God Doesn’t Need a Granny Flat

After he has given them the Torah, God instructs the Israelites to build him a sanctuary, out of materials that they will voluntarily donate.

The idea that the nation needs a sanctuary in which to worship is reasonable. What is harder to understand is the biblical idea that God needs a house to dwell in (Exodus 25,8). Equally difficult is  the rabbinic interpretation that implies God needs the sanctuary as much, or even more, than the Israelites.

The 15th century Spanish philosopher Isaac ben Moses Arama describes the relationship between God and Israel as one of interdependence. He illustrates God’s giving of the Torah to Israel by comparing it to a king whose daughter gets married. The king cannot bear to be parted from her and asks her new husband to build him a house alongside theirs, a sort of medieval granny flat, so that he can see his daughter whenever he wishes (Akedat Yitzhak 49). This is how God felt, says Arama, when he gave his Torah to the Israelites. He could not bear to be permanently parted from it. God, it would appear, is in some way dependent upon the Israelites to help him preserve his relationship with the Torah.

We see a similar example of God as being in some way dependent, or needy, during a discussion in the Talmud about Sh’mini Atzeret, the eighth day following the festival of Sukkot (Sukkot 55b). The Jews had celebrated the festival in the Temple for seven days. When the time came for them to leave, God could not bear to see them go. He asked them to stay for another day.

It is hard to reconcile these ideas with the Maimonidean idea of God as a transcendent and wholly self-contained being, beyond all description, imagination and contemplation. Such a God has no needs, he is dependent on nothing, even the idea of dependency cannot apply to him.

But if that is the case, why would God bother to create the world? He doesn’t need us at all. And if he is only transcendent how can we speak of God as loving, powerful or just, or indeed any of the other qualities we endow him with?

Judaism believes that God does act on the world, that he is immanent as well as transcendent, that he is, if you like, a personal God. The emotions that he seems to display are not feelings in the human sense, but attributes, they characterise the way that he acts on us and on the world. The kabbalists call these attributes sefirot, but this idea can be understood just as easily in rational terms. God’s love, power, justice are not expressions of his feelings or will, but a human way of describing the way that we perceive him.

The same applies to his apparent dependency. God is not dependent on people; he does not need a sanctuary to dwell in, or a granny flat so that he can stay close to the Torah. He does not need the Jews to stay in the Temple for another day before going home. Rather, these needs are ours. What we imagine to be God’s dependency on us is an attribute, a way he acts on us enabling us to imagine that he needs us to draw closer.

In the same way, we refer to God as a father. We imply that he has an emotional attachment to us, just as a human father has to his child. Calling him a father helps us to relate to him. Thinking of him as dependent does the same thing; it helps us to conceptualise that which is beyond all conception.


© 2020 Harry Freedman Books