Drash on Parashat B'shalach
Rabbi Adi Cohen
Temple Shalom - Gold Coast, Queensland
Parashat B’shalach, also known as Parashat Shira, holds several famous themes. The Crossing of the Red Sea, the pillars of smoke and fire, Divine food falling from the sky and with it, the first Mitzvah relating to Shabbat.
A few weeks ago, the co-chairs of the UPJ challenged me to put into words my core beliefs and share them with our members. One verse in the Parasha reminded me of this challenge in Exodus 14:31: “And when the Israelites saw the mighty hand of God displayed against the Egyptians, the people feared God and put their trust in God and in Moses, God’s servant.”
Do I believe in God out of fear?
Do I need God to prove God’s might and strength?
What kind of God does Judaism believe in?
While Judaism’s understanding of One omnipotent, omnipresent, amorphic deity, our tradition offers many different ways to conceptualise God. I will cluster them mainly as Biblical, Rabbinic, medieval, Kabbalah and modern.
Biblical – Torah assumes the existence of the one and only Lord God, אדוני, and chronicles the covenant of faith between God and the Jewish people. Over and over again, through God's direct communication and revelation, the personal relationship between God and humankind is demonstrated.
The assumption is that future generations will affirm God through faith, and accept the biblical dispositions – (1) That each individual can have a personal relationship with God; (2) That God and the Jewish People have a special covenantal relationship; (3) That God gives us free will, making us responsible for our actions; (4) That God's will is manifested in the commandments, and that reward or punishment for observing or transgressing the law takes place in this lifetime.
Rabbinic – In the Rabbinic Period (200 B.C.E.-600 C.E.), the sages responded to challenges of faith with rational explanation. (1) To counter newborn Christianity's claim that God had walked the earth in human form, the sages offered proof for the existence of God (the "argument from design": Just as the house needs a builder, the world needs a builder-God) and attributed human emotions to God. (2) To counter the claim that the relationship between God and humankind is based primarily on faith, the sages reaffirmed the primacy of covenantal law, and expanded God's scope as Law-Giver to include continuing revelation through Oral Law. (3) exposed to the Sassanic religion in Babilon and responding to the political domination of the Greeks and Romans, the sages introduced the concept of an afterlife, with God's reward or punishment for earthly behavior given in a world to come.
Medieval and Kabbalah – during the Golden Era in Spain several new theological approaches emerged.
Rabbi Saadya Gaon (892-942), attempted to prove that there is no conflict between faith and reason. Rabbi Gaon taught that while the one God created the world, the inadequacy of language makes it impossible to describe God in any human terms, but that God's goodness is manifested in the law given to humankind.
Rabbi Yehuda HaLevi (1080-1142; Spain), rejected Saadya's attempt to balance reason and faith, and passionately advocated traditional Jewish belief and faith. After watching the ongoing conflict between Christians and Muslims in Spain, HaLevi wrote the Kuzari, claiming that Judaism is spiritually superior to all other religions. HaLevi affirmed that God is to be known not through reason but through spiritual insight; that the personal relationship between God and each Jew is established through the love-gift of Torah; and that the God-given Land of Israel is central to the Jewish spiritual quest, so the Jewish People must return to Israel from wandering exile.
Rambam - Moses Maimonides (1135-1204) was a rationalist thinker, Rambam felt compelled to explain and defend Jewish beliefs in response to popular philosophical systems. Maimonides taught that the proof for the existence of God is the "cosmological argument": that every object in the world is moved by another, but that God is the "unmoved mover" who set the whole process in motion. He contended that God created the world out of pure intellect and does not interfere with the ongoing process of the universe. Therefore, the highest form of existence should be achieved by intellectual perfection.
The Kabbalists - (beginning in the 13th century) countered the rationalism of Maimonides by developing a highly spiritual approach to God. They called God Ein Sof, ("Without End") claiming that God is limitless and infinite, and thus unknowable to the finite mind. They taught that the distance between God and humankind is bridged by ten Sefirot (spheres), and that the way to come into D’veikot (intimate relationship with God) is to ascend these Sefirot through meditation and prayer.
Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677) was a Jewish pantheist. His understanding was that since everything comes from God, God, the universe, and nature are one. Being one. God did not create the universe or establish the laws of nature, but the universe and natural law are God.
Martin Buber (1878-1965), sought God in a nonreligious, nonsectarian, but deeply spiritual way. He called God the "Eternal Thou," an eternal presence that cannot be proved, defined, or described. Yet, by coming into genuine, intimate, mutual relationship, God can be met. For Buber, God is ever-reachable, and revelation is ever-continuing.
Mordecai Kaplan (1881-1983), the founder of the Reconstructionist movement, contended that (rather than an individual or national relationship with God) it is the collective consciousness of the Jewish People that has made Jewish civilization distinct and unique. Rabbi Kaplan rejected the concept of a supernatural God, claiming instead that God is a Power or a Process, the sum of the forces that give life meaning and worth.
Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907-1972), , believed that "God is of no importance unless He is of supreme importance." Rabbi Heschel taught that each person can have a close, personal, intimate relationship with God, achieved through contemplative meditation and joyous prayer. He asserted that each human being can manifest God in the world by Tikun Olam, working to bring God's ethical mandate to a troubled universe; to work towards a more just world.
Who is right and who can understand the concept of the Divine?
My personal faith and my personal understanding of God, is that I am allowed and encouraged by my religious heritage, to constantly change the way I relate to God over time. I believe in a God of becoming and relationship (an amazing book by Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson), a God that is the breath of life in every living thing, a God that cannot be understood by the human mind yet God’s presence, K’dusha (holiness), can be felt by the human heart through our actions and our relationships.
The common Hebrew name we use to describe God is Elohim. Elohim in plural, not Eloha in singular. The reason, I believe, is that while we believe in one omnipotent and omni present God, each end every person has their own way to define the role God plays in their lives.
Wishing you Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Adi Cohen