Divine Impassibility? A Jewish Perspective

No, not impossibility. For the non-theology-geeks among you, impassibility is the doctrine that God does not suffer or have emotions in the human sense. This assertion is disputed among Christians, and seems to appeal more to Calvinists and others who are anxious to preserve God’s absolute sovereignty. (If that sounds absurdly presumptuous, well, I phrased it that way for a reason.) I lean toward believing that it’s an unbiblical notion that crept in from Hellenistic culture, which understood perfection as changelessness. By contrast, the Bible tells us that God is faithful and eternal, but this need not mean that God is unaffected by events. Rather, it means that God’s loving nature and His promises are completely reliable. 

Writing in this week’s Jewish World Review, Rabbi Nathan Lopes Cardozo connects the de-personalization of God to a loss of moral significance for human emotions and actions:

…[T]he term G-d…often stands for completely opposing entities used by religious and quasi-religious ideologies. All of them agree that “G-d” affirms some Absolute Reality as the Ultimate. But, they fundamentally disagree as to what that reality is all about. For Benedictus Spinoza, the Dutch philosopher and Jewish apostate, and other pantheistic thinkers, He is really an “It,” a primal, impersonal force, identical with all nature — some ineffable, immutable, impassive, Divine substance that pervades the universe or is the universe. G-d is only immanent; He is permanently pervading the universe but not transcendent, a Divine spirit which has little practical meaning in man’s day-to-day life.

This is not so for Judaism and other monotheistic religions. For the Jewish tradition, G-d is not an idea or just a blind force but the Ribono shel Olam, the Master of the Universe, Who, besides being immanent is also transcendent, surpassing the universe which is His creation. He has the disturbing habit of being everywhere and anywhere, and He is known to interfere with anything and everything. He is a living G-d who is a dynamic power in the life and history of man, moving things around when He sees fit and smiling or getting annoyed with His creatures when they have blundered yet again. But, most importantly, while He does not fit into any category, He has, for the lack of a better word, “personality” and His own consciousness. His essence cannot be expressed, but He can definitely be addressed.

This radical difference in the conception of G-d makes for an equally profound divergence in attitudes about all life and the universe. While in pantheistic and other non-monotheistic philosophies, He has no moral input, nothing could be further from the Jewish concept of G-d. For in Judaism, He is the source “par excellence” of all moral criteria. According to pantheism and the like, the world is eternal, without a beginning. As such, it does not have a purpose since purpose is the conscious motivation of a creator to bring something into existence. It therefore follows that in the pantheistic view man cannot have any purpose either. He, like the universe, just “is” and, so, moral behavior may have some utilitarian purpose but no ultimate one. For pantheism it is not the goal of man to be moral but just a means to his survival. Would moral behavior no longer be needed as a means for man to survive, it could be dispensed with.

On a deeper level, the pantheistic world view sees the universe as an illusion — an unreal, shifting flux of sensory deception. As such, it needs to be escaped. Made from a purely Divine substance, it could not accommodate any physical reality and, therefore, could not have any real meaning. Neither could man. Once his physical existence is branded as an illusion, he can no longer exist as a man of flesh and blood. Nor are his deeds of any real value. Since it is the body, which gives man the opportunity to act, and man’s body is seen as part of the deception, it must follow that all man’s behavior belongs to the world of illusion as well. It is this view that Judaism protests. G-d is a conscious Being who created the world with a purpose. And this world is real and by no means a mirage. Man’s deeds are of great value, far from an illusion; they are the very goal of creation. Judaism objects to the pantheistic view of man since it depersonalizes him, which must finally lead to his demoralization. If man is part of an illusion, so are his feelings. So why be concerned with a fellow man’s emotional and physical welfare?

Paradoxically, this pantheism infiltrated western culture via the back door. When we are told by certain modern philosophers that man is only physical and his body a scientific mechanism in which emotions are just a chemical inconvenience, we are confronted with a kind of pantheism turned on its head. While pantheism denies the physical side of existence, this so-called scientific approach rejects the spiritual dimension of man. In both cases, emotions are seen as part of an illusion, and, therefore, they are to be ignored.

Judaism, on the other hand, declares that it is emotions that make man into man and that they are of crucial importance and real. In fact, emotions are central to man’s existence, since they are the foundation of moral behavior. While pantheism teaches that moral criteria belong to the veil of illusion, Judaism declares them to be crucial. It is for that reason that Judaism views G-d as an emotional Being. By giving G-d, metaphorically speaking, emotions, these emotions are raised to a supreme state. If G-d has emotions such as love, mercy, jealousy and anger, then they must be real and serious and not to be ignored when found in man. While some philosophers considered such anthropomorphism as scandalous, the Jewish tradition took the risk of granting G-d emotions so as to uphold morality on its highest level and guarantee it would not be tampered with. For the sake of man even G-d is prepared to compromise His wholly Otherness, albeit not to the point that He would be projected as a human being.

Read the whole article here. (JWR is reader-supported, so if you like it, consider making a donation.)

Rabbi Cardozo is describing an Incarnational worldview, one that Christians take a step further by claiming that God was in fact “projected as a human being” in Jesus. I’m always wary of philosophical moves that widen the gulf between God and humanity, in a way that obscures our ultimate reconciliation rather than merely whetting the appetite for it. Note that God’s sovereignty is not threatened because it was still His initiative to “compromise His wholly Otherness”. The one who “taking the very nature of a servant…humbled himself and became obedient to death” (Phil 2:7-8) does not need us to wipe away His humanity in order to restore His dignity.

2 comments on “Divine Impassibility? A Jewish Perspective

  1. Moominpapa says:

    Thanks for sharing this!

    The good rabbi wrote, “But, most importantly, while He does not fit into any category, He has, for the lack of a better word, “personality” and His own consciousness.”

    I would go one step further to say that God IS personality or personhood. He imbued His creation, and particularly the people He has made in His image, with personality. Those of us who are Trinitarian will go the next step and say He is relationship, as well, and made us, in part, to be in relationship. It’s a big part (maybe the most important part) of who we are. (I think this may also have implications for your earlier post about enforced gay/lesbian celibacy).

    I really like the Jewish personal view of God – the way they get very close and love Him in the deliciously possessive way of children, who are not afraid of misunderstanding or even of angering as long as they can be right up in the parent’s armpit, so to speak. I think that is what God wants most from us – what Abraham started – what Enoch felt for God, so that “God took him” – the doubling of spirit that was Elisha’s legacy from Elijah – the wrestling hands-on love of Jacob.

    Like you, I immediately suspect any sentiment or idea that seeks to separate us from God, or to separate God from motives, emotions, personality. We can only begin to understand who He is (He can’t be reduced to our size personality) but I’m absolutely convinced He wants us to get up close and try. And I believe heaven will be about getting ever closer and learning more and more forever.

    And so I also believe He will embrace anyone who sincerely wants to go to Him as Him. I think it’s His big hope, that we’ll all come running like children, home to see Daddy.

  2. Jendi Reiter says:

    On Chabad.org, Tzvi Freeman writes this about the Rosh Hashanah prayer “Our Father, Our King”:

    Rosh Hashanah, the Baal Shem Tov taught, is a game of hide and seek. G-d hides, we seek.

    But where can G-d hide? Wherever you go, there He is. As the Zohar says, “There is no place void of Him.” So perhaps what the Baal Shem Tov meant is more like peek-a-boo — when the parent hides behind his or her own fingers. So too, G-d hides within the guise of an awesome, indifferent king, judging His subjects strictly by the book until the most sublime angels shiver in dread.

    And we seek. We seek the father within the stern voice. We are the small child who climbs into the king’s arms, tears off the mask and says, “Daddy!”

    Which is just what he was waiting for.

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