Derrida and the weakness of God


I’m trying to think of some divinity dissociated from power, if it is possible –  Jacques  Derrida

By Richard Mather

French philosopher Jacques Derrida was born in 1930 in Algiers. His Judeo-Sephardi ancestors had fled to North Africa after the Spanish Inquisition. Towards the end of his life, Derrida began a theological inquiry in which he began talking about God as a weak force – a force without force.

Speaking at the “Religion and Postmodernism 3” conference, held at Villanova in September, 2001, Derrida had this to say:

“We usually identify God with the almighty, that is, with absolute power.[…] God is supposed to be absolutely powerful in our tradition.[…] I’m trying to think of some unconditionality that would not be sovereign.”

He continued: “That means that some unconditionality might be associated not with power but with weakness, with powerlessness.[…] I’m trying to think of some divinity dissociated from power, if it is possible.”

In Derrida’s view, God does not – cannot –  compel us to act. Although He is without conditions and without limits, He is not a coercive God. God may be unconditional in the sense that he is not restricted by anything external, but He has disassociated Himself from power and strength, says Derrida.

Note how Derrida’s terminology (“without limits,” “restriction”) echoes some of the terminology found in the Kabbalah, which employs terms such as ein sof (“that which is without limits”) and tzimtzum (“contraction”):

“In the beginning, a simple divine light filled the entirety of existence,” said Rabbi Isaac Luria, the seventeenth-century Jewish mystic who is considered the father of contemporary Kabbalah.

“When there arose in His simple will the desire to create the worlds, He contracted His light, withdrawing it to the sides and leaving a void and an empty space in its centre, to allow for the existence of the worlds,” added Rabbi Luria.

Derrida characterised God’s restriction as a kind of voluntary powerlessness. This is why God is unconditional, according to Derrida. Only by voluntarily restricting Himself and making Himself powerless or weak, can human language, creativity and history come into being.

The voluntary restriction of God explains why He does not use force: God can insist, but He cannot compel. That is what Derrida means when talks about the weakness of God, of God dissociated from power.







Spinoza, panentheism and mystical Judaism


It is a popular misconception that Spinoza was a pantheist. He was not. Like the medieval kabbalists, Spinoza was a panentheist.

By Richard Mather

Panentheism, meaning “all-in-God,” is situated somewhere between pantheism and classical theism. For pantheists, the world is identical to God, while for classical theists, the world is completely external to God. Panentheists believe  three things: that the world is within God, that God is in all things, and that God is also supernaturally transcendent. To put it another way, God is ontologically at one with the universe and yet remains greater than the universe. The universe does not exhaust what it means to be God.

To use the terminology of mathematical set theory, the universe – the totality of facts, ideas and things – is a subset of God.

If the word panentheist seems alien to Judaism, a synonymous term is available: monistic monotheism. Either way, such a conception of God can be found in medieval esoteric Judaism (Kabbalah), in the writings of seventeenth-century Jewish philosopher Baruch Spinoza, and in hasidut (Hasidic Judaism) and even in yahadut mitkhadeshet (Reconstructionist Judaism).

In his youth, Spinoza was exposed to Abraham Cohen de Herrera’s Gate of Heaven, a widely influential work of Jewish mysticism written in Spanish and translated into Hebrew. This work was apparently used by Spinoza’s Talmud teachers, Manasseh ben Israel and Saul Levi Morteira. According to de Herrera, God is not just hidden in himself but is also immanent in the universe. Indeed, the material universe “is actually nothing but the revealed and unveiled God.”

A classic Judeo-panentheistic formulation is memaleh [filling] kol almin u’sosev kol almin – that God fills and surrounds all worlds. This formulation is found in ha-Zohar (the Zohar) and the twelfth-century hymn Shir HaYichud, which contains the words: “All of them are in You and You are in all of them” and “You surround all and fill all and when all exists You are in all.” Similarly, the kabbalist Hayyim Ibn Atar writes in his commentary Or Ha-Hayyim, “The world is in its Creator and the light of the Creator is in the whole world.”

According to hasidut (which emerged as a popular movement less than a hundred years after Spinoza’s death), God both transcends and indwells the universe. The phrase, “The whole earth is full of His glory,” from Sefer  Yeshayahu (Isaiah) is taken to mean that God is in all things.

Hasidic Jews believe that the multiplicity of things we observe in the universe , including ourselves, is due to the screening of the divine light that prevents us from perceiving God as He is in Himself. Similarly, Spinoza refers to things, including ourselves, as “modes” or modifications of God. Both Hasidic Jews and Spinoza believe that only God is substantial. There can be no other substance in the universe but God. That is not to say that individual things aren’t real, just that they are modifications of God and are dependent upon God for their existence.

For Spinoza, because God is infinite, He therefore has infinite attributes, including mind and matter. But the attributes of mind and matter do not exhaust God’s attributes. Because God is infinite, God must have an infinite number of attributes, of which we know nothing. There must be an infinity of other divine attributes that are hidden from us, that transcend our senses and our knowledge.

Spinoza has been erroneously characterised as a pantheist because he asserted Deus sive Natura, which means “God or nature.” But he did not mean that God and nature (i.e. the universe) are synonymous terms, but rather that nature is God, but not God in His entirety. The  two attributes known to us – mind and matter – signify God’s indwelling in the universe. But His transcendence is secured by his infinitely many attributes, of which we can only guess.

As such, there are two inter-related aspects of God in Spinozism. First, there is the active, productive aspect, which is God and his attributes, from which all else follows. This is what Spinoza calls natura naturans (“nature creating”), which is wholly identical with God. Secondly, he employed the term natura naturata (or “nature created”) to describe the aspect of God when it is predicated into “modes” such as the laws of motion and rest, logic, the Milky Way, cats, buildings, rocks, minds, beliefs and so on.

Likewise, mystical Jews sometimes envision two aspects of God: Firstly, the impersonal Ein Sof (meaning “there is no end”), which is God in essence, absolutely transcendent, unknowable and limitless, hidden. Secondly, there is God in manifestation, the revealed aspect of God, which is accessible to human perception, and is dynamically interacting through spiritual and physical existence.

It would be a mistake to think of this as a dualistic conception. If so, the Kabbalists wouldn’t have been able to remain true to the strict monotheism of rabbinical Judaism. Rather, they sought (as they still do) to make the universe holy by unifying God-as-Other with God-as-immanent. Like the Kabbalists, Spinoza made a subtle distinction between two aspects of God, and like the Kabbalists, he also had the  fundamental insight that God is one substantial whole. Indeed, God is the only substantial whole.

Like the Kabbalists, Spinoza believed that there is nothing external to God, nothing outside of Him. And like the Kabbalists, Spinoza held that everything that exists is a part of God and is brought into being by God.

Because God is everywhere, and because holiness is literally in the world, religious Jews often emphasise simcha or joy. A popular teaching by Rabbi Nachman of Breslov is mitzvah gedolah le’hiyot besimcha tamid – “it is a great mitzvah to always be in a state of happiness.” Similarly, Spinoza talks of the “intellectual love of God,” which is when the mind perceives God not only as essence but as the immanent causal power of the universe.

Spinoza writes of the person who has attained the intellectual love  of God that he “is hardly troubled in spirit, but being, by a certain eternal necessity, conscious of himself, and of God, and of things, he never ceases to be, but always possess true peace of mind.” Spinoza refers to this as “blessedness,” which is similar in meaning to shalem (and hence shalom), a Hebrew word-concept signifying wholeness, harmony, prosperity, delight, peace.

Whether we call it blessedness or shalem, the webbing together of God, humans and  creation is at the heart of both Spinozism and rabbinical mystical Judaism.














The BBC’s militant tendency

There are no terrorists, and if you doubt that, just ask the BBC.

By Richard Mather

Following the atrocities in Brussels, the BBC’s flagship News At Ten programme referred to the bombers as “militants” rather than “terrorists.” Initially, I thought this was a mistake. And then the BBC did it again, this time in the context of events in Syria and Iraq where ISIS is engaging in a wholesale massacre of the innocents.

How long had the BBC been referring to suicide bombers and beheaders as “militants”? I rarely watch the BBC’s news output, so I couldn’t be sure. Someone told me that it was part of the BBC’s style guide. But, I reasoned, the word “militant” suggests someone who is belligerent or combative, e.g. a militant feminist. Not so long ago, the trade union movement in the UK was described as “militant.” But neither feminists nor trade unionists are terrorists.

So I contacted the BBC. And I explained to them that the trouble with the word “militant” is that it falls short of describing an individual who engages in acts of extreme violence with the express aim of terrorizing – of invoking fear and submission in the general population. In response, a spokesperson for the BBC told me:

“The BBC has an obligation to be impartial, independent and accurate. We use neutral language to describe news events, particularly in complex situations where any appearance of bias would undermine our credibility.”


Blinded by self-righteousness, the BBC fails to see that its credibility has been in tatters for years. A news organisation that regularly glosses over the murder of Jews by Arabs and ignores the ongoing sexual abuse of women and children in the UK by Muslim men posing as migrants cannot claim to be a credible news organization.

Besides, there can be no moral equivalence between the perpetrators of terrorist attacks and their victims, and yet the BBC’s linguistic whitewashing suggests otherwise. It’s as if the BBC is doing its best to respect the civil rights of Islamists who may be offended/shocked/outraged if the BBC uses the word “terrorist” to describe the actions of one of their co-religionists.

It seems like the civil rights of victims are less important, or at least no more  important, than the rights of the perpetrators. Thanks to media organisations like the BBC, we now live in a relativistic world where both the perpetrators and victims of violence share the same moral and discursive space.

Besides, when it comes to neutrality, the BBC is curiously selective. The 2004 Balen Report, which contains the findings of an investigation into alleged BBC bias against Israel, continues to be suppressed. The BBC has spent hundreds of thousands of pounds on legal costs in an effort to keep the report under wraps. I wonder why.

I am of the suspicion that the BBC employs the word “militant” rather than “terrorist” not because it wants to appear neutral but because it is afraid of alienating a sizeable (and very vocal) segment of its viewing audience. After all, support for Hamas, Islamic State and Al-Qaeda is entrenched in Muslim communities across the UK.

If it’s the case that the BBC is indeed filtering its news output in accordance with the wishes of Islamic State sympathisers, then it neither deserves the goodwill nor the funding of the British public who are forced, by law, to pay the BBC licence fee.

I fear that it will take something horrible such as a suicide bombing on the London Underground or in Trafalgar Square for the BBC to stop pandering to a vocal minority and to reconsider its use of terminology.

But given the BBC’s reluctance to accept constructive criticism, this seems unlikely.