I Am Who I Am: Conversation at the Burning Bush

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I Am Who I Am: Conversation at the Burning Bush

…And behold, the thorn bush was burning with fire, but the thorn bush was not being consumed.” (Ex. III, 2)

Every theologian worth his salt along with many philosophers, from Plato and Aristotle to Descartes and Kant, attempted to prove the existence of God.  Tomas Aquinas, for instance, offered five “proofs”!  Others, such as Hume and Nietzsche, tried proving the opposite.  Little did they understand that proving the existence (or nonexistence) of God is a fool’s errand.  There are several reasons for that:

1.            The existence of God cannot be proven because… God doesn’t “exist,” not in the ordinary sense of existence anyway.  One can say that an object exists only so long as it may exist or may not. By stating that the object exists, we specify one of the two possibilities.  Similarly, a person can be alive or, God forbid, not alive.  By stating that a person is alive we specify that he is not dead. Such existence is a contingent existence.  In this sense, to say that God exists is meaningless, because God “cannot” not exist!  Nonexistence is not an option. Thus, the Maimonides (Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, a.k.a. Rambam) writes that God’s existence is “necessary.”  Therefore a statement such as “God exists” contains no information, it is a logical tautology.

2.            Furthermore, God is absolute and infinite Bing and nothing can limit Him. His “existence” is also absolute and is not limited by non-existence. Therefore, to speak of God’s existence is just as meaningless as to speak of His non-existence.

3.            God is a self-referential construct.  In the words of Maimonides, He knows all by knowing Himself.  Self-referential statements cause many problems in logic.  Think of the Liar’s Paradox: Epimenides said, “All Cretans are liars and I am a Cretan.”  If this statement is true, it is false; and, if it is false, it is true. Or take Bertrand Russell’s paradox: if you consider a set of all sets that do not contain themselves, does this set contain itself?  If it does, then it doesn’t; and, if it doesn’t, then it does.  Or simply, consider the statement, “This statement is false.”  If it’s true, it is false; and, if it’s false, it is true. It is really impossible to make any logical statement about God, because He is a self-referential construct. 

4.            As Gödel proved, one cannot prove the consistency of a formal theory by means of this theory.  Trying to prove God’s existence in the context of any formal theory would violate Gödel theorem, because there is nothing outside of God—ain od milvado.

5.            God is also a self-contradictory construct.  Infinite God possesses the power of gvul (finitude) and bli gvul (infinitude); hence, the paradox: Can God create a stone that He cannot lift?  This inherent contradiction is symbolized by the burning bush: “…and behold, the thorn bush was burning with fire, but the thorn bush was not being consumed.” (Ex. III, 2)

A self-contradictory construct does not lend itself to formalization as an axiomatic theory, because in such a theory for every statement A, one can also prove not A.  Therefore, every statement is both true and not true.

6.            Proving the truth of any statement in logic requires precisely defined terms.  Furthermore, defining an object entails limiting this object from a larger set of objects.   For example, if you want to define “triangle,” you define it to be a subset of two-dimensional geometrical objects that have certain properties—namely, three lines connected to each other.  Or if you wanted to define “circle,” you would define it as a subset of points on a plane equidistant from a given point (called the center of the circle).  The definition is always a limitation.  We cannot limit infinite God (Ein Sof) in any way. Therefore, we cannot define Him.

7.           God is above logic. Logic operates on the level of intellect. In the sephirotic scheme, logic exists on the level of Chochma. However, the sephirah of Chochma is not the first. It is preceded by Keter, which in turn is preceded by Adam Kadmon (“Primordial Man”), not to mention that all of these levels are after the Tzimzum. God utterly transcends our logic and it is silly to attempt to logically define Him, let alone prove His existence.

8            We (creations) don’t define God (Creator); rather, God defines (creates) us.  Put another way, transcendent God transcends all definitions.  This is why classical theism holds that God cannot be defined.  For a human being to try to define God is a subtle form of idolatry, as the Izhbitzer Rebbe explained in his commentary on the Ten Commandments (see my posts  The Theological Uncertainty Principle,  and Thou Shall Not Collapse God’s Wavefunction.)

In an axiomatic theory, we start with undefined terms and the relationships between them.  For instance, in Euclidian geometry, the undefined terms are “point,” “line,” and “plane.”  Then, axioms are formulated and theorems are proved with respect to these undefined terms, as well as further terms defined through them.  Thus the only hope we have to make any statement about God is to say that God is an undefined term or Ein Sof.

This is exactly what God tells Moshe (Moses) when Moshe asks God His name:

And Moses said to God, “Behold I come to the children of Israel, and I say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they say to me, ‘What is His name?’ what shall I say to them?” (Ex. III, 13)

In other words, Moshe is asking God for His name—i.e., for His definition, as it were.  God’s answer is baffling: “I am who I am” (Ex. I3:14)

This tautological statement, “I am who I am” (alternatively translated as “I will be what I will be”), contains a powerful message: Don’t try to define Me for I am undefinable, ineffable God.  It is as if God is saying, “I am who I am, and it is not for you to know who I am.” 

…and He said, “So shall you say to the children of Israel, “Eh-yeh (I am) has sent me to you.'”

 God tells Moshe to explain to his Jewish brethren that the only thing they can know about God is that He is, i.e., that his existence is necessary and absolute, as explained by Maimonides.

However, the very next verse seems to contradict this, as God introduces Himself by His proper name, Havayah (YHWH):

And God said further to Moses, “So shall you say to the children of Israel, ‘Havayah (YHWH), God of your forefathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you.’ This is My name forever, and this is how I should be mentioned in every generation. (Ibid, 15)

Didn’t God just reveal His proper name as Havayah (YHWH)?  However, this is not a contradiction.  The Tetragrammaton (YHWH), usually translated as “Lord,” actually means Eternal.  Our sages teach that YHWH is an amalgam of hayah (is), hoveh (was) and yihyeh (will be), i.e. the Eternal.  This is a variation on the earlier theme, in which God introduces Himself simply as “I am.”  Unlike God, who is the creator of time and exists outside of time, we exist in the temporal dimension. To us past, present and future define the flow of time— indeed, our very existence.  If for timeless God it is enough to say, “I am,” for us, temporal creatures, this ontological construct has to be unpacked and spelled out as “I was, I am, and I will be.”  Therefore, God further elaborates for us that His existence is eternal, unlimited in time or by “non-existence”— i.e., His existence is necessary and absolute and therefore, belies any definition. 

We are epistemologically limited in our ability to know God.  That is why God stopped Moshe when he came towards the burning bush to “investigate this wondrous phenomenon,” saying: “Do not draw near here.”  We are limited in our knowledge of the Creator by what He chooses to reveal to us about Himself, as He did to Moshe from the burning bush. That is why it is equally impossible to logically prove or disprove the existence of God. Belief in God always requires a leap of faith.

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By |2018-01-02T02:11:12+00:00December 23rd, 2013|God, Names of God, Parshah, Proves of God, Shemot, Shemot, Uncategorized|0 Comments

About the Author:

Alexander Poltorak was trained as a theoretical physicist in Russia. He is Chairman and CEO of General Patent Corporation. Dr. Poltorak served as an Assistant Professor of Biomathematics at Cornell University Medical College, as an Assistant Professor of Physics at Touro College, he guest-lectured at Columbia University School of Engineering and Business School. He is presently affiliated with the CUNY serving as an adjunct professor of physics at the City College of New York and Research Fellow at the Institute for Ultrafast Spectroscopy and Lasers. Alex Poltorak authored several books and many articles. He blogs about physics, kabbalah and Jewish philosophy.

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