God, Paradox, and the Holocaust: When Our Minds Cannot Understand
The inability to fully grasp the nature of God is humbling and frustrating, and forces us to “live with the question.”
Flatlands, Edwin Abbot’s mind-bending book, describes a character stuck in a two-dimensional world, trying to come to grips with the reality of a three-dimensional universe. He can’t.
Since everything he perceives is limited by his two-dimensional plane of existence, it’s impossible for him to wrap his head around something that has height or depth.
It’s an apt metaphor for the interplay between the finite and Infinite dimensions. Since human beings are stuck in a finite world bounded by time and space, we can’t wrap our heads around the essence of an Infinite Being. Our brains are finite, our words are finite, everything we perceive is finite.
Since human beings are stuck in a finite world bound by time and space, we can’t wrap our heads around the essence of an Infinite Being.
But we are not left in the total dark. Just as a two-dimensional character can perceive a three-dimensional finger that intersects with his world, we too can understand aspects of the Infinite through our finite prism. From the finite, we can infer a partial understanding of the Infinite. For example, if an entity has a beginning or end, by definition it must be finite. It has a limit, a border. Therefore, we can infer that an Infinite Being has no beginning nor end. That’s what we mean when we say God is eternal. He has no starting point; nothing brought Him into existence since there is no “before”. Existence is intrinsic to Him. Likewise, God cannot die; He transcends time.
This definition of eternal makes sense, even though we cannot fully grasp what it means. The negation of the finite is within our realm of understanding; it deals with the finite world which we can grasp. But the flipside – the positive description of what that means – is beyond our full comprehension. Even the very word “Infinite” merely states what God is not – “in/finite, not finite” – not what He truly is.
The inability to fully grasp the nature of God is humbling and frustrating. In our fast paced world with reams of information at our fingertips, we bristle at the idea that there is an unsurpassable limit to our knowledge. Money, education and the right connections are not going to help in this case. We’ve hit our wall; we are not God. There is only so much we can understand.
Sometimes realizing that the answer we seek is beyond us is the most intellectually honest position to take.
Recognizing the uncomfortable reality that we cannot perceive everything forces us to “live with the question.” Sometimes realizing that the answer we seek is beyond us is the most intellectually honest position to take. It may not leave us satisfied; we abhor the vacuum an unanswered question leaves in its wake. But it’s not a copout; it’s an honest recognition of our limitation.
Here are two examples to illustrate this point.
The Free Will Paradox
Take this well-known conundrum: If God knows everything, how do we have free will?
Maimonides phrases the question like this:
Since the Holy One, blessed be He, knows everything that will occur before it comes to pass, does He or does He not know whether a person will be righteous or wicked?
If He knows that he will be righteous, [it appears] impossible for him not to be righteous. However, if one would say that despite His knowledge that he would be righteous, it is possible for him to be wicked, then His knowledge would be incomplete. (Laws of Teshuva, 5:5)
Either man doesn’t have free will, which denies the pillar of Judaism*, or God’s knowledge is incomplete, which goes against His Infinite nature. How can both God’s knowledge and man’s free will be true?
In short, the Rambam explains that indeed both man’s free will and God’s complete knowledge simultaneously exist, but since we cannot grasp the nature of God’s knowledge – because it is part of His Infinite essence – we cannot wrap our heads around the nature of His knowledge and understand how the two can co-exist.
We can’t understand the true nature the Infinite, which is necessary to grasp in order to know how the two dimensions can co-exist. God only knows. Literally.
This is the nature of paradox. Anytime we try to bridge the gap between the finite and Infinite dimensions, we hit the limit of our comprehension. We can’t understand the true nature the Infinite, which is necessary in order to know how the two dimensions can coexist. God only knows. Literally.
Being stuck in a finite world with finite brains necessitates living with paradox. It’s frustrating, but tolerable. Contrast this to encountering a contradiction, which is intolerable. Contradiction means two things cannot simultaneously exist because one of them is wrong. Since both elements are within our grasp, we need to root out the mistaken notion and resolve the conflict. The Talmud is replete with fierce debates attempting to resolve contradictions, with the aim to come to a correct understanding of the truth.
God and the Holocaust
Many people are not bothered by paradox. Most people are bothered by the Holocaust. How can we reconcile God’s love and innate goodness with the murder of six million Jews?
The issue of suffering – personal and national – is an extremely complex one, the full scope of which can’t be fully addressed here. But I do want to make the following point. There is an arrogance to assume we can understand everything, that we are privy to all the relevant information and factors, and can pass judgment on every matter. There is so much we don’t – and cannot – know. It’s presumptuous to conclude that we know better than God.
We live in a sliver of time; it’s impossible for us to see the whole picture. Imagine a person looking through a keyhole and he’s shocked by what he sees. A person is about to murder a man by stabbing him in the chest! He throws the door open and yells, “Stop!”
He immediately sees that he is standing in an operating room where a surgeon is about to perform open heart surgery to save a man’s life. What he thought was a murder, due to his lack of perspective, was in fact a life-saving operation.
Our lives are a small thread that comprises that tapestry of history.
Our lives are a small thread that comprises a minuscule part of the tapestry of history. At this moment in time we cannot fully grasp the whole story; it’s beyond us. We have to “live with the question” while trusting that the Infinite Creator Who lovingly guides everything knows what He is doing and is moving each and every piece exactly where it needs to be, somehow culminating in the fulfillment of His ultimate, perfect vision.
Nothing is out of God’s reach; everything happens for a reason, even when we don’t understand it.
Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto writes in The Knowing Heart:
There is no deed, small or great, whose ultimate end is not universal perfection, as stated by our sages (Talmud Brachot, 60b): “All that is done by Heaven is for the good.” For in the time to come, the Holy One, Blessed be He, will make known His ways...showing how even the chastisements and tribulations were precursors of good and actual preparation for blessing. For the Holy One, Blessed be He, desires only the perfection of His creation.
Right now, we cannot see how such tragedy could be part of God’s perfect plan – we may be even offended by the thought. But the story is still unfolding, and at the end of history when all the pieces are in place, we’ll be able to look back and say, “Now I get it” (like the feeling you got watching the ending of the film, The Sixth Sense, when everything fell into place and clicked, forcing you to rethink everything that just happened).
In the meantime, we are stuck in this sliver of time, unable to connect the dots and understand. So we need to live with the question, secure in the knowledge that God, Who loves us beyond measure and does everything for our ultimate good, is in the driver’s seat.
*As the Rambam writes: “This principle [of free will] is a fundamental concept and a pillar on which rests the totality of the Torah and mitzvot as it says, ‘Behold, I have set before you today life [and good, death and evil]’ (Deut.30:15)." Similarly, it says, ‘Behold, I have set before you today [the blessing and the curse],’ (Deut. 11:26) implying that the choice is in your hands” Any one of the deeds of men which a person desires to do, he may, whether good or evil.” Laws of Teshuva, 5:3