Faith Lectures: Creation (3)

Published 6 February 2001
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This is a transcript of the conversation recorded on 6th February 2001 as part of the ‘Faith Lectures’ series.

Lecture 3 of 6.

Creation: Where Did We Come From?

Jodie Cohen: 

Good evening Chief Rabbi, ladies and Gentlemen and welcome to the third in the Chief Rabbi’s lecture series on Faith. My name is Jodie Cohen and I have been asked to chair this evening’s proceedings. The subject for this evening’s discussion is “Creation – Where did we come from?” Following the talk we will be taking a few questions. Without further ado, I would like to pass you on to our speaker for this evening who really needs no introduction, Chief Rabbi, Professor Jonathan Sacks.


Rabbi Sacks:

Thank you very much. Lovely to see you. I have missed you. It has been a long time. Tonight I want to talk about Creation. I also want to talk about the subject that I was supposed to have been talking about on the first lecture. I promised I would get round to it, which is faith itself. Let’s just talk about Creation. I will only begin with that lovely mordant commentary on Creation that W. H. Auden chose as one of his favourite quotations, that lovely ‘Yiddish’ remark which goes:

“Considering the world, maybe it would have been better not to have been created. But how many are so lucky? Not one in a thousand.”

That is metaphysical humour at its best. But here it is.

I want to do three things tonight. I want to begin, first of all, by looking at Creation – Bereishit bara Elokim – [“In the beginning God created”] from this perspective of science which, in my opinion in Jewish terms I would call chochmah. That is, from the perspective of universal human knowledge and wisdom. Then I want to look at Creation from the perspective of Torah because it will turn out that what Torah has to say about Creation is fundamentally different from what science has to say. Not that, I hope, the Torah is being unscientific but because it is attempting to answer a different question. That has been my argument throughout these lectures. In particular, the Torah is trying to answer not the question “What then is the case?” but attempting to answer “How then shall I live?”

I want to look at how Creation is seen through the Torah in a series of three metaphors of ascending radicalism. That will allow us to find ourselves, as we reach the third level, face to face with the simple – but to my mind actually remarkable – Jewish view of what faith is. That will force us to re-define all the key words relating to religion. As I said at the very beginning, Judaism seems to me to be more radical than we have given it room to be because the word ‘faith’ does not mean in Judaism what it means in English. Nor does the word ‘truth’. Nor does the word ‘knowledge’, and so on.

Here we begin. Let us begin with a very remarkable juncture, let us say 800 years ago, when Moses Maimonides [Rambam] sat down to write “The Guide for the Perplexed“. That time, for Moses Maimonides, and do not forget that Maimonides regarded Creation as one of the yesodot ha’emunah – one of the foundations of faith – but for Moses Maimonides it was, relatively speaking, an open question. He found himself faced with two phenomena. On the one hand there was the testimony of the Torah, Bereishit bara elokim, “In the beginning God created”.

The universe had an origin in time. On the other hand, he had an authority whom he admired with enormous regard, namely Aristotle who argued for the eternity of matter. In which case there could not have been Creation in the simple sense in which the Torah seems to indicate it, i.e. that God created something from nothing. According to Aristotle, at most God imposed form on matter; gave it shape; created something from something. Maimonides went so far as to say – and this seems to me to be a profound testimony to his intellectual openness – that if Aristotle had succeeded in convincing him of the eternity of matter, he would have accepted that and merely gone back and re-interpreted the first chapter of Bereishit [Genesis].

As it happens, Maimonides luckily said that Aristotle had not proved his point and that, therefore, since the matter was open, he preferred to accept the plain sense of the Torah and to say that the universe did have a beginning in time – which turns out, for the last 35 years at least, to have been a fairly wise choice.

Let me give you my own personal experience. When I first went up to university, the concept of Creation was, in my academic environment, simply not an open one. I think everyone had concluded, everyone I spoke to, that the view of Laplace had essentially been proven: “Je n’ai pas besoin de cet hypothese” – “I don’t need God to explain the universe”.

We had had Hume. I mean, the philosophers did the damage. I don’t know if you are familiar with this. If you’re not, it’s ‘nicht gefaerlach‘. Hume, however, had got rid of the cosmological argument – and remember that this was: If every event had a cause, then what about the very first event? What was the cause of that? The cosmological argument, therefore, said: If every event had a cause, then at the very beginning of time, at the beginning of the causal sequence, there must be something which was a causa sui, a cause of itself, and that must be God. And Hume said: Well, why must it be? Why must a series have a beginning in time? Maybe the universe just happened. Maybe there was no first cause.

Then Kant had refuted the ontological argument. All of this is very ancient stuff. Are you familiar with this? Bertrand Russell tells us in his autobiography about how he fell off his bicycle when he realised that the ontological argument was not true. The ontological argument was that since God is, by definition, the most perfect Being, therefore God must have every perfection. Existence must be one of the perfections – because it is better to be than not to be – unless you happen to be Hamlet.

Therefore, by definition, God exists. Kant, as you know, said: Existence is not that kind of a predicate. You can say: Some lions are big and some lions are small but you cannot say: Some lions exist and some lions do not exist. Does that make sense? So Kant had got rid of that. The ontological argument just happened to be bad grammar that turned into bad logic.

That was Hume and Kant essentially destroying the whole mediaeval foundation of proofs for the existence of God. Maybe, though, at that time, in the 1960s, something more had been at work, namely: science itself. First of all, as you know, Newton was quite willing to accept the biblical dating of the universe but, subsequent to Newton, the idea that the universe was 5761 years old seemed a little eccentric. It turned out to be very old indeed. And, if the universe is very old indeed, that destroys a literal reading of many of the stories of Bereishit, certainly Creation in six days, Adam and Eve, Noah and the Flood, and so on.

But perhaps the most devastating was not that and not that the philosophers, but actually Darwin. Because Darwin’s theory really attacked probably the single most compelling and easily? An understandable idea, which was known as ‘the argument from design’. You are familiar with ‘the argument from design’? It was famously put by William Paley who said as follows, in about 1800: If you are walking across a heath and you come across a watch, and you examine it carefully. You’ll see how there is an intricate relationship between the parts, how everything dovetails and everything works together. Then he said: Even if you did not know what a watch was and what it was for and what it represented, you would have concluded by the sheer intricacy and inter-relationship of the parts that it was designed for a purpose. And anything that was designed must have a designer. That is the natural world as we see it, so intricate, so interlocking, that the universe must have a Designer. They could not have possibly come together by accident. We could not imagine a wind blowing a lot of pieces from a rubbish tip together and constructing a Boeing 747. That kind of ‘accident’ just does not happen. The world has design: therefore, it had a Designer.

The thing which really transformed that paradigm, and still does today because it is still very controversial and highly argued by people like Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and others, is the Darwinian view that showed for the first time how design could come about without a designer. What Dawkins calls “the blind watchmaker”. The design could emerge simply by lots and lots of incremental steps, each of which is governed by the two factors-as Jacques Monod put it – of chance and necessity. Chance being random genetic mutation which produces lots and lots of variations on life form, and the struggle for survival during which only the fittest, the most well-adapted, survive. Gradually, over time, you get more and more sophisticated organisms, simply by the blind iteration, the blind repetition, of the processes of chance and survival. So that order could emerge without anyone planning it in advance. There could be design without a designer.

So that, until not very long ago, science on the one hand, philosophy on the other, had removed God from any place in our understanding of the natural world. Now what I think we must all be familiar with: if any of us have read books about science, cosmology or what-have-you, or philosophy, recently, is that, incredibly, God has suddenly come back into the picture. He has done so in the writings of scientists like Freeman Dyson, Paul Davis and others. You remember the famous sentence at the end of Stephen Hawkins, “A Brief History of Time“? I don’t know if any of you have actually succeeded in reading it. But the best thing is to turn to the last page and see whodunnit. You remember that he says there that if we could create a sort of grand, unified field theory, a theory of everything, we would then know the mind of God.

So God has come back into the writing of scientists and He has also come back into the writing of philosophers. An old philosophical colleague of mine, David Conway, has just published a book called “Rediscovering Wisdom” in which he says that philosophers have to get back to their original task which is of contemplating God – and he is still a member of the philosophy faculty. That would have caused instantaneous excommunication had he said just a little while ago.

So what has brought about this very unexpected turn? I think, two things. The first is that the sheer leaps forward that we have made in our discovery and understanding of the natural world have revealed these astonishing vistas of the sheer complexity and scale of the created world. On the one hand, as we look out, we see this enormous universe of at least a billion galaxies, each with a billion stars – and that is if we look outward. If we look inward, we see this phenomenon of the human genome: every human body contains 100 million million cells; every cell contains a nucleus; every nucleus contains two complete sets of the human genome; and every human genome contains more than three billion bits of information – which is enough to fill 5,000 books, which is more than I have in my library. And that is even despite my addiction to and so and so forth. The sheer incredible intricacy and majesty of the universe as we have come to know it in the last few years.

Indeed, the human genome strikes me – and in what I am going to say now and for the next 20 minutes I speak as a complete amateur because I am not a scientist – but the human genome does seem to me to be one of the rare scientific discoveries that is poetical and even mystical. The Kabbalists actually maintained that everything that exists is the result of tzerufim, of different permutations of the letters of an alphabet. It now turns out that this is not a metaphor at all. It is actually literally true. That the DNA string of those characters is all a series of letters, – A, C, G, and T – which, as it were, extend to perform this huge chunk of language which is the DNA. It also turns out, as I am sure you know, again with real mystical underpinnings, that all life, every single life form known to mankind, from human beings to the simplest and most primitive microbe, all come from a single source. There is only one source of life from which all other life forms have diverged. What is equally powerful – and what Matt Ridley makes clear at the very beginning of his book “Genome” – is that all life is exactly as the Bible said, a matter of language, of instructions, of letters and words. We suddenly realise the deep resonance of the biblical idea:

“And God spoke and there was.

What is more, life itself has a conceptual complexity to it. I have not seen people writing about this, but it does strike me that it is only as we have moved onwards from the mechanical civilisation of an industrial age to the computer or intelligent machine model of the information age, that we even have the conceptual apparatus to understand the mechanism of a cell itself. Because, as you know, every cell consists of both hardware and software: consists of the software on the DNA, the hardware in the form of all those proteins, and this busy thing called the RNA which keeps running between them processing information and carrying out instructions.

I wonder if Crick and Watson could have conceptualised DNA if it had not been for the prior invention of the computer and the prior concept of software of an intelligent machine.

So one thing has happened which has got nothing to do with whether we can prove or not prove the existence of God, and that is the fact that the macrocosm of the universe, the microcosm of the human genome – whether or not they prove the existence of a Creator – have certainly immeasurably increased our sense of wonder at creation itself. That is what gives incredible depth to the statement of Moses Maimonides, which he did not make in any of his philosophical works. He actually wrote in his halachic code, the Mishnah Torah, in chapter 2 of Hilchot Yesodei HaTorah, at the very beginning of his halachic code, that if you want to achieve the love and fear of God – or what today we might call awe and a sense of wonder – then study natural science.

I think we have begun to realise the sheer weight and dimension of those echoing words of Psalm 104:

Ma-rabu ma’asecho haShem; kulom behochmah asita.

How manifold are Your works: You have made them all in wisdom.

That is the first thing, the sheer sense of majesty. Secondly, however, and here again I am going to speak as an amateur, it does seem to me that if we assemble the entire knowledge to this point of natural science, and the entire panoply from the beginning of Creation to now, it is clear that there are a number of points on that journey which we are no nearer solving at all, which have become over the last few years glaring mysteries and things which, as it were, point towards some Divine reality because it is at these points of mystery that we begin to realise that there is something beyond science which we need to understand how we are here at all.

Let me identify seven such points.

The first is the question: Why should anything exist at all? Now, as I said, for a long while, through the Aristotelian tradition and all the way up to Fred Hoyle and the steady state theory, there was a live option that maybe matter, the universe, in some form or other, had always existed and was infinitely old. It was only in the mid-1960s, through the discovery of Penzias and Wilson of cosmic background radiation, the trace left by the original explosion that produced the universe, that the issue was finally resolved that the universe did have an origin in time – what we call ‘the Big Bang’. It was a long time ago, 15-18 billion years ago, but from that one single infinitely-concentrated, infinitely-dense little bit of compressed matter, the universe has subsequently been formed through that enormous outward explosion with incredible force and speed that we call the Big Bang. That re-opened the entire question of cosmology, which had been a dead subject for decades, indeed for centuries. Namely, if the world did have a beginning in time, why? What caused Big Bang?

It seems, in other words, that Maimonides was right and that Aristotle was wrong, that there was an origin to the universe at a point in time. We are left, therefore, with the two possible scientific answers to that which are, on the one hand pure chance, on the other hand necessity – it could not have been otherwise. Those strike me – ‘it just happened’ – you know, one day the universe just exploded – or ‘it had to happen’ – both of those theories seem manifestly inadequate to explaining how Big Bang came to be. Now, of course, there are a large number of variant theories on this one – by Stephen Hawkins of curvature of space-time, that there was a beginning etc. – one way or another, at least even if Big Bang does not presume the existence of a Creator, at least it allows me to quote my favourite person, Wittgenstein, who said that not how the world is, but that the world, is the mystical.

So, point one: Why is there something rather than nothing?

Point two: I was debating this religion and science thing in Cambridge last year and one of the members of the audience turned out to be the Astronomer Royal, Sir Martin Rees – which made me feel like a singular shlemiel. Anyway, after the lecture he was very kind and he sent me his book “Just Six Numbers“. Have any of you read this book? It is a fascinating book. I don’t understand a word of it, but – But he argues, as do many scientists nowadays, that the universe is incredibly finely-tuned for the emergence of life. There are six, and only six, mathematical constants which govern the entire emergence of the universe, that set parameters for the basic forces, the strongly nuclear force, gravitational, electro-magnetic and all the rest of it. They set the parameters for the size and texture of the universe and for the properties of space, namely that it is three-dimensional and not super strings multi-dimensional. And if any one of those factors were slightly different, and the margins of tolerance are incredibly fine, then life would not have emerged. Either the universe would have been too small and too brief for life to emerge. Or it would have exploded outwards with such diffusion and such force that there would simply not be enough density and gravity for matter to have coalesced into galaxies and stars and planets.

So this, once again, sets up the argument from design. That if a universe were to emerge, it is incredibly unlikely that such a thing could have simply happened at random. And, incidentally, he solves this problem.

At the risk of creating another problem, can I just give you Sir Martin Rees’ solution, which is that it is not so odd that this universe exists because actually there are an infinite number of other parallel universes which also exist. It is just that they do not have life, shuls, kosher food, or anything like that! So, in other words, he solves the problem at the cost of doubling our sense of wonder because, on the one hand we are the only beings thus far known in the almost-infinite number of stars and planets to have reached intelligent life-and in some cases it is not even intelligent life! So we are one out of an infinity, but that infinity is itself only one total universe out of an infinity of universes.

I don’t know whether you actually get a bigger number by multiplying infinity by infinity, but that is what he suggests-which indeed does not seem to me to solve the problem but only increases our sense of wonder that just this universe, with just those properties could have led to the emergence of life.

Then there is the third mystery, which is the emergence of life itself. Now, how did inanimate matter become animate? What was that first shift from something which we would not call living to something we would call living, that is, something whose movements are teleologically related to some purpose or other. This is so perplexing that some scientists in apparently deep seriousness, one of whom I think is Frances Crick who discovered DNA, have suggested that the only possible explanation for the emergence of life is that it came from Mars! Now how that solves the problem, by saying, well, it’s easy, it just happened a long way away – I’m not actually sure because that is quite beyond my limited intelligence. I have to shamefully admit that when I went up to university, ladies were not allowed in the Cambridge Union. Well, can you believe this, in 1966? And the first shameful topic for debate was, “This house prefers Girton to Newnham” – on the grounds that it’s further away. Ohhh – hush your mouth, Sacks!

Anyway, Frances Crick prefers Mars to earth: it’s further away, things happen there. Anyway, I don’t understand how that solves the problem but the real problem is how something inanimate like, let us say, quartz crystal, becomes something animate like the first microbe. There just does not seem to be a series of incremental steps, however you care to imagine those incremental steps, where something evolves from a thing of one kind to a thing of another kind altogether. However matter evolves, how does that matter become living? There is a kind of gap there that no scientist yet, to my knowledge, has found an answer for. Although, if you are interested in the problem, Paul Davis wrote a book on it recently called “The Fifth Miracle“.

The fourth question is: How did life turn into that thing on which the entire theory of evolution depends, namely: self-replicating life? In other words, the theory of evolution supposes that here we have life forms that beget other life forms that are slightly different, through genetic mutation, from those that gave them life. And, over a long, immense period of time, the pressure of survival selects in favour of those well-adapted and against those less well-adapted and so on. But you understand that there is a massive gap at the very heart of the theory itself which the theory itself cannot possibly explain since it exists only because it assumes it, namely: how do you get from non-replicating life forms to replicating life forms? How do you get cells that beget cells?

Here you have a living thing. Now there is a huge leap from a living thing to a living thing that divides, replicates, becomes several living things. How do you get from non-replicating to replicating life forms? By definition, evolutionary theory cannot answer that because it assumes it. And that is the fourth problem.

The fifth problem is in evolution itself, which is that evolution, as you are probably aware, predicates a process: the growth of self-organising forms, a growth of order and complexity, against the basic tendency of the universe, which is entropy that is gradually losing order, losing differentiation. In other words, the whole nature of life goes against the nature of energy in the universe. The person who has put this problem most precisely and most effectively is a writer called Michael Behe who wrote a book called “Darwin’s Black Box“. Have you read this one? That one is worth reading.

Here is his point: take something very complicated, like a mouse trap. A mouse trap has inherent complexity because it will only work if all the bits do their particular job. A mouse trap without the spring or without the base will not work at all. A mouse-trap has inherent complexity. So you can imagine perfectly well watching somebody putting a mouse-trap together. Here’s a bit of wood, here’s a spring, here’s a bit of cheese and what-have-you. But a mouse-trap would never emerge evolved naturally by somebody who is playing about with wood and a piece of wire and so on and so forth – unless he or she had the idea: I want to catch mice!

There is no way that would happen. Unless you have the ultimate purpose in mind, you are never going to get there. Because all the bits need to work together for the thing to fulfil its function at all.

Let me give you the evolutionary equivalent. Richard Dawkins and others have argued that there is a finite, very large but finite, sequence of steps by which you can describe the gradual evolution from light sensitive cells to something as complicated as the human eye. You can, in other words, imagine millions and millions of stages in which that very simple mechanism becomes that very complicated mechanism. However, it is a bit of a fraud because, although you can describe a million stages or a billion stages from there to there, at every stage you are assuming that there is somebody there choosing to say, We want that variation etc. And somebody can only choose that sequence if that somebody knows where he or she is trying to get to in the long run, namely an eye. Otherwise there is no reason that it should have evolved in that direction or in that direction.

An inherently complex system, like the eye or like the body’s immune system, cannot be randomly arrived at by a random sequence of events. Because until all the bits are working together, there is no particular evolutionary advantage to a few of the bits together. Is that clear? Oh dear, you should have invited a scientist this evening!

Anyway, Behe’s point is that the biological systems, almost all of them, are irreducibly complex. They only work if all the bits are in place and they interact. And that means that we can only make sense of the emergence of the final result from the initial one if there is some teleology in biology: there is some working towards a purpose, an end, a tachlis. Otherwise, there is no reason that a sequence should move in that direction as opposed to going in all sorts of other directions as well. It is a very complicated argument. He has written a super book. It has got a lot of pages. I recommend to you: Michael Behe, “Darwin’s Black Box“. Anyway, there it is. That is the fifth thing, the irreducible complexity of biological systems.

Finally, six and seven are the emergence of consciousness and self-consciousness which, if Darwinians are correct, if Richard Dawkins is correct, are completely non-functional.

Now according to Richard Dawkins and those who think like him, this wonderful business of human beings are a gene’s way of creating other genes – you could do without consciousness or self-consciousness altogether. You could cut out the middleman and just let the genes get on with it. Vos hacht mir a chinig with thoughts, this, that and the other! What on earth is the conceivable purpose of Shakespeare’s sonnets, Mozart’s symphonies, Isaiah, Plato or the whole of the human quest for meaning? All of that, consciousness and self-consciousness, is an epiphenomenon and contributes nothing whatsoever to genetic mutation and natural selection. The whole phenomenon of consciousness and self-consciousness, whatever scientific account you give of it, is, on the neo-Darwinian account, irrelevant to the human condition.

In other words, you could imagine on a standard Darwinian account a world exactly like our own – with one difference: that there was no consciousness. In which case, however valid the theory may be, it has failed to explain the single most interesting, the single most distinctive thing about us – which is that we are self-conscious beings. And that is central to what it is to be a person.

So, in other words, to sum up this whole line of thought in terms of science, in terms of chochmah, the current situation of science may not in any way prove the existence of God but it is certainly the case that science is intimating certain points of mystery which remain when all the facts are in, and which may always remain once all the facts are in. Why is there something rather than nothing? How did life emerge from non-life? How did self-consciousness emerge and why? – which, as it were, point beyond science to things which seem to lie beyond any empirical or material explanation. And we land up with the sheer improbability that chance alone could have explained the emergence of self-conscious beings, as we did after 15 billion years of the existence of the universe. Therefore, we land up with a view – I’m not sure whether every scientist would agree with it: it’s a controversial view, but a view like that of the Harvard scientist Freeman Dyson who says, in these famous words:

“I do not feel like an alien in this universe. The more I examine the universe and the details of its architecture, the more evidence I find that the universe in some sense must have known that we were coming.”

Ad ka’an-erste hakofa – that is as far as I take science, pointing towards the existence of a Creator – or of a mystery surrounding the existence of Creation.

Now, however, I want to turn to how the Torah deals with these things. Here I have to invoke a logical principle – or at least a philosophical one, which I call the ‘Sherlock Holmes principle’. You will remember Sherlock Holmes’ famous remark, “Dr Watson, I draw your attention to the curious incident of the dog at night.” And Watson says, “But the dog did nothing at night!” And Holmes says, “That was the curious incident.”

The curious incident, or two of them, in the case of the Torah’s description of Creation, are these. Here, let me throw out a very simple question. We know that the Mosaic books contain two descriptions of an act of creation. On the one hand there is God’s creation of the universe. On the other hand there is the Israelites’ creation of the Sanctuary, the Tabernacle, in the wilderness. How much space does the Torah give to these two things? How long?

What are the column inches that the Torah devotes to the creation of the universe? Anyone know? – 34 verses. 31 of Bereishit chapter 1, 3 of Bereishit chapter 2, totalling 34 verses.

How long does the Torah take to describe the creation of the first shul, the Sanctuary in the wilderness? [Inaudible reply from audience.] – Terumah, Tetzaveh, half of Ki Tissa, Vayakhel, Pekudei – I didn’t count them up: it’s somewhere between 500-600 verses. In other words, it takes almost twenty times as long to build a shul as to create the universe – the reason being fairly simple. Shuls tend to be put together by a committee!

But it is a very striking thing. You will forgive me: I did once say, and I mean this seriously, the Torah is telling us something very interesting here. It is easy, it is not difficult, for an infinite Creator to make a home for humankind. What is difficult is for mankind to make a home for God.

I think that is more than just a cute D’var Torah. In actual fact, that is one of the striking, almost absences in the Torah. If you look at the literature at ancient myth, exactly as if you look at the literature of contemporary science – I have a book at home (I haven’t read it yet) called “The Bible according to Einstein“. 800 pages, all about the emergence of the universe. If you look at the ancient myths and contemporary scientific accounts, you will find an almost overwhelming absorption in this one question of the ‘How?’ of Creation.

You know the arguments between Marduk and Tiamat and the god of this and the god of that, and dividing a body in two, and of the turtles, all the way down as in Stephen Hawking, all the rest of it. Huge absorption in cosmology. The ‘How?’ of how the universe came into being.

So what I find absolutely fascinating is that here is Genesis, chapter 1, the most influential cosmology in the entire history of civilisation, Bereishit bara Elokim, and then the Torah drops the subject. After a mere 34 verses, and almost never returns to it. With the exception of a few Creation psalms, a few chapters at the end of the Book of Job, the Torah almost returns to the issue of Creation. This is a very curious fact!

Let me mention a second curious fact. It was the great 19th century German sociologist Max Weber who pointed out, as Peter Berger (“Sociology of Knowledge”) points out in his lovely book “The Sacred Canopy“, that the roots of Western rationality lie in the Hebrew Bible. Genesis 1 is a decisive moment in the history of the Western mind because of its almost total elimination of myth, because it (what Weber calls) “disenchants nature”, because for the first time human beings look out on the world and they see it not as interfused with capricious spirits or contending forces or clashing gods, but just as it is. Nature is demythologised. For the first time, people are capable of seeing the world as just a phenomenon without any mystery to it.

Secondly, the fact that the universe is predicated in Bereishit chapter 1 as the result of a single creative intelligence, thus brings into human civilisation for the first time the in principle intelligibility of the universe, of the natural order. And it is on those two facts, demythologising, and Creation by a single intelligence, which is the necessary precondition of the emergence of the scientific outlook. And what, therefore, is very odd, extremely odd, is that the Jews did not then become scientists. And that is as odd a phenomenon as the fact that I commented on in the first lecture, which is that despite the fact that they had all the preconditions and they knew the Greeks pretty well, Jews did not become philosophers. They just didn’t. Not until the Middle Ages, with the solitary exception of Philo – who wasn’t that frum and, you know, Philo, etc. etc. But Jews did not become scientists. It was not because Jews were not interested in science. The Gemara in Shabbos actually says it’s a mitzvah or a good deed, or something or other, to study astronomy, under the heading of kiyehi hochmatchem uvinotchem be’einei ha’amim – It’s a good thing to become an astronomer.

As I already explained to you, the Rambam goes so far as to say that one should study natural science if you want to understand love and fear God. And the Gemara is curiously openminded about science. Let me give you an example. There is a Gemara in Pesachim which asks the simple questions: What happens to the sun at night? This is fairly pre-Copernican. So the Gemara says: Well on this there is a difference between our Sages and their Sages, i.e. the Greeks. Our Sages say that the sun at night goes behind the firmament, in other words, behind the heaven which is sort of opaque. And the Greeks say that at night the sun goes beneath the earth, the whole Ptolomaic earth-centred universe. So here are these two theories. And you know what the Gemara says? Listen to this. Venirin divreihem bedivreinu. It seems that they got it right: we got it wrong. That is what the Gemara says, without any problem. Actually, they both got it wrong. It’s nicht gefaerlach. But one way or another, the Gemara takes it as absolutely straightforward. The Greeks know more astronomy than we do.

So the Rabbis were interested in science. They were incredibly openminded about science. But the fact is that they did not become scientists – not until the modern age. I admit there were some exceptions, but science did not become a Jewish preoccupation as such despite the fact that all the foundations of the scientific world-view are there present in Bereishit, chapter 1. And the result is that you get this incredible comment, which many of you must know, the opening words of Rashi al haTorah, the greatest commentary on the Torah, which begins with these incredible words, Amar Rebbe Yitzchak – Rabbi Yitzchak says – Rashi is quoting a Midrash – lo haya tzorach lehathil et haTorah ela meihahodesh hazeh lachem – what on earth have we got all this irrelevance about God creating the universe? Torah is a book of mitzvot. What is the first mitzvah God gave to the Israelites? Fixing the calendar: last week’s sedra, Parshat Bo. “Cut out all that rubbish about Creation, Adam and Eve. Just get on with tachlis!”

Gewald! Rabbi Yitzhak is saying, and Rashi is quoting. This is orthodoxy here. “Cut out all this irrelevance!” This is absolutely remarkable. However, there is a certain logic to it. Because, if the book that begins with the words Bereishit bara Elokim is called by us Torah, and if Torah is the name of a genre, it is telling us what kind of book it is, and Torah means teaching, or it means instruction, or it means, in the widest sense of the word, law – then Torah is, as I said before, an answer to a very specific question. Not the question, What is the case? How did the world come into being? – Facts. But an answer to the question, How shall I live?

And that is what answers the significance of Creation as far as the Torah is concerned. The significance of Creation, of Bereishit chapter 1, to the project called Judaism, has got nothing at all to do with science, even though it is an explanation congruent with science. But it is in fact to do with quite different matters, namely with our moral and spiritual situation in the universe.

Here I want to speculate, although I think what I am saying must be (at least for the next few minutes) self-evidently true, as to what the Torah is trying to tell us in Bereishit chapter 1. And here I go through three phases. The first, I think, is a resonant phrase which is attributed in the Torah to a gentleman called Malkitzedek, King of Shalem, who says to Avraham, “Blessed be Abraham and the God of Abraham,”- koneh shomayim va’aretz – “God who owns the Heavens and the Earth.”

In other words, the first and most fundamental thing that the Torah is telling us about Creation is this: The scientific fact that God created the world, creates the legal fact that God is the owner of the world. In other words, Divine Creation is not interesting in its own right, but as the explanation for, the justification of, Divine sovereignty. God’s right to issue rules, commands, principles, for life on earth. Creation, in other words, is like the two English words which are very similar: the word ‘author’ and the word ‘authority’. God is the author of the world. It is important for us to understand that God is the moral or legal authority of the world, the Divine sovereign.

That, of course, has huge implications. Let me give you an example. You know the Gemara sometimes thinks in unusual ways. Listen to this. The Talmud in Brachot gives an interesting proposition. It says that we have two verses which conflict with one another. On the one hand it says, laShem ha’aretz umeloa-“The earth is the Lord’s and the fulness thereof.” But another psalm which we say in Hallel says, Hashomayim shomayim laShem veha’aretz natan levnei adam – “The Heavens are the Heavens of God, but the Earth He gave to human beings.”

So the Gemara says that these two verses conflict with one another. On the one hand it says the earth is the Lord’s, on the other it says that the earth belongs to us. How do we resolve those contradictions? Somebody knows this sugya? [Inaudible answer from audience.] Yes. Ca’an lifnei bracha; ca’an acharei. Isn’t this a wonderful answer? One verse talks about before you made a bracha [blessing], the other verse talks about after you made a bracha. Before I make a bracha over a cup of water, that water belongs to God. Once I make a bracha and acknowledge that it belongs to God, then I buy it back. In the technical, legal sense, I redeem it and it is now available to my use. That is the fundamental thing about the existence of the universe, that is that God owns the world. If God owns the world, then there can be no ultimate human ownership of anything.

Now that is extremely important. It also created a controversy in the Jewish press for the last three weeks when we were discussing the sovereignty of Jerusalem. So much so, that when I was conducted a wedding this Sunday, as the choir was beginning to sing “If I forget thee O Jerusalem,” I had to make it clear to the chatan v’kallah [groom and bride] that I was not making a party political statement. You understand? The Torah says, veha’aretz lo temaher letzmitut. “The land shall not be sold in perpetuity.” Ki li ha’aretz, “Because the land of Israel is mine.” Ki gerim vetoshavim atem imadi, says God. “You are strangers and temporary residents as far as I am concerned.” There is no freehold in the land of Israel, there is only leasehold. Ultimate sovereignty in the land of Israel is vested in God. That is a very powerful, legal maxim.

Number two: we have a concept in Hebrew, a very well-known one that makes no problems for us, that cannot be translated into English or into Latin or into Greek. That is the word tzedakah. How do you translate tzedakah? Tzedakah means in Hebrew two things simultaneously which, in Hellenistic thought are opposites, or at least contrast: namely justice and charity. Justitia and caritas which are justice and charity. Now justice means giving somebody their legal entitlement, and charity means taking something to which I am legally entitled and giving it to somebody who is not legally entitled. Justice and charity are conflicting virtues in the Greek world view, the Hellenistic world view, which we have inherited in the English language.

The truth is that it is only a coherent concept in Ivrit, in biblical and contemporary Hebrew, because in Judaism there is possession but not ownership. Everything ultimately belongs to God and therefore all human possession is a form of what is known technically as shmira, or being a shomer. We are merely guardians or trustees of something. When we possess something, we are guardians or trustees of it on behalf of God who is the ultimate owner. One of the conditions of that trust, one of the conditions on which God gives us whatever we have, is that we share some of it when we have more than we need with those who have less than they need. And that is why tzedakah is both justice and charity. Because we have no concept of absolute ownership. If we did have such a concept, then justice and charity would be two quite different virtues. But as it is, they are built in to the conditions in which God allows us to enjoy the things we have but which He ultimately owns.

Or, for instance, in English law (lawyers, I don’t know: you’ll have to tell me) – if I go into a shop and I buy this glass, what does my ownership consist in, practically speaking? I would imagine that one of the things that my ownership consists in is that I can do with it what I like. So long as I do not harm anyone else. Would that be reasonable? Therefore, in English law, one of the essential features of my ownership is that I should be able to smash it and break it. That is part of ownership. In Judaism, as you know, to do that is forbidden in Jewish law under the environmental imperative known as ba’al tashchit. I do not in Jewish law own this glass to the point at which I can smash it destructively because that is disobeying the command, Thou shalt not destroy. In other words, whatever we possess in Judaism, we do not own as in English law. We hold in trust for the conservation of the universe and the posterity of future generations. We are shomrim [guards].

So, God’s creation of the world in this first metaphor is: God owns the world, we don’t. Therefore it is God’s right to set conditions for our enjoyment of the world. God becomes the lawgiver. He is the sovereign because He is the Creator. And that explains one of the key ways in which we understand our relationship with God. We call Him an Adon. [Master] Baruch ata adoshem – God is the Master and we are avadim – we are servants or, technically, we are His slaves. We belong to Him. And you will understand that that concept, of God’s ultimate sovereignty of the world is what is at stake when the Torah establishes its ideal of a free society, as God says, again in Parshat Behar, Vayikra chapter 25, Ki li bnei yisrael avadim, avadei hame. “The children of Israel are My servants.” Said the Rabbis, quite correctly, velo avadim le’avadim, “and not servants to other servants.” In other words, God must militate against human slavery because if God is the owner of human beings, then no human being can be the owner of another human being. It is that first thing that creates God’s sovereignty which is the basis for human freedom in the Torah.

The second metaphor is this. You remember, and I put it in an article I wrote in The Times a few weeks ago in the following way: I said that Stephen Hawkins says at the end of “A Brief History of Time” that if we were to understand the total theory of everything, we would know the mind of God. I said that Stephen Hawkins, great scientist, might be less than great as a theologian and that I preferred the much more profound remark of an American Jewish mother a few years after the births of her children. She said, “Now I find I can relate to the Almighty much better, because now I know what it is to create something that you can’t control.”

Actually I think that is a very profound theological statement. It is quite clear, and this language deeply shoots through the Bible, that when the Almighty creates the universe, He is not acting as a scientist experimenting in a laboratory. He is doing so as a parent creating new life out of love.

And that of course is one of the meanings of God creating mankind na’aseh adam betzalmeinu kidmuteinu – “Let Us make man in our image, in our likeness.” And you will see if you look in Bereishit, chapter 5, where it describes the third child of Adam and Eve and it says, vayehi adam shloshim umaot shanah, “When Adam got to be 130,” yivaled bidmuto ketzalmo vayikra et shemo Shet, “he had a child called Seth in his image, after his likeness.” There is a sense in which God gives birth to life as a parent gives to a child.

That becomes then explicit in the drama of the Exodus when God has Moses say to Pharaoh, beni behori yisrael, “My child, my firstborn, Israel.” God liberates Israel, not only as a sovereign but as a parent. And that, of course, is most fully played out in the self-understanding of the Jewish people. You remember, Rabbi Akiva says: Chaviv adam, “Precious is mankind” – because mankind was created in the image of God. Chavivim Yisrael shnikraim banim lamakom, “Precious are Israel because they are called children of God.” But I actually believe that one of the dramas of the Torah is that the other children are also children of God. And that is part of the pathos of the stories of Ishmael and the story of Esau – where God is quite clearly with Ishmael and with Esau. That is: they are His children. They just don’t happen to be children of that particular covenant which forms the history of the Jewish people.

Now there is a lot said about parenthood in the Torah and in rabbinical thought as far as the parenthood of God is concerned, but I ain’t got time. And therefore I simply alert you to the fact that in the Ten Commandments, as you know the fifth commandment, “Honour your father and mother,” is actually on the between man-and-God side of things and not on the between man-and-man side of things. That, somehow, relationships between parents and children recapitulates the relationship between God and the universe. So you think you have problems with children? Just think about the Almighty!

However, what is really striking and what is totally stunning is the third metaphor – which is so beautiful, so powerful, that frankly I am overwhelmed by it. It reaches expression in the great literary prophets, in Isaiah, Jeremiah and, above all, in Hosea and which understands the relationship between God and humanity. God and humanity, although very specifically God and Israel, but I really believe it is between God and humanity. As a matter not between Master and slave, not between Adon and eved, not between an avi and a ben, a parent and a child, but between husband and wife. This is the really explosive, stunning image which marks the Jewish understanding of the human-Divine relationship as unique and totally without analogue anywhere else.

Here I want to refer to a fascinating verse – I talk about it in my book, “Celebrating Life” – in the Prophet Hosea. You remember God says to Hosea: Listen Hosea, I want you to understand a little bit of my tzores [trouble]. Go and marry a prostitute. She’ll be unfaithful to you and then you’ll know what it feels like to be Me, because I married the Israelites and they were unfaithful to Me.

Then God says that despite the fact that they were unfaithful and they never returned His love and they never even acknowledge Him, nonetheless “I cannot hold back from the love I have for them,” lachen hinei anochi mefataha, “Therefore I will court Israel again. I will take her to the wilderness. I will speak to her hearth. I will speak words of tenderness. I will give her back her vineyards. I will turn the emek hachor – valley of ugliness – into petach tikvah – a gateway of hope. And we will become again young lovers as when I brought them out of Egypt.”

Then Hosea says something of such depth and resonance, and I have to unpack this for you. Here it is. Vehaya beyom hahu ne’um Hashem. “And on that day, says God,” tikre’I ishi “You will call Me ‘my husband'” velo tikre’I od ba’ali “and you will not call Me ‘my …'” – whatever.

Now here Hosea is establishing an extraordinarily complex play on words. What does the word ba’al mean? It means husband, but in a very particular sense. It also means an owner, a dominant partner. And the word Ba’al, of course, was the name of the Canaanite deity. Ba’al-worship. Ba’al, in other words, represents one form of marital relationship. Ba’al is the MCP, the macho deity, to the nth degree. Ba’al is the divine force represented as the violent, the raping, the god of the storm and the rain who impregnates the ground thus causes the ground to become fertile and the food to grow. Baal is the divine understood as power and a relationship of dominance. Everything feminists say about marriage is true if the husband is a ba’al: ba’al as total male dominance. The response to such a deity is fear and propitiation, i.e. ba’al-worship.

Hosea is saying that there will come a time when you realise that I am not like that at all. I may be the totality of powers but that is not what our relationship is about. I am your ish. And when He uses the word ish, He is, of course, referring us back to a much earlier verse, which is – what? [Pause.] You remember when God does his little shadchanus act with Adam and Eve? Adam wakes up and he sees his wife and he says,

Zot ha’pa’am – This time [I have found]
Etzem mi’atzamei – bone of my bone
Basar mibasari – flesh of my flesh
Lezoti yekareh isha – she shall be called ‘woman’
Ki mi’ish lukahah-zot – because she was taken from man.

He was saying that God is our – to use that lovely American phrase – our significant Other. And we are His. And this now raises an extraordinary possibility. (Just bear with me for a few more minutes: I’m getting there.) What I want to say now – forgive me if I am wrong: I hope I am not wrong – it allows the following remarkable possibility: that we can now go back and re-read Bereishit chapter 2, the story of Adam and Eve not simply as we have read it until now, as everyone has read it until now, a commentary on the first human being – but as, actually, an oblique commentary on the act of Creation itself. That although God is explicitly talking about Adam, He is actually talking about Himself.

This then is the radical possibility. You remember God says “I will make man an ezer kenegdo“? The Rabbis, who had a very fine ear for nuance, understood that this is a ‘contradiction in terms’. An ezer is somebody who helps you, and kenegdo is somebody who opposes you, i.e. I will make man somebody who, on the one hand is a partner but on the other is capable of opposing him.

Now what more precise definition is there of the Jewish understanding of the relationship between God and humanity than that? We are God’s ezer kenegdo. On the one hand, as the Rabbis said, we are His shutaf bema’aseh bereishit, His partner, His helper, in the work of creation. On the other hand, we are the only beings in all of creation who are capable of being kenegdo, of rebelling against God. Ezer kenegdo does not merely describe Eve’s relationship to Adam: it describes humanity’s relationship to God.

This then creates the incredible possibility that I want to stay with you, because if I’m wrong, forgive me, that the words of God lo tov heyot ha’adam levado, “It is not good for man to be alone,” are the nearest we get to God’s commentary on His own being, and to that ultimate question which haunts us all, which is: Why did God create the universe?

As long as we think of God in classic philosophical terms, that line makes no sense at all. If God is omniscient, omnipotent, platonic, Aristotelian – it is impossible to comprehend that God should lack anything. Indeed, as Maimonides says at the beginning of the Mishneh Torah, and as Aquinas and all the other theologians say, imagine the whole universe did not exist – God would not have been changed. No difference to Him. Take away the universe, you do not take anything away from God.

That is the classic Hellenistic conception of God as the total self-sufficient Being. But supposing we stop thinking in philosophical terms and start thinking in Jewish terms? And here I am referring you to Halevi’s classic distinction between the God of Aristotle and the God of Abraham – did I explain that before? You know that we have two names for God in Hebrew? The word Elokim and the word yud, heh, vav, heh [Hashem] – the four-letter name of God. Yehuda Halevi says a brilliant thing about this? He says that the word el in Hebrew means ‘a force’. Elokim, therefore, means ‘the force of all forces’. Grammatically, syntactically, the word Elokim is a generic noun. It is an abstract concept: the force of all forces. Hashem is something different, grammatically different. It is a proper name. Hashem is a proper name: God’s first name is Hashem. Therefore, when we relate to Hashem as Elokim, we are relating to Him as a concept, as the first cause, the concept of God familiar to Plato, Aristotle: human, everyone else, but when we are referring to God as Hashem, we are referring to God as an individual, as a person, as a Thou. That is the difference, says Yehuda Halevyi between the God of Aristotle, which we share in the concept of Elokim, and the God of Abraham, which generates not science but prophecy and intimacy.

Now I want you to understand the following thing. I once pointed out, and this is very important, that in Hebrew the sentence in which Adam describes the discovery of his wife contains the nuance which is lost in English. The nuance is this: Hebrew contains two words for man. One is ish and one is adam. Until now, what has man been called? Adam or ha’adam. The sentence in which he speaks of his wife is the first sentence in Hebrew, the first occasion in the Bible in which the word ish occurs.

Now listen very carefully. He says: Lezoti yekareh isha ki mi’ish lukahah-zot – “She shall be called ‘woman’ because she was taken from man.” That is the first place in which the word ish appears. In other words, Adam has to pronounce her name before he can even pronounce his own name. He has to recognise isha before he knows that he is an ish. He has to say the ‘thou’ before he can say the ‘I’. Before he exists as an individual.

Now, apply that to the Ribbono shel Olam – we reach an extraordinary proposition. We know this-and I want here to bring together my two favourite things, the Bible and Wittgenstein. This is a double whammy here. The fundamental feature of the Bible, which is that language – language! – is the essential medium of Creation. God speaks and the world comes into being. And Wittgenstein’s famous and fundamental point, that there can be no private language. Language is essentially a shared phenomenon. There is no such thing as a private language. There cannot be. Logically, there cannot be. Language is essentially interpersonal. Without inter-personality there is no language.

In other words, it logically follows that even for a supreme and omnipotent power, even so, before Hashem can say the word anochi, “I”, he has to be able to have a “thou”. That is a logical truth, not a contingent one.

We therefore come to a feature of monotheism very rarely mentioned – mentioned by a very interesting writer called Jack Miles who, a few years ago, wrote a book called “God: a Biography“, a very unusual book – which we don’t think about, and that is this. All the polytheistic gods had a very active social life. You know, there are lots of gods all over the place and they are always fighting, quarrelling. (“I want Maftir” – the usual kind of stuff!) What monotheism creates, for the first time, is the concept of Divine loneliness. God is all alone. There ain’t anyone else. And, therefore, we begin to understand that the words “lo tov heyot ha’adam levado,” the first time the words “not good” appear in the Bible, are as applicable to a Creator as to a creation. “It is not good to be alone.”

Now we see that there is a genuine depth, analogy, between God’s creation of nature and humanity’s creation of society. They are both concerned with the redemption of solitude. With the overcoming of loneliness. And that is the very core of what A. J. Heschel I think rather powerfully called – listen to this phrase – “the Divine pathos”, which is an ongoing theme of the prophetic literature, which is the very analog to human pathos. We are, on the one hand, self-consciousness: each one of us is a universe. On the other hand, none of us is complete because without the other there is no “I”.

So somehow all relationship creates the following problem. There must be some commonality, some kinship, between me and an other. Don’t expect to have significant communication with a mutant ninja turtle, whatever it is. If something is totally alien, so different from me that we have nothing to talk about, then there can be no relationship. And that is why the Torah says there is some commonality. God creates man in His image, in His likeness. On the other hand, if there were no difference, if there were no otherness to the other, there would be no point in the relationship either.

Let me give you an example. If you imagine yourself totally alone, nobody else exists, the whole world has disappeared except for you. And you now want some decent company. You construct, because you have an infinity of time in which to do so, one million computers, all of which are programmed to say, every day, “You’re a great person!” Would that cheer you up? Would that end your loneliness? Of course not! Because there is no otherness. They are doing what they did because you programmed them to do so. That is why it is only possible to redeem loneliness by the existence of otherness. Which means that even an infinite creator can only redeem his own loneliness by creating a being that is in itself creative. That is other. That is unpredictable. That has, as we call it, free will. That is, a significant other. Without that, there is no redemption of loneliness. That is why a freely creative Being called God redeems the solitariness of the universe by creating other freely creative beings called homo sapiens.

Now this is very radical theory. I don’t know if anyone put it forward before, but find this implicit in the whole prophetic metaphor of the relationship between God and humanity as being a marriage. And now we have a problem. If we are talking about two beings, human, infinite – it doesn’t matter. All we know about them is that they are two beings who are unpredictable, creative, have free will – then we have a problem. Which is: how on earth can we create a stable relationship between two beings who are not intrinsically very stable? And the answer is that there is only one way. That is that there is only one way which respects the integrity and the independence of the other, and that is what we call in plain simple terms ‘marriage’.

That is the only bond. Not power. Not dominance. Not control. Not coercion. Because if you only relate to me because I force you to, then I have not redeemed my loneliness any more than if you were just a computer doing what I program you to do. It is only if I allow you the freedom, but we create a bond between us, and the only bond we can think of that honours that is the bond that we call ‘marriage’, which is that relationship between two independent beings each of whom respects the integrity and freedom of the other, who nonetheless pledge themselves in a bond of mutuality, allowing each the space to be themselves but saying: “I will always be there for you”. And that is the relationship which Hosea calls ish as opposed to the relationship called ba’al, i.e. God as power. God as ish is God as a relationship. And here we come to the simple equation in Judaism: faith is a marriage. That is the only adequate analogy we have for it and that is exactly what the prophet said it was.

Of course, Hebrew has a particular word for this, and the word is brit, and it means a covenant. And a covenant is any mutually obligating bond between two individuals, usually of unequal power, who nonetheless come together in committing themselves to one another by saying: “I will always be there for you. You will always be there for me. And whatever happens I won’t walk away.” That is what brit means and that is what faith is in Judaism.

And now we understand the revolutionary proposition of ‘What is faith?” in Judaism. Everyone else who thought about faith thought in Greek terms. Faith is about cognition, about knowledge. It is about the things we know but we have not quite got evidence for and therefore a leap of certainty or intuition that we call ‘faith’ tells us that these things are true, even though we cannot prove they are true. That is not what faith is. Faith is about uncertainty, but the only thing which is absolutely and constitutively uncertain – tell me, supposing we know everything. What is the one thing we still won’t know? [Pause.] That which is going to happen tomorrow. The future. Not what lies beyond the beginning of time, or out there beyond the stars. The future is the only thing that is constitutively uncertain. And why is that uncertain? Because we have free will. Therefore, nobody knows – not God, not us – what we are going to do next. And how, then, do we negotiate the constitutive uncertainty of the future: this wilderness that everyone of us is walking across every single day. There is only one way of minimising the risk of the future and that is not control. It is not prediction. It is knowing that we won’t face it alone. That is what a marriage is. Two people face an uncertain future and they say: We do not know what fate will bring, but I do know this, that I can face it because you’ll be there with me.

That is why the most profound statement of faith of all time, Psalm 23, is lo ira ra, ki ata imadi, “I will fear no evil for Thou art with me.” That is all faith is. Very simple. That is why we call marriage in Judaism kiddushin, sanctification. When a chatan [groom] stands under a chupah [marriage canopy] and says harei at mekudeshet li, “Behold you are betrothed to me” – that is what God said to humanity and what He later said to Israel, “Behold you are betrothed to Me.”

I therefore want to sum up what I have said. Number one: the greatest revolution of monotheism was not monotheism. Only one God. The greatest revolution of Tanach [Bible] was not monotheism but the concept of a personal God. A God Who is a person, Who is self-conscious, Who is the ultimate reality of the personal, telling us that our self-consciousness is not an illusion, not an accident, not an epiphenomenon, but an objective reality because the universe as a totality is personal because God is the face of the personal on the universe.

Number two: That Creation is indeed teleological. That all those events from Big Bang through 15 million years and the gradual coalescence of stars, planets, etc. and the emergence of life, culminated in the emergence of self-conscious beings, who, being self-conscious were capable of imagination, reflection, creativity, choice-and were also capable of the thing that only self-conscious beings are capable of, which is knowing that we are lonely. Knowing that we are lonely. Do dogs know that they are lonely? They do sometimes, actually. Our cat does, every morning, pretty early, until it’s had breakfast. But the fact is that knowing that we are lonely is the first realisation of consciousness. That means that in Judaism, as you probably know, the word da’at which means ‘knowledge’, does not mean knowledge in the sense of knowing facts. It doesn’t mean knowledge in the sense of cognition. And Adam knew – vayada Adam et Chava ishto – ‘knowledge in the biblical sense’. What Tom Stoppard calls in “Arcadia”, “carnal embrace”. Am I right?

The word da’at in Judaism does not mean detached knowledge. It means personal intimacy. Number two: the word emunah does not mean ‘faith’. It means faithfulness, exactly as it means in a marriage. It means: I won’t go off and leave you alone; I won’t go off and have a relationship with somebody else.

That is why God, always in the Torah, equates idolatry with adultery. Idolatry means serving gods, which means having a relationship outside marriage, which means adultery.

And so I have tried to explain that the uncertainty to which faith is an answer has got nothing to do with the origins of the universe. Nothing to do with the things that are scientific but science has not yet understood. It is the uncertainty of the future which we redeem by knowing that we face it not alone. And in so doing, we do so on the basis of a special use of language which philosophers call a performative utterance. When a chatan [groom] stands under a chupah and says harei at mekudeshet li, he is not merely describing that he is getting married. He is getting married. It is using language to do something. And thus, when God betroths us and we at Mount Sinai said, “We agree,” we were using language to create a bond which is called a covenant, which is the marriage between humanity and the Almighty.

Faith is where the loneliness of God meets the loneliness of the human individual and is redeemed in a covenant of love. And from that covenant of love between God and the human individual, we gradually and over the centuries learn to build a society founded on a covenant of love. First by creating a marriage. Then by creating a family. Then by creating a tribe. Then by creating a nation. And, ultimately, by creating a world.

That is why the most profound words ever said about faith are those words that every Jewish man says every morning as he puts on tefillin [phylacteries], ve’erastich li le’olam. God says to Israel as we put on the wedding ring of our tefillin strapped around our finger,

Ve’erastich li le’olam – “I betroth you to Me for ever”
Ve’erastich li betzedek uvemishpat uvechesed uverachamim – “I betroth you to Me with all those covenantal things like kindness and compassion
Ve’erastich li be’emunah – “I betroth you to Me in faithfulness.”
Veyada’at et Hashem – “And you shall know God.”

I know of no more moving description of faith; no more revolutionary description of faith than that as the covenant of love between God and the human race.

Thank you.

Jodie Cohen: 

Thank you, Chief Rabbi. I am sure that everyone will agree that your talk was extremely thought-provoking and I am sure it will have provoked a number of questions in people’s minds. We have time for three questions which we shall take all at once. If you have a question, please raise your hand and Sara will come to you with the microphone.

Mr Bookatz: 

Thank you very much for your speech, Chief Rabbi. What I understand from what you are saying is that God is not actually omnipresent and is not all-powerful. He is just actually an extremely powerful being in that the fact that He actually created the universe is because He was lonely and wanted to overcome His loneliness. I wondered if you could confirm that?

Mr Aarons: 

If God indeed created man and gave him free-will, does God intervene to stop him using his free-will or does He let him go his own sweet way? And if He does intervene, why didn’t He intervene in the Holocaust?

Mr Shine: 

You compare the relationship between God and humanity, and each of us maybe as individuals, as a relationship between a bride and groom. But surely, certainly nowadays, the bride and groom meet with each other and they make the covenant together with each other as mature (or maybe not quite mature) adults. Whereas the brit that I have as an individual anyway with God was, depending on how you look at it, either made when I was eight days old or was made three and a half thousand years ago. What kind of covenant is that?

Rabbi Sacks

Three excellent questions. The first question. You are right. The Divine pathos that we read of in the Prophets is so ultimately and absolutely different from the kind of God we meet in the writings of the philosophers. Now is that the totality of our understanding of God? I have tried to explain tonight that it isn’t. There is God as adon, as the owner of all. There is God as the parent of all. And there is God as covenantal partner. And in these three ways Judaism tried, in a series of overlapping metaphors, to reach to the very depth of what it would be like to understand the religious encounter as an encounter between that most unique and real thing about us, our self-consciousness, and that reality which affirms our self-consciousness. Which tells us that we are here because somebody wanted us to be here. And not just somebody who wanted a species to be here, but you. That particular unique individual that you are.

I actually believe that it was through understanding of God as singular and unique that humanity first came to understand itself as singular and unique. That, in fact, the discovery of monotheism was, at the same time, not merely theology but anthropology: the discovery of something called the human individual. I have written more about this in my next book which will be on sale in a month’s time and I’ll leave it until then! But I agree, when Hosea talks about God, and we repeat this every morning in our davening [praying], six times a week, he is saying something very remarkable and radical. But I have tried to say in these lectures – and I repeat: that is not the totality of all there is because obviously God as the self-conscious personality of the universe as a whole cannot be like us.

It is just that the Jewish imagination has reached out through these three metaphors to see how we can understand the personhood of God encountering the personhood of each of us. And that is a radical and dramatic thing to say. And when you try and translate it into English, as I have tried to do today, it sounds almost blasphemous – from a Hellenistic point of view. Or even from a Maimonidean point of view. And yet that is what I read in Isaiah, in Jeremiah. You know, God’s unrequited love affair with Israel. And even that beautiful, positive moment when God says: zacharti lach chesed neureich ahavat kelulataich: “I remember at the love of our youth when you followed me into the wilderness” and so on.

I am trying, as Martin Buber did, as A. J. Heschel did, and before them by almost a thousand years, as Judah Halevy did, to take seriously the prophetic understanding of God. Which is a very unphilosophical understanding.

Then, of course, somebody asked me: Does God intervene? Who was that – does a parent intervene – When? I’ll tell you. I think parents, if they are good parents, intervene less as their children grow up. Because if they don’t, their children will never grow up. On the other hand, if you treat a one-year-old or a one-week-old baby as a mature adult, that baby is going to come to harm. I think there is a real sense – I have tried to explain, and I cannot say it all at once, I overstepped my limits tonight and spoke for a long time. But I have tried to explain that Judaism is a system very different from philosophy. Philosophy is about timeless truths. Judaism is about truths lived out over time. The characteristic of a philosophy is a system. The characteristic expression of Judaism is a story.

And the story of Israel is of the gradual maturing of the people from an early childhood to maturity. Therefore, when the Israelites are still children, that is when they come out of Egypt and they are totally dependent on God for food, for drink, for guidance, God intervenes a great deal in their lives. He intervenes all the time. At the same time, he does not intervene as much in the later biblical history of the Jews. He intervenes even less in post-biblical Jewish history. And somehow, therefore, the history of the Jewish people tells, over time, of a relationship between a parent and a child and here it is the second metaphor, the metaphor of a parent, that you are referring to. And God gradually intervenes less and less in the history of the Jewish people.

Not that He stops intervening altogether, but if it were not so, then I would find your question about the Holocaust unanswerable. So, the short answer is: if you examine the historical record of Israel, God intervenes a lot in the early phases. Much less as time goes on. And the easiest way of understanding this is of a story extended over time, of a parent who tenderly cares for a child when it is young but, for the sheer sake of the maturity of that child, over time allows more and more non-intervention to take place so that that child, hopefully, increasingly acquires its own moral responsibility. And that is the best answer I can give to you. Because you have asked an unanswerable question.

And the last question. You will see that the first covenant in the Torah is all initiated by God. Yes? Which is the first covenant? – with Noah. And God doesn’t ask Noah – do you agree? Don’t you agree? – God just says: Look, here are the terms; I’m imposing this covenant on you. Then there is the covenant with Abraham, which again is not very mutual but at least Abraham makes the first move. Because God says: Lech lecha mi’artzecha. ‘I want you to show that you are at least willing to enter into this covenant with Me’ – and that is the covenant with Abraham which has a little bit of human involvement. Then comes the covenant at Sinai which is much more mature because, if you read Exodus chapter 19 carefully, God has to ask Moses, to go and ask the Children of Israel, Do you agree in advance to the general terms of this covenant or not? And Israel answers: Veyanu kol ha’am yachdav veyomru kol asher diber Hashem na’aseh. The Israelites agree. And that is a much more mutual covenant. And so on and so forth.

So, there are the kind of covenants that have a lot of Divine activity and very little human activity, till we get to the Sinai covenant which is very much God asking and the Israelites actively saying Yes – to the covenant made by Ezra in which all the activity is done by the Israelites and God doesn’t ask it of them at all.

So you have different kinds of covenant. As to why you are given a brit at the age of eight days old, well, consider the alternatives!

But what I would really say is that, as you surely understand, the covenant that defines us as Jews is not a covenant with us as individuals. It is a covenant with us as a people and we, therefore, are born into that people. And though that covenant took place with the consent of the people, nonetheless you and I are born into it whether we like it or not. That is another question for another lecture. It was a very good question. Thank you.

Jodie Cohen: 

I’m afraid we have run out of time for this evening, but I would like to wrap up by firstly thanking the CST for their continued support. I would also like to thank the Office of the Chief Rabbi and all the organisers of the event for their tireless efforts, and they have asked me to point out to you that previous lectures are available on the website, which is

The next lecture is on the 26th March on the subject of Revelation – Torah from Heaven. There is an optional Ma’ariv which will take place in a couple of minutes at the back of the room. Finally, I would ask you to join me in thanking the Chief Rabbi for another inspiring lecture and we look forward to the next one.