The Mastery of Good in Luzzatto’s The Way of G-d

Speech delivered to the Sephardic Synagogue of London, May 2018

Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto was born in Padua in 1707. He was a controversial figure. Although he was acknowledged as a master of Talmud he also wrote voluminously on kabbalah including commentaries on the Zohar and the Etz Chaim of Rabbi Isaac Luria. He also wrote erotic dramas in Latin and is considered one of the founders of modern Hebrew. The rabbis of Italy forced him to burn his kabbalistic works. He was driven from Italy to Germany under suspicion of Sabbateanism. In Germany he had to sign a document stating his works on kabbala were false. He then went to Acre in Palestine where three years later he died of the plague.

Since his death his orthodoxy has been rehabilitated. His works are standard reading in Yeshivas and the Vilna Gaon said if he were still alive he’d walk on foot from Lithuania to Italy to study with him.

I’m going to focus on the first section of “Derech HaShem”. In it Rabbi Luzzatto sets out to answer two questions: what is God, and what is the purpose of creation. He believes we can only answer these two questions together. He writes “If one wishes to understand something, it is therefore very important that he be aware of other things associated with it as well as its place among them.” — p.21

Let’s start with God since Luzzatto believes everything does. God is ” a first Being, without beginning or end, who brought all things into existence and continues to sustain them.” It’s worth pausing a moment on the concept of first here. Imagine the world is a vast chain of dominos and the history of the universe is those dominos falling over. You might believe that there needs to have been a first domino to set the whole thing in motion. Or you might not — philosophers have differed upon whether the idea of an infinitely existing chain of dominoes makes any sense. Aristotle thought it did and it was also true. Aquinas thought it made perfect sense but we know it’s not the case because of revelation. However God is not first the way the domino is first — or at least not just like that.

God is first in the sense of being the first explainer. An explanation is basically an answer to the question “Why?” If we say “Why is the sky blue” the answer is because that’s how light looks refracted through the earth’s atmosphere. If we ask again “Why does light refracting make things look blue” the answer is the laws of optics and the nature of the human eye. If you ask “why are the laws of optics the way they are” the answer is quantum physics. If you then ask why is quantum physics the way it is the non-theistic answer would be — no answer, it’s just the way it is. The theistic answer is God. Luzzatto accepts the theistic answer. So God is in the words of ibn-Rushd the unexplained explainer. Any question you ask about why things are the way they are is ultimately going to reach God. And there is no explanation for God. His true nature is “beyond comprehension”. Now at this point you might think we have a problem.

What good is it to answer questions by appealing to something or somebody who is “beyond comprehension.” It doesn’t seem very intellectually satisfying. Why are things the way they are? God. But who’s God, what’s God? It’s like saying the reason of everything is BLABLABLA. Beyond comprehension. It has an authoritarian ring to it. Why do I have to clean my room. “Daddy said so. And that’s final.” Let’s remember that problem because we are going to come back to it.

Now Luzzatto goes on from God to the purpose of creation And I think we can think of this as among other things an existential question. Not what is the purpose of creation in general but what for each of us is the purpose of our lives? The question “what is the purpose of creation” is for each of us the quesiton “Why am I here?” “What is the point of my life?” Luzzatto’s answer is that God is infinitely good so an infinitely good being would want to do the very best thing it could possibly do.

What is that? What is the best thing an infinitely good thing could do? It could give you a great house. It could give you money. It could give you health. But those are finite things — Luzzatto thinks God can do better. He thinks the best thing he can do is to give himself. “God’s purpose in creation was to bestow of His good to another. “Since God desire to bestow good a partial good would not be sufficient. The good that He bestows would have to be the ultimate good that His handiwork could accept. God alone, however, is the only true good, and therefore His beneficent desire would not be satisfied unless it could bestow that very good, namely the true perfect good that exists in His intrinsic essence.”

So what’s that? Is it I get a package at my door and open it up and God is inside with a note “Enjoy!”. No. That’s impossible because God is not located in space. So giving his good means = letting creature “attach themselves to Him to the greatest degree possible for them” [37] What does it mean to attach to something that doesn’t have a spatial location? Luzzatto argues that means to be similar to it. God is an infinite being who takes pleasure in the good. So the purpose of creation is to create beings who can be like that. That is us. “The purpose of all that was created was therefore to bring into existence a creature who could derive pleasure from God’s own good, in a way that would be possible for it.”

At this point Luzzatto introduces an interesting idea. He says that to be like God we cannot just receive good from Him. We have to in some sense own it ourselves. We have to be what he calls “the master of our own good”. He writeS:

God’s wisdom, however, decreed that for such good to be perfect, the one enjoying it must be its master. He must be one who has earned it for himself, and not one associated with it accidentally. In a way this can be said to partially resemble God’s own perfection…God is perfect because of His intrinsic nature, and not without cause…In order to resemble God to some degree, it is at least necessary that this creature earn the perfection that its essence does not require, and avoid deficiency that its nature does not preclude. God therefore arranged and decreed the creation of concepts of both perfection and deficiency, as well as a creature with equal access to both. This creature would then be given the means to earn perfection and avoid deficiency. Having accomplished this, the creature could then be said to have made itself resemble its Creator, at least to the degree that this is possible. As a result it is then worthy of being drawn close to Him and deriving pleasure from His goodness.

So I want to raise a problem. Is this “mastery” of good actually mastery? It seems more like a slave/employee/child situation. God creates us. He gives us the possibility to choose either good or not-so-good. If we choose good we are the master of our own good. How is this situation “mastery of our own good”?

If Dad puts out a cake and a note which says please don’t eat it before dinner and I wait till dinner to have dessert — does that make the master of my own good? It seems like Dad is the master here. Or the laws of good eating. But I seem to be in a slave like relationship to Dad or the laws of good eating.

On the other hand wouldn’t somebody who really was the “master of his own good” be some sort of egomaniac? Like a dictator who hurts people to make himself rich and famous and powerful? Because he’s the master, right? So why does Luzzatto think that the good people are the masters of their own good and not the tyrants?

Another way to say this problem: How does it make us like God to choose perfection rather than deficiency? Because that’s not the situation God is in. And the whole point of this was to give us the best thing God could give us — namely resemblance to him.

So we have two problems: how is the purpose of our life achieved by being the master of our own good? And what kind of explanation is “God” anyway? If he’s incomprehensible why is it any good to explain things by appeal to him? How is explanation by God better than explanation by BLABLABLA?

I think Luzzatto wants us to answer those two questions together.

Remember he said we need to understand everything in context. So he wants us to understand how it is that the purpose of our life is to be master of our own good by reference to God, and to understand God by understanding what it might mean to be master of our own good.

How should we understand God’s infinity?

How do we understand infinity at all. The natural numbers -1,2,3,4 — are infinite. But I can’t say them all even if I do it for my whole life. I can’t fit them in my brain. But I understand it. To understand it means that I know if anybody gives me a number even a million miillion million million — I know that that’s not the biggest one. I know there are numbers bigger. So what does it mean that God is incomprehensible? It doesn’t mean God is nonsense. It’s not like BLABLABLA. But it means that any conception you give m of God — he’s a great father a great king a mystical light, the simplest, the best — there is a bigger one. We should never rest with our conceptions of God. That would be idolatry.

So we need to figure out how to construe our PURPOSE and GOD in context. We understand “purpose of life” by understanding God and we understand God by understand purpose of life.

I left out one clause that he keeps repeating “TO THE EXTENT POSSIBLE”. We’re finite, God’s infinite. We are not supposed to be like God to an extent that’s impossible. But how much is possible?

Bear in mind that Luzzatto wrote under conditions of tremendous censorship. They rabbis of the day him burn most of his books, most of his kabbalistic books. So we don’t know. But the only way to know the extent something is possible is to try. So that’s the idea — we are constantly deepening our sense of how much we can do, how much we can give, how much we can love, how much we can understand — we are constantly deepening our understanding of what our life’s purpose is. And that constantly deepens our understanding of God. And vice versa.

God is not an ego — he’s perfect and simple and incomprehensible. He’s like the context of all contexts. He is not a slave to any sort of limitation or self-protection or fear. We deepen our understanding of ourselves by having the conception of God and we deepen our understanding of God by having a deeper existential grasp of our own lives — coming to a decision about what it is to live our life most authentically and at it’s best.

So what does it mean to be master of our own good? We know it means to be like God. And God is infinite. He’s not compelled to do anything. He’s not motivated by any fear or limitation. And what he does is bestow his own good on others. How? By making the others — us — the masters of our own good.

So to resemble God must mean to be like God and give without any fear of limitation. So it was a bit of a trick to say that the tyrant or egomaniac or dictator is master of his own good in Luzzatto’s sense. He is actually afraid of what will happen if he doesn’t frighten people. If he doesn’t force them to acknowledge his greatness. That’s not like God who is not afraid of anything and doesn’t need anything. They are in Luzzatto’s language motivated by deficiency.

So the dictator is not the master of his own good in Luzzatto’s sense. What would be an example? Not somebody trying to get rich — then his deficiency is his master. Not someone trying to be famous — then his need for acclaim and applause is his master. What could we do if we’re already rich and famous enough? What you can do is help other people be masters.

To be the master of our own good is to be like God and one example of how to do that is to create a space for other people in which they can be infinite — in as much as human beings can be infinite, which we can’t know without trying. But we know how to start — removing poverty, sickness, lack of education, slavery, neurosis — everything that limits their happiness and flourishing and freedom and seeing what happens.

Doing this, creating situations for other people to flourish will gives us pleasure. And it will achieve the purpose of creation which is for God to give the very best thing he can give — which is resemblance to God.

To be masters of our own good we need to give like God gives from an overflowing of our own good. Overflowing of good to benefit another that itself gives us pleasure. That is a definition of love.

So to conclude:

    What is the purpose of existence for Luzzatto?

To be like God as much as possible.

    What’s God?

God is incomprehensible and infinite.

    What does that mean?

For anything good we can say about him there’s something more. We can never stop understanding the boundless greatness and goodness of God.

    So given that how can we be like God as much as possible?

By freely choosing and taking pleasure in infinite good — which he calls being master of our own good.

    And what is an example of that?

Creating spaces and situations in which other people can become masters of their own good — everyday being better, greater, and enjoying life more than the day before.


2 thoughts on “The Mastery of Good in Luzzatto’s The Way of G-d

  1. Simcha Weinberg says:

    His erotic plays were in Latin and Italian

    Italian rabbis forced by Hagiz of Egypt, anti Sabbetian warrior, to send him to Germany etc.


  2. This is wonderful!

    “To be as much like God as possible … God is incomprehensible and infinite.” So the path extends forward beyond our sight. It is the quest that defines us, even if we can’t (on our own) reach the destination.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s