Thursday, November 25, 2010

With Gratitude to Hashem…

I’ve been meaning to write this post for a very long time. Perhaps it’s appropriate that I finally got around to it on Thanksgiving.

Among the many mildly insulting things I’ve been told by people trying to explain to me why Judaism is the Truth is the charge that I’m ungrateful. God created us, the argument goes, He provides for us, and we should be grateful to Him and follow His rules, which are themselves only meant help us live better lives.

I’d like to take this argument apart. First, the claim that we should be grateful to God because He created us. This implies that he did so at least partly for our benefit. Yet that is impossible. According to Jewish belief, before God created the world, there was nothing. Not even souls waiting to be born. We, whatever that word may imply, simply did not exist. Therefore the only Being that stood to gain anything from creation was God.

In my experience, many people have trouble with the concept of their own non-existence. They have a fuzzy notion that their consciousness was waiting off in the wings somewhere, waiting for God to call it into existence. With such a model, existence is clearly better than non-existence. The non-existent are condemned to wait forever in the wings while the existent get to fulfill their purpose.

Of course, this model makes a mockery of the concept of non-existence. A consciousness that is waiting must already exist. If God created us, then He was not merely moving us from one state of existence to a fuller, more meaningful state of existence, but was calling us into being ex-nihlo. Had I not been created, I wouldn’t miss my existence. I simply wouldn’t be.

Some concede the point, but then say that although only God stood to gain from my creation before I was created, now that I was created I should be grateful that I exist. But this is missing my point, which is that God did not do something that I need to be grateful for. That once I exist I prefer existence to non-existence has no bearing on whether I was created for my own benefit. And as I showed above, it is impossible that I was created for my own benefit.

To use an often-cited analogy, does a child have to be grateful to his parents because they were feeling frisky one day and got themselves pregnant? They weren’t having sex for his benefit, but for their own. Even in the perhaps more analogous case of a couple who desperately want a child and are deliberately trying to conceive, they aren’t doing so for the benefit of the unborn child, but for their own benefit – to fulfill their need to have a child.

So why do we expect children to be grateful to their parents? Because parents provide for and nurture their children. Someone who was abandoned at birth and adopted is not expected to show gratitude to his birth parents, but to the couple who raised him.

This brings us to the second part of the argument, that we should be grateful to God for providing for us. Even though God created us for His own benefit, now that I exist I stand to benefit from continued existence and should be grateful to God for maintaining my existence and providing me with everything I need.

Our gratitude for what others do for us is usually in proportion to the effort they expend. If someone donated a kidney to save my life, I could be expected to be grateful to that person for the rest of my life. The person who passed me the juice at dinner, not so much.

We are expected to be grateful to our parents because of the enormous effort that goes into raising a child. Yet for God, everything is effortless. Perhaps despite the complete lack of effort, we could be expected to be grateful to God because we are benefiting from his beneficence, but the gratitude expected would be on the level of the gratitude towards the person who passed the juice, not the one who donated the kidney.


  1. Good points, but I would argue that at some level there is a large amount of gratitude to be given to those who give you a tremendous gift even if it was expended with very little effort.

    For example if my child was dying of some disease and I didn't have insuarance to cover the medical expenses and the surgery would cost $1 million and Bill Gates gave us the $1 million dollars for the surgery you could bet that I would be forever in his debt and I would have enourmous gratitude for that man, even if for him giving up a million dollars is about as much as giving up a $10 bill for you or me.

    Personally if I knew G-d existed and I knew G-d was acting for my benefit rather than just acting totally indifferent (as He seems to be acting) then I would be very grateful. Since I doubt either of those points(especially the latter) are true I don't feel a great urge to give thanks to G-d.

  2. I thought about your example when I was writing this. I should have mentioned it. In fact, I can ask better. Suppose, instead of Bill Gates, who earned his fortune pretty much from scratch, it was someone who inherited his fortune and had never worked a day in his life. His gift comes with almost no effort at all on his part.

    But it what it does do is diminish his wealth. God, Who is both omnipotent and supposedly not in need of anything, cannot have His wealth diminished.

    I think a stronger attack on my arguments may be that people aren’t as rational as I portray them, and may show gratitude in proportion with the impact of what they receive rather than with the effort expended by their benefactor. But I don’t think such an irrational tendency could be pointed to as something that would OBLIGATE us to have gratitude for a gift, however large, that is given without effort.

  3. In my experience, many people have trouble with the concept of their own non-existence.

    I think every human being has trouble with that concept---at least, every human being does who tries to grasp it. The people of whom you speak---those who imagine their coming into existence as a transition from one state of existence to another---are the ones who have given up the effort and contented themselves with a rather childish substitute. Your observation reminds us that the beginning of our existence is as difficult for us to grasp as the end of it.

  4. I think it helps to learn Kabbala here to make sense of the concept. God first creation is called Ohr ain sof. It is exactly like Himself, besides for being a dependent creation (hence the mashal of light, ie to exist it needs a constant infusion of energy).
    Now, God is ultimate good. Bringing a consciousness into existence as God-essence allows it to be ultimate good.
    If you created a robot, created consciousness in it, and set it on "super-pleasure", the robot would be in your debt. You formed his consciousness to be able to have real pleasure. So 1st of all: why does it matter what your motive is?
    And 2nd, according to many Jewish philosophers, God has a quality of altruism, which most of us don't experience. He therefore gains pleasure when we gain pleasure. Therefore, it's a symbiosis (of sorts), a relationship- which we should still be thankful to God for.

  5. > If you created a robot, created consciousness in it, and set it on "super-pleasure", the robot would be in your debt.

    Why is the robot in my debt? I could only have built it for my own purposes; therefore my creation of the robot is a selfish act that demands no gratitude from it.

    > God has a quality of altruism… He therefore gains pleasure when we gain pleasure.

    Which only strengthens my point. When you go to a restaurant, are you grateful to the chef for preparing your food? Of course not. He’s not making you food out of the goodness of his heart, but because your paying for it. You and the chef have a symbiotic relationship, but you don’t need to feel grateful to him for preparing your food, and he doesn’t need to feel grateful to you for paying for it.

    Incidentally, altruism is a trait that evolved in humans because it strengthens social bonds. What use would a solitary God (Who emphatically stresses that He is the ONLY god) have for altruism?

  6. "Why is the robot in my debt? I could only have built it for my own purposes; therefore my creation of the robot is a selfish act that demands no gratitude from it."
    You could have. That's true. I don't see how it follows that it is necessarily so.

    Evolutionary theory has no place when discussing a being who always existed.

    However, you are hitting the nail on the head when it comes to humanity. The point of our thanking God is to foster the realtionship. We're not doing it because we owe it and therefore if we don't, he'll smite us. It's because we want a relationship. All relationships work on the principle of give and take. But the relationship isn't just a matter of utility. Give and take is just the mode of relating. (Obviously, some have argued for the reductionist approach. But Judaism holds of a higher form of philia.)

  7. > You could have. That's true. I don't see how it follows that it is necessarily so.

    You’re taking the word “could” out of context. The more important word is “only:” I could ONLY have built it for my own purposes.

    > Evolutionary theory has no place when discussing a being who always existed.

    True. But the point was that humans are altruistic and see altruism as a virtue because we are social beings. There is nothing objectively virtuous about altruism. We just see it that way because that’s how we’re wired. For creatures that live solitary lives, altruism would be detrimental to their well-being. God is by His own definition a solitary Being; therefore He has no need for altruism.

    It’s no surprise though that a solitary God poses all the traits that social humans see as virtues. As Aristotle is rumored to have said, “If horses had gods, they would look like horses.”

  8. I read the sentence wrong. It's hard to see where the emphasis is supposed to be in written speech.

    God may have no selfish need for altruism - we'd have no way of knowing what other purpose it might play- but He says in the Torah that it's part of his nature and it's probably why Jewish philosophers posited it as the reason for a bilti baal tachlis to create anything. It's not a defect on his perfection by definition though. It's impossible to know that without knowing the actual nature of his makeup.
    Evolutionary altruism is not explained through saying we are social beings. People make it through life just fine with a tit-for-tat mode of behavior. It's hard to see why anything should be survive better with the possibly self-destructive next step. People form armies, and animals form groups to keep them safe. Jane Goodall was shocked by the ferociousness of her group of monkeys to another group and their "altruism" to each other. It's pure survival.
    If we hold the two possibilties of intentional design and pure evolution on equal footing for a moment, it's more logical to argue that this quality (assuming it exists) exists because of the world's basis on the Torah, which ultimately means God's nature.
    -I agree that many Jews' view of God is obviously a result of Transference- like your point about the Titanic story- and that's their approach to prayer and thanking, but that's incorrect and sad.