Does God Need Us?

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by R. Gil Student

I. God Has No Needs

On first thought, it seems outrageous to suggest that God would need us. In order to need something you have to lack something. If God needs something, that would mean his perfection is incomplete. Therefore, God cannot need anything. All of His actions must be done out of His own will and not any external need (Moreh Nevukhim 2:18,48). Along a similar line of thought, Ramban (Deut. 22:6) says that the commandments must be for the benefit of people, not God. God cannot receive benefit from the fulfillment of commandments because that would imply a divine need, i.e. a divine lacking and imperfection.

At the beginning of Parashas Terumah, God tells Moshe: “Speak to the children of Israel, that they take for Me (li) an offering” (Ex. 25:2). Rashi (ad loc.) says that “for Me (li)” means “for My sake (li-shmi).” Rav Eliyahu Mizrachi (16th cen., Turkey; Commentary, ad loc.) explains that Rashi was prompted by the theological impossibility of saying that the Jews should bring a donation to God. God does not need to fundraise; the whole world belongs to Him. Rav David Pardo (18th cen., Italy; Maskil Le-David, ad loc.) is even more explicit, saying, “We cannot explain it as meaning simply ‘to me’ because it does not apply, God forbid, because God does not need His creations.”

II. God Needs Us

And yet, we see the Sages sometimes refer to a divine need. Consider Rashi (Ex. 11:2), based on Berakhos (9a-b). God tells Moshe to instruct the Jews to ask the Egyptians for valuables before leaving Egypt, “Please speak in the ears of the people: Let each man request of his fellow and each woman from her fellow silver vessels and gold vessels” (Ex. 11:2). The word “please” seems out of place. Rashi says:

Please is a language of request. I request you to instruct them with regard to this so that the righteous Avraham should not say, “He fulfilled for them ‘They will enslave them and afflict them’ but He did not fulfill for them ‘And afterwards they will depart with great possessions’ (Gen. 15:13-14).”

God promised Avraham that his descendants would leave their place of affliction with wealth. If the Jews fail to request valuables from the Egyptians, God will have failed to fulfill this part of His promise to Avraham. Therefore, God needed the Jews to approach the Egyptians.

Commentaries point out that God could have fulfilled this promise in other ways. After the splitting of the sea, the Jews acquired wealth that washed up on shore. This would have been a fulfillment of the promise. For whatever reason, God felt that the fulfillment should take place as the Jews leave Egypt. In order to accomplish this, He needed the Jews and therefore asked them using the word “please.”

The Gemara (Sanhedrin 89b) explains the use of the word “please” in God’s instruction to Avraham regarding the Akedah (Gen. 22:2). God approached Avraham and said, “I have tested you with many trials and you have passed them all. Now, pass this test so that people will not say that there was no real value in the earlier trials.” It seems that God needed Avraham to pass the test of the Akedah. Therefore, He asked Avraham with the word “please.”

III. Mid-Twentieth Century Jewish Philosophers

This issue more generally served as a matter of disagreement between two prominent mid-twentieth century Jewish philosophers. A key component of Dr. Abraham J. Heschel’s theology is the idea of what he calls “divine pathos.” He embraces a biblical theology, a religious vision based on a more literal reading of the Bible. Since the Bible describes God as having emotions, Heschel believes that God has emotions in some sense. He explicitly breaks from Maimonides in The Prophets (end of sec. II, ch. 3, p. 343):

In the language of Maimonides, “belief in unity cannot mean essentially anything but the belief in one single homogeneous uncompounded essence…” These difficulties arise from the attempt to reduce the biblical insight into an exact rational category… [T]he biblical intention is not to stress an abstraction, an idea in general, but the fullness of the Divine being…

Dr. Heschel differentiates between saying that God has emotions and that God has emotions like man. The latter is theologically problematic. The former preserves the complete uniqueness of God while allowing for a God whom we can attempt to emulate using our emotions.

In the first volume of Torah Min Ha-Shamayim Be-Aspaklaria Shel Ha-Doros (Toras Ha-Shekhinah, ch. 5, pp. 76-80), Dr. Heschel suggests that the question of whether God needs people is a debate between Tanna’im. R. Yishmael refuses to concede any divine need and reinterprets related statements to avoid this theological problem. In contrast, R. Akiva believes that God needs us (although he mixes prooftexts about divine desire and divine need). As in most of volume 1, Heschel seems to be an Akivan (as opposed to most of volume 2, where he seems to side with R. Yishmael; and vice versa for Rambam). A traditional commentator would easily harmonize the different citations so that those (so-called Akivan) passages that imply a divine need are read non-literally, as other (so-called Yishmaelan) passages do explicitly.

Dr. Eliezer Berkovits takes Dr. Heschel to task in a long and harsh review of The Prophets, published in Tradition with a surprising preface stating that the editorial board was sharply divided on whether to publish the article (“Dr. A.J. Heschel’s Theology of Pathos” in Tradition 6:2, Spring-Summer 1964; note that I refer to both scholars as Dr., as was done in this Tradition article). Dr. Berkovits objects to Dr. Heschel’s deviation from traditional Jewish theology and effectively calls him a proto-Christian! Dr. Berkovits goes too far but the question remains how Dr. Heschel could ascribe emotions and needs to God. Even if those emotions and needs are completely different from human emotions and needs, they imply a divine lacking.

Dr. Marvin Fox published a 1953 article distancing traditional Judaism from the Christian thought of Kierkegaard (“Kierkegaard and Rabbinic Judaism” in Judaism 2:2, Spring 1953; included in volume 2 of his Collected Essays on Philosophy and Judaism). Among the different distinction he draws between Kierkegaard’s thought and Judaism, Dr. Fox points to Kierkegaard’s belief that God “is completely separate from man, perhaps even opposed to man” (p. 165). In contrast, Judaism believes that God is, to a degree, dependent on man. “Just as man needs God, for without Him he becomes a beast, so does God need man, else he remains unknown to the world” (p. 121). This should not be surprising because, as we saw above, there are Talmudic passages that explicitly state that God needs us. However, perhaps due to the context, Dr. Fox does not address the problem of the implied divine imperfection. How can a perfect God need man?

IV. Perspectives

I have found only one explicit discussion of this subject. Perhaps that is because it can be resolved easily with classical methods, whether by ascribing metaphor to the rabbinic discussions of God’s need, ascribing them to God’s actions, or reading them as negation of the opposite. For example, we could say that God acts as if He needs us, even though there is no actual need for the perfect being. However, the one explicit discussion I found of this subject takes a different approach.

Dr. Norman Lamm (I might as well stick with the Dr. title), in his book on the Shema, discusses our obligation to love God and asks whether God needs our love (The Shema: Spirituality and Law in Judaism, ch. 15). Dr. Lamm quotes rabbinic passages and modern stories demonstrating that God needs man. However, he also notes the theological difficulty in ascribing imperfection to God.

In order to reconcile these conflicting pulls, Dr. Lamm says that we must acknowledge both competing concerns: “there are indeed grounds in the Jewish tradition to reject the existence of divine ‘needs’ — and yet we must also acknowledge our very human need to speak of God’s ‘needs’ in some fashion” (p. 114). Therefore, we must distinguish between the perspectives we use when speaking about God. “[F]rom the point of view of ultimate reality — understood fully only by God and only asserted philosophically but never fully comprehended existentially by human beings — we can never attribute such imperfections as need, injury, vulnerability, and loneliness to God; God is beyond all emotion, including love. Nevertheless, in our daily lives as thinking, feeling, and active beings, we relate to God psychologically as a sentient, feeling, reacting Being” (p. 125, emphasis in the original).

As Dr. Berkovits states, we all acknowledge that the god of Aristotle is different from the God of Avraham, Yitzchak and Ya’akov (p. 79). The idea of a personal God does not imply an emotional and imperfect God. However, from our limited perspectives, we relate to God as if He has emotions and needs. It is God’s will that we relate to Him this way. God does not need us; He did not need the Jews to ask the Egyptians for silver and gold vessels before the Exodus. We act and think as if He did need us to do that, as our interpretation of the human-divine relationship. When we say that God needs us we are saying more than a mere metaphor. From our point of view, He needs us, and that is the only point of view we can see because it is impossible to see from God’s point of view. It is not heretical to say that God needs us but it must be understood in a non-literal way or as merely our perspective.

I do not believe that Dr. Heschel would agree with this approach but I suspect that Dr. Fox would.

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Editor of TorahMusings.com, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student currently is serving his third term on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and also serves as the Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He serves on the Editorial Board of Jewish Action magazineand the Board of OU Press. He has published four English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

One comment

  1. Very nice review.

    You state that you “have found only one explicit discussion of this subject.”

    A number of years ago, I published an essay on that topic in Tradition:

    https://traditiononline.org/humans-blessing-god-a-mystical-idea-and-modern-implications/

    I hope you find it of interest.

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