If only I could offer a definitive answer to that question! From the very beginning our Sages wondered about God’s origin. They asked: Why does the Torah begin with the letter bet, the second letter of the alefbet, rather than alef, the first letter. The explicit answer, that we cannot ask about what exists before, above or below, has to do with the shape of the letter which is closed on three sides and open only on the front. The implied answer is that we cannot go searching beyond what we can know – including God’s origins in the worlds before us or beyond us. Our concern is with what awaits us. But if our Sages thought that would resolve the question, they were wrong.
Each generation asks the question in its own way, and their answer seems to be unacceptable to a later generation. The Medieval philosophers offered proofs of God’s independent existence, but they were eventually proven to be faulty. Maimonides, the great 11th century Jewish sage, opens his magisterial work, the Mishnah Torah¸ with the axiom that there is one source behind all existence. He appeals to our rational logic to prove God’s existence before the world’s Creation. The other major code of Jewish law, the 16th century Shulchan Aruch, shares his axiomatic belief in a pre-existent God, but places the burden of proof in our body: “Be strong as a lion to rise in the morning to do the work of the Creator.” We know God through our experience.
We should not be surprised that formal philosophical proofs fall short. If the task is to comprehend that which encompasses all of Creation, then we need to admit that our human intelligence, as advanced as it is in so many ways, is limited in knowledge and experience. Our efforts to define the Infinite cannot grasp the whole of it all.
Eugene Borowitz, perhaps the premier Reform theologian today, acknowledges that classical proofs fall before modern skepticism and “many Liberal Jews have long privately thought of themselves as agnostics.” He identifies God as the “Ground of Value”, which he believes to be an “independent, existent Deity” which can make claims on our life. (Liberal Judaism, by Eugene Borowitz, pg 170-174)
Mordecai Kaplan, the founder of Reconstructionist Judaism, comes closest to the side that holds that we created a Supreme Being for our own needs when he writes in his 1934 work, Judaism as a Civilization¸ that “most rational people today … prefer to identify God with that aspect of reality which elicits the most serviceable human traits, the traits that enhance individual human worth and further social unity.” (pg 397) God seems intimately tied into our human experience.
By contrast, Abraham Joshua Heschel suggests that it in those moments when we apprehend that which is beyond ourselves that we find God. “Awe enables us to perceive in the world intimations of the divine, to sense in small things the beginning of infinite significance, to sense the ultimate in the common and the simple.” (God In Search Of Man, by Abraham Joshua Heschel, pg 75) God exists beyond human existence. Not surprisingly, for Heschel “to pray is to take notice of the wonder, to regain a sense of the mystery that animates all being.” (Quest for God, Abraham Joshua Heschel, pg 5)
Rabbi Lawrence Kushner wonders if we use the right terms when we ask questions about God. He illustrates this in his book, Honey From the Rock (pg 17-18) when he tells of teaching an 8th grade class and asking if they believed in God. To his astonishment and dismay no one raised a hand. He went on to other topics, but eventually returned, asking a slightly different question: if any of them had ever been close to God. “And every one of them raised their hands. Freely and naturally.” He asked for the proof. “And one by one they described, what I believe to be, the Jewish experience of God.” It was Shabbat candles, the death of a grandparent, the experience of helping others. Their experience proved more decisive than their belief.
The philosophical answer to God’s existence may not matter as much as what it is that we do as a result of our relationship or experience of God. I cannot answer for you, the reader, whether God created humans or humans created God. Whichever side you choose you will find those who agree with you.