Hitler and God
                                   Jay Michaelson

You have to be careful with pantheism -- people get the wrong idea. A few months ago, for example, I was trying to explain the concept of the Ein Sof, the Kabbalistic understanding of the Infinite. The theological notion is straightforward: that if God is infinite, as the Jewish tradition holds, then really God fills all creation. What appear, on the surface, to be computers, trees, and hamburgers are actually, in their essence, God. Moreover, if God were to have limit, then God would be complex, and susceptible to change, both of which are philosophical problems if God is perfect, and One. Thus, the Ein Sof is not some figure within Being with these or those attributes, but the ground of Being itself. Even forms which appear to be real are really manifestations of It.

No big deal, perhaps, for computers and trees and hamburgers -- but a very big deal when applied to you and me. All of us, from about the age of eight months on, have a conception of ourselves as separate individuals: as Me. But if God is really infinite, then God fills the atoms of my brain and whatever else we may believe makes up the "personality," just as God fills the atoms of the tables and chairs. The Hasidim realized that this was not the abstract philosophical notion that it may seem to be, because once one gets out of the trap of thinking of oneself as "Me," then most of the causes for our unhappiness disappear. Of course, it's never so straightforward; I don't know of a single Hasidic master who thinks that you can just flip the switch of enlightenment and never suffer again. But you can, at least, ratzo v'shuv, run and return, between the ordinary consciousness of poor old Jay, writing these words, and the more accurate perception of God manifesting as poor old Jay. In practice, this makes all the difference. Sometimes, you'll be the same as ever, jealous that the other guy is more successful than you, or angry, or sad. But other times, you really can detach from that identification with the separate "Me" enough to stop being so trapped by what the Me thinks.

The early Hasidim devoted most of their time to learning how to do that. They had various different methods, including ecstatic prayer, contemplation, meditation, selfless acts of love, and the cultivation of joyful emotional states. Drawing on the Kabbalah, they created a whole vocabulary to describe this oscillation -- mochin d'katnut (small mind) and mochin d'gadlut (expanded mind), hitpaalut (ecstasy) and hitbonnenut (contemplation), and so on. And they set as their ideal the state of devekut, of "clinging" to, or merging with, God. Devekut could look like joyful ecstasy, or peaceful equanimity; but whatever its shape, it is, for the Hasidim and those who follow them today, most centrally a lived, experiential recognition of the truth of Being: that everything is one, and that everything is God, including you, me, and the parts of ourselves that we really don't like.

So I was teaching some of this stuff, and it was going as it usually does. Some people couldn't stand it, some seemed inspired -- it was going ok. But there was a newspaper reporter there, and in her article, she reported me as saying that everything was God -- especially me -- so there was really no problem with anything. She contrasted that somewhat over-simplified summary of Hasidic thought with an angry remark from someone at the workshop, who said that he couldn't live with "everything is God," because if everything was God, then Hitler was God, and he'd rather have no god than a god who was Hitler.

Well, the invocation of Hitler is, as usual, more an emotional move than an intellectual one. As I wrote about three years ago in this magazine, Jews love to invoke the führer as moral support for whatever position they're arguing, whether it's against certain kinds of art, against the disengagement from Gaza, or whatever. Mention Hitler, and all of us who've seen Holocaust films flash instantly to the horrors of Auschwitz, and suddenly, we all get very serious. Yes, indeed -- how dare that idiot Kabbalah teacher say that Hitler is God! I'm repelled; repulsed; outraged. And superior.

But there was something interesting underneath my adversary's reductio at Hitlerum rhetoric, that inspired me to take it seriously. Sure, it's all well and God to say "God is everything" on a pleasant, summer, day, but how can everything be God when a child dies of cancer? Even if we cook up some facile theodicy that explains why this or that tragedy is somehow okay -- you know, the Divine Plan and all that -- what does it mean to say that God is the cancer cells, or is the terrorist? How does one love that? If God is everywhere, then Hitler, cancer, and Bin Laden are as much God as the blue jay twirping in the tree. Is this the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob? The God of morality? Or is this deity some kind of horrible, philosophical mistake, and something none of us wants anything to do with?

My colleague at the workshop, naturally, took the latter approach. "That can't be God," he was saying, "and if it is, I don't want any part of it." Fair enough, if God is supposed to be a cosmic teddy bear, giving us comfort in the cold hard world. Indeed, when someone really is suffering, comfort is exactly what God does, and it would be preposterous for a theologian to sit and make sure one's thinking is "correct." There are no atheists in foxholes, and few philosophers either. But from the privileged place of theological reflection, it's a curious thing to do -- accommodating theology to our preferences. It would seem to me that theology ought only be accommodated to truth, and that our preferences should follow -- not just whatever the consequences, but precisely if those consequences oppose our desires. If we don't like the consequences of the truth, then we ought to look at what we like -- not ignore what the truth is. Of course, I'm not claiming that any of us has any monopoly on "the truth" -- far from it. I'm merely saying that, to the extent we can discover it for ourselves, then it, and not our wishes that the world be otherwise, should guide the decisions of reasonable people.

To a great extent, all the tortured debates about theodicy (Divine justice) are the opposite. We have our preference that the world be just, or we have some sacred text which tells us that it is, and then, despite all the warnings that we can't possibly understand how God or the world works, we go ahead and try to figure it out anyway. So we are treated to abominations like "the holocaust was punishment for assimilation" or "the girl died of cancer because, in a previous life, she sinned" -- both of which I have read in the words of rabbis. No intellectual curlicue is too baroque for the philosophe seeking to exonerate God from what he can't abide.

All that's really been rescued, in these bizarre and illogical twists of argument, is a preference -- namely, that the world be explicable, or comforting; or that God be just what we want Him to be (including, of course, Him). Explaining why God lets a child get cancer doesn't really say anything about God; it just says something about our desire to maintain a certain image of God in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

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Upper image: James Coignard, Solitaire et Rouge
Lower image: James Coignard, Rouge horizontal

December 2005

The Old/New Jewish Culture
Mordecai Drache

Brodsky Begins
Adam Mansbach

A JuBu's Passage to India
Rachel Barenblat

Hitler and God
Jay Michaelson

Winter Light Promises
Jacob Staub

Beyond Belief
Joshua Furst

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From previous issues:

Eliezer Sobel

Are the Ten Commandments Really Carved in Stone?
Joel Shurkin

The Other Rally
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