B’nai mitzvah questions – Zoe Davidson

Burning questions

There is a special b’nai mitzvah tradition at Temple Beth El. Each student can ask me any question of their choosing on the big day, and I will do my best to begin a conversation around it. This past month we celebrated two wonderful b’not mitzvah. One was Sadie Lieb; the other was Zoe Davidson. Below are my responses to their rather thoughtful and intriguing questions.

Zoe Davidson’s question: If God created everyone and everything, who or what created God?

Zoe, when I asked you about your burning question, you proudly remarked that you have had a question burning in you since you were five years old. Yours is an impressive question for a five-year-old, and it is no wonder that you’ve held onto it all these years. Your inquiry has been asked by philosophers and theologians as well as Jewish scholars for millennia. Atheist Richard Dawkins believed it was the question to end all questions. He reasoned that if we couldn’t answer the question of who or what created God, then clearly God never existed the first place.

Of course, even if we could answer such a question, atheists argued, there would be a problem. Surely the creator of God was bigger and stronger than She was. And who created that creator? Or that one? We could easily find ourselves in what philosophers call infinite regress—each newly presumed creator being required to have a creator of its own.

There is something faulty with this assessment. God does not exist in the way that you or I do. God is not created in the way that a finite object or being is created. God is something else entirely.

In his book The Infinite Light, Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan explains, “The very word “create” implies creating something out of nothing. Otherwise, we use the word “make” or “form.” When we say that God created the universe, we mean that He created it absolutely ex nihilo— out of nothing. This is alluded to in the verse, “He hangs the world upon nothingness.” (Job 26:7)

The world was created ex nihilo, philosophers argue—it was created from nothing.

The world is finite. It is tangible. It has a beginning, and will one day have an end. But God is something else entirely.

God has many names but the Kabbalists use one particular one in this context. That name is Ein Sof. Ein Sof literally means without end, limitless. God is an infinite being beyond all comprehension, and outside of the rules of the universe as we know it.

There is a Midrash about a philosopher who asked Rabban Gamliel, “Your God is a wonderful artist, but He had fine materials to work with. When He made the world, He fashioned it out of waste and desolation, darkness, wind, water, and depths.” Rabban Gamliel replied, “Your words are mere wind! All of these things were also created by God.”

Since God has no beginning, She requires no creator. She is the source of being. She is being, Herself.

Maimonides explains that God is timeless, infinite, and unknowable. Any being that exists outside of time has always existed. If something created God, then God would have a beginning and would be finite, but that is not the case. Nothing existed before God. There was no “before.” God is what philosophers call the First Cause—or the Prime Mover. God is the dimension that has no other dimension preceding it.

The Torah scroll you will read from begins with one single letter, a bet. This letter begins the word B’reisheet—in creating. Sages point out that one letter precedes the bet in a Hebrew alphabet. It is a silent letter, the aleph. Our Torah scroll doesn’t pronounce this ineffable letter of God any more than we can understand the mysteries of what came before our creation. But we know that without that aleph there never could have been a bet. There never could have been this wondrous creation of which we are blessed to be a part.

Zoe, as you well know, your question remains unanswerable. And yet, there is a power in asking it nonetheless. May you never some searching, may you never stop seeking, and may you never stop asking the most difficult of questions.