This is the second time I’m reading God, Man and History. I read it a few years ago but felt that it deserved a second, much slower, read. So I left it on my desk at the synagogue, and for the past few weeks I’ve been reading a few pages at a time every shabbat, trying to absorb this masterpiece of Jewish thought more thoroughly.
Eliezer Berkovits is one of the less-known Jewish thinkers of the past century, and the Shalem Institute in Jerusalem should be commended for publishing several of his works in new editions. This edition of God, Man and History was the first book to be published in this series, and rightly so, as it is considered Berkovits’ keystone work. It is a small volume (just over 150 pages) and yet it manages to explain in clear language some of the most fundmental questions of Jewish theology.
The book has three sections, corresponding to the title of the book. The first, and most detailed section, deals with the encounter with God which is the core of Berkovits’ philosophy. It lays the foundations for the rest of the book. The second section deals with ethics, that is the practical translation of the encounter into Jewish law and deeds (mitzvot). The last, and shortest section, is about the manifestation of God in history (or rather, lack thereof), particularly the history of the people of Israel. As Berkovits himself states in the introduction, the book follows the footsteps of that “most Jewish of Jewish philosophers”, Yehudah HaLevi, the 12th-century Spanish philosopher and poet who sought to define Judaism from within (particularly in The Kuzari).
I will not even attempt to summarise Berkovits’ philosophy here. But I will highlight one theme that permeates throughout the whole book, that of man’s responsibility for his actions. Berkovits solves the paradox of the encounter between God and man by ultimately demonstrating that God cares for His creation and is engaged in its progress and survival. God is not an indifferent supreme being that leaves the world to its own devices (Aristotle), nor is He the pantheistic “God of nature” (Spinoza). However, there exists, and must exist, a separation between God and man, as such separation is vital for man.
The doubts about the existence of God, which derive from the fact that the encounters between God and man in history were extremely rare and brief, are essential for safeguarding man’s freedom. God hides from man in order to enable man to believe in Him without compulsion. There can be no intellectual proof of God’s existence as such proof would “put the human intellect in chains”. We would have no choice but to believe in God; faith would be redundant. For the same reason, there can be no evident and continuous intervention by God in the world (e.g. by preventing evil) as such intervention would crush man’s responsibilities and he would be nothing more than a puppet.
This is a most profound idea. We all know to repeat the mantra of man’s “freedom of choice”. Yet most of us wish for God to be more present, for Him to resolve the problem of theodicy and to govern the world through miracles. Understanding the concept of the “hidden God” and why it is vital for our existence as human beings, is an important step forward in accepting our reponsibilities in this world.
If I were ever asked to make the impossible choice of recommending one book, and one book only, on Jewish thought, God, Man and History would most definitely make it to the short list.