“What is too exalted for you, do not seek; what is hidden from you, do not investigate. Reflect on that which is permitted you; what is hidden is no concern of yours.” (Ben Sira 3:21-22)
At the core of the Jewish philosophical approach to living is a willingness to act as if God were unconditionally loving; as if the godliness in each person mattered; as if the universe were rich with significance.
R’ Bachya Ibn Paquda says all descriptions of God in the Torah should be recognized as metaphorical.
“It is impossible to apprehend any object of sensation without the sense that is suited for it; whoever tries to apprehend it with one of the other senses will fail. For example, if a person would try to apprehend a melody with his sense of sight, or colors with his sense of hearing, or tastes with his sense of touch, he would be unable to apprehend them, even a trace of them, even when they were present, because he seeks them by means of organs other than those suited for their perception….This is also true of the mind, which perceives intellectual matters directly and by way of [indirect] evidence. That which is close to it, the mind perceives directly; that which is remote and hidden from it, the mind perceives by way of evidence which implies it. Since the Creator, may He be exalted, is – in the essence of His glory – utterly hidden and infinitely remote from us, the mind can apprehend nothing of Him except His existence. And if the mind should try to grasp the true nature of the essence of His glory or to picture Him, [even] God’s existence – which is evident – will escape it, because it attempts something beyond its ability.”
He suggests a number of reasons for failure to recognize God’s participation in the universe: materialistic pursuits, self-seeking, taking the good things in life for granted, feelings of entitlement, or not viewing misfortune as an opportunity for growth. At the core of Jewish theology is the notion that everything comes from God, for God’s purposes, not our purposes. God owns everything. We don’t even own ourselves. Acceptance of this belief is the essence of the concept of humility in Judaism. Hence, R’Paquda suggests that we attempt to envision the final outcome of events. “You will discover something astonishing: Many things happen to us against our will, and yet we applaud their end result.” He’s saying that all events are inherently meaningful.
According to Paquda, we can verify the existence of God by reflecting on the wisdom embedded in the ordering of the natural world. We are to observe, analyze, and appreciate the workings of the human body, the interconnectedness of the ecosystem, the movement of the planets. The changing seasons, cycles of life and death, rain, the way plants grow from tiny seeds, and the way in which what we need for our survival is available in proportion to the need. R’Paquda cites numerous examples of the complexity of nature as proof of the existence of God. It is the “intelligent design” argument, but from centuries ago. When looking at the sky, “one beholds signs of power and wisdom which stagger the mind and are beyond description by the tongue.” The Creator organized the universe in a way that points to and reflects the Creator’s nature, “as a work of craftsmanship reflects the craftsman.” Existence is made of both material and spiritual elements, blended and fused so one sustains the other. He suggests that we think of how our bodies convert the plants and animals we eat into energy and flesh. We’ve been given a body made of rather mysterious ingredients. A soul has been joined to this body – the spirit of life (ruach ha-chayim). Yet, he continues, there was a time when humanity did not yet exist. A baby grows in the protection of its mother’s womb and is nourished until it’s time to be born – according to a schedule not our own. God gives the parents love to care for the child until he or she is capable of knowledge and wisdom. Somewhat poignantly, I thought, R’ Paquda believes it is a sign of God’s wisdom that a child doesn’t know about good and bad while dependent on others for his needs, because if the child knew, s/he would die of sorrow and anxiety.
Everything that comes from God, which means everything, is viewed as a gift. To repay God’s generosity, we should devote ourselves to God’s service, using what we need while abandoning luxury and excess. We should turn to spiritual growth as our primary focus. We should study human nature, and develop our intellects. The intellect allows us to understand things we can’t perceive with our senses. We can tell the difference between true and false, good and bad, what’s necessary, possible, or impossible. We can put other creatures to work for us. We can learn math, science, and the arts – abilities which reflect qualities God possesses. God gave us speech and language with which to communicate, form relationships, share our innermost selves, share information over the course of centuries, organize our thoughts, and manage our personal affairs. At the end of the day, all the things our bodies and brains can do are, for R’ Paquda, proof of God’s love. He says we should be further impressed by our God-given “faculties of the soul,” e.g. thought, memory, forgetting, shame, reason, speech. Although we innately “have shame before other human beings” (by which he means a sense of social obligation – to show kindness, to keep promises, etc.), we need to learn to feel “shame before God.” Why? God wants us to have free will. In effect, there’s no spiritual free lunch. If we want self-esteem, we need to earn it by doing acts of kindness, love, generosity, altruism, and compassion. When we develop this sense of “shame before the Creator,” and realize He is always with us, we acquire the humility to thank God for creating us and allowing us to be part of His universe. We become able to appreciate the love and care that went into every detail.
“…we come to know that we have a Creator Who is wise, everlasting, and one; Who has existed from all eternity, is infinite in power, and transcends time and space; Who is exalted above the qualities of His creatures and beyond their conception; Who is merciful, kind, and benevolent; Who is like nothing else, and nothing is like Him. Through the intellect we comprehend the wisdom, the power, and the mercy which pervade the universe; and we recognize the obligation to serve Him – as He is worthy of this and because of His benevolence.”
The ability of living things to move is spiritually significant. Every movement is tied to the Creator’s wish, guidance and Will “with the exception that” for human beings, God “has placed in your domain the choice between good and evil.”
“When this has become clear to you, pay attention to every move that you make. Be conscious of the body by which the Creator has tied you to Him; feel abashed before Him always and be in awe of Him; surrender to His judgment and accept His decrees. And so you will attain His favor, and your future will be bright, as it says in Scripture ‘He who trusts in God will be surrounded with love’ (Tehillim 32:10)”