- Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald
Yitro 5782-2022: Proving' G-d’s Existence
- Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald
- Jan 17, 2022
(updated and revised from Yitro 5763-2003)
In Exodus 20, in this week’s parasha, parashat Yitro, we read the first of the two versions of the “Ten Commandments” that appear in the Torah.
The name “Ten Commandments” is actually a misnomer, since in Hebrew these texts are known as the עֲשֶׂרֶת הַדִּבְּרוֹת –Aseret ha’Dibrot, not Aseret ha’Mitzvot. That is why they are more properly referred to as the “Decalogue,” which means Ten Statements, a nomenclature that is closer to the original Hebrew. According to the Babylonian sage, R. Saadiah Gaon, the name “Ten Commandments” is also inappropriate, because all 613 commandments are subsumed within the Ten Statements.
The first of the Ten Statements, Exodus 20:2 reads: אָנֹכִי השׁם אֱ־לֹקֶיךָ, אֲשֶׁר הוֹצֵאתִיךָ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם מִבֵּית עֲבָדִים, I am the L-rd your G-d who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. While some commentators argue that this first statement reflects the commandment to believe in G-d, others strongly disagree. They maintain that this statement is not a commandment, but merely an affirmation of an historical event–the Exodus from Egypt. They note the rabbis of the Talmud strongly declare, Brachot 33b: הַכֹּל בִּידֵי שָׁמַיִם, חוּץ מִיִּרְאַת שָׁמַיִם, Everything is the hands of Heaven–G-d can make a human being do anything–except believe in Him. Because if belief in G-d is coerced, it clearly is not belief. Belief must be the result of a personal desire and stem from free will.
While many like to speak of “proofs” of G-d’s existence, Judaism does not really encourage this intellectual exercise, simply because the finite human mind cannot really comprehend the Infinite. But while there may not be any “ultimate” proofs of G-d’s existence, there surely are many, many indications and abundant evidence of G-d’s existence. Indeed, a most persuasive case from many different disciplines can be made for G-d’s existence.
There is a fascinating “Argument of Wager” formulated by Pascal (d. 1662) in which the Jesuit thinker argues that if a person who is a believer leads a righteous life, helping others and performing acts of kindness, and discovers at the end of his days that he was wrong–and that there really is no G-d, then what has he lost? But if a person leads a non-believing and non-righteous life, and at the end of his days discovers that he was wrong, then he’s in deep trouble! In other words, according to Pascal: Hedge your bets. It’s much safer to be a believer!
When Jews speak of G-d, they don’t often speak of “knowledge” of G-d, but rather of “belief” in G-d. Rabbi Joseph Albo wrote in his Sefer HaIkarim, chap. 2:30: אִלּוּ יְדַעְתִּיו הֲיִיתִיו —”If I knew G-d, I would be G-d!”–powerfully underscoring the intellectual limitations of the human mind. That is why Jews declare: אֲנִי מַאֲמִין, “I believe in G-d.” “Belief” implies doubt, a lack of certainty and definitiveness. It’s that “leap of faith” which makes belief in G-d so intriguing, and it is for the effort to achieve faith that humans are rewarded. We Jews are a questioning people, because questioning leads to growth, and intellectual challenges result in greater understanding.
As previously noted, there are many indications of G-d’s existence, and in arguing for the existence of G-d, the opening statement of the Decalogue is invaluable. And, when the evidence is examined in its aggregate, it forms a powerful and compelling argument for G-d’s existence.
“I am the L-rd your G-d, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.” First and foremost, this text asserts that those who wish to know G-d, must study Jewish history–just study Jewish history! Even a cursory review of Jewish history underscores the inevitable conclusion that there is a G-d. In an 18th century conversation between Prussia’s King Frederick II, and the Danish diplomat Count Reventlow, the King asked for the one proof of G-d’s existence that has not yet been refuted. The Count replied, “The Jews, your majesty, the Jews.”
In essence, we must all ask ourselves, “How is it possible that our people have survived–against all odds?” In every generation they rise up to destroy us, and yet, we’ve made it! We are still here! The original Egyptians, the Babylonians, the ancient Chinese, the ancient Romans, the most powerful and most advanced nations of old are no longer, yet the Jews survive! In every single generation Jews have been at the precipice of annihilation, and yet we remain. Can the finger of G-d and the Al-mighty’s involvement in the survival of the Jewish people be more obvious? Not only is Jewish survival beyond rational comprehension, the people of Israel appear to play the central role in all of human history. Even today, we see that an overwhelming (we may even say obsessive) number of the major deliberations of the United Nations concern Israel, and therefore the Jews. How is it possible that this demographically insignificant and numerically infinitesimal people play so prominent a role in the world? We cannot but conclude that Jews are a very special people, and that the Al-mighty surely directs their destiny!
Furthermore, students of the Bible are well aware of the fact that the Bible is always brief on verbiage and never verbose–without significant reason for the extra words. Nevertheless, the first statement, “I am the L-rd, your G-d, who brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage,” seems to be redundant. After all, everyone knows that the land of Egypt was the “house of bondage,” and that the house of bondage was the “land of Egypt.” The repetition comes to teach a most profound lesson. Ancient Egypt was considered the “Cradle of Civilization”. The Egyptians developed the use of cuneiform and papyri, and their embalming skills are still unmatched even today. Their advanced engineering and mathematical skills enabled them to build the unparalleled pyramids. Egyptian civilization was rich with opera and theater–it was truly the most advanced civilization of its time. Nevertheless, this same ”advanced” and “cultured” people were able to take little Jewish children and cast them into the river, or plaster them into walls when the Israelite slaves did not produce enough bricks.
The extra verbiage and the unusual syntax of the first statement of the Decalogue is really positing one of the most profound and revolutionary ethical principles of humanity: Don’t ever confuse culture with civilization! In this brief statement, we are presented face-to-face with but one of hundreds of revolutionary ideas that are introduced by our Torah. Among the numerous unique ideas contained in the Hebrew Bible, which by all accounts is over 3,000 years old, are not causing undo pain to animals, concern for the environment, the concept of a day of rest, numerous laws regarding honesty and probity in business, the concept of tzedaka–of righteousness and charity. There are cultures that, to this very day, do not subscribe to the idea of helping strangers or of coming to the aid of orphans or widows or fellow human beings. They believe that helping others in need may in fact be defying G-d’s will that these people suffer. Yet, over 3,000 years ago, the Torah revolutionized civilization by introducing these incredibly radical concepts. The inability to distinguish between culture and civilization (which seems so self-evident), is what made it possible in our times for German Nazis to cry when they read the poetry of Goethe and Schiller or heard the music of Wagner, and be completely indifferent to the cries of Jewish children who were trampled to death or asphyxiated in gas chambers. Don’t ever confuse culture with civilization!
So, if you really want to find G-d, look into His Torah, acknowledge the miracle of Jewish survival and recognize the utter brilliance of the numerous revolutionary concepts that the Torah introduced to the world. The first statement of the Ten Commandments is a good place to start. It may be short on verbiage, but it is of infinite value.
We, the decedents of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the so-called “People of the Book”, may justifiably delight in the vast and unparalleled wisdom that is to be found in G-d’s book.
May you be blessed.
While we like to speak of "proof" of G-d's existence, Judaism does not really encourage this course of intellectual exercise, simply because the "finite" human mind cannot possibly comprehend the "Infinite." But, while there may not be any "ultimate" proof of G-d's existence, there are surely many, many indications and abundant evidence. Indeed, a most persuasive case, from a variety of disciplines, can be made for G-d's existence.