David Birnbaum's God and Evil is a bold and highly original synthesis which attempts to provide an overarching metaphysical solution to the vexing problem of radical evil in a world created and sustained by an all powerful, all knowing, benevolent God. Birnbaum's treatment of the highly intimidating and emotionally wrenching problem of a Jewish theodicy in a post-Holocaust world is audacious yet sensitive, traditional and yet highly innovative. The work ranges over a multitude of traditional and contemporary (Orthodox and non-Orthodox) Jewish sources, draws inspiration from the likes of Gersonides, Isaac Luria, Rav Kook and Rav Soloveitchik, but also from such unexpected quarters as Aquinas and Irenaeus, and yet somehow manages to stay within the parameters of an authentically Jewish, halakhic point of view. Birnbaum's book is an intellectual odyssey, yet it is also, as becomes very clear as one reads on, a highly passionate and emotional quest. The author is himself deeply troubled (as we all should be) by the stark contrast between his abiding faith in a God who is betrothed to (Hosea 2:21-22) and promises to guard the Jewish people in all their ways (Psalms 91:11), and who keeps kindness and mercy to the thousandth generation (Exodus 34:6-7), and the realities of newborn infants "immersed" unto death, and children being thrown alive into fires and having chemicals injected into their eyes, spines and brains, to name but a fraction of the atrocities experienced by God's people in Nazi Europe.
The originality of Birnbaum's approach is evident in his philosophical point of departure. Instead of first focusing on God's attributes, and the possibility of reconciling these attributes with manifest evil, Birnbaum begins with the question of the "purpose of man," a query he believes can only be answered by conducting a far more radical inquiry into the ultimate purpose and, indeed, the origin of God. Birnbaum, like the kabbalists of old, dares to raise the question of the origins of the Creator of the universe, a question which, in his view, must be raised on the grounds that its correct solution is a necessary propadeutic to genuine inquiry into the problem of evil.
Birnbaum's proposed solution to the question of divine origins, to the mystery of the kabbalists' En Sof (the infinite theistic principle giving rise to the God of Israel) is that "Holy Potential is at the epicenter of the Divine," that God is, by His very nature, potential and possibility, "transcending, space, time and cosmos," and ever-surging towards greater actuality. Birnbaum bases his thesis, in part, on the name by which God first became known to Moses and Israel: Eheye Asher Eheyeh, "I-will-be-that-which-I-will be" (Exodus 3:13-14) which he sees as a prooftext for his claim that potential is the holiest state of the Divine. Birnbaum sees the kabbalists' sefirot as "primal quests for potentiality" which bridge the gap from "emptiness" to " somethingness," and thereby become the vehicles of creation.
The significance of "Holy Potential" as the primal thrust of the universe, is that man, created in the image of God, has as his cosmic purpose the fulfillment of his own potential, encapsulated in the first Biblical command, Peru u'rivu, "be fruitful and multiply" (Genesis 1:26). Birnbaum sees mankind's potential displayed in two possible, but mutually exclusive, sets of dynamics that were laid out in the Garden of Eden. The first of these, the dynamic of the "Tree of Life/Bliss" promises a gilded cage existence, dependence upon God, eternal life, tamed evil but a limited potential for growth; the second, the dynamic of the "Tree of Knowledge/Potential" promises a life of challenge, freedom, privacy, responsibility, independence, untamed evil and mortality, but an infinite potential for growth. The two of these dynamics are, according to Birnbaum, mutually exclusive, in that insofar as one participates in the first, he cannot participate in the second, and vice versa. A life of infinite freedom/potential is logically incompatible with dependence on God and personal immortality.
Given the fact that man, like God, has as his core essence, the realization of his potential, it is an essentially foregone conclusion, written into the very act of creation, that man would eat of the fruit, be banished from Eden, and fulfill the dynamic of the Tree of Knowledge. As such both natural and moral evil would forevermore both plague and challenge mankind. Indeed, the very possibility of man's fulfilling his potential for good, both on the individual and collective levels, is predicated on the possibility of both natural evil (as a challenge to man's resources) and moral evil (as a challenge to his freedom).
The closer mankind comes to fulfilling his spiritual, intellectual and other potentials, the closer he comes to fulfilling his purpose on earth via his role as a partner with God in creation. In doing so, however, man must maximize his privacy, independence and freedom. As mankind then moves closer to its own self-actualization, God must, of necessity, retreat further and further into "eclipse." Mankind has, over the centuries, indeed ascended greatly in knowledge, implicitly demanding greater and greater freedom. For God to intervene directly in human affairs at this late stage in mankind's development, as he did, for example, for the Jews in Egypt, would reverse the very development of both His and mankind's essence, and in Birnbaum's terms, threaten to "unravel the cosmos."
NY Jewish Review
by Daniel N. Khalil
Jewish philosophy is often resigned to the assumption that fundamental descriptions of God and the universe are beyond the grasp of the human intellect. Questions of Jewish philosophy are generally posed in the context of a mysterious framework that is rarely examined per se. Such a mindset is often more concerned with man’s place, role, and duties in the world, than it is with the contours of the universe and the latter’s relationship to the Eternal:
“[The reason of Jewish philosophy] is the reason that we find in chess...Chess offers the greatest possible scope for calculation...But all this takes place in accordance with a set of rules that determine which moves are permitted and which are not and how the pieces are set up. The rules themselves are the limits of reason in chess. They are not questioned nor need they be justified because the rationality of chess begins after the rules have been set down...This is Jewish intelligence...[it] has a sense of limit, of the vanity involved in hurling questions at the limits...”
– Michael Wyschogrod, The Body of Faith I, 3.[italics mine]
Of course, there have been noteworthy attempts to defy this generalization. Maimonides is perhaps the most prominent example of a Jewish philosopher who would analyze – if not challenge – Judaism’s fundamental suppositions. In his Guide of the Perplexed, Maimonides describes a Judaism that dovetails seamlessly with an understanding of the universe as established primarily by Aristotle. As Maimonides holds Judaism to the light of Aristotle’s logic, he finds concordance on all topics, with merely one exception: the question of eternalism.
Aristotle is the ‘eternalist,’ believing that the universe is eternal and that God comes into existence at some point in time. Maimonides asserts the converse: that God is eternal and that the universe is actively brought into being. It is striking that Maimonides, who accepts Aristotle’s position on an array of topics, including the essence of both God and man, cannot find agreement with Aristotle on the relationship between God and the cosmos. It is even more astounding that neither Maimonides nor Aristotle claim to prove their respective positions vis-à-vis God’s relation to the cosmos. It is as if both men probe to the depths of metaphysics together in complete accord, only to resign, quite openly, to their respective presuppositions at the end of the journey.
Both sides appear to be missing tools that are essential to complete this journey. And both sides admit their respective unpreparedness by abandoning the very thought-process that brought them to this point:
“As for the matters concerning which we have no argument or that are too great in our opinion, it is difficult for us to say: why is this so? For instance, when we say: Is the world eternal or not?”
– Aristotle, Topica I, 11
“The eternity of the world or its creation in time becomes an open question, it should in my opinion be accepted without proof... it is not in the power of speculation to accede.”
– Moses Maimonides, Guide of the Perplexed, II, 16
It is at this juncture that David Birnbaum enters the forum. He does so by delineating the relationship between God and eternity in the context of a unified metaphysics that concurrently addresses the relationship of God to the cosmos and the cosmos to eternity.
Such is the philosophy expounded in his first work, God and Evil. It is this simultaneous solution that lays the foundation for the work’s understanding of the existence of gross evil in the world. Birnbaum’s is a solution that has been left almost entirely unchallenged in the eighteen years since its publication in 1988. In the current work, God and Good, Birnbaum has looked further into the implications of this metaphysics and found the individual to be central. Here the individual is revealed as the engine of cosmic evolution. The relationship of man to God, man to the cosmos, and man to eternity thus become the focus of this work.
Birnbaum feels no compulsion to obey the rules that his intellectual predecessors followed. Building on the foundation of ancient Jewish principles, particularly Kabbalistic ones, he is not afraid to draw on Eastern principles of temporal circularity, concepts from biology and physics that have yet to be applied to metaphysical issues, or insights from other scientific and humanistic disciplines that have been left untapped in philosophy.
Asserting that previous attempts to characterize the essence of the cosmos have fallen short for their lack of an adequate conceptual arsenal, as exemplified by Maimonides’ and Aristotle’s impasse, he consolidates these eclectic influences into a defined set of metaphysical ‘tools.’ Birnbaum presents these tools at the outset of God and Good. He then uses them to build a model that is applicable to all the arenas from which its influences were initially derived.
The implications of Birnbaum’s original – markedly straightforward – doctrine therefore, range from the most general to the most specific. The doctrine is unified by the central thesis that unbounded potentiality pulls both the individual and the cosmos towards a Divine ideal. Potential is universal. Potential is the nexus:
“One of the great afflictions of man’s spiritual world is that every discipline of knowledge, every feeling, impedes the emergence of the other...This defect cannot continue permanently. Man’s nobler future is destined to come, when he will develop to a sound spiritual state so that instead of each discipline negating the other, all knowledge, all feeling will be envisioned from any branch of it...No spiritual phenomenon can stand independently. Each is interpenetrated by all.”
– Abraham Isaac Kook, Lights of Holiness, I, p. 22
Interestingly, in spite of its novelty, the paradigm elaborated by Birnbaum is no less firmly anchored in Biblical and Talmudic concepts than the previous Jewish perspectives that were restrained by these same influences. For instance, God’s self-identification as “I will be that which I will be” (Exodus 3:14) is perhaps the single best articulation of God and Good’s description of potentiality’s association with God.
In his first work, Birnbaum meticulously dissects Adam’s Garden of Eden dilemma (Genesis 2:17), understanding it as humankind’s choice between potential/infinite growth and bliss/limited growth. Birnbaum then goes on, throughout God and Evil and now God and Good, to reveal the theme of potential in traditional Jewish narratives and even Judaism’s specific commandments.
At the outset of God and Evil Birnbaum boldly asserts that he aims to provide an integrated and novel solution to the problem of (1) the origins of the cosmos, (2) the nature, as it were, of God, and (3) the presence of gross evil in a world governed by an omnipotent God. At this point, the expectation, at least for this reader, is for a complex, convoluted theory too abstract to be considered objectively. The result, however, a “potentiality model,” is just the opposite: profoundly discrete, yet overarching enough to satisfy the three initial aims.
With the presentation of the second book, this model now has four distinct dimensions. First, in God and Evil, it is thoroughly rooted in Biblical and academic theology. Second, in part one of God and Good, the metaphysical implications of the model are described. Third, in part two of God and Good, the model is presented in the form of 120 mythical Angels, adding texture to the metaphysics and drawing it into the realm of daily human reality. And finally, in the third section of God and Good, the ‘potentiality model’ is translated into a practical template for self-actualization.
It is difficult to recall a metaphysics as unified, yet as widely applicable, as the one presented here. The model’s foundation is concrete, while its implications are personal and thus varied. Each reader, therefore, will glean that which augments his or her own spiritual sensibility. As an Orthodox Jew, I find much in Birnbaum’s two works that bolsters my understanding of traditional Judaism.
No less sui generis than the scope of Birnbaum’s work, is its relentless appeal to profound innate human understandings that cannot be adequately explicated in standard prose. Birnbaum employs a linguistic ensemble that at times resembles the water-tight, nitty-gritty reasoning of God and Evil, while at other times feels like terse jolts to the psyche. The author has turned away from the prevalent style of philosophy that so fervently analyzes metaphysical mysteries only to expose its own limitations. In breaking from convention, Birnbaum has taken a risk. He has gambled acceptance by refusing to succumb to a more traditional framework that would inevitably fail to fully represent the depth of ideas presented here.
The test lies in the heart of the reader. For all of its details and implications, the core of this work is unabashedly simple: potential drives existence. Does this concept seem foreign? or does it feel natural? If Birnbaum is successful, the reader will detect that the idea has an inherent organic power. This power can be explained in certain general contexts using standard language, but in others – particularly in the context of the individual – traditional explanations do not suffice.
Birnbaum posits that the force driving the cosmos pulsates within the soul of each individual, and so only a visceral response from the reader can fully reflect its impact. Is this achieved? Do the grand, general, cosmic principles yield to an understanding of the self? Does this awareness, in and of itself, have meaningful and practical implications for daily life? If it does, then Birnbaum has achieved something utterly unique. He has raised a preciously simple metaphysical centerpiece and enshrined it through its intrinsic affinity for the mind and the heart of the reader.
“I will cause a new utterance to be heard in the land:
Peace peace to the far and near, said the Lord.”
Cold Spring Harbor
Dr. Daniel Khalil is a scientist with the National Institute of Health.
He teaches Jewish Philosophy at Long Island University.
Foreword by Sanford Drob
“God’s 120 Guardian Angels”
Eighteen years in the making, David Birnbaum’s “120 Guardian Angels”, the poetic portion of his new book God and Good, is a beautiful and fitting complement to his 1988 masterpiece, God and Evil. Nearly everything about this new work, with the exception of its genuine excellence, contrasts markedly with Birnbaum’s earlier book.
Whereas God and Evil was discursive, closely argued and philosophical, “120 Guardian Angels” is poetic, highly personal, and mythological. Whereas God and Evil was profoundly serious, “120 Guardian Angels”
is often light and humorous.
Whereas God and Evil spoke with the highest imaginable degree of generality (declaring, for example, that “Holy Potential is at the epicenter of the Divine”) “120 Guardian Angels” can be extraordinarily particular (Guardian Angel #62 is “Snowstorms on School Days, and #88 is “Playing Chess with Your Son”). However, while Birnbaum’s new work is “particular” in the Aristotelian sense that knowledge of the particular brings clarity to the universal, it is hardly particular in the sense of “particularistic” or “parochial”. Indeed, Birnbaum’s angels, while they do seem to have a fondness for Jewish ideas and activities (Guardian Angel #25 is “Lighting Shabbos Candles” and #75 is “Gemorrah Chavrusahs”), are ecumenical enough to include in amongst them #71 “Ju Jitsu” and #89 “Catholic School Marching Bands.”
Birnbaum, in God and Evil, argued that “Holy Potential” is the “primal thrust of the cosmos” and that man, created in the divine image, has as his purpose the actualization and fulfillment of that potential. In this new book, Birnbaum’s angels speak to us directly and inform us precisely how this potential can be attained. Many of the angels, of course, reflect universally acknowledged ideas and values (Guardian Angel #4 is “Freedom” and #5 is “Mercy”), but it is in the more idiosyncratic amongst them (e.g. #44 “Five-Year Old Girls Giggling”, #50 “Putting-the-Kids-to-Bed”, and #58 “Iron Mill Workers”) that we get the sense that the factory of Holy (and human) Potential is really working.
Reading Birnbaum’s book, I cannot help but also view it as a complement to Lin Yutang’s 1937 Confucian classic The Importance of Living, in which the author speaks so eloquently and so spiritually of life’s simple pleasures, like “lying in bed” and “sitting in chairs”. Lin tells us “If you can spend a perfectly useless afternoon in a perfectly useless manner, you have learned how to live.” Birnbaum, in God and Evil, espoused a much more active, and hence Jewish/Western, view of life’s meaning, but here in “120 Guardian Angels” he makes room for such dalliances as “Bubbles” (angel #13), “Kite Flying” (#54) and “Catching the Moment” (#40). There appears to be an appreciation that in matters of actualizing Holy Potential there is, indeed, as Lin Yutang articulated, both “the noble art of getting things done [and] the noble art of [sometimes] leaving things undone.
The Kabbalists, in whom much of Birnbaum’s thinking is rooted (angel #109 is “Lurianic Kabbalah”), held that there is a coincidence of opposites governing both God and humanity; Birnbaum’s latest effort, especially when placed in the context of his earlier one, (with the complementary book titles explicitly forewarning us) most certainly seems to embody this dialectical spirit.
Chayyim Vital, whose great work Sefer Etz Chayyim, is the classic exposition of Lurianic Kabbalah, once acknowledged that the world is for the most part evil, with only the slightest bit of good mixed in. Adin Steinsaltz, the contemporary rabbinic sage and Kabbalist, has said that the full meaning of Vital’s seemingly pessimistic dictum is that “ours is the worst of all possible worlds in which there is yet hope, and that this is paradoxically the ‘best of all possible worlds.’” The reason for this, Rabbi Steinsaltz tells us, is that only in such a world of extreme adversity, a world “on the brink” of total disaster, can humankind be motivated to realize the emotional, spiritual, aesthetic and intellectual possibilities that have been bequeathed to it by our creator.
David Birnbaum’s mythic 120 Guardian Angels are a celestial chorus imploring us to do just that, to realize our full cosmic potential as human beings and thereby act as partners with the divine in actualizing the potential of our world.
Dr. Sanford Drob
May 19, 2006
Founding co-Editor, The NY Jewish Review
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