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The highest presence is absence: In matters of the spirit, Nothing=Something -- lots of something (Rabbi Hillel Goldberg, March 5, 2004, Jewish World Review)
G-d Himself is an absence, philosophically speaking.

To attribute any positive attribute to G-d, no matter how lofty, is to limit G-d, to reduce and attenuate His presence. To say, for example, that G-d is omniscient is to regard G-d as a knowing being, only more so; putting G-d essentially on the same plane as any other knowing being. Similarly, to say that G-d is omnipotent is to regard G-d as only quantitatively, not qualitatively, different from any other powerful being. All other positive attributes similarly limit G-d.

The only way not to limit G-d is to describe Him by what Maimonides and others term "negative attributes." To place no limits on G-d, to describe Him as unlike any other being, is to describe what G-d is not - to say, for example, that G-d is invisible, incomprehensible, unnameable, ineffable. The attempt to describe G-d positively is the attempt to describe G-d's essence, and this is impossible. In His essence, G-d is G-d only by virtue of what He is not -- by virtue of His absence.

The human being -- any human being -- is, by virtue of being created in the image of G-d, an absence.

If one may not posit any positive attribute of G-d, is there not an unbridgeable gap between Him and humanity? If we have preserved, by a theology of negatives attributes, the purity of G-d, have we not also removed the possibility of all human contact with Him and rendered Him irrelevant? Judaism's answer to these questions is this: G-d's essence is unknowable, indescribable, indivisible, but G-d's actions -- the expressions of His will -- are knowable. If human beings can never know G-d's essence, they can draw close to Him by obeying His will. G-d both preserves His private essence and communicates His will, through the Bible. G-d has no positive attributes and expresses His concern for humanity by revealing His commandments.

Similarly, the human gesture must be twofold: concealment and revelation, privacy and interaction, inscrutability and disclosure. G-d combines an ultimate, essential mystery with ethical activity. The human being must combine the protective privacy of an ultimate boundary with communication. This is a form of imitateo Dei.
There are plenty of perfectly justifiable reasons to reject God, but the one that seems terribly vacuous, as well as appallingly self-centered, is His silence. Atheists will often ask: "Where is He?"; as if for God to exist He would have to speak to them personally.

There's an excellent film that illustrates this point, though presumably by accident: Ingmar Bergman's Winter Light. It features a Lutheran pastor, Tomas, who has lost both his wife and his faith. Plagued by a lingering flu, with a miniscule congregation, in a bleak Swedish winter, he is merely going through the motions when he conducts services. As the film opens, he is preaching about the betrayal of Christ by his disciples and then administers Communion.

Afterwards he is brutal to the spinster schoolteacher with whom he's been involved, but his behavior with a troubled parishoner is truly appalling. Jonas, a fisherman, has become obsessed with the thought of nuclear armageddon. But rather than trying to offer him some comfort, Tomas reveals his own lack of faith, in particular those doubts which arise from God's silence: "If there is no God, would it really make any difference? Life would become understandable. What a relief." Jonas promptly walks out of the church and kills himself.

Later, Tomas travels to another church he serves, with even fewer in the congregation, in fact, none on this day. There he has a conversation with the crippled volunteer who helps him prepare for services. This man says that it has occurred to him that he has probably suffered more physical pain in his life than Christ did on the way to the Cross, that the real agony must have been to hang there during the Crucifixion, betrayed and alone, crying out to God, and receiving no answer.

Though the suicide is more obvious, this would seem to be the point upon which the film pivots. One can either take the silence in which Christ died to prove there is no God to speak to us or one can accept that God did not answer even His own Son, that God loves us so much that He was willing to experience that terrible silence Himself. The silence then is either all that matters or it is insignificant to the grand scheme. I don't know enough about Mr. Bergman to know which he believes, but the film suggests its own answer. By dwelling on the uncomfortable nature of the silence, Tomas needlessly, even callously, caused a man to kill himself. If this is where doubt leads, then doubt must be rejected--it is not just anti-God, but anti-human. Faith, radical faith, is required of us, even in the face of that silence.

The film ends with Tomas back in his own church conducting another service. It is possible to see this as just going through the empty motions, but it is also possible to look at it as an acceptance that the motions are not empty, that it is the motions that matter, not the silence. Or, as the essay quoted above says: "[T]he human gesture must be twofold: concealment and revelation, privacy and interaction, inscrutability and disclosure. G-d combines an ultimate, essential mystery with ethical activity. The human being must combine the protective privacy of an ultimate boundary with communication. This is a form of imitateo Dei."

The Swedish title of the film, NattvardsgŠsterna, means (apparently) The Communicants, the irony being the lack of communication, both between the characters themselves and between them and God. But in that final scene in the church, do we not see the possibility that much is actually communicated in our therefore-not-at-all-empty gestures towards God? (Just like, as Rabbi Goldberg notes, much is conveyed by God's actions in our world.) If Tomas could rewind to the point where he's talking to Jonas and this time greet the fisherman's fears with a gesture of faith, mightn't he thereby save a life? Instead, when Jonas greets Tomas's "We must live" with a sharp "Why must we live?", Tomas has no answer. If we meet the silence with a loss of faith then there is indeed no reason to live. So, whatever Mr. Bergan may have meant to say, that closing image of Tomas once again at least trying to communicate God's message, seems an acceptance of the need for faith and an embrace, however tentative, of a purposeful existence.


Grade: (A-)


See also:

    -Ingmar Bergman (
    -Ingmar Bergman (1918- ) (kirjasto)
    -The Magic Works of Ingmar Bergman
    -Ingmar Bergman (Strictly Film School)
    -1-World Festival of Foreign Films: Ingmar Bergman
    -PODCAST: The Seventh Seal: Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss Ingmar Bergman's influential film from 1957 in which a knight plays chess with Death in the hope of living long enough to do something meaningful (In Our Time, BBC)
    -ESSAY: Ingmar Bergman’s moral horror show: He flayed his ego for the sake of art (ROB DOYLE, 5/15/23, UnHerd)
    -ESSAY: Ingmar Bergman: The Darkness Before the Dawn (questers)
    -INFO: Winter Light (
    -REVIEW ARCHIVE: NattvardsgŠsterna [Winter Light] (1963) (
    -REVIEW: of A Film Trilogy by Ingmar Bergman: (Through a Glass Darkly, Winter Light, The Silence (DVD Verdict)
    -REVIEW: of Winter Light (Jake Euker,
    -REVIEW: of Winter Light (Long Pauses)
    -REVIEW: of Fanny & Alexander (Peter Bradshaw, Guardian)