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A Sample Chapter from:
Understanding Judaism

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Understanding Judaism

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Understanding Judaism
A basic guide to Jewish faith, history, and practice
By Rabbi Mordechai Katz
Mesorah Publications, Ltd.
ISBN: 1-57819-517-9

Chapter 1: Hear, O Israel..., from Understanding Judaism

Hear, O Israel... G-d Is One!


What is G-d? Is G-d the clockmaker deity of 18th century philosophers – the deists who believed that G-d created the world, set it in motion, and then left it to run of its own accord? Is He the “ineffable” of certain Eastern philosophies, sometimes described as “allness” and sometimes as “nothingness?” Is He(or She) the mysterious “force” of contemporary science fiction?

It is difficult to find the right descriptions for G-d, so it may be easier to begin by saying something about what G-d is not. Our ancestor Abraham set the pattern nearly four thousand years ago when he rejected idol-worship. G-d, Whoever He was, could not be identified with the sun, moon, stars, or other natural phenomena. The Divine cannot, in fact, be represented in physical form. This accords with the second of the Ten Commandments which states, “You shall not make for yourself a sculptured image.” G-d cannot be reduced to human form either, as some religions have held. As the Torah states, “Take good heed of yourselves, for you saw no manner of form on that day when G-d spoke to you at Horeb . . .”(Deuteronomy 4:15). [Deuteronomy is the last of the five books which comprise the Torah – G-d's words as dictated to Moses at Mt. Sinai.]

G-d has neither body, nor shape, nor form. Therefore He must be beyond space and time, which are the coordinates that define form. “He” must also be beyond gender. Use of the masculine pronoun is a convention with metaphorical meaning, but only a convention. Indeed, all the Bible's descriptions of G-d having physical form such as an “outstretched hand” are meant symbolically. G-d cannot be many Divine beings (not even atrinity), since more-than-oneness is a feature of physicality. He must be only One. “The Lord, He is G-d – there is none else beside him” (Deuteronomy 4:35). The great medieval philosopher Maimonides (known to Jews as the Rambam) went so far as to state in his code of law, “Whoever conceives G-d to be a corporeal being is a heretic and an apostate.”

To say that G-d is not anything in the world of space-time helps us expand our thinking. We can then say that G-d is both omnipresent and transcendental, two words that express the idea that G-d is not in space-time. Omnipresent means He fills all the universe, as Isaiah the prophet states in Prophets, “Holy, holy, holy is G-d of hosts – the whole world is filled with His Glory”(Prophets, Isaiah 6:3).

Further, since G-d has no physical properties and is beyond the laws of nature, He is transcendental, meaning that G-d must be prior to everything else, “outside” space-time, so to speak, such that G-d makes everything else possible. He has no beginning and no end. He always has been and always will be. This is difficult for our minds to comprehend, and is one among many wonders that we may never fully understand.

Since G-d is before and above all, we also affirm that He is Creator, and that His power in the universe is unlimited. We therefore speak of G-d as being omnipotent (all-powerful) and refer to Him in prayer as “King of the universe.” He created space, time, and everything that is in it.


The fact that G-d cannot be seen or pictured, touched or heard, is not proof that He does not exist. The human neurological system, however intricate it may be, operates within a limited pattern. In fact, the brain screens out many perceptions in order to give us a functional picture of reality, ensuring our ability to survive in the ordinary physical world.

In fact, we know from our everyday experience that there are nonphysical forces in the world. We cannot see love or touch hate, but they certainly exist. Even in what we call the physical world, there are some things that cannot be directly sensed with our physical form. We cannot, for example, hold onto an isolated electrical current or put it into a dish with our bare hands. Yet we know this current produces light and heat, and we can observe its effects even though the wire through which it passes looks no different from any other wire.

Invisible physical forces and emotional vibrations are analogous to Divine power in that they are beyond the physical senses but have results we can feel and observe. Similarly, we can prove G-d's existence through His creations and perceive through our higher intelligence His guiding of history, without being able to perceive G-d directly. To look at what is around us and deduce that there must have been an intelligence behind it is a classic proof of G-d's existence called the “argument from design.” Although philosophers have offered challenges to this proof, it is still the strongest rational argument for G-d's existence, beginning with the observable physical world and appealing to everyone's natural reasoning ability.

The emperor of Rome once chided Rabbi Yehoshua ben Chananya: “You call your G-d all-powerful? Why, I am much more of a god than He. Your G-d cannot be seen anywhere, and I am visible to all. If your G-d is so great,why can't I even see him?”

The rabbi did not try to argue. He simply smiled and asked the emperor to join him outside. The emperor was puzzled, but he complied. Once they were out in thestreet, the rabbi asked the emperor to look up at the sky.The emperor stared up toward the blazing noontime sun for but a brief moment, and then was forced to look away.

“Is something wrong?” asked Rabbi Yehoshua.

“How can I look up?” complained the emperor. “The sun is blinding me. I can't see!”

The rabbi nodded knowingly. “I regret your discomfort, Your Majesty. I just wanted to point out that even sog reat a man as you cannot look at the sun for more than a moment. Yet the sun is only a creation of G-d, Who is the real source of all light, power, and energy. If man can hardly gaze at G-d's creation, how can he hope to see G-d Himself in all His Glory?”

The emperor smiled. He knew that he had been bested.

Talmud Chullin, 59b

The argument from design states, in essence, that the complex laws of nature and living things are themselves proof that they could not have come about by sheer accident, but must have their source in an intelligent Creator. Indeed, they often seem to be deliberately planned. Even the simple structures of rocks and plants bear the signs of amazing symmetries and directionality.Cycles like the evaporation of water and the fall of rain, essential to life on earth, are extraordinarily complex. Scientists now know that if the historic temperature of earth varied only slightly, life would not have been possible.

If we look at the human being, it seems incredible that a person begins life as nothing more than a microscopic cell – a zygote formed by the union of two other minuscule cells, the sperm and the egg. From this tiny speck of matter emerges a being composed of billions upon billions of cells, diversified into many intricateorgans.

Intricate chains of molecules structured in specific ways – dionucleic acid, or DNA – provide the “instructions” for the tiny cell to grow into a diversified human body. Each cell and group of cells seems to know what job it must do to make the whole organism work. The nerve cells convey sensations and communicate the necessary response to the environment. Cardiac cells work together to keep the heart beating so that blood can be pumped throughout the body. Other cells fight germs, digest food, or aid in reproduction. Glands secrete tiny amounts of hormones that regulate growth, maintain chemical equilibrium, and respond to our very thoughts. With every breath, an enormously complex process allows oxygen to move to each cell and removes carbon dioxide. If that oxygenating process stopped for just four minutes, the brain would begin to die.

Think of just one organ: the eye. Most of us take sight for granted, but consider for a moment how the pupil must open like a shutter to allow light in, and the lens must focus the light properly on the retina, which then relays the image via electrical sensations along the optic nerve. The rods and cones determine black-and-white and color vision. The brain receives the image upside down and must reverse it to orient us properly to the physical world. Meanwhile, the cornea protects the eye from damage and the tear ducts help remove foreign substances from the eye.

This color camera focuses automatically according to the object's distance, with the lens adjusting its degree of curvature as necessary. The iris controls the width of the entering light beam to admit the proper amount of light. The eye turns in the direction desired as the brain directs its musculature. The pressure of the fluid in the eye is calibrated to maintain the proper shape of the eyeball. The two eyes function as perfectly synchronized cameras to form one picture. In short, every component of the eye exhibits exquisite precision and is exactly suited for its specific function. Such a phenomenon points to an intelligent design behind it. Charles Darwin, the originator of evolutionary theory, the admitted, “The belief that an organ as perfect as the eye could have been formed by natural selection is more than enough to stagger anyone.”

The same is true, of course, of the processes of hearing, thinking, smelling, tasting, touching, eating, breathing, ingesting and digesting food, and all the amazing processes of every human being, every animal, and every plant. The complexities of natur eare eloquent witnesses to the fact that they must have been designed by a Superior Being.

Indeed, it no longer seems possible to deny the argument from design. In the heyday of extreme rationalism (known as positivism) in the early 20th century, scientists still hoped to be able to describe nature as a machine – an extremely complicated one, to be sure, but ultimately reducible to clearly formulated scientific laws. A reasonable thinker could then argue that the universe evolved in a mechanical way, somewhat like the “growth” of a crystal. Now, as the 21st century has come upon us, scientists seem to be finding that the universe can only be understood if we factor in the idea of something like “intelligence” that operates continuously in the patterns of existence, even down to the behavior of subatomic particles.

If so, this means that it is no longer possible to say that the concept of G-d is being brought in to fill the gaps in areas that science does not yet understand, and that we will ultimately no longer need an idea of G-d. Rather, the concept of an Intelligence within and perhaps beyond the universe seems to be a necessary proposition.


The Torah, in the first chapter of the Bible, states that in the beginning of the creation of what we know as “heaven” and “earth,” G-d created the universe from nothing. Beginning with the creation of light, G-d then made and shaped everything in its position, resulting in the world as we perceive it. The events of this creation are presented as follows:

First Day: Creation of light (and darkness).

Second Day: Separation of the “waters,” thereby making the upper and lower waters.

Third Day: Accumulation of the lower waters, allowing dry land to emerge.

Fourth Day: Creation and placement of sun, moon, and stars in the sky.

Fifth Day: Creation of sea life and birds.

Sixth Day: Creation of reptiles, animals, and finally man.

Seventh Day: G-d “rested” from His work and sanctified the seventh day as the Shabbos, a day of rest.

Several things are notable here. Before G-d acted, nothing existed, not even the basic elements or their energy particles. At G-d's command, things sprang into existence. This was the most spectacular of miracles, one far removed from our experience or imagination. The simple words in which it is described are an enormous understatement.

Second, the concept behind this description is enormously sophisticated. In contrast to the creation stories of many other cultures, the description given in the first chapter of Genesis is very abstract. A formless G-d manifests through the energy of sound (“and G-d spoke”), and His first creation is light. This is nothing like the humanoid deities of many other stories.

Third, the creation story moves forward in a precise order, from the energies of sound and light to the concept of atmospheres and fluids (upper and lower waters), then to the congealing of what we know as earth and into the regular motions of celestial bodies. Finally it moves to recognizable features of our planet's inhabitants – sea life, birds, reptiles, land animals, and human beings.While many questions can be raised about scientific theories of the origin of the universe and the evolution of life, what is remarkable here are not the differences, but the amazing similarities between the way the creation is portrayed in the Bible and the understandings of the most advanced branches of science – physics, quantum, physics, etc.

There are, of course, difficulties with most scientific hypotheses about the origin of life. Most problematic is the insistence of some scientific theorists that evolution occurred by chance. Many biologists have argued, on the contrary, that evolution by chance is mathematically impossible. Random mutation – the mechanism that supposedly resulted in billions of different species – could not produce the complexity of life on earth in the time span (four billion years of earth time) that science has allotted for it. J.W. Sullivan, one of the world's most brilliant physicists, has written that “the only possible conclusion so far as actual evidence goes is that the origin of life results from a supernatural, G-dly creative act.”

Another frequently mentioned problem is that the Bible describes creation as occurring in a matter of days, while science holds that the universe is fifteen billion years old. Interestingly, long before current scientific methods were invented, some of our sages discussed whether the time frame of “seven days of creation” in Genesis actually corresponds to seven days as we know them. They noted that the sun and moon, which were created “for [measuring] times and seasons,” did not appear until the fourth “day,” so what was the “day” like before then? Moreover, if we have to understand every later description of G-d as metaphorical, certainly the acts of creation that occurred before a human being was present to witness them can only dimly be understood in human terms. To support this point, they bring a number of statements elsewhere in the Bible suggesting that G-d's measure of time is not like ours: “A thousand years is but a day . . .” and “G-d's thoughts are not our thoughts.”

We need not debate the time frame of creation with today's scientists, whose own theories are very much in flux. The crucial point is that Judaism insists that G-d authored the universe, created its orderly systems, and continued to be involved in every aspect of creation, phase by phase. The clockmaker deity who wound up the machine and left it alone is not the G-d of Judaism,Who cares for every element of creation, Who directs each plant and animal in its growth and development, and Who planned the entire world as an arena in which human beings – the unique beings with free choice – could accomplish their destiny.


The argument from design is very persuasive on a common-sense level. But we often wonder why G-d does not speak even more clearly about His existence, to reassure us at least that He is present. In ancient times, it seems, people saw miracles and heard G-d's voice, or at least knew people who were clearly connected to the Divine force, like prophets. Why don't we have a few miracles in our day?

Humanity is, in a sense, an experiment. When G-d created Adam, He made a being who could decide whether to be like the rest of creation, acting on an animal level, or to be like G-d Himself. The crux of the human experiment, the one independent variable, was that we should have free choice. If miracles were commonplace and the Divine Presence was indisputable, humans would have no choice but to acknowledge G-d. It would be as if we were compelled to believe in G-d.

Miracles did happen long ago, because they were needed to demonstrate G-d's existence to a world that had no concept of G-d at all. Once the Jews were launched as a chosen nation – as we will see below – manifest miracles were less necessary. Human beings were then free to make their own decisions on the evidence available.

Still, open miracles do occur at times. Interestingly, many people who say “Why don't we have miracles?” refuse to believe in them when they do occur. It is tempting to pass off miracles as coincidences or as something that science will eventually explain. This is, again, part of the test of our free choice.

In fact, there is a completely different way to look at reality – namely, that everything is a miracle. If we accept the fact that G-d created the world and cares about it, then we can see G-d's contributions to the world as being continuous and ever flowing.We are surrounded by unrecognized miraculous events emanating from G-d. Indeed, we can see the continued existence of all things as dependent solely on G-d's will. We live from one miracle to the next.

Used by permission, ArtScroll Mesorah Publications

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