What is God – Part 2: Is God a Person?
For part 1 go to http://www.sholomchicago.org/2013/05/07/what-is-god-part-1/
For me, God is a metaphor, a symbol I use to try to grasp a transcendent mystery. I live in a world of constant ambiguity, and I can never be certain that my experiences of the holy are real or mere sentimentality. I use the notion of God to anchor my spiritual experiences and allow me to act as if they were real. Yet, certitude is never available.
But no less than Abraham Joshua Heschel disagrees. In a wonderful essay, “Symbolism and Jewish Faith,” Rabbi Heschel argues that Jews should want more than just a symbol, that they shouldn’t be satisfied with the uncertainty I feel. “The soul of the religious man lives in the depth of certainty. This is what God wants me to do. Where that certainty is dead, the most powerful symbolism will be futile.”
He goes on to say “Let us never forget: If God is a symbol, He is a fiction. But if God is real, then He is able to express his will unambiguously. Symbols are makeshifts, necessary to those who cannot express themselves unambiguously. . . . Harsh and bitter are the problems which religion comes to solve: ignorance, evil, malice, power, agony, and despair. These problems cannot be solved through generalities, through philosophical symbols. Our problem is this: Do we believe what we confess? Do we mean what we say? We do not suffer symbolically; we suffer literally, truly, deeply; symbolic remedies are quackery. The will of God is either real or a delusion.”
Some entries into our liturgy echo Rabbi Heschel. Mediation Number 35 in the Gates of Prayer says, “The description of God as a Person is indispensable for everyone who like myself means by ‘God” not a principle. . . and not an idea. . . but who rather means by ‘God,’ as I do, Him who – whatever else He may be – enters in a direct relation with us in creative, revealing, and redeeming acts, and thus makes it possible for us to enter into a direct relation with Him. . . . The concept of personal being is indeed completely incapable of declaring what God’s essential being is, but it is both permitted and necessary to say that God is also a Person.”
I am sure that many, many Temple congregants strive for this certainty that Heschel exalts. Obviously, if I agreed with these sentiments, my contributions to the Temple Blog would end here. Whither those of us for whom such certainties are elusive? We will turn to that in the next posting.
Dan Swartzman has been teaching in our Adult Education program for many years. Dan is a professor at UIC, where he teaches ethics, law and nonprofit management. He and his family have been members of Temple Sholom for 23 years.