The Wisdom of the Inner Life – Part Two

Rabbi Bachya ibn Paquda says a wholehearted belief in the unity of God is the foundation of the duties of the heart and is the central truth of Judaism. He also says we must arrive at our belief in the unity of God as a result of our own intellectual examination of the concept:  “Understand it today and reflect on it in your heart: Hashem is the God in the heavens above and on the earth below.” (Devarim 4:39). Tradition is not a substitute for critical thinking. We have a spiritual obligation to investigate and decide for ourselves whether, for example, God exists or if God is One. Further, we should be able to explain via logic why God exists. Pakuqa’s arguments are as follows:

  • A thing does not make itself. If it already existed, there was nothing to do. If it didn’t exist yet, it couldn’t do anything.
  • There must be a first cause for everything in the universe, because if we trace the origin of each thing back as far as we can, we find there cannot have been an infinite series of causes.
  • Anything made up of parts must have been brought into existence, because the eternal cannot be finite.  While we’re too small to measure the outer reaches of the universe, it is still finite.
  • To say the world came into existence by chance is like saying a neatly printed page of text is the result of a spilled bottle of ink. The world is too complex, amazing, interesting, etc. to be an accident.

When Duties of the Heart was written, people didn’t know about elements, molecules, atoms, or sub-atomic particles, but they recognized common ingredients in Nature. To earth, air, fire, and water, Paquda adds motion (which I believe may be equated with time.) The breakdown of elements to their simplest components, he says, leads to the categories of matter and form, and finally to the First Cause, one Creator. The complexity of nature and its uniformity of design suggest to Paquda the involvement of only one Designer. If the world had more than one Designer, he argues, it wouldn’t have seamlessly interacting parts. “A work written by two different authors would be marked by diversity, lack of uniformity, inconsistency of style, and would fluctuate in quantity and character.”

While the idea of a First Cause suggests the universe has at least one Creator, the presence of more than one, he says, would be A) unnecessary; B) a possible source of disagreement (you know how hard it is to get anything done by committee); and C) if there were multiple creators with different characteristics, there would be separation between them, and if there were separation between them, they would have to be finite, and therefore would have had to be brought into existence. If more than one Creator were necessary, that would mean each would not be capable by itself, but would be dependent on the others, and therefore not omnipotent.  He writes, “The idea we should form in our minds of oneness is of absolute uniqueness and solitariness; that which has no association or comparison whatsoever, is totally devoid of plurality and number, and has been neither combined with anything nor separated from anything.”

The characteristics of oneness may be what Paquda calls accidental, in the sense that things collected or classified in groups may be called one (one group), or be of a composite nature such that they are “subject to creation and destruction, division, metamorphosis, combination and separation, change, transformation, and association.” Oneness may also appear in an absolute form, which Paquda describes as either theoretical, as in an abstract numerical concept, or actual, which is where he places God. Thus, the Jewish conceptualization of God “cannot be increased, changed, or transformed; nor can it be described by any one of the physical attributes. It is not subject to creation and destruction, or to any ending. It neither changes position nor moves.”  He also says that any property that exists in partial form in one thing must exist in pure form somewhere else, as heat can be transferred to water from fire, but heat is part of the essential nature of fire. The oneness of the Creator is transferred to various creations, but cannot exist within them purely.

He divides the Divine attributes into those of essence and action; essence referring to God’s unity and eternity, and action referring to behavior described in Scripture, as in the phrase, “God heard.” Our Early Masters, he explains, understood all such descriptions of God to be metaphorical. “We would all agree,” he writes, “that it was necessity that brought us to anthropomorphize the Creator.” The use of metaphor allows us to relate to a Creator we are not capable of imagining. “If it were possible for us to conceive of God’s true nature, He would not be identified to us by way of anything else.” We should take care never to take literally any description of God, because trying to comprehend the nature of God is like trying to hear a color or smell a sound. We are limited and incapable; “…for whatever can be imagined in our thoughts is something other than God.” We come to know Ha Shem (“the Name”) only through observation of Ha Shem’s works and through the traditions of our ancestors.

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