלבוים) פיסקא יב – בחדש השלישי ד”ה [ו] אנכי הגדתי

        ואתם עדיי נאם י”י ואני אל. תני ר’ שמע’ בן יוחי אם אתם עדי נאם יי, אני אל, ואם אין אתם עדיי כביכול אין אני יי.
        Showing a relationship between us and God that if we don’t acknowledge Him, then he is not God, (Note it doesn’t say that I will not be a God for you, but I am not God.
        Obviously from the Hasidic thought which has been conceptualized in both the work of A.J. Heschel in God in Search of Man, where he writes ” God is in need of man, that man is an existential need of God”.
        I realize that we do not have the same “power” as God, but in a relationship “power” does not determine equality, but the feeling that each is existentially dependent on the other. (as shown in the midrash), equality can have two fore bearers, one coming from sameness, we are equal because we are the same, the other from oneness, we are equal because we are and come from the one. (Erich Fromm in his the art of loving) the equal partner that I am talking about is the latter, it is the understanding that without us God is not God and without Him man is not man.
        To further comment, when I say respond it doesn’t automatically mean by doing mitzvot, it is whenever one does anything in the fullness of their being in response to God, (The story of R Shneur Zalman in the russian jail when he asked by the guard, how it could be that God didn’t know where Adam was after he had ate of the fruit, and the Tanya answers “Do you believe that the words of scripture are eternal, the guard answers yes, then he says ” Then when God asks in the garden איכה, that is not just for Adam Harishon, but for every man, God is asking of us all the time “Where are you?”, at that the guard went pale, but then brushed it off with a joke, the meaning of the guard’s reaction is that many of us do hear that call, but instead of responding we brush it off, but if we try we can answer it,) Therefore we don’t have to respond, as the Kotzk said, God is only to be found where man lets Him in, man can keep Him out.
        The reason why I said that worship refers to something dead, is that I was using a classic Jewish motif that God is the living God and idols are “dead” in contrast, that is they lack life. As I have shown before the word סגד is only used for idols, (also notice the the shared letters of סגד and סגר, interesting thought on the connection between being “closed” (not being open to relationship” and worship, this may however just be parshanut, although I happen to agree with it as not just the first two letters are shared, but the last ones are almost identical)

  2. Yitzchak Sprung

    Gene- A long and fantastic comment! I really appreciate that you took the time to write it out!
    1) A perfect law- like Hazony’s description of perfection dictates, perfections doesn’t necessarily mean everything and everyone all at once. Alternatively, one might argue that the law will be for the entire world in the future, etc.(by the way- Kelner has written extensively on Rambam’s position about this, and he believes it is Rambam’s position that everyone will convert at the end of days. This is hardly a revolutionary view).
    2)I misunderstood you to be excluding the medieval philosophers, but i understand that you point out another valid perspective.
    3) Anyway, as you point out, it seems many of the medeival philosophers preclude a relationship with God. My assumption is that (eg.) Ralbag should be considered as within the Jewish tradition, and that this is a valid perspective.
    4) I don’t understand why the Hebrew word סגד must be understood to mean “worship” exactly, or why that would necessarily mean we cannot use it and assume it is fine in other contexts.
    5)I was not trying to imply that the lack of equality stems purely from power, but it is related. Again, it is a vassal treaty, as kugel points out.
    In sum, I don’t think Heschel, Hasidic thinkers, or Kabbalists have a monopoly on the proper understanding of our tradition, but i understand where your points are coming from.

    • Fine with the rest of your points, as I said not excluding their views, also not implying that the hasidic understanding of Judaism is the only one, my point there was to show that Hazony’s view is nothing new and it stems from a long tradition, although the tradition that it stems from is not the medieval philosophic tradition.(Which that tradition has so pervaded modern Judaism that Hazony’s article was i anyway “shocking”)
      However about the word סגד, it is as I understand universally translated as worship. Also as I pointed out it is always used in connection with idolatry. Which means that there is a clear connection between the idea of “worshiping” and idolatry. Therefore using the same idea of worship in regard to God would be inappropriate. If the word was used in Tanach as also regarding God it would be a different story, however it is only used in regard to idolatry each time it appears. Many words could have been chosen, לשבח, להלל, השתחוות and so on, however only this word is and only in this context. My claim is that only this context is appropriate for the idea of worship exactly because in a relationship (even an unequal relationship, a you claim) one does not worship his partner. One listens to his partner. I am saying that one cannot have true a true relationship with another in which one side is “worshiped”
      All the best

  3. Le Newyorkais

    Yitzchak, not really true. Until the 19th century most Jews did NOT have an option to believe or not. The shtetl was often run as a theocracy, and bucking the system was not an easy option. Besides, where r u going to go?—the goyim do not want u anyway. Also, before recent times there were not many systems u COULD believe in. The giant steps man has made in science and philosophy DO offer a very credible alternative to Yiddishkeit. Science tells us how the universe and man evolved (not 100% known), linguistic science has offered new ways to interpret the Torah as an ancient man-written text without Talmudic aid alone, and philosophy has brought us existentialism, which brings up the concept that maybe there is no higher reason for our existence, and that life indeed may well have no “meaning.”
    Further, people look at religion differently. Reward and punishment, serving God with out-dated rituals (niddah, animal sacrifice, davening), and the existence of an afterlife for which there is no evidence. these things do not ring a bell with modern man. especially, when science provides a much more direct way of thinking.
    this is why Kabbala and other ideas were invented. if u r going to cling to Yiddishkeit u NEED something to show that our petty behaviors have a much larger, mystical role in the universe than apparent. u NEED to construct the afterlife hypothesis to square away all the things that r clearly wrong with olam hazeh. a believer is baffled that God could permit the holocaust on “His” people, the Jews. he waits for Messiah to tell him (but what could Messiah POSSIBLY say anyway?). the non-believer KNOWS the greater reason for the holocaust—there IS no greater reason. there r historical reasons, and moral reasons for it, but a GREATER reason? No. the holocaust did NOT have higher reason in the universe.
    it is inescapable, unless, unlike every court in the world, u admit hearsay as testimony, and believe that God talked to millions from a mountaintop.
    Either God does not exist, but if he does, He is 1 evil SOB.

    • Hey “Le”, welcome back again!
      Have you read my posts that I replied to you with?
      1) Choice:
      I find it odd an existentialist would argue that people did not have a choice.

      For hundreds of years, many people martyred themselves rather than convert to another religion. These people did not keep Jewish law because of social pressures. In fact, throughout much of history, many Jews assimilated or left the fold, though you are correct that there was tremendous pressure within the ghetto within recent history. Still, there is always a choice, and you know what you have chosen in your heart, and no theocracy does or can force you to feel and believe differently than you do.
      So i reject your point about choice.

      2) It happens to be that i respectfully disagree with you regarding philosophy as providing a real alternative to religion, but that is besides the point. I don’t practice Judaism for lack of alternative lifestyles, and I certainly don’t practice in order to know more about science, since of course, the Torah is not a book on biology, evolution, or cosmology.
      As a Jew, I believe I have certain duties, and I try my best to fulfill them.

      3) Dogma and Jewish Law-
      First of all, there is no “ought” in science, or even philosophy, I am inclined to think, so these things don’t provide a better way to think or act. Again, for someone who believes that they have responsibilities to fulfill as a Jew, there is no question that Jewish law is not outmoded in the slightest. Again, i respectfully disagree.with you.

      4) Problems With This World, The World to Come, and Kabbalah:
      First of all, I don’t tell God how to do His job, and i don’t practice Judaism in order to get a prize. Judaism has beliefs, which i accept, but in regards to why one should keep the mitzvot, this is because e are obligated by Jewish law.

      This world has problems and the Holocaust was perhaps the greatest tragedy in history; this has no bearing on my belief in God. There are people who believe in God because they think the world is a good place. That is understandable. I believe in God because I think the transcendent is real, and that our world is not all there is.

      5) I DO accept hearsay as testimony, and I think tradition is important. I respectfully disagree with you on this point as well.

      6) Psychological Need for Religion:
      First of all, you are not my psychologist, and you do not even know me! Yet you are telling me why I’m religious? That seems odd and presumptuous.

      Obviously, as a religious person, I think religion came about because it is real, and not because of man’s psychological needs.

      I appreciate all of your questions, and I’m sure you mean well.

      All the best,
      Yitzchak

      • There is a quote which i add, though it does not sum up my view.
        “To believe in God means to see that the facts of the world are not the end of the matter.” -Ludwig Wittgenstein
        I can’t be sure I agree with it, but to a certain extent it cannot help but be true, since there is a limit to what we may know by reason and experience. What do we do when we recognize those limits?
        I think that’s a good question. You may disagree.

  4. Le Newyorkais

    u say: “This world has problems and the Holocaust was perhaps the
    greatest tragedy in history; this has no bearing on my belief in God.”
    well, Yitz, why the hell does the holocaust NOT affect your belief in God? for millenia we call God “our Father.” well, some father!! stands by as his “chosed people” r slaughtered!
    Dismissing the questions of the holocaust (“no bearing on my belief”) does NOT make them acceptable. the questions r real and still there. the holocaust basically flies in the face of EVERYTHING we believed before. Faith must be re-evaluated! maybe our assumptions have proved to be false. Messiah will NOT tell us why the holocaust happened, because there is NOTHING he can possibly say to explain it. invoking the “big picture” of God’s plans does not cut it.
    by the way, the whole concept of the afterlife is on very thin ice during many periods of Jewish development. In the Bible, the best a righteous man can do is live a long life and be buried with his people. why no mention of Heaven?

    • Yitzchak Sprung

      First of all, let me just express that it was not intention to denigrate the questions of faith and doubt that arose because of the holocaust. I have many questions too, though they are beyond my ability to answer,
      Indeed, perhaps a reevaluation is in order; do you really think God is a big man in the sky who does favors for people all day? You seem to think God owes you something, and if He doesnt pay up, He doesnt exist! If this is the God you deny, I deny with you!
      I don’t claim to know te answers to your questions. As I said, I believe in the transcendent, and yes, I accept my tradition as well as believe in the limits of reason and experience as sources for knowledge.
      I’m sure your perspectives are complex, and it seems reasonable to me for you and others to have many questions in light of the holocaust.
      But, perhaps in contrast to some others, I believe that when we pray For help, God may say no. Why did God not interfere with the holocaust? I don’t know! But if He didn’t, why not become a deist as opposed to an athiest?
      You express certainty with regards to so many uncertain issues!
      As for dogmas, you may see my posts which reference some interesting books on these matters.

  5. Le Newyorkais

    the problems with monotheism r this: 1) it disrespects other nations’ belief in many gods. The Romans put everyone’s gods in the pantheon, not just their own. Pan=all, theon=gods. 2) monotheism gives God too many conflicting roles, best left to SEVERAL gods. the God who GIVES u cancer is the SAME God u pray to to CURE your cancer. now, how much sense does THAT make?
    u must read Jack Miles’ “God, a biography.” going thru the Bible, Miles describes the evolution of the Jews’ perception of God. In Genesis, He starts as Creator, then Desroyer, then re-builder, then becomes punisher, then acts as big brother and fertility expert to the seed of Abraham. Then, in Exodus, He tolerates the Jews’ enslavement, then liberates them with high drama, and then the Lawgiver. by Deuteronomy, He becomes the Terminator, with Schwarznegger’s immature furious anger, powerful flame throwers in both hands.
    Yitz, I respect all people’s beliefs, but between u and me, THIS is a dressed-up fairy tale that the Rabbis took a little too seriously.

    • Yitzchak Sprung

      Your last comment struck me as somewhat odd.
      The problem with a pure pluralism is this- if you see someone murdering a small child, you may say “well, that’s part of his belief system, I suppose I should leave it alone”
      As you know, human sacrifice is not uncommon in history.
      When we make judgement calls, we exclude possibilities. Sometimes that means as possibilities of actions, sometimes as theories, and we may or may not choose to display tolerance. In the US, murder is not tolerated. Even if someone came and said “this violates my freedom of religion”, it would not be accepted.
      Your claim that the roman religion was better because it accepted all religions is further odd, since that presumably opens it up to the very critique you level at me- contradiction!
      Now let me be clear- choices are important, an they have consequences. Monotheism is one of them, and I do not view your point as a good critique.
      As for your point about the nature of God, I recommend Kugel, Sarna, Cassuto, Kauffman, if you are not willing, interested, or able to look at traditional sources again. I think reading Maimonides and the Sages would be best though, but contact me for a fuller list. I also add that mikraot gedolot is available, at least partially, in English, from JPS.
      As an aside, I think your insult against schwartzanehger was unnecessary, and I think, wrong.
      Finally, it seems you respect other people’s beliefs within parameters, as do I. You find mine stupid, and this means in your opinion, or so you imply, that an exception may be made.
      Please consider why this statement is a problem within your last set of questions.

      • Le Newyorkais

        Yitzchak, it had to happen: u and I have reached the point of irreducible disagreement. u believe there is a God, while i believe there is not. this is my last word, then u may have yours.
        U may be right that I have a bigger beef with Orthodox Judaism than other faiths. this is probably because it was O.J. that was shoved down my throat growing up. also, for me, I knew that if there were a God, I would not find Him by studying the fine points of legalism. like, exactly how BIG does a piece of matzah be to “count” as fulfilling the mitzva of recalling the exodus.
        by the way, the tone of my monotheism/polytheism tirade included a big pinch of facetiousness. I was trying to make the point that it is man who defines his God/gods/none of the above , not the other way around.
        last word: Yitzchak, general comment to the faithful, and I strongly affirm that u r not 1 of the bad guys here. while I believe that Judaism just may be man’s greatest mistake, I am not not an anti-Semite, nor do I wish to complete Hitler’s goals. I love my people as much as anyone can, regardless of their belief system. But I will not use dishonest adherence (not u!) to Torah and God as the glue to hold us together.
        kol tuv.

        • Yitzchak Sprung

          Well, I suppose you are right, though I hope you will come back and continue to challenge my posts and assumptions, if only for us to get a deeper and more complex understanding of each other and the worlds we inhabit.
          As you say, you love your people, and so do I; let’s come together to disagree.
          In regards to your negative experiences with orthodoxy, unfortunately, it seems like this is a frequent occurrence in our community. I’m not personally sure what the best educational philosophy is, and I think that people who force orthodoxy down the throats of others are well intentioned, but also unsure of what te best educational would be.
          This is something I’d like to try and get into more in the future, and I’d love to hear your thoughts on the matter.
          2 final points:
          I understand your reservations about legalism, and I hope to post about this very soon, in order to perhaps shed a more personal light on the matter. I hope you will come back and tell me what you think.
          Lastly, while I don’t think religion should be viewed as a means to keeping our people together, I do think it does do this. What exactly do you view as the glue between us, other than the more universal things that hold together anyone with similar cultures and physical and psychological make ups?
          Perhaps there is a connection between all people, but you mention a deeper and more particular one here. What is it for you?
          All the best,
          Yitzchak

  6. The Jews do not worship an imperfect God. The Jews have given birth an imperfect world, which We love, because it the first fruit of our Love. We realize this Child’s imperfection. We have promised to perfect our Child. We continue to birth our Child – and We will deliver that Child, alive and whole.

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