What is God? Ask the rabbi

July 8, 2019 by Rabbi Raymond Apple
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Rabbi Raymond Apple expresses his view…

Rabbi Raymond Apple


I can only give a personal view.

There are two reasons.

One: we all have our own take on God. I cannot be certain that my father’s God is the same as mine. I can’t be a believer with my father’s heart, only with my own.

Two: no-one knows enough about God to speak of Him with authority. Hebrew theologians say, “If I knew Him, I would be Him”. A God whom we could define exactly would be too little, like a toy that a child puts in its pocket and takes out to play with.

When I was a child I thought my rabbi standing in his pulpit was God. Years later I found that Tennyson had a phrase for this: he said that the average Englishman’s idea of God was of an immeasurable clergyman.

In time I became a clergyman myself, and though I had a degree of self-confidence I knew I was far from Divine – and my congregation could see that I had enough frailties to be rather lower than God.

I talked about God but was never able to arrive at a dictionary definition. When I toyed with calling Him the Great Idea, I had to acknowledge that He was more than an abstract theory. When I thought of describing Him as the Great Force, I had to recognise that he was more than an anonymous energy.

If I called Him the Great Presence, but this said nothing about His capacity to create or to reveal His will. I struggled with saying that He was the Cosmic Grandfather, but while this gave Him benignity and personality, it made Him too cosy, too antiquated.

I eventually gave up the attempt at definitions, largely because none gave me a God I could relate to or who could relate to me. Then I recalled that when Moses asked God who He was, the response was, “I am what I am”.

The Bible constantly uses the word “and” – “And the Lord spoke”, “And these are the laws”, “And Jacob dwelt”. Believing in God is not just a background feeling of certainty but a relationship, a set of ands: God and the world, God and human duty, God and our potential.

It tells me that because of God, my life is different – and makes a difference.

I am not always certain which way to turn, but my belief helps me through the options. I am not always strong enough to do the right thing, but my belief enables me to rise above my own frailty and the moral weakness of others.

I do not always like what I find in the world, but if I see evil, my belief gives me no rest until I cry out.

I am sometimes disappointed with God, but my belief teaches me to be honest, and I have to protest even at God. I demand an explanation, but deep down I know that it’s sometimes better not to have one.

I have enough faith in God to know that He is bigger and wiser than me.


Q. Recently we read in the Torah about Joseph being in prison. Did prison do him any good? Do prisons do anybody any good?

A. A range of midrashic material deals with Joseph’s incarceration. We are not certain how he coped with what must have been harsh conditions and rough company, but the story makes its contribution to the sequel in which he saved Egypt from destruction.

Prison is never a holiday even though some prisons provide better physical amenities than others. The problem is whether prison makes a person better or worse.

We know that the public thinks that it is being protected by offenders being locked away, but is that the only purpose of the prison system?

There is a fierce attack on prisons by Dagobert D. Runes in his essays, “Of God, the Devil and the Jews” (Philosophical Library, New York, 1952). He argues that herding offenders together for long periods is not likely to rehabilitate them but to spread what he calls the infectious disease of criminality.

He prefers the Biblical system of cities of refuge “where offenders would be compelled to live, but allowed to have a normal life”.

“Create penal villages and penal towns,” he suggests, “where offenders may live, with their families, normal lives”.

Rabbi Raymond Apple served for 32 years as the chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, Australia’s oldest and most prestigious congregation. He is now retired and lives in Jerusalem where he answers interesting questions.

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