If you were God

Reprinted with permission from "If You Were God," published by the National Conference of Synagogue Youth.

If You Were God

We often question God's ways. But given the chance, how would we do things differently?

by Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan

The Problem:

You are given an island where several tribes live.

By nature and culture, these tribes are exploitative and belligerent. This results in much suffering on the island, caused by war poverty and prejudice.

They have been living this way for centuries without any sign of improvement.

Your Assignment:

To try to improve this society.

To teach its members to live together in harmony and reduce suffering to a minimum or eliminate it entirely.

To create a healthy society.

Your Resources:

You have all the resources that a highly advanced technology can offer.

You have the entire island under surveillance and can see what is happening in any place at any time.

You have such devices as cloud-seeding equipment and can plant underground explosives. Within reason, you can control weather, flooding, volcanoes and earthquakes, and produce any "natural" phenomenon on cue.

You also have devices that can be used to implant ideas through subliminal suggestion. You can implant ideas to entire populations or to certain select leaders.

However, you must take into account the sever limitations of subliminal suggestion. If you try to implant any ideas that go against the basic nature of the populace, they will be totally rejected and your efforts will be in vain.

One alternative would be to implant ideas that somehow would make use of the acknowledged bad nature of these people.

Your Restrictions:

Under no circumstances are the natives of this island to be aware of your presence.

This supersedes all other considerations.

The cultural shock caused by your revealing yourself would disrupt the entire fabric of the island culture. It would cause much suffering and more than offset any good that you could possibly accomplish.

The natives would be reduced to a state of almost vegetable-like dependence from which they would be unlikely to recover. If they did recover, they might rebel so violently as to eliminate any positive values they might have originally had.

Therefore, the restrictions that you not reveal yourself must be followed without exception under any circumstances.

But aside from this restriction, you have a free hand to proceed as humanely or as ruthlessly as you see fit.

In short, you have the opportunity to play God.

What would you do?


Many people say that these days it is very difficult to believe. We live in a generation that has seen the brutal murder of the 6 million. We have seen children burned to death in Vietnam, babies starved in Biafra, and a nation systematically decimated in Bangladesh. We see starvation, poverty and inequality wherever we look. Good people suffer and the dishonest seem to thrive.

It is man, not God, who brings most evil to the world.

Many people ask what seems to be a legitimate question: Why does God allow these things? Why doesn't He do something about it?

To some extent, the answer should be obvious. It is man, not God, who brings most evil to the world. God does not make wars -- men do. God did not kill the 6 million -- men did. God does not oppress the poor -- men do. God does not drop napalm -- men do.

But people come back and argue that this does not really answer the question. The basic dilemma still remains: Why did God create the possibility of evil? Why does He allow it to exist at all?

To even begin to understand this, we must delve into the very purpose of creation.

This purpose requires a creature responsible for its own actions. This in turn requires that people have free will.

If God would have wanted a race of puppets, then He would have created puppets. If He would have wanted robots, then He would have made robots. But this is not what God wanted. He wanted human beings, with free will, responsible for their actions.


But as soon as you have free will, you have the possibility of evil.

The deeper we probe, the clearer this becomes.

To the best of our understanding, God created the universe as an act of love. It was an act of love so immense that the human mind cannot even begin to fathom it. God created the world basically as a vehicle upon which He could bestow His good.

But God's love is so great that any good that He bestows must be in the greatest good possible. Anything less would simply not be enough.

But what is the greatest good? What is the ultimate good that God can bestow on His creation?

If you think for a moment the answer should be obvious. The ultimate good is God Himself. The greatest good that He can bestow is Himself. There is no greater good than achieving a degree of unity with the Creator Himself. It is for this reason that God gave man the ability to resemble Himself.

God therefore gave man free will.

Just as God acts as a free Being, so does man. Just as God operates without prior restraint, so does man. Just as God can do good as a matter of His own choice, so can man. According to many commentators, this is the meaning of man being created in the "image" of God.


But if God's purpose does not permit man to be a robot, neither does it permit him to be a prisoner.

To make this freedom of choice real, God creates the possibility of evil.

Just as man has free will, he must also have freedom of choice. A man locked up in prison may have the same free will as everybody else, but there is little that he can do with it. For man to resemble his Creator to the greatest possible extent, he must exist in an arena where he has a maximum freedom of choice. The more man resembles God in His omnipotence, the closer he can resemble Him in his free choice of the good.

To make this freedom of choice real, God also had to create the possibility of evil. If nothing but good were possible, it would produce no benefit. To use the Talmudic metaphor, it would be like carrying a lamp in broad daylight. The Zohar thus states, "The advantage of wisdom comes from darkness. If there were no darkness, then light would not be discernible, and would produce no benefit...Thus it is written, "God has made one thing opposite the other" (Ecclesiastes 7:14).

Just as God's purpose does not allow man to be a physical prisoner, neither does it permit him to exist in an intellectual prison. How would man behave if God were to constantly reveal Himself? Would he really be free? If man were constantly made aware that he was standing in the King's presence, could he go against His will? If God's existence were constantly apparent, this awareness would make man a prisoner.

This is one reason why God created a world which follows natural laws, and in this way conceals Himself. Thus, our sages teach us, "The world follows its natural pattern, and the fools who do evil will eventually be judged."

This is the concept of the Sabbath. After the initial act of creation, God withdrew, as it were, and allowed the world to operate according to laws of nature which He had created. The "clock" had been made and wound up, and now could run with a minimum of interference. When we observe the Sabbath, we similarly refrain from interfering or making any permanent changes in the order of nature.


But the questioner can probe still deeper. He can ask: Why did God allow so much evil to exist in man's nature to begin with? Why does it seem so natural for man to oppress his neighbor and make him suffer?

But here also, we must realize that man's arena of action is here in the physical world, and therefore he must be part of a universe where God's presence is eclipsed. The spiritual in man may soar in the highest transcendental realms, but man's body is essentially that of an animal. Our sages teach us that man partakes of the essence of both angel and beast. The Zohar goes a step further and tells us that in addition to the divine soul which separates man from lower forms of life, man also has an animal soul.

When man first came into existence, there was a basic harmony existing between these two parts of his nature. His intellect and animal nature were able to exist together without any intrinsic conflict. He had the opportunity to live in harmony with nature, devoting all his energies to the spiritual. However, there was an element of temptation in this Garden of Eden. Man's destiny was to transcend his animal nature on a spiritual plane. But he also had the temptation to transcend it on a physical level, to partake of the Tree of Good and Evil.

Man succumbed to this temptation.

This knowledge then came between the two basic elements in man, the animal and the human. Man was no longer like the animal, bound to nature, in harmony with his basic nature. He still had all the desires, lusts and aggressive nature of the animal. But he also acquired the ability to use his intellect so that his animal nature would be directed against his fellow human beings. It is this conflict between his animal and human nature that thrusts man in the direction of evil. We are therefore taught that it is man's animal nature that is responsible for the Yetzer Hara, the evil in man.

But here again, God cannot be blamed.

The decision to partake of the Tree of Knowledge -- to transcend his animal nature on a worldly plane -- was a decision that man made as a matter of free choice.

As soon as man partook of the Tree of Knowledge, he knew good and evil. Morality became a matter of knowledge and conscious choice, rather than part of man's basic nature. He would now have to wrestle with a new nature, where the animal and angel in him are in conflict.


But we can probe still further. We can ask: Why could man not have been made better? Why did God not make him into something that was more angel and less animal?

Here too, the fault was man's. Our sages teach us that the prohibition against tasting the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge was only temporary. Man's spiritual nature was gradually developing in such a manner that he would have eventually been strong enough to master his animal instincts. When this time arrived, he could have partaken of the Tree of Knowledge without endangering his spiritual essence.

Man was indeed destined to be more angel and less animal. However, this was now to be a gradual process. It was aborted by man's impatience, his partaking of "knowledge" before its time. It was this knowledge that brought him in conflict with his animal nature, and stunted his spiritual development, making the beast dominant.

This thread runs through the entire history of mankind. Man's knowledge gave him a technology that could create instruments of destruction, but his moral strength was not great enough to avoid misusing them. This has reached its peak in our generation, where man has the power to destroy his entire planet, either with nuclear weapons, or by poisoning his environment. Man's knowledge gives him tremendous power, but he still has not learned how to use this power for the good. This is the reason why the Messianic Age must soon arrive. Only then will man learn how to use his knowledge for the good.

Until then, man is faced with this great dilemma. He has the knowledge to create great societies, but they always get out of control and degenerate. He can make great technological strides, but he does not have the moral strength to use them for good. One of the saddest comments on the human predicament is the fact that many of our greatest technological advancements have been made to further the cause of warfare.


Why doesn't God open up the heavens and stop all this evil?

Still, the basic question does not seem to go away. Admittedly, man has an evil nature and it is his own fault. But why doesn't God intervene? Why doesn't He open up the heavens and stop all this evil? Why didn't He send down a bolt of lightning and destroy the concentration camps? Why didn't He send down some kind of manna for the starving babies of Biafra and Bangladesh? Why didn't He stop the napalm bombs from burning innocent Vietnamese children? Why doesn't He pull off a miracle and make all the world's nuclear bombs disappear? After all, He is God. He certainly can do it. So why doesn't He?

We are taught, however, that an overabundance of light does not rectify the vessels, but shatters them.

What would happen to our society if miracles suddenly started taking place? How would we react to it?

Could we go about our daily affairs as if nothing had happened? Could the vast, complex structures, upon which our civilization rests, continue to exist if this direct awareness of God were suddenly thrust upon us?

Take a city like New York. It takes the efforts of tens of thousands to provide food and other necessities to such a huge city, and further thousands just to transport these needs. It takes another army to provide the city with water, electricity, heat, and the removal of waste. Could this structure survive the awareness of miracles? And if it did not, would not the suffering be all the greater? If God began a miraculous intervention, would He not have to do it all the way? Indeed, this might take place in the Messianic Age, but then, the time must be ripe.

How would we react to miracles? Probably very much in the same way primitive societies react to the "miracles" of those that are more advanced. The first reaction is one of shock, or what sociologists call cultural shock. The natives first lose interest in everything and become completely dependent on the more advanced culture. They cease to have a mind of their own and develop a lethargy where life grows devoid of meaning. The degeneration of the proud self-sufficient savage into the shifty, no-account native is often as tragic as it is inevitable.

If a society is not completely destroyed by the initial cultural shock, it undergoes a second stage, that of rebellion. The primitive culture rebels against both the invaders and their values. This is why so many missionaries ended up in the proverbial cooking pot.

If man resembles an animal, then he resembles a wild animal rather than a domestic one. It is man's destiny to be free, not subject to other men. Thus, the inevitable result of the introduction of a higher culture is to overwhelm a more primitive one.

When a higher culture is introduced, the initial reaction of the natives is to become domesticated, to become like cattle or sheep. If the domestication is complete, the humanity of the native is obliterated, at least, until he assimilates the dominant culture. Otherwise, the natives rebel and reassert their natural humanity.

If God were to reveal Himself, then man would no longer be able to exist as a free entity.

The same is essentially true of our relationship to God. As long as He is hidden, we can strive toward Him, and attain the Godly. But we do this as a matter of free choice and are not overwhelmed by it. But if God were to reveal Himself, then man would no longer be able to exist as a free entity. He would know that he was always under the scrutiny of his Master, and that would make him into something less than human. He would be come some kind of puppet or robot, with an essential ingredient of his humanness destroyed. The only alternative would be rebellion.

But either alternative would cause more evil and suffering than would be alleviated by God's original intervention. There would be too much light, and the vessels would be shattered.


There was only one time when God literally revealed Himself and visibly stepped in and changed the course of history. This was at the Exodus from Egypt, where He performed miracles both in Egypt and by the Red Sea. This episode was climaxed by the Revelation at Sinai, where an entire nation literally heard the voice of God.

What happened then?

The first reaction at Sinai was one of shock. The people simply could not endure the majesty of God's word, and our sages teach us that their souls literally left them. Their reaction is expressed in the Biblical account of Sinai, where immediately afterward they told Moses (Exodus 20:16), "You speak to us and we will listen, but let not God speak with us any more, for we will die."

When the people overcame their initial shock, they proceeded to the second stage, that of rebellion. This took place just 40 days after the Revelation at Sinai. They went against God and all His teachings, reverting to idolatry and worshipping a golden calf. They had heard the Ten Commandments from God Himself just 40 days earlier, and now they were violating every one of them.

We learn a very important lesson from this. For God to reveal Himself to an unworthy vessel, it can do more harm than good. This is one important reason why God does not show His hand.

Many people say that they would believe if only they could witness some sign or miracle. Sinai showed us that even this is not enough, if people do not want to believe.

From all this we can begin to understand one of the most basic restrictions that God imposes upon Himself. He is a hidden God, and does not reveal Himself. This is required by man's psychology as well as God's very purpose in creation. God only reveals Himself to such people whose faith is so great that the revelation makes no difference in their belief. As Maimonides pointed out, the only major exception to this rule was the Exodus.


Taking into account God's most basic self-restrictions, we can now make some attempt to place ourselves in God's place.

Our most basic restriction is that we not reveal our hand.

Taking this restriction into account, we can return to our opening problem, and imagine a microcosm where we are in a position to play God.

This opening problem was discussed in a number of groups, and much of what follows is a result of their conclusions. However, before reading on, you might wish to re-read the problem, and attempt to draw your own conclusions.

Much of the discussion revolved around solutions involving something like a huge chess game with the entire island as the board. There would be moves and countermoves, with a strategy to attempt to maneuver the natives into a desired position. Like a chess grandmaster, you would attempt to keep control of the game at all times. Your "win" would be to achieve the desired result.

While you have enough resources to eventually win, certain problems immediately become apparent. Not the least is the fact that every move may take decades or even centuries. You might achieve results, but it is a very long, drawn-out process. You might have all the time in the world, but each year brings all the more suffering.

There is an even more profound problem. Even more important than influencing events is our ultimate goal of improving the values of the natives. However, even though a lesson may be learned by one generation, it may be equally forgotten by a succeeding generation. To make positive values an integral part of the island's culture is a most formidable task.

A constant thread of suggestion in these discussions involved infiltration. We could try to influence the island through infiltrators. As long as it was not obvious, it would be within the rules.

Such infiltration could serve two purposes. First of all, we could use the infiltrators as an example. They could set up a model society, and if it endured long enough, it might interest people in attempting to emulate it or learn from it.

The infiltrators could also be used to teach the natives directly. Gradually, parts of their culture could be introduced to the island, raising its moral level. This could rapidly accelerate the game's conclusion.

These infiltrators would always be in a position of great peril. Operating on a different value system, they would always be considered outsiders. The more their message diverged from that of the majority, the more they would be resented. Scattered throughout the island to spread their message, they would very likely become a persecuted minority. By the rules of the game, there would be very little you could do to help them.

At best, you would play your game in such a way as to protect them as much as possible. Because of the danger of revealing your hand, communication with your infiltrators would have to be kept to a minimum. They would have to live on this island for many generations, scattered among the natives, and you would have to set up many safeguards to prevent them from assimilating the corrupt values of the island. To some extent, their status as a persecuted minority may also help prevent such assimilation. But essentially, they would have to play their role in ignorance of your overall strategy.

Gradually, the islanders would eventually become aware of your presence. Once the game was ended, you might even be able to reveal yourself. The infiltrators' role would also then be revealed. As part of your organization, they would become the natural leaders and teachers of the island.


As you might have already guessed, examining this microcosm gives us considerable insight into the way that God interacts with the world. He is working to bring the world to a state of perfection, which in our tradition is the Messianic promise. It is a slow process, whereby God constantly maneuvers the forces of history toward this end. This "game" is essentially all of human history.

You might have also recognized the infiltrators. They are the Jewish people, who were given the basis of a perfect society in the teachings of the Torah. A society living according to these God-given principles can set itself up as an example of a healthy society, free of the social diseases of its surrounding culture.

When God first gave the Torah, He told the Jewish people (Leviticus 20:26), "You shall be holy unto Me, for I, the Lord, am holy, and I have set you apart from the peoples, that you should be Mine." It is Israel's mission to set such an example, as the Torah states (Deut. 4:6), "You must observe [these commandments] carefully and keep them, for they are your wisdom and understanding in the sight of the nations. When they hear of these statutes, they will say, ‘Surely, this great nation is a wise and understanding people.'"

It is our task to bear witness to God's plan for humanity, as we find, "You are My witnesses, says God, and My servant, whom I have chosen" (Isaiah 43:10). Likewise, God told His prophet, "I, the Lord, have called you in righteousness...and have set you for a covenant of the people, for a light unto the nations" (Isaiah 42:6). We are thus taught that Israel is like the heart of humanity, constantly beating and infusing all mankind with faith in God and His teachings.

It was in this spirit that Judaism gave birth to both Christianity and Islam. Although far from perfection, these religions are a step in the right direction away from paganism. The final step is yet to be made.

More important, however, is the fact that the Jewish people, at least those who keep the Torah, continue to stand as an example of a perfect society designed by God. The Torah and its commandments indeed represent the highest wisdom in perfecting human society. The tzaddik is the closest that we can come to the perfect human being.

Israel's unique position in accepting God's Torah will eventually result in the [dissolution] of all competing cultures. It would also temporarily result in Israel's earning the hatred of these cultures. Our sages teach us that just as an olive must be crushed before it brings forth its oil, so is Israel often persecuted before its light shines forth. Thus, God told His prophet, "A bruised reed, he shall not break; a dimly burning wick, he shall not be extinguished; he shall make justice shine forth in truth. He shall not fail nor be crushed, until he has right in the earth, and the islands shall await the teachings of his Torah" (Isaiah 42:3,4).


We live in an age of many questions. The newspapers and television bring the horrors of the word onto our front doorstep and our living rooms. What was once hidden by the barrier of intercontinental distance is now before our very eyes. We see the suffering and killing and starvation, and ask how God can tolerate such evil. For the Jew, the question of the 6 million always looms in the foreground of any such discussion.

But for one who understands the true depths of Judaism, there is no question. When you have probed into the very reason for existence and purpose of creation, not only do you find answers, but the questions themselves cease to exist.

In this world we must bless God for both good and evil, but the in Future World, we will realize that there is nothing but good.

One of the great Jewish leaders of [recent memory was] the Klausenberger Rebbe. He lost his wife, children and family to the Nazis, and himself spent two years in the hell of Auschwitz. Yet, he emerged from all this to rally a generation of concentration camp refugees back to Judaism, found a community in Williamsburg, and eventually build a settlement in Israel.

I often heard this great leader discuss the concentration camps and the 6 million. There are tears and sadness, but no questions. For here we have a tzaddik, whose great mind can see beyond the immediate. When one's gaze is on the Ultimate, there truly are no questions.

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The most important thing to remember is that God is the ultimate good, and therefore, even the worst evil will eventually revert to good. Man may do evil, but even this will be redeemed by God and ultimately be turned into good. The Talmud teaches us that in this world we must bless God for both good and evil, but the in Future World, we will realize that there is nothing but good.