Shaya Cohen -


Does G-d learn from Mankind?

One of my personal obsessions is to try to read the Torah without the gloss of the ages, without blindly accepting the assumptions of Greeks, Christians, and critics about the text. Instead, I like to read the text for itself, in itself.  

One of the assumptions that has become dogma within Judaism more broadly (but has no textual support in the Torah at all), is that G-d is omniscient and timeless, so He knows the future. I won’t quibble with the possibility that G-d, in order to be G-d, is capable of being all-knowing and all-powerful. But the text itself makes it abundantly clear that, probably through an act of self-restraint (so that mankind can exist at all), G-d gave mankind free will. One result of mankind making our own choices is that G-d is frequently surprised by our choices. In other words, G-d does not know that Adam and Eve will eat the fruit. Nor did He know in advance that the generation of the Flood was going to choose to be evil and violent. Nor did he anticipate the Golden Calf, etc. etc.  This, to me, is so obvious and apparent from the text that it seems that everyone who denies it has to tie themselves in knots in order to try to square the circle. And all because they are not defending the Torah at all, but instead some Greek/Christian idea that G-d must be all-knowing, no matter what the Torah actually says.

What amazes me is how so many of what became commandments in the Torah were created not by G-d but by people. It is Noah who first invents the elevation-offering – and it later becomes a staple of the tabernacle. Jacob invents huts, sukkot, for his flock – and G-d later provides the same for His flock, the Jewish people. Avraham’s kindness to strangers becomes enshrined in Jewish law, as does Simeon and Levi’s intolerance for forcibly taking women. Even ways of dealing with death, guilt and reparations are all described early in the text, and then revisited and offered back to mankind as key guidelines for life. Man initiates, and G-d reacts, adapts, and sometimes even adopts.

Over time, the key principles of what would become Judaism and the laws of the Torah, are described in the text itself, as a way of understanding each of the commandments. And if we see things this way, then passages which really seem to make very little sense, can come into focus.

For example: 

“When a man shall clearly utter a vow of persons unto the LORD, according to thy valuation…” (Lev. 27) and what follows is 23 verses of how different people and houses and fields would all be valued.

This passage seems to make no sense!  Why does the Torah suggest that people want to pledge themselves, their loved ones, or their property to G-d?

The answer is in the Torah itself:

And Jacob vowed a vow, saying, If God will be with me, and will keep me in this way that I go … then this stone that I have set up as a pillar will be God’s house, and of all that you give me I will give you a tenth. (Gen:28:20)

Jacob’s vow is the first one found in the Torah, and he pledges that if G-d blesses him, then he will build G-d a house and share his wealth.

Jacob’s example seems to help illuminate the text from Leviticus: a person is not necessarily merely giving to G-d, but is instead, as in Jacob’s case, proposing a bargain, or even a transaction: If You, G-d, give me X, then I pledge to contribute Y to the building or the ongoing support of your house.

It suggests a transactional component to our relationship with our Creator, a method of negotiation and expressing gratitude for the blessings that we receive. By making a vow that is conditional upon certain outcomes being achieved, we are not behaving inappropriately: we are, instead, mimicking our forefather Yaakov. And G-d can accept our proposal, just as He accepted Yaakov’s.

This suggests that G-d does not merely learn from our forefathers: it suggests that the relationship between each of us and G-d is also dynamic and changing, and one in which both parties can keep adapting and growing and learning from the other. This thesis is, of course, directly contradictory to the idea of G-d as an unchanging entity, but I think it is far more concordant with the text of the Torah.

Comments are welcome!

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