In response to my article “Noah’s Flood teaches us how to understand the Bible,” our reader Turk Hill wrote with a question that I answered.
Dear Rabbi Drazin,
After the flood, Genesis recounts G-d in a state of regret, “His heart was saddened.” This has caused some scholars to ask the question, “Does G-d regret?” Certainly, G-d is all-knowing and knew the future. Rabbi Ishmael said, “The Torah speaks in human terms,” for example, Radak: “When it says that He ‘regretted,’ this is the Torah speaking in human terms, for in truth, ‘He is not human that He should change his mind [le-hinahem]’ (I Sam. 15:29), for in the Almighty there is no change of will.” Sages such as Ibn Ezra agrees with this method of understanding scripture. That the Torah ascribes emotions to G-d figuratively.
Maimonides (Guide for the Perplexed 1.26; Friedlander translation, p. 111) has this to say on the matter:
You, no doubt, know the Talmudical saying, which includes in itself all the various kinds of interpretation connected with our subject. It runs thus: “The Torah speaks according to the language of man,” that is to say, expressions, which can easily be comprehended and understood by all, are applied to the Creator. Hence the description of G-d by attributes implying corporeality, in order to express His existence: because the multitude of people do not easily conceive existence unless in connection with a body, and that which is not a body nor connected with a body has for them no existence. (From Dr. Yair Barkai’s essay “The L-rd and Regret.”)
G-d’s emotions aside, we read the story of the flood as a natural event, G-d is inactive in the world, the world obeys the laws of nature. Ralbag writes that He is so disengaged that G-d does not know everything that occurs in the world. His statement begs the question, does G-d know the future? and if not, can we call G-d all-knowing?
Your analysis is correct. We can add the following. Maimonides states that we cannot know anything about God other than negatives, such as God cannot be more than one. this is philosophically impossible. Thus, the commonly-held notion that God is all knowing may not be true. People like to think that God knows all, but there are Jews, wise Jews, that disagree. Abraham ibn Ezra states that God only knows generalities – which I understand to mean, the laws of nature that God created or formed – but God does not know details; God does not know people as individuals.
Ralbag, as you write, also held this view, as did many others. Some scholars even say that Maimonides held this view also. I think that this is possible, that God does not know people as individuals. For example: Maimonides held that prophecy is not a communication from God; it is a human using his or her intelligence. (Did he say this because God does not know humans?) He also wrote that divine providence is not God interfering with nature; it is human intelligence; when a person faces a problem and uses his or her intelligence, he or she is using the gift that God gave humans; this is divine providence.
Additionally, and this will bother many people, Maimonides seems to say that God does not reward and punish people after death. He writes in his essay Chelek that when a person dies, the person’s intelligence joins the great intelligence that surrounds the earth. Of course, this is ancient wrong science. But this issue aside, Maimonides does not say that the person goes to paradise – he explicitly says in Chelek that there is no paradise – nor is the person judged. His intelligence is simply absorbed by the great intelligence.
But, as you know, this is not the generally accepted view of many Jews.
Maggid Books, an imprint of Koren Publishers, Jerusalem, has this year republished the 1973 book by the highly respected Orthodox Rabbi Dr. Eliezer Berkovits (1908-1992) with an afterword by Zev Eleff. Berkovits was considered by many to be the most important Jewish philosopher of the twentieth century. His other famed books include God, Man and history, Crisis and Faith. And Major Themes in Modern Jewish Philosophy.
He notes that many believe that these events occur “because of our sins,” and recognizes that “no longer is this a satisfactory explanation.” Berkovits also rejects the idea that God is unconcerned about humans and totally removed from human affairs. He explains that God is only apparently indifferent to humanity because God wants to give people the ability to make choices. If God was clearly present, people would be unable to make their own decisions. Knowing that God is observing their behavior, they would be afraid to act contrary to the divine will. “God’s silence” allows people to play an active role in the unfolding of history, to “share in the nature of life around us.” The actions of history are not caused by God nor by God’s absence, “history is man’s responsibility.”