Can G-d's existence be comprehended?

Friday, 15 May, 2009 - 10:08 am

A question that arises after every catastrophe is what logic did G-d use: why did He do this? Therefore the underlying question is, is it possible to apprehend G-d?

In the introduction to the Tikunei Zohar (17a) it quotes a discourse by Elijah the prophet, “Master of the worlds, You are One but not in the numerical sense. You are exalted above all the exalted ones, hidden from all the hidden ones; no thought can grasp You at all.”

This statement of Elijah states categorically that G-d cannot be comprehended at all. Indeed, if Elijah the prophet cannot comprehend G-d the same must be with all of humankind.

Similarly, Moses asked of G-d, (Exodus 33:18-20) “show me Your glory”, and G-d responded, “you cannot see my countenance as man cannot see me and live”. Indeed, in the book of Isaiah (55:6) it says, “My thoughts are not your thoughts and your ways are not My ways, says G-d.”

This seems to convey to humankind that though belief in G-d is a basic tenet of faith, He nevertheless cannot be comprehended. As finite human beings, we are incapable of understanding the actions and nature of an infinite G-d. This is indeed the nature of belief, which by definition transcends comprehension.

It is interesting to analyse the statement of Elijah. He says, “No thought can grasp You at all”. The Hebrew word he uses for comprehension is “tefisah”, grasping, rather than the usual term of “havanah” or “hasagah”, comprehension. Why does he use the term, “tefisah”, grasping? The term “tefisa” refers to grasping something tightly in ones hand, as oppose to holding something loosely. This is an unnecessary term to use for comprehension.

Furthermore, Elijah does not say, “no thought can grasp ‘G-d’ at all”, but rather he speaks in the first person, “no thought can grasp ‘You’ at all”. Why does he choose to speak of G-d in the first person?

The book of the Tanya by Rabbi Schneir Zalman of Liadi, the founder of the Habad school of Hassidism, dedicates an entire chapter (Ch. 5) to this statement of Elijah. He addresses these two points.

He argues against the conventional understanding of Elijah’s statement that G-d cannot be understood. Rabbi Schneur Zalman maintains that Elijah is actually implying that there is a way that G-d can be apprehended but chooses to only speak in the negative without elaborating the positive.

This is indicated by the fact that Elijah refers to G-d in the first person, “no thought can grasp You at all”. It is the unadulterated G-d that cannot be grasped. However, this might imply that how G-d is modified from His essential existence, He can be grasped.

In other words, the essence of G-d cannot be directly grasped but there is the possibility to grasp G-d indirectly. This is the way Rabbi Schneur Zalman understands the intention of the statement of Elijah. The method for this is indicated by the use of the word “tefisa”.

The deliberate use of the word “tefisa”, grasping, is not in regard to the statement in the negative that G-d can not be grasped, since for this part of the statement Elijah could have used the term “havanah” or hasagah”, which would have given us to understand that G-d could not be comprehended.

The term “tefisa”, grasping, refers to something that could be understood with total and cogent logic: An idea that makes absolute sound logic to the person is considered not merely understood but has been grasped. One can comprehend a subject superficially but one has not grasped it without a thorough investigation, which unites the person intimately with the concept.

It would therefore not make sense to say only that no thought can grasp G-d, since this is not true, since in truth no thought can even understand G-d superficially.

The fact that Elijah uses the term grasp is subtly indicating that there is indeed a method through sound logic that G-d could be indeed grasped but not in the ‘first person’ directly.

Why must one assume that it is possible at all to grasp G-d? Is G-d not transcendental and unfathomable? The reason is because if G-d would be unable to be grasped even indirectly, this would be limiting G-d’s infinity: G-d is only manifest in the spiritual and transcendental and is unable to be grasped in the physical.

This is reflected in the Talmud (Sukkah), which states, “the greatness of the Al-mighty is His humility. G-d dwells with broken hearted and the poor”. This, Rabbi Schneur Zalman understands, is meant to indicate that it would be a sign of limitation were G-d to be limited to the realm of the spiritual. His greatness is that He can be also grasped in lower realms of reality.

The way G-d articulates His existence to humankind is through the raw logic of the Torah. This is the reason that it was desired that the Divine wisdom of the Torah be given to humankind. In the words of the Zohar, “the Divine wisdom of the Torah and the Holy One blessed be He are one and the same.”

This is reflected in the statement of Elijah. The term grasping indicates an intense unity with an object. This refers to the complete logical apprehension of the Torah, through which a person is also grasping the Al-mighty.

According to this analysis, the more mundane the level of Torah one studies the more one is grasping the infinite G-d. Rabbi Dov Ber of Lubavitch, son and successor of Rabbi Scheur Zalman articulate this concept in his work, Sharei Orah (P. 116). He writes that the mystical teachings of the Torah are compared to a candle with radiant but limited light. However, the more logical exoteric teachings of the Torah are radiance of a much brighter light, which can therefore descend, reaching further into the mundane.

Therefore, though one cannot necessarily understand the master plan of G-d’s actions, nevertheless, through the cogent logic of the Torah, one is indeed indirectly grasping and apprehending the Divine itself.


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