Ever since I was a small child, deep theological questions have fascinated me. At age eight I was asking my teachers how it was possible to have free will if God knows what we are about to do. I recall how excited I was to start studying Hasidism and the Kabbalisitc teachings upon which it is based. It promised answers to some of the most vexing theological questions.
There was a point in my teenage years when I was unable to quench my thirst for this knowledge. I would awaken before dawn to study Hasidic texts. By the time I was 20, I had learned by heart what many consider to be the deepest and most profound teachings of the Chabad Hasidic school of Jewish mysticism. My daily routine of studying Hasidic and Kabbalistic texts lasted until I was about 30 years old.
In my early 20s I began studying medieval Jewish philosophy and I wrote a thesis on the Maimonidean concept of prayer. Over time it occurred to me that fundamentally Hasidism is a form of philosophical mysticism. In other words, it attaches well known philosophical ideas to explain mystical concepts. Despite their competing claims, they are really not that different.
Of course both philosophy and mysticism give answers to the most difficult of theological questions. But as is often the case with difficult theological questions, the answers often bring deeper and more profound questions in their wake. One example of this is the claim that the Kabbalah, and the Chabad school of Hasidic philosophy in particular, explains the unity of God and how multiplicity emanated from the One. In the final analysis, however, while answering some questions, the result is a theology that suggests a duality within the Divine Essence itself.
Thus, after much study and few truly satisfying answers, a number of years ago I came to the conclusion that no one can fully explain the most perplexing theological questions. In fact, no one in history has ever known the answers to these questions. There are some things that are simply unknowable to us humans.
This revelation clarified for me why Biblical and Talmudic Judaism steers away from any type of theological discussions beyond a simple statement of monotheism. The prophet (Isaiah 55:8) clearly states that it is impossible for us humans to understand God. Even Moses was unable to “see” God’s face (Exodus 33:23). Maimonides states that the closest we can get to understanding God is to comprehending what He is not. We will never be able to understand what He is (see Guide for the Perplexed 1:50-54).
The lack of a theology, beyond a generic belief in one God, is, to me, part of the beauty of Biblical and Talmudic Judaism. The message is that it is a waste of time trying to understand the nature of God or how the multiplicity that exists stems from the Oneness of our Creator, or how we can have free choice if God is omniscient, or how evil can exist if God is good, etc. We humans never have and never will be able to understand how God works. These are things that are in the realm of unknowable.
It is, however, important for us to know God's modus operandi within the human realm. This is what Torah offers us – a framework that explains what God does in the universe – yet it never explains how He does it. We then have a choice whether or not to believe in what the Torah tells us. In other words, the Torah and the Talmud tells us “the what” of God’s activities in the universe, but they don’t discuss “the how and why” or the nature of God.
Mine is a religion which is realistic, offering us things to believe in when we don’t have clear facts to rely on. My religion does not make claims it cannot substantiate. Judaism, in its native form, steers away from any type of theological questions because the role of religion is not to explain the nature of God but rather how God acts in our life and how He wants us to live. These are the truths (rather than THE truth) that Judaism offers us – and because more than that is not available to us humans, for me it is more than enough.
Rabbi Levi Brackman is co-founder and executive director of Youth Directions , a non-profit organization that helps youth find and succeed at their unique positive purpose in life