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  • Writer's pictureSamuel Lebens

Nitzavim-Vayelech: Finding God in His Hiddenness

Updated: Sep 12, 2020

This week’s parsha is the beginning of the end of the Pentateuch. Moses has completed his series of discourses. He gathers the people to seal the covenant, described last week, in terms of vivid blessings and curses. He gives the people one final pep-talk. He charges Joshua, his successor, to be strong and courageous. He gives a completed copy of the Torah to the Levites, to place in the Ark of the Covenant, and he was commanded to write a poem; to teach to the people as his last public act. That poem forms the content of parshat Ha’azinu (which, because of Rosh Hashana, won’t be read until the 26th of September).

Despite a great many interesting Midrashim and themes to choose from, I decided to focus, this week, on one Rabbinic discussion that directly intersects with some of my own work in the philosophy of religion.

Famously, this week, God tells Moses that the Jewish people will stray, and He describes to him what will happen as a result (the majority of the book of Deuteronomy relates Moses' words to Israel. But these verses relate God's words to Moses). He says:

Then My anger will flare up against them, and I will abandon them and hide My countenance from them. They shall be ready prey; and many evils and troubles shall befall them. And they shall say on that day, “Surely it is because our God is not in our midst that these evils have befallen us.” Yet I will keep My countenance hidden on that day, because of all the evil they have done in turning to other gods.

The Talmud contains a fascinating discussion of this threat:

Rav Bardela bar Tavyumei said that Rav said, “Anyone who is not subject to [God’s] hiding [his] face [from them, i.e., whose prayers are invariably answered], is not from [the Jewish people, since the verse states about the Jewish people that God will hide His face from them as a result of their sins].

First of all, this is somewhat shocking because it implies, against a simple reading of the verses, that God’s hidden face is something of a permanently recurring feature of Jewish life, rather than a once in a generation punishment. Undeterred, Rav Bardela continues:

Similarly, anyone who is not subject to [the continuation of our verse]: “And they shall be ready prey,” [i.e., anybody who is never a victim of oppression], is not from among [the Jewish people].” The Sages said to Rava: “Master, you are not subject to the hiding of [God’s] face, [since your prayers are heard], and you are not subject to: “And they shall be ready prey,” [since you have a good relationship with the gentile authorities].” He said to them: “Do you know how many gifts I send in private to the house of King Shapur?! [That is to say: don’t you realise those “good relations” are only the result of the bribery that they compel me to pay to them?]”… With regard to the verse: “And I will hide my face on that day” (Deuteronomy 31:18), Rava said that the Holy One, Blessed be He, said: Even though I hide my face from them: “I speak with him in a dream” (Numbers 12:6). Rav Yosef said: His hand is outstretched, guarding over us, as it is stated: “And I have covered you in the shadow of my hand” (Isaiah 51:16).

According to Rav Bardela, and to the sages who suspected Rava, there are two experiences from which a Jew is never free (or, at least, never free for long): the experience of God’s hiddenness, and the suffering imposed upon us by outside powers. A person who denies the existence of these experiences can’t truly claim to be a Jew.

These two experiences correspond to two well-known theological puzzles. The experience of oppression, and the suffering imposed upon us by the human powers that be, corresponds to the problem of evil.

The problem of evil asks, quite simply, why bad things happen to good people. More formally, the problem is supposed to be a direct challenge to the coherence of theism. The theist believes in the following three claims:

  1. God is all-powerful

  2. God is all-good

  3. People suffer for no good reason

But these three claims are inconsistent. If God was all-powerful, then he could stop people suffering. If God was all-good, then he would want to stop people from suffering. So, if the first two claims were true, then the third would be false – and yet people do seem to suffer for no good reason.

The atheist escapes this problem by denying that God exists at all. A theist could try to escape the problem by denying that God is all-powerful, but that would be heretical. It would be equally heretical to deny that God is all-good. We could deny the third claim; that is to say, we could deny that people suffer for no good reason, but that would often seem like a heartless response. How can there be a reason good enough to justify children being born into crushing poverty or debilitating and painful illness?

What the Rabbis are telling us, in this Talmudic discussion, is that however puzzling the problem of evil may be, a Jew doesn’t deny the third claim. Even if, only speaking for yourself, you say that your life is free from all injustice, then, apparently, there’s something distinctively non-Jewish about your outlook.

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks

The Jew, apparently, refuses to settle for answers to the problem of evil, if those answers threaten to belittle the suffering in our midst. This is what it means, in part, for the Jews never to have accepted that the messiah has come. Few people express this attitude better than Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, who writes that the Jewish faith is:

a refusal to give up on your deepest ideals, but a refusal likewise to say, in a world still disfigured by evil, that the Messiah has yet come, and the world is saved.

A characteristically Jewish response to evil is to protest rather than to explain it away. Karl Marx famously complained that religion functions as an opiate that reconciles the masses to their suffering. Rabbi Sacks responds, on behalf of Judaism, by saying:

Nothing was ever less an opiate than this religion of sacred discontent, of dissatisfaction with the status quo. It was Abraham, then Moses, Amos, and Isaiah who fought on behalf of justice and human dignity – confronting priests and kings, even arguing with God Himself.

So much is this so that Rava’s colleagues suspected him of failing to be Jewish because (they thought) he had never witnessed injustice.

The experience of injustice corresponds to the problem of evil. But the experience of God’s distance, in our Talmudic discussion, is treated as a separate issue, not to be conflated with the problem of evil.

The experience of God’s hiddenness has indeed been treated by philosophers, in recent years, as a quite distinct problem from the problem of evil. John Schellenberg argues that the God of the Hebrew Bible doesn’t exist. If He did, Schellenberg contends, then He wouldn’t be as hidden as He is. This is how his argument is supposed to run:

John Schellenberg
  1. If a perfectly loving God exists, then there exists a God who is always open to a personal relationship with any finite person.

  2. If there exists a God who is always open to a personal relationship with any finite person, then no finite person is ever non-resistantly in a state of nonbelief in relation to the proposition that God exists.

  3. If a perfectly loving God exists, then no finite person is ever non-resistantly in a state of nonbelief in relation to the proposition that God exists (from 1 and 2).

  4. Some finite persons are or have been non-resistantly in a state of nonbelief in relation to the proposition that God exists.

  5. No perfectly loving God exists (from 3 and 4).

  6. If no perfectly loving God exists, then God does not exist.

  7. God does not exist (from 5 and 6).

The argument hangs on four assumptions: lines 1, 2, 4 and 6. Are these assumptions true?

Schellenberg thinks that line 1 is pretty obviously true. He writes:

[I]magine that you’re listening to your friend, who’s describing his parents: “Wow, are they ever great — I wish everyone could have parents like mine, who are so wonderfully loving! Granted, they don’t want anything to do with me. They’ve never been around. Sometimes I find myself looking for them — once, I have to admit, I even called out for them when I was sick — but to no avail. Apparently they aren’t open to being in a relationship with me — at least not yet. But it’s so good that they love me as much and as beautifully as they do!” If you heard your friend talking like this, you’d think he was seriously confused. And you’d be right … They could have set their son up in the best house in town, with money and things galore. But their attitude toward him, whatever it is, doesn’t amount to the most admirable love, since they are closed to being in a personal relationship with him.

In response, lots of theistic philosophers have tried to give reasons as to why a perfectly loving God might not always be open for a relationship with finite people like us.

For example, it is proposed that, at times, we would be better off if we came to open ourselves up to a relationship with God, in the face of opposite inclinations. We become more refined, and make a deeper relationship possible, if we lean in and take the plunge. We wouldn’t do that if God’s existence was too obvious.

Alternatively, perhaps God wants to make sure that our non-resistance to belief is motivated by the right considerations, rather than by fear of punishment, or social pressure. Again, if God’s existence was too obvious to us, then we’d feel somewhat compelled to enter into a relationship with Him; or maybe we’d buckle under the pressure and rebel.

Schellenberg is unmoved. He writes:

Imagine ideally loving human parents-to-be who are aware, because of their knowledge of the unborn child’s genetic constitution, that this child will be disposed to reject them… Will they exit stage left, once the baby is born, leaving it in the care of someone they think is more likely to elicit a positive response, or rather seek to devise ways of avoiding or transforming their child’s negative response from within their relationship with him?

The basic idea here is that if God really loved us, he’d find the best strategy by which to make His existence known to us without crushing our freewill, or causing us to rebel, or what have you. Indeed, belief in God needn’t be at all intrusive. God could implant in us a belief in him without making his presence so tangible that we would never sin. But He doesn’t implant any such belief in lots of people who simply find themselves to be atheists.

Michael Rea

A more promising way to deny line 1 (suggested by philosopher Michael Rea) runs as follows: perfect love doesn’t necessarily translate into wanting a relationship, or even into openness. Is God’s perfect love like that of a parent for her child, as Schellenberg tends to assume, or is it more like the abstract sort of love we might have for distant descendants, or like the care that a good surgeon would have for her patients?

God is described as a parent, but he’s also described as a potter (Jeremiah 18:6). A parent wants a reciprocal relationship with her child; a potter doesn’t feel that way about her clay. Moreover, wanting a relationship might be a selfish and human way to love. I wouldn’t deign to say that I know what exactly God’s love for us should be like, even if I affirm that it must be perfect. Line 1 seems a little shaky to me.

Can we deny line 2? Some have argued that it’s possible to have a deep and reciprocal relationship with someone even without believing that they exist. Perhaps it’s enough to hope that they exist or to have faith or some sort of partial belief that they exist.

Andrew Cullison imagines a person falling in love online. At the beginning of the relationship, he isn’t sure that his beloved really exists. Perhaps, he fears, she’s some sort of chat-bot. But despite his doubts, he falls in love with her. Eventually they meet and get married. When did their relationship begin? Can a relationship only begin when both parties believe in the existence of the other? It’s not obvious that line 2 is true.

All that line 4 really needs is a single case, in all of human history, of non-resistant non-belief. If it can be found, for instance, that a tribal Amazonian who never heard of monotheism failed to be a monotheist, without any sort of resistance or culpability, then line 4 stands. Accordingly, I think we should let it stand! Line 6 is also a pretty standard feature of most forms of theism: God is, by definition, a loving being.

To summarise: John Schellenberg has an argument for atheism. It stands upon four assumptions. Some of those assumptions are a little bit shaky, but none of them seem obviously false. Moreover, the Rabbis in tractate Ḥagiga seem to be sympathetic. They see two distinct experiences as central to the life of a Jew: injustice and the hiddenness of God.

But then again, Rava and Rav Yosef each propose a solution to the problem of God’s hiddenness. Rava says: Even though God hides his face from us, it’s still the case that “I speak with him in a dream” (Numbers 12:6).

There are multiple ways in which this “solution” could be unpacked. But one promising option can be developed on the back of a quote of Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik (a quote that we cited once before, way back in parshat Bo). Rabbi Soloveitchik described the experience of God’s hiddenness in the following terms:

When man who just beheld God’s presence turns around to address himself to the Master of creation in the intimate accents of the “Thou,” he finds the Master and Creator gone, enveloped in the cloud of mystery, winking to him from the awesome “beyond.”

Even though God is hidden, he’s also experienced as winking. A friend of mine once described a powerful experience of feeling abandoned by God. But you can’t have such a feeling without, at some level or other, believing in God. Accordingly, Rava doesn’t think that God’s hiddenness is absolute. Even as He hides, we experience His distance, and insofar as the distance is His distance, we’re still experiencing God – if not with the clarity of waking experience, then with the sort of haziness of a remembered dream. Moreover, we can see the roots of such a response in God's own words. He said:

And they shall say on that day, “Surely it is because our God is not in our midst that these evils have befallen us.”

And thus, there’s a sense in which God foresees us finding Him in His hiddenness. To experience abandonment is to experience the absconder Himself. Accordingly, God can never really be hidden. Either we experience His presence, or we experience His absence, but either way we’ll be experiencing Him.

Rav Yosef, in the Talmudic discussion, has another suggestion. He quotes Isaiah (51:16): “And I have covered you in the shadow of my hand.” On Rav Yosef’s reading, as I understand it, God cannot shield us, so to speak, without casting a shadow. He protects us with his hand, but in so doing, we are plunged into darkness.

The doctrine of tzimtzum (Hebrew for contraction) states that God cannot create anything until he contracts Himself. It’s a very difficult doctrine to make sense of. The best gloss I can give of it might strike you as quite paradoxical, but the idea is this: God’s perfection is supposed to make it impossible for Him to create a world.

Despite the air of paradox, there are actually a number of ways in which God’s perfection might be an obstacle. Here’s one:

  1. A perfect God would never create a suboptimal world

  2. All worlds are suboptimal

  3. A perfect God would create never create a world (from 1 and 2)

The second line of this argument is doing a lot of work. But it’s probably true. Imagine a universe as wonderful as you like. If God could have created it, then he could have created two of them, and stuck them together to create a larger universe. Whatever made the original one wonderful would now be had in double measure. Consequently, the one you started with couldn’t have been optimal, however good it might have been.

Perhaps I've been too quick here: it's not always the case that adding good to good results in more good; sometimes there can be too much of a good thing. But if the existence of a happy rabbit, say, is all things being equal, a good thing, then, so long as you add enough space and resources, so that there is no extra crowding or competition, it's hard to imagine that adding another one would ever make a universe a worse place. It strikes me as odd to think that there's any one possible world that stands out as the best.

Perhaps a perfect being wouldn’t mind creating a suboptimal world so long as it wasn’t too bad of a world. But how bad is too bad, and how would a perfect being choose between all of the sufficiently good worlds, knowing that, with every choice He makes, He could have made a better choice?

The doctrine of tzimtzum rescues us from these worries with its suggestion that God reigned in some of his perfection, in order to make the creation of a universe a possibility.

Having said all that: many Kabbalistic thinkers don’t believe that tzimtzum really occurred. If it had occurred, then God wouldn’t (at least at the moment) be a perfect being. But God is necessarily perfect. He wouldn’t be God if He wasn’t! In fact, it would be an imperfection ever to make yourself less perfect. A perfect being wouldn’t do such a thing! Accordingly, one popular view (especially popular with Hassidim) is that tzimtzum only appeared to occur.

Now think about: if God can’t create a universe without tzimtzum, and if tzimtzum can’t really occur, but can only appear to occur, then the creation itself can only appear to occur. And if creation only appears to occur, then our world only appears to exist. So, the wacky consequence of this theory of apparent tzimtzum is that the world itself is something like an illusion; our world is imaginary. A better way to think of it, would be like this: our universe is the story, and God is its author. We are totally real, of course, in the story. But from God’s transcendent perspective, we are imaginary.

Tzimtzum cannot be real, so it must be just a part of the story. In the story of this world, God doesn’t appear as perfect as He really is. In the story of this world, He imagines Himself as a perfect being who has (per impossible) reigned in His perfection. Doing so was the most coherent way in which God could make room, in the story, for our existence.

If the price is that God will seem less perfect to us than He really is, then it’s a price that God was willing to pay. To echo Rav Yosef’s use of Isaiah’s words: God’s hiddenness is merely the shadow, cast by the hand that preserves us in being.

In their discussion of the verses from our parsha about God hiding his face, Rava and Rav Yosef have both articulated, in their own poetic ways, compelling responses to the atheistic argument of John Schellenberg.

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