Questioning God’s existence is a good start

By Rabbi Michael Leo Samuel

Rabbi Michael Leo Samuel

CHULA VISTA, California —  Stories about the Wise Men of Chelm convey profound wisdom about the human condition, told through the medium of irony, sarcasm and dark humor.

Here is one of my favorite stories. In the town of Chelm, two Rabbis were once seen arguing late into the night about the existence of God. Each one vociferously argued from the Scriptures to prove God’s existence. However, by the time they finished, both of them ended up indisputably disproving His existence! The next day, one Rabbi was surprised to see the other walking into the Shul for morning services.

“I thought we had agreed there was no God,” he said.

“Yes, what does that have to do with it?” replied the other.

The story is not as weird or unusual as it may sound. Unlike our Christian friends, Jews struggle with their faith. God-wrestling is something we have been doing since the night Jacob first wrestled with a mysterious being. As  scions of Israel, grappling with God is something Jews do best. The Talmud is one of Judaism’s greatest gifts to the Western world —not because of the answers that are found in it, but because of the questions it raises.

Christians are uncomfortable with ambiguity, but as Jews—we love the didactic search for truth. Truth has to be self-authenticating. People observing from the outside might conclude that the Jews are crazy. Over the years I am often amazed at the number of “atheist Jews” who love talking about God. God is a passion—even for non-believers! I know, for My son, Moshe, is among them! He is hardly alone. I often like to tell him the words of Maimonides in his famous “Guide for the Perplexed,” Before we can arrive at what we truly believe, we must first define what we won’t believe.” This path is called via negativa—the path of negation.

According to negative theology, every idea—however lofty and spiritual—nevertheless remains a mental picture and thus limiting. Without it, God becomes a creature of the human imagination.[1]  Maimonides warns his readers about the dangers of defining God in any image or metaphor.[2] All positive affirmations of God when pushed to the limit must always bow in silence before God’s mysterious nature and being. Maimonides recalls a Talmudic story about how once the rabbis heard a man praying:

  • “God that is great, powerful, awesome, strong, forceful, feared, courageous, reliable, and revered.” After he had finished, the rabbi told him a parable. Suppose a king owned a thousand myriads of gold coins, and someone were to praise him for owning some silver coins, would it not be perceived as an insult?[3]

For Maimonides and his followers, human speech and all forms of “God-talk” are woefully inadequate. It is not enough to merely “talk about God,” one must have a contemplative experience of God that enraptures the depths of our being:

  • What is the path to attaining love and awe of Him? Whenever you contemplate His great, wondrous deeds and creations, and see through them His boundless, infinite wisdom, you cannot help but love, exult, and be filled with ecstasy—your passion leads you to want to know God’s great Name.  That is what King David meant when he said, “My soul thirsts for God, for the living God” (Psalms 42:2). Whenever you think about these things, you will immediately become awed-inspired and abashed. You will realize that you are but an infinitesimal creature, lowly and unenlightened, standing with a puny intellect before the Most Perfect Mind. David thus said, When I behold Your heavens, the work of Your fingers … I ask: What is man that You consider him?” (Psalms 8:4‑5).[4]

Faith is not meant to be easy and neither is prayer. Prayer in Hebrew is called “tefilah,” a noun that comes from the root “pallel,” meaning, “to judge” or “reflect.” The act of prayer says something about our values and beliefs, but how can one pray to a Being one feels ambivalent about?  Rav Nachman of Bratzlav often speaks about the dark moments of uncertainty we inevitably encounter along the spiritual life. God is there, even in the places we never expected. Yet, even in the dark corners of our soul, a ray of light can dispel an ocean of darkness. You see, it was never meant to be easy. Prayer in Hebrew is often called “avodah,” which also means, “hard work.” It’s a process that engages our whole being—whether we realize it or not.

One of the most beautiful lessons from the Torah illustrating this is when Jacob flees from his brother Esau, who is looking to avenge his loss of the parental blessing. Like a thief in the night, Jacob skedaddled. He looks for a secure place where he can collect his thoughts. After witnessing a deeply spiritual dream, he awakes from his sleep exclaiming, “Truly, the LORD is in this spot, although I did not know it!” (Gen. 28:16).

What does the passage teach us? Our lives are part of a journey—a spiritual odyssey that demands we be at our best at all times. The experience of God is not something that is limited to the confines of a synagogue. Unfortunately, there are many synagogues where the pulse of faith has flatlined. Prayer is a journey that begins with our questions and searching for Ultimate Truth.

The Chinese say that the journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step. To find that relationship with God, we must take the first step. The search for God in Jewish tradition can occur in one of two ways. Sometimes it begins with our movement toward the Divine. The other way occurs when the Divine moves toward us. As in a dance, one partner will come closer to the Other and dance “cheek to cheek” with the beloved. But with any dance, there are moments when the partners experience the space of the “in-between.” Lovers embrace that space which exists between them rather than each other. Faith is thus like a dance, and to experience it, all we have to do is to take the first step . . .


[1] Philosopher Immanuel Kant would later arrive at a similar conclusion and held that human representations of God tend to make people want to have these representations cater to their needs and desires, amounting to self-love (Immanuel Kant, Religion within the Limits of Mere Reason, 176).

[2]  Maimonides’s negative theology finds a kindred spirit in the 20th century Protestant thinker Paul Tillich, who argues for the radical depersonalization of God. Tillich took issue with the common notion that God is “personal.” In his words, “The concept of a ‘personal God’ interfering with natural events, or being an independent cause of natural events, makes God a natural object beside others, an object among others, a being among beings, maybe the highest, but nevertheless a being. This indeed is not only the destruction of the physical system but even more–the destruction of any meaningful idea of God.” Paul Tillich, Theology and Culture (New York and Oxford, 1964), 129.

[3] Maimonides, Guide 1:59 cited from S. Pine’s translation. The Shabbat Liturgy would certainly seem to substantiate Maimonides’s criticism of human language when describing God, “Were our mouth as full of song as the sea, and our tongue as full of joyous song as its multitude of waves, and our lips as full of praise as the breadth of the heavens, and our eyes as brilliant as the sun and the moon, and our hands as outspread as eagles of the sky and our feet as swift as hinds—we still could not thank You sufficiently Hashem, our  God, and God of our forefathers, and to bless Your Name for even one of the thousand, thousands of thousands and myriad myriads of favors that You performed for our ancestors and for us” (Artscroll Siddur).

[4] Maimonides, MT, Hilchot Yesodei HaTorah 2:2.

Rabbi Samuel is spiritual leader of Temple Beth Sholom in Chula Vista.  He may be contacted at [email protected]

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