Response to the Jewish Press
In the current edition of the Jewish Press, Rabbi Abraham Stone responded to my recent critique of the beliefs about Hashem and Torah that he had articulated. Once again, Rabbi Stone affirmed his conviction that Hashem cannot be described in material or human terms, a conviction that is the cornerstone of the unique body of religious thought that was revealed at Sinai.
Rabbi Stone proceeded to express his agreement with another fundamental principle of Judaism - that Hashem has no needs and therefore gains nothing from our observance of mitzvot. After this statement, however, I was disappointed to observe that Rabbi Stone backtracked and reiterated his earlier claim that our performance of mitzvot somehow confers benefit to the Creator and "fulfills His needs" or "increases His pleasure". Strangely, he seems unphased by the clear contradiction in his words, even after it has been pointed out several times in submissions to the Jewish Press.
Rabbi Stone cites a selection of midrashim that make reference to Hashem "wanting" things from human beings, and infers that our observance of Torah must satisfy some Divine "need". He also quotes the Shelah, whom he represents as agreeing with this perspective. How can Rabbi Stone feel comfortable sidestepping the entire corpus of philosophical literature handed down to us from the Gedolei Harishonim - literature which clearly and unequivocally militates against the ideas he has articulated - and rely upon an Acharon whose words themselves are subject to interpretation? We cannot draw inferences from Midrashim and rabbinic parables without the guidance of the greatest of our baalei Hamesorah!!
I think that much of the confusion in this debate may be resolved by the introduction of an important distinction on which I believe we can all agree. In fact, I suspect that the misunderstandings that have transpired are due to the vagueness of our terms. When we speak of "Hashem needing" or "Hashem wanting" this can have two possible meanings. The first, which is clearly untenable and is unanimously rejected by our Gedolim, is that Hashem somehow derives satisfaction or benefit from our good behavior. This idea imputes imperfection and humanness to the Creator, something which is certainly unacceptable. On the other hand, we can understand these statements as references to the Will or Divine Plan that Hashem has for humanity. Obviously, Hashem created us for a purpose and in that sense we might say - by way of analogy - that He "wants us" to achieve the objective that He has set for us. For instance, Hashem "wants" the prayers of the righteous because, through involvement in prayer, tsadikim elevate themselves to ever-higher levels of inner perfection and move closer to the goal of spiritual development that Hashem has mapped out for them. Hashem gains nothing for Himself from their piety - as we recite each year in the Neilah prayer "If man is righteous, what does he give You?".
We do not suggest that Hashem derives personal benefit or enjoyment from our observance of mitzvot - Heaven forfend - but we do maintain that Hashem's infinite wisdom has formulated a design for humanity that He intends for us to implement. This Divine mission is articulated for us in the Torah in its full beauty and grandeur, and Hashem has charged us with its completion. It is in this sense, and in this sense alone, that we might say that Hashem "wants" us to observe His commandments.
Rabbi Joshua Maroof