How We Believe in God
A 20th-century modernist architect, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, is supposed to have said, “God is in the details.” (He is also associated with the dictum “Less is more,” which accurately sums up his architectural philosophy.) The first maxim is particularly relevant to the study of rabbinic texts. The Mishnah and the two Talmuds mostly address details of Jewish observance; they rarely discuss the purpose of individual commandments, nor how the mitzvot mesh to create an integrated religious ethos.
Maimonides was once asked by a proselyte named Ovadiah whether he could recite the phrase “Our God and the God of our ancestors,” which is found in the first berakhah, or section, of the ‘Amidah. Having come to Judaism rather than being born into it, Ovadiah is unsure of his obligation—right—to describe himself implicitly as a descendant of the Patriarchs by reciting this phrase.
Now it so happens that this question is discussed in the Jerusalem Talmud in connection with a similar issue addressed in the Mishnah. And yet Maimonides does not begin his response by quoting that passage. Instead, he brilliantly and movingly describes all Jews as being the descendants of proselytes that Abraham brought to monotheism (according to a rabbinic interpretation of Genesis 12:8). Thus Ovadiah should see himself as just one more of those who has come to understand the wisdom of Abraham’s teachings. (By the way, Maimonides is obliquely—and brilliantly—creating a counternarrative to the Koran’s description of Abraham and his spiritual mission.) Only then does Maimonides address the relevant passage in the Talmud; based on the conclusion reached there, he advises Ovadiah to include the phrase in his prayers.
Why does Maimonides follow this procedure? I believe it is because he understood that behind Ovadiah’s question about a detail of religious practice there is a much more fundamental question: am I a second-class Jew? Does my acceptance of God and Torah integrate me fully into the Jewish nation? Or is it the case that, despite my commitment to a life of Torah, I am connected to, but never fully part of, the Jewish People? Doesn’t the very fact that it is unclear whether I should recite “our God and the God of our ancestors” indicate that I am forever an outsider?
It is this question that Maimonides answers in the first part of his response. I will rule in the halakhic matter you have brought before me, Maimonides is saying, but regardless of my response, know that your fundamental identity as a Jew is not and never will be in question. Happily, Maimonides’ ruling reinforces the reassurance he offers Ovadiah, but in fact there is a view in the Talmud, cited by Maimonides in his response, that “our God and the God of our ancestors” should not be recited by proselytes. The debate is about the appropriate formulation of the liturgical text and never about one’s status as a Jew.
I mention all this because of its connection to the rabbinic understanding of the Aseret Ha-Devarim, the Ten Commandments or Pronouncements, which will be read in our synagogues this coming Shabbat. While the rabbinic consensus is that there are ten mitzvot to be found in the Ten Commandments, there is not universal agreement as to what those are. The first verse, “I am the Lord your God who took you out of Egypt from the house of bondage” (Exod. 20:2), is particularly contested. Maimonides counts this as one of the commandments while others do not. This verse, is in fact, not formulated in the imperative, and a number of rabbinic midrashim support the view that this verse is a preface to the Commandments rather than the first of them. What, then, motivates Maimonides to take his position?
Let me quote to you part of Maimonides’ description of this in the opening sentence of his magnum opus, the Mishneh Torah: “The basic principle of all basic principles and the foundation of all wisdom is to know that there is a Primary Being who brought into being all that exists.”
For Maimonides, the opening verse of the Ten Commandments is an axiom. We are obligated to “know” that God exists through philosophical demonstration, and at the very least must accept this as truth.
What sort of God is described here? A rather distant one. The phrase “primary being” is taken from the world of Greek philosophy, and it describes an impersonal animating force, not the biblical God who is engaged with humanity. This is not the God Who appeared to Moses at the Burning Bush, Who freed the Israelites from slavery, and Who entered into a Covenant with them at Sinai. All of this is implicit in the second half of the verse, which Maimonides, at least here, chooses to ignore.
Nahmanides, on the other hand, commenting on Maimonides’ remarks, describes this commandment as meaning the acceptance of God as sovereign. For him, the second half of the verse is crucial; this God is the one who redeemed us, the People of Israel, from slavery. In fact, continues Nahmanides, the first verse may not be a mitzvah at all. Rather, it is a summation of what the People had experienced in Egypt and at the Red Sea. No commandment to believe in God’s existence was necessary; they had already seen God’s presence. By implication, it is through experiencing the presence of God, albeit in ways radically different from the miracles in Egypt, that one knows—experientially, not intellectually—that He indeed exists.
We see, then, that Nahmanides and Maimonides are not merely responding to the question of how to enumerate the commandments. For them, the underlying question is this: when we speak of God, of which God do we speak—a distant unknowable power or one whose presence in our lives and in our being is palpable? Is God simply the Primary Being or a sovereign?
I suspect that most of those who believe in God these days are inclined to think of God as a power rather than as a presence. There are a host of difficulties with the claim or belief that we can have a meaningful connection with God as a living reality. But this is the God of the Bible, and this is God for me. Whatever we believe, we need to understand that this question is important as an existential matter, and not only an intellectual one. To paraphrase Heschel, don’t simply believe that God exists, believe in God; find the ways in which your belief can shape the person you are and the life you lead.
The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.