The Jewish Spirit Journal
A Journal of Jewish Mysticism and Spirituality
Vol. 1, No. 2 Feb. 1999

D'VAR TORAH (A WORD OF TORAH)

Is There A Personal God?

I often encounter Jews who have difficulty accepting the traditional concept of a personal God. Their doubts are familiar to me because I shared many of them at one time. I finally came to accept the traditional view and would like to share my thoughts about it.

Since so much of Judaism revolves around the concept of a personal God, Jews who find the traditional Jewish concept of God difficult don't have access to this significant part of the tradition. My goal is not quite to convince other people about the reasonableness of a personal God. Because most issues concerning God are too deep and rooted in individual needs to convince someone by intellectual argument. But if someone feels a need to believe in a personal God, or would like to, and can't, because he or she thinks it is unreasonable, then intellectual arguments can help one to see that this traditional view is viable.

I apologize in advance if the way I express my views offends anyone. I certainly accept the views of friends who believe in God as impersonal; my attitude toward them is not condescending, God-forbid. The impersonal view of God is a part of the tradition too, which I accept. But because my own belief in a personal God is so important to me and provides me with such joy and consolation, I want to share it with others who may be open to this view and may find that they can accept it if it is explained properly. But it is possible that in explaining my ideas I may accidentally offend someone; please forgive me.

Let me express my basic thought and argument at the outset: When we talk about God, we need a parable to describe Him. Why should we use the image of a "force," like electricity, or a wind, which are inanimate phenomena? I am conscious; I can talk to you. You are conscious and can talk to me. Can't God, who created us both also talk to you? I am a person; you are a person; God is at least a person! The most complex phenomenon we know of in the universe is the human personality. Should not that be the parable we use to describe God, rather than a wind or electricity?

The mystics teach that God is personal, impersonal, and beyond both. As long as I am aware of myself as a separate individual, a person, it is appropriate to believe in a personal God. But on the higher levels of mystic attainment, things look different. Judaism teaches that there is only One. The mystic view is that there is nothing except God; the world, all of reality is only a part of God. If there is One, there is no two. Some mystics reach levels where they, so to speak, "disappear" as separate individuals; there is only God left, who acts through them. They are merged in God. Rabbi Shalom Noah Berzhovsky, the current Slonimer Rebbe in Jerusalem, writes in his Netivot Shalom that a tzaddik on the highest level of d'vekut, God-awareness, "has no separate existence on his own; his whole being is the Holy One, blessed be He." The Kabbalah often talks about God as the Ain Sof, the Infinite One-- the impersonal God. But here is the issue: There is no question that for some people on a very high level the impersonal God may be appropriate and even primary. But for the vast majority of people, an active belief in the personal God is more appropriate. Most Jews today who think of God as impersonal do so simply because they never were introduced and initiated into the more common traditional view of a personal God when growing up (that was my own situation). And in later years, they never tried to relate to a personal God; they never gave this view a chance. Why should one "try"?

    Because this is such a large part of the tradition; if you are deprived of it, it keeps you from accessing many beautiful ways of being.

    Because belief in the personal God is so "juicy"; it allows one to have more devotion to God when one can talk to Him, pray to Him, love Him.

People should realize that they can explore and "try on" this concept. To do so, you must reach out to God. God is not an object. It is not simply an intellectual matter of believing in a certain concept of God. God is real, is living, not merely a concept. You have to reach out to meet God. How? The best way to do that is by prayer. Pray to God, asking Him to reveal to you this aspect of His Being, if it is true. Say: "God! the Torah, others, say You are a "person," so to speak. But I don't experience You that way. Please reveal that side of Yourself to me, if it is true." One should persist in such an attempt. Perhaps set yourself a period of time during which you commit yourself to explore the possibility of this idea. Act as if you believe it, for a while. It probably would also help to study Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav's teachings about hitbodedut, being alone with and talking to God, and following his instructions. To meet God "as a Person," it might also help to associate with people who believe in God this way. I think the fact that when I became religious I spent 6 months studying at a Lubavitcher Yeshivah helped me to "acclimate" myself to the traditional view of God. I entered the Yeshivah as an agnostic (having formerly been a fastidious atheist), but over time learned to be at home with God as a Person. That belief, that personal relationship I have with God is so important to me, which is why I want to share it.

There is a friend of mine whom I feel close to because of his religious temperament or "profile." He is intellectual but also devotionally oriented; he loves to sing and dance in religious settings. He believed in God, but not in the traditional God. His God was more the God of the philosophers than the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (to paraphrase Pascal). God was to him a "weak force," who was only "inside" people and hardly seemed to have a separate existence. I often quote to people a scene from the life of the great Hindu saint, Sri Ramakrishna (who passed away around 1880). Most of his disciples were Western-educated young Indians. His most famous disciple was Vivekananda. When Vivekananda first became acquainted with Sri Ramakrishna, he said to him, "I've been meeting many religious teachers who talk about God. But I want to know: Have you seen God?" Ramakrishna answered, "I see God more clearly than I see you." Some people think that God is less real than they are! less real than the world! But the truth is that God created the world, reality, and He is the most real thing there is; the one and only truly Real Being. The Baal Shem Tov said that it is not enough to see the world and then, by the way, God (although that is an awesomely high level). He said the goal was to see God first and then the world. Rabbi Shlomo of Karlin said that the world is a mere mustard seed compared to God! God is the most real thing.

Getting back to my friend: I always felt bad that he had so much intelligence and devotion, yet couldn't believe in a personal God. I felt that he would have so much more joy from believing in the personal God! Some time ago he had a reversal in his life and was utterly crushed. I visited him and he told me his situation. He also told me that a spiritual advisor who had helped him in his crisis had also helped him to believe in God as a person. He had found that God as a wind or electricity was not enough to console him in the disaster that had overtaken him. I said to him, "When the Torah speaks about the olives whose oil is used for the lamp in the Temple, it says that they are -- katita l'maor -- crushed to produce light. "The hasidic rebbes say that often a person has to be crushed to give forth light. Although my friend was crushed by his experience, I said to him, "I can see you shining now in a way you never did before. I see that you've been crushed to produce light." Before he was "normal"-- a wonderful person, but egotistical like most of us. When I saw him now, he was so humble, his light was truly shining. The worst disaster of his life had produced the great gift of belief in a personal God.

The truth is that I had a similar experience, because when I became religious it was also during a period of personal crisis, when I experienced more psychic pain than I've ever known before or since. I am aware that the greatest thing in my life, my belief in God, and in a personal God whom I can talk to and have a close, loving relation to, came from the worst suffering I'd ever undergone. I sometimes think: Who knows, why should I fear suffering, since suffering brought me the most important thing in my life, my belief in God; it spurred me to grow. Maybe I would be better off getting another jolt that would again impel me to grow!

As a writer of religious books I unfortunately have to confront the controversial issue of "God-language." This usually is precipitated by feminist objections to using male language to speak of God. I personally find it fine to speak of God as She or Mother. Not to do so, to my mind, would be an insult to my mother, of beloved memory, and to other women. However, I personally think of God as my Father; although occasionally I address God as Mother. God is not a male or a female and has both masculine and feminine qualities. But the solution many gender- sensitive people come up with is to use impersonal terminology for God; God is the Eternal, the Infinite One, the Source of Life, etc. Probably, many of the people who are gender-sensitive also don't have a strong belief in a personal God. I cannot be satisfied with calling God "the Eternal" or other such terms (which I find acceptable when they are used occasionally), because I simply cannot and will not give up the precious relation to God as a Person. Impersonal God language deprives me of that. I want to call God my Father, or my Mother, my Friend, my Beloved. What do you think?

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Copyright 2004-2005, Yitzhak Buxbaum. All rights reserved.