HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal

Grappling with Proofs of G-d

by Howard Finkelstein Issue: The God Issue

As our students reach their teen years, their analytical skills begin to develop, and they begin to question preconceived notions of G-d, even to the point of doubting His existence. Do we, their teachers, ignore these questions, or do we take a proactive approach by enabling our students to understand and to evaluate philosophical formulations regarding the presence of G-d?

At the Ottawa Jewish Community School, we are engaged in a project to revolutionize the teaching of the essence of G-d and His relationship to the Jewish people through the study of the different proofs of G-d’s existence, in addition to the normative study of themes that abound in the study of Tanakh and Aggadah. In effect, we ask our students to imagine themselves sitting with the great philosophical giants, from Aristotle to Maimonides, and debating the various points presented by these thinkers. Considering the developing minds of our students, it is imperative that we challenge students to critically analyze these approaches and others more traditional to gain insight and awareness of the complexities involved in the understanding of what is G-d, and how does He impact our lives.

The main proofs of the existence of G-d stemming from philosophical literature are ontological, cosmological, teleological and what is known as Pascal’s wager. On examining these proofs, students learn to discern and determine which of these proofs can indeed be utilized to enhance one’s belief in G-d, and what aspects of these postulations conflict with traditional Judaism’s application and understanding of an involved, caring and judging Deity. At the same time, students are invited to express their views regarding the proof presented.

The ontological argument espoused by Anselm of Canterbury in the eleventh century emphasizes the idea that G-d is perfect, and, therefore, all-powerful, all-knowing, and existing. As all matter by definition exists, so too must G-d. Another way of putting it would be that if the mind perceives of G-d as existing, then He must exist. On presenting this concept in grade 8 or higher, students have found this argument to be unconvincing, an example of sophistry. It remains for the instructor to demonstrate clearly why such a proof is not Jewish, so to speak, as in the case of traditional Judaism, the existence of G-d is not purely a matter of belief. The Torah speaks as the word of G-d who takes an active role not only in creation, but in day-to-day existence in the roles of communicator, judge and loving deity.

The cosmological argument speaks of G-d as being a Prime Mover, an approach embraced in some medieval Jewish philosophy including the Rambam‘s Guide to the Perplexed. Briefly, the concept of the Prime Mover centers around the idea that every object comes from a previous source. However, at some point there must be a cause that is not caused by anything else. That primary cause or mover is G-d. Students are urged to assess this argument, and usually refute it with the question of how the Prime Mover came into existence. Further, students have indicated that the argument presented by the cosmologists does not enter into the realm of purpose and commandment, thus prompting these same students to deny its efficacy as a means to prove His existence.

The teleological argument, or an argument from design, speaks to the concept of purpose. There is a purpose and order to the universe, which extends to those who believe in G-d. The goal of existence for Jews is to serve G-d through the commandments given to the Jewish people, and for non-Jews to follow the Noahide laws. Students sense the idea of seder or order, and begin to see the interrelationship between G-d, the Jew, and the world at large. However, the student is encouraged by the instructor to examine the presence of evil in the world, and how evil can exist in a universe created by a purpose-driven G-d. This leads naturally to issues of theodicy, the existence of evil in a world created by God. The teacher may discuss how Kabbalah deals with these challenges, such as the idea of tzimtzum (G-d’s withdrawal in the universe in order to allow evil to exist), or other rabbinic and philosophic sources that touch on these issues.

Pascal’s wager revolves around the question of whether it is necessary for an individual to live his or her life as if there were a G-d. To put it crassly, faith in G-d which is based on probability or lack thereof has proven to be unsatisfying to the average student who successfully challenges the premise of this approach. Depending on the educational and maturity levels of students involved in this type of class, the instructor may see an opportunity to discuss various conceptions of the existence of G-d such as panentheism, pantheism, immanence and others.

It should be emphasized that the program described in this article only addresses the cognitive but not the affective domain of the student. This program is intellectually oriented in enabling students to analyze and appreciate the different nuances of the proofs of G-d’s existence and how they impact our understanding of the existence of a Supreme Being.

It is imperative to challenge our students’ concept of G-d by introducing them to approaches taken from philosophy which they can debate and discuss. Too often our students have a puerile understanding of G-d, and enter into adult life with this childish evaluation which undoubtedly influences their commitment or lack thereof to Jewish life. We are familiar with the adage of Bechol derachecha da’ehu: Know Him in all your ways. There are many pathways for our students to traverse in learning about G-d. Exposure to philosophical viewpoints about God gives our students the opportunity to think and to assess those points of view and to draw sophisticated conclusions about G-d.

Rabbi Howard Finkelstein is the dean of Judaic studies at the Ottawa Jewish Community School in Ottawa, Ontario, as well as the rabbi of Congregation Beit Tikvah in Ottawa. h.finkelstein@theojcs.ca

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The God Issue

In Jewish tradition, God alone is the Creator of all and the ultimate embodiment of unity, Oneness. In the 21st century Jewish community, however, God can often be a source of contention and divisiveness. Our community is far from united around questions of God's existence, nature and way of acting, the ways that we can understand God and relate to God. The authors in this issue approach the Big Questions from a wide variety of perspectives and thinkers, but they are united in their concern to bring the God Issue within the classrooms and halls of Jewish day schools.

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