God and the World

  • Rav Chaim Navon

Theological Issues In Sefer Bereishit

Yeshivat Har Etzion



LECTURE #1: God and the world

"In the beginning…"

By Rav Chaim Navon

The biblical commentators disagree about the meaning and role of the opening verse of Scripture. Rashi understands the words "Bereshit bara E-lokim" to mean: "At the beginning of God's creation." These words function as a heading, setting the time framework for what follows. Ibn Ezra implies that the next verse is also a subordinate clause, serving to describe the state of the world at the beginning of time: "And the earth was without form and void." The actual description of the creation of the world begins only in the third verse: "And God said, Let there be light." Ramban, on the other hand, understands that the first verse stands on its own: "In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth," that is to say, heaven and earth were created first.

In addition to the textual problem ("in the beginning" of what?), both interpretations raise serious difficulties. According to Rashi, it seems that the world already existed prior to the initial act of creation – "Let there be light." According to Ramban, it appears that the heaven was also created at the very beginning of creation, but a later verse states explicitly that the heaven was only created on the second day.[1]

In any event, it seems that the plain sense of the verse supports the interpretation proposed by Ramban that the opening verse of the Torah is a description of the primal act of creation: In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth. It follows from this that the next verse describes the state of the world following this primal creation. We are now presented with a difficult problem – if the heaven was created first, what exactly happened on day two? This, however, is only one of the many difficulties in understanding the order of creation and the relationship between the various different things that were created. For example, what does it mean that light was created on the first day when the lights of the firmament – the sun and the moon – were only created on the fourth day? Moreover, what is the meaning of "and there was evening and there was morning" before there was a sun and a moon? All that we can do is accept our inability to understand the particulars of how the world was created.

God is Not Nature

I prefer Ramban's interpretation for a conceptual reason as well. Beginning Scripture with a verse that merely indicates the time and background of what follows is somewhat disappointing. If, however, we understand the first verse as a sharp and unequivocal proclamation, it has special intensity. This is what Hermann Gunkel, one of the most prominent non-Jewish biblical scholars, had to say:

It is best to understand the opening verse as a principle clause: "In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth." What a mighty statement! At the very outset, Scripture sets down, simply but forcefully, the dogma that God created the world. No other statement in the creation sagas of the other nations can compare to the opening statement of the Hebrew Bible. Everything that follows comes to explain this statement.

Gunkel is certainly not one of our authorities; but it is interesting and instructive to see the impression made by this verse on a gentile who was not known for his excessive love for the Jewish people. We sometimes miss the force of certain scriptural passages, precisely because they are so familiar to us from our earliest childhood. In such cases, the musings of an outsider can be very illuminating.

What is so unique about the first verse in the Torah? Let us compare it to the opening lines of one of the ancient Near Eastern creation myths:

When in the height heaven was not named, and the earth beneath did not yet bear a name, and the primeval Apsu, who begat them, and chaos, Tiamut, the mother of them both - their waters were mingled together. (Enuma Elish – Babylonian creation myth)

The Enuma Elish opens with a description of a world consisting solely of Tiamut – the primal sea, and her mate Apsu – the sweet waters, whose waters became mingled together. They gave rise to the gods, this being the beginning of the history of the world. What is the most striking difference between our Bible and the Enuma Elish, between the word of God and the vanities of man? One point stands out: the distinction and gap between God and the world. According to ancient Near Eastern mythology, there is no clear demarcation between the gods and the world. The gods are part of the world. Tiamut and Apsu are the two primordial seas, and it is they who give rise to the gods, as well as to the forces of nature.

Generally speaking, the world of idolatry did not distinguish between the gods and nature. On the one hand, the forces of nature were identified with particular gods: "the god of thunder," "the god of the sea," "the god of fertility," and the like. On the other hand, the gods were occasionally depicted as being subject to the forces of nature. In Greek mythology, we find gods who fight among themselves, become wounded, and act treacherously, gods who belong to the natural order. They resemble living creatures, only stronger. The first verse in Scripture rejects this idolatrous outlook: God is not nature, and nature is not God. The biblical scholar Yechezkel Kaufmann notes the fundamental importance of this principle:

The Israelite religion overcame the doctrine of the corporeality of God in a fundamental and decisive manner: it imagined God as being totally unconnected to the matter of the world. God has no matter; He is above and beyond the nature of matter. God is "spirit and not flesh," He is not a "body." And furthermore, it imagined Him above and beyond any connection to the laws of the universe, to nature, to fate. This is the point that distinguishes it from idolatry; it is from here that it rose to its own unique sphere. Its God is super-mythological and supernatural – this is its fundamental idea. (Yechezkel Kaufmann, History of the Religion of Israel, II, p. 227)

This idea finds expression in many places in the Torah. For example, this is what the book of Devarim says:

Take therefore good heed to yourselves; for you saw no manner of form on the day that the Lord spoke to you in Chorev out of the midst of the fire. Lest you become corrupt, and make a carved idol, the similitude of any figure, the likeness of male or female, the likeness of any beast that is on the earth, the likeness of any winged bird that flies in the air, the likeness of any thing that creeps on the ground, the likeness of any fish that is in the waters beneath the earth. And lest you lift up your eyes to heaven, and you see the sun, and the moon, and the stars, all the host of heaven.(Devarim 4:15-19)

Shlomo's prayer offered at the dedication of the Temple is a perfect example of the repudiation of idolatry and the rejection of the identification of God with nature:

For will God indeed dwell on the earth? Behold, the heaven and heaven of heavens cannot contain You; how much less this house that I have built? Have consideration therefore to the prayer of Your servant, and to his supplication, O Lord my God, to hearken to the cry and to the prayer, which Your servant prays before You today; that Your eyes may be open toward this house night and day, towards the place of which You have said, My name shall be here; that You may hearken to the prayer which Your servant shall make toward this place. And hearken You to the supplication of Your servant, and of Your people Israel, when they shall pray toward this place: and hear You in heaven Your dwelling place: and when You hear, forgive. (I Melakhim 8:27-30)

Shlomo asserts: God is "found" nowhere, at least in the plain sense of the term, not even in the Temple. The Temple was not built as a "house" for God; it was intended to serve as a center for the worship and prayer of the Jewish people.

We findin many places that Chazal (the Talmusages) rejected creeds that identify God withparticular forcesoparts of the world:

Rabbi Yose says: The Shekhina (Divine Presence) never descended to the world, and Moshe and Eliyahu never ascended to heaven, as the verse states: "The heavens are the heavens of the Lord, but He has given the earth to the children of men" (Tehilim 115:16). (Sukka 5a)

The Midrash certainly does not mean to describe the whereabouts of God. It is trying to teach us an important principle: there will always be a great divide between heaven and earth. "The heavens are the heavens of the Lord, but He has given the earth to the children of men." Man cannot climb up to God, and God is not found in nature. We have here a forceful rejection of idolatry's approach to God and the world.

In philosophical terms, it is common to speak about two different religious approaches: the "immanent" approach, which perceives the presence of God pervading the world, and the "transcendent" approach, which views God as elevated above and beyond the universe, and external to it. We are speaking here of transcendent motifs in Judaism. There are those who argued that this is the primary teaching of the first verse in the Torah:

God's relationship to the world: He is the Creator, He says and does, He stands above the world. Surely there are other religious attitudes: the god of pantheism is in the world. He is supreme unity, the powers of which fill the world. This unity of life force also includes man, who is one drop in that great stream that flows through the world. Judaism's God of ethics has a different relationship to the world. He is perforce separate from the world, He gives direction, He provides the world with an objective, but He is not part of the world. This is the secret of the greatness of Genesis 1. There is no divine life force in nature itself; nature is created; in and of itself, it is dead, and God stands outside of it, the world on this side and God on the other. (Julius Guttmann, Dat u-Medina, p. 265)[2]

It is impossible to attribute to the first verse in the Torah any meaning other than a grand proclamation regarding the state of the world before God… We, perforce, must understand "In the beginning, God created…" as a great call directed at man to recognize the insignificance of the heaven and the earth – "For fear of the Lord, and for the glory of His majesty" (Yeshaya 2:10): the world ("the heaven and the earth") is not God! This is a great negation of the essence of idolatry, pantheism, and atheism. (Yeshayahu Leibowitz, Yahadut, Am Yehudi, u-Medinat Yisrael, p. 321)

Guttmann and Leibowitz understand that the Torah rejects not only ancient idolatrous concepts, but also certain modern philosophical ideas. They refer, first and foremost, to Spinoza. The Jewish philosopher, Baruch (Benedict) Spinoza, developed a complete philosophical system, the focus of which is pantheism, that is, the identification of God with nature. Spinoza said: "God is nature." It is important to understand that according to Spinoza, God is not a distinct, independent and autonomous Being. When he speaks of God, he refers to the totality of beings and forces that exist in the world, both the physical as well as the mental world. The entirety of being, including you, me, our thoughts, flies and stones – everything together constitutes God. Spinoza's world view has been enormously influential, both philosophically and also existentially.

One of the most important developments of physics in the twentieth century was quantum mechanics, which maintains that the laws of nature are statistical; there is a one in many billion chance that if you drop a vase it will not smash on the ground, but rise in the air. Albert Einstein refused to accept the principle of chance in quantum mechanics. He argued that God does not play dice with the world. This argument stems from his deep sense of the religious dimension that exists in the laws of nature. The violation of the absoluteness of the laws of nature was an insult to Einstein's religious sensitivity. Einstein was essentially a pantheist in the spirit of Spinoza. This approach gave rise to profound religious feeling. This is how Einstein answered a child who asked him whether scientists pray:

Anyone seriously involved in scientific investigation gradually becomes convinced that the laws of nature embody a spirit – a spirit immeasurably higher than that of man … In this way, scientific investigation leads to a unique religious feeling, altogether different from the religiosity of one who is more naive.

My revered teacher, Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein, found another shade of ancient idolatry in the modern world. He argues that idolatrous motifs that sanctify nature may be found in some of the ecological movements prevailing in our time:

Secular ecology is generally interested only in nature. It aspires to preserve a particular unit and framework, called nature. It emphasizes esthetics. It seems that it would not be wrong to suggest that what generally hovers over this movement is an idolatrous worship of the land, one of the oldest and also one of the newest forms of idolatry in the world. It is difficult not to hear echoes of the worship of the fertility gods of the ancient world. It is as if at any moment we expect to see those women who would cry over Tammuz in one season, and rejoice over his ascendancy at another time. The image of "the great mother," who hugs all of her descendants, hovers over everything.

The nature of Halakha is entirely different… The prohibition against wanton destruction does not come to bestow honor on nature in and of itself, but rather as a creation and possession of the Holy One, blessed be He… A proof for this point is the very fact that the prohibition does not discriminate between divine and human creation, between one who tears clothing and one who seals a spring. We are not interested in preserving nature, but rather in maintaining reality. (Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein, "Ha-Adam veha-Teva," Hagut IV, 1980)

Environmental groups occasionally give expression not only to an honest concern about man's fate in a destroyed world, but also to a mystical-idolatrous attitude that relates to nature as an organic being, filled with vitality and holiness, which we are forbidden to violate. This is a modern version of ancient idolatry. A few years ago a camel was discovered stuck in what had once been an Israeli mine field in the Negev. In a radio interview at the time, a spokesperson for one of the animal rights organizations complained: "Had it been a human being, he would have been rescued a long time ago." This is an example of a blurring of the distinction between man and nature, which is only a short step from a deification of nature.

The Torah rejects these religious attitudes. When the Torah states, "In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth," there is room for but one conclusion: God is not the heaven and the earth. God is the Creator: the heaven and the earth are included among the created beings.

Immanence in Judaism

There are, however, streams in Judaism that prefer not to sever God totally from the world. We find rabbinic statements that speak of a divine presence in the world. This, for example, is what follows from a Midrash that asks why God revealed Himself to Moshe in a small and lowly bush:

A certain gentile once asked Rabbi Yehoshua ben Korcha: What did the Holy One, blessed be He, see fit to speak with Moshe from a burning bush? He said to him: Had it been from a burning carob tree, or from a burning sycamore, you would have asked me the same thing. But to send you out empty-handed is impossible; why out of a burning bush? To teach you that there is no place void of the Shekhina, not even a bush. (Shemot Rabba 2)

The idea of God's immanence is found primarily in the writings of the kabbalists and of those who came under their influence. The kabbalistic world strongly inclines to the idea of immanence. For example, Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Kook writes:

It is natural that the common perception, the understanding of God stemming from the monotheistic idea, whichis also the more well-known perception, should sometimes cause sand weakness of spirit, as a result feebleness entering man's spirit when he imagines that he, a weak and limited being, is so distant from the divine perfection which illuminates with the light of the majesty of its greatness…

Less wearisome to man than this perception is the monotheistic perception which inclines to a pantheistic explanation, when it is refined from its dross. This stands out in the rational dimension of the new Chassidut which asserts that there is nothing outside of God. (Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Kook, Orot ha-Kodesh II, p. 399)

Rabbi Kook emphasizes here the problematic nature from an emotional perspective of a purely transcendental approach. The idea of God's absolute detachment from the world can lead man to a certain weakness of spirit and a feeling of distance and alienation. Some have emphasized the metaphysical difficulty posed by this idea: God being infinite, how can there be anything outside of Him? By saying that God is not to be found in the world, we are, in essence, imposing limits on Him, as it were. The kabbalists, therefore, promoted "a monotheistic perception which inclines to a pantheistic explanation." What precisely does this compromise mean? A disciple of Rabbi Kook, Rabbi David Hakohen, known as the Nazir, explains:

The negative doctrine of pantheism [all is God], after being purified of its disease and refined of its dross, should be elevated and renamed panentheism [all in God], the main idea of which is the divine life force of the world, that He gives life to all, while remaining apart from and above all. (Ha-Rav ha-Nazir, Kol ha-Nevu'ah, p. 163)

In other words, the kabbalistic approach rejects Spinoza's identification of God with nature. God is not the same thing as nature, but He embraces nature. That is to say, God includes nature, but also exists over and beyond nature. Chazal have already alluded to this idea: "He is the place of the world, but the world is not His place" (Bereshit Rabba 68). The Nazir explains that the intention here is not to identify every molecule in nature as a part of God. We are dealing here with the "divine life force of the world": the energy and forces that move the world are divine powers. Thus, the clear distinction that Judaism makes between God and His world is retained.

Jewish thought presents a spectrum of varied positions on the question of God's presence in the world. The common denominator between them is the rejection of pantheism, the basis of which is found already in the opening verse of the Torah. Within these bounds, we find a wide variety of positions.

Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik presents a unique and original position. Rabbi Soloveitchik discusses the frustration experienced by a man who is unable to commune with God through nature or to reveal God in the spiritual moments that he occasionally experiences. For this reason, another type of faith is needed – a revelation of God who comes down into this world, reveals Himself to man and commands him. But why is man unable to find God? Is it because God is not found in nature?

Why does man not find his Maker when he seeks and searches after Him? … The cause of man's frustration in this area is sin, which separates man from his Maker. Were it not for sin, man would reveal the Creator in creation without any disappointment…

Indeed, now also the Holy One, blessed be He, is the place of the world, and there is no place empty of Him. This presence, however, is not visible or open to experience. The Holy One, blessed be He, sees, but remains unseen. He descends into the world in a pillar of cloud, but man is unable to penetrate into the cloud. When man begins to draw near to God, because he hears the voice of God walking across the expanses of the world and the fullness thereof, God distances Himself from him. (Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, U-Bikashtem mi-Sham, pp. 140-141)

Rabbi Soloveitchik makes an interesting distinction: on the metaphysical level, God is present in the universe. On the existential plain, however, it is extremely difficult to experience that presence. This position – which does not necessarily reflect the entirety of Rabbi Soloveitchik's thought – advocates immanence from a metaphysical perspective, and transcendence from an existential perspective. What creates this gap? Rabbi Soloveitchik answers: Sin. He seems to be referring to limitations and deficiencies in the human personality. Since man is imperfect on account of his wild desires and evil inclinations, we cannot experience the fullness of God's presence. Rabbi Soloveitchik relates here to a question regarding immanence and pantheism that we can find very distressing: we don't feel that way. Rabbi Soloveitchik provides us with a new perspective with which to relate to our entire discussion: Over and beyond the issue of metaphysical truth, it is perhaps even more important to understand what it is that we are experiencing.


[1] Ramban himself argues that in the beginning God created the primeval materials that would later be used for the fashioning of the heaven and the earth.

[2] See also Julius Guttmann, Devarim al ha-Filosofiya shel ha-Dat, pp. 38, 68; idem., Ha-Filosofiya shel ha-Yahadut, p. 17.

(Translated by Rav David Strauss)