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11. G-d's Expressions in This World

February 18, 2014 | by Rabbi Yaakov Aaronson

Which anthropomorphisms are appropriate?

Anthropomorphisms1:1:5 (Part 3)
Section 1: Fundamentals of Existence
Chapter 1: The Creator
Point 5

G-d, however, does not require a separate "domain" for each of these powers. In fact, He does possess these powers which, in man, are different from one another, for G-d, we can say, does "desire" and is "wise" and "capable," and is perfect is every conceivable way.

On the other hand, G-d is actually One, these phenomena being present in Him without being separate parts of Him, their being included in Him by virtue of His perfection. All types of perfection exist in G-d, not as phenomena which are separable from His absolute One-ness, and it is impossible that G-d not possess every perfection.

As we said in our last class, we can't describe G-d as actually possessing powers or qualities. So how can we describe G-d as "wise"? Because this "wisdom" isn't describing an aspect of who G-d is, but rather describing how we perceive G-d.

Notice how previously in this first chapter, the Ramchal described G-d as:

  • infinite
  • perfect
  • necessarily existing
  • independent

If we look carefully at these four descriptions, we see that they are all negations. They are all telling us what G-d is not: He has no limitations, isn't dependent on anything, can't go out of existence...

And now, the Ramchal is using positive ascriptions for G-d: wisdom, capability, desire, etc. But these are not descriptions of what G-d is; they are descriptions of what G-d does.1

This distinction now allows us to understand many otherwise confusing descriptions that the Torah employs to describe G-d. When the Jewish people turn to idol worship, the Torah describes G-d as jealous. When they sin in other ways, G-d is described as wrathful or angry. It seems intuitively wrong to think that G-d gets jealous or angry, because we relate to those negative emotions as weaknesses. Jealousy is the bitterness that goes with wanting something that you can't have. Anger is a frustration over things not going your way, a lack of control, unmet expectations. They seem like such unhealthy weak parts of our personalities, so how can we seriously consider the idea that G-d expresses these limitations?

Let's strengthen the question: We saw in our last class that it's also limiting to suggest that G-d can be happy, or powerful or wise, etc. So how can an infinite being have any specific "qualities"?

The answer, of course, is that the Torah is not saying that G-d is actually angry. The Torah is saying that G-d is doing some things that we in this world should interpret as anger.

Acting Angry

A similar phenomenon takes place in parenting. As most parenting experts would say, it is unhealthy to express your personal frustrations at your child. Children shouldn't be the recipients (victims) of our frustration (even if the child is the direct cause!), because we won't end up interacting with them in a way that's best for the child. At the same time, one potent and valuable tool that we do use to educate and direct our children is the display of anger. So should we get angry, or shouldn't we?

Ironically, there will be times where we have to suppress our anger even though we feel it, and other times where we'll have to act angry even though we don't feel it! The focus is on getting the child to hear the message that he needs to be hearing right now. So when my 2-year-old spills her glass of milk for the third time in five minutes, I'm frustrated. But it would be counterproductive (and abusive) for me to yell at her for it. She's innocent. She's too young to be any more careful.

On the other hand, imagine that my 6-year-old asks if she can have a piece of cake. I tell her that she can't right now, because we'll be eating dinner in ten minutes. I leave the kitchen. Two minutes later I come back, and there's my daughter, with her back to me, and she seems to be stuffing something into her mouth. I say, "Sarah?!" She jumps and turns around, with a full mouth and crumbs around her face. "Did you have a piece of that cake?" I ask. She quickly and stealthily swallows the cake and, straining a look of innocence, says, "No."

It is such an obvious lie that I'm ready to burst out laughing, not least because it brings back memories of my own childhood. But I also know that there's been a breach of trust. So if she were to see me laughing, it would demolish any chance of getting her to take her transgression seriously. So I have to hold back the laughter, and try to speak to her sternly about my "disappointment" with her behavior. Even if I'm not so disappointed or upset, that's still the message that she needs to hear.

G-d's way of dealing with humanity, and really with every one of us individually, operates in a similar way. G-d "acts" in the world in a way that we can interpret the messages that G-d wants us to hear.

Once we see that these anthropomorphisms are simply a label for our perspective of G-d, we still face a problem. Which anthropomorphisms are appropriate? To call G-d "just" or "forgiving"? "Giving" or "taking"? "He" or "she"?

Certainly, each of these terms has it's own limits. Being forgiving is a very noble trait, but we wouldn't see it as positive for a judge to be forgiving of an unrepentant repeating criminal. On the other hand, what if you promised your son that you'll buy him a bike if he gets an 80% in math, his hardest subject? You see him really working hard to prepare for the test, and he brings home a 79. The "just" thing to do is stick to your rules... but is that the kind of message that will encourage your son?

Every trait has its own deficiencies. G-d by definition cannot have deficiencies. And yet the Ramchal gives us permission in 1.1.5 to assign traits to G-d! The solution is to understand that we're not actually saying that G-d has these traits, the way a human would. We're saying that we see the positive aspects of these traits, in how G-d interacts with His world.

Let's take, for example, the trait of jealousy. Why does the Torah in several places describe G-d as "jealous" – e.g. "You shall have no other gods before Me... for I, Hashem your G-d, am a jealous G-d" (Exodus 20:3-5)?

To understand, let's distinguish the different elements that exist in the emotion of jealousy. One element is frustration, a lack of control, a perceived lack of justice – "How come she got that job?!"

Another element could be a very appropriate anger or indignation over a disloyalty. A husband who discovers that his wife has been cheating has every right to be angry, disappointed and jealous. We wouldn't say, "If he was emotionally strong and healthy, these kinds of things wouldn't bother him."

So in summation, since G-d's infinite essence is inherently unknowable, we can never say anything about what G-d is. On the other hand, infinite (=not finite/limited) does carry with it many implications about what G-d is not. And finally, there's the point the Ramchal is really making here – that we can, from a human perspective, talk about what G-d does. We just need to realize that these human metaphors, while true as borrowed terms, don't actually apply to G-d Himself.

Deeper Insights

G-d is Good

We now have a better understanding of the anthropomorphisms that we use for G-d. We can see qualities in this world and, at least from a human perspective, see G-d as the source of those qualities. That doesn't limit Him. But since any quality in this world has its own limitations, the limitation-aspect of those qualities obviously can't apply to G-d as an unlimited being.

We know that this world exhibits some awesome displays of power: the crash of a tidal wave, the radiant energy of the sun, etc. So we can safely say that G-d – the source of those powers – is "powerful." Now G-d's power isn't like our power. We have power because we've worked out in the gym. G-d doesn't need to lift any weights to build His strength. Although the positive aspects of power can be used to describe an infinite being, the negative or limiting aspects of that power cannot apply to G-d as an unlimited being.

So it makes sense to call G-d "wise" since we are borrowing the positive elements that label carries and using it to describe an attribute of G-d. But using the term "stupid" is a limiting term and therefore has no application to an infinite being. And so too with power.

Another term often used to describe G-d is the word "good." Why do we presume that G-d is intrinsically good and then have to find a way to explain the suffering we see in the world? Why not look at all the suffering, injustice and misery in the world and say that G-d is evil, and then try to find some explanation for why Murphy's law doesn't always apply?

In order to understand our labeling of G-d as good and not evil, we have to realize that good and evil are also finite labels. Within our own human experience, how do we understand good or evil? We see evil as always a form of taking. Whether it's robbing a bank or torturing someone, the causing of harm can only be understood as being motivated by selfishness – doing what's good for the inflictor at the expense of the victim.

Given that observation, asking if G-d can do evil is tantamount to asking if G-d can "take." Can an infinite being get something? Gain? Accomplish? Change? Impossible. G-d could not have created as an act of evil, because that would imply that G-d is benefiting in some way by inflicting the evil. That very notion is the antithesis of the nature of an infinite being. So, by virtue of the fact that creation itself is an act of giving, it becomes accurate to call G-d "good."

G-d's Personality

Given everything that we've said about G-d, it would be silly to actually think of G-d as having a gender. Humans and animals (and even some plants) have a gender. Planets, colors and rocks don't. But then come to think of it, if G-d is so removed from us all together, why even ascribe any aspect of personality to G-d? Why not call G-d "it," like we would call a law of gravity or a cloud?

This really cuts to the heart of what the Ramchal is doing for us in point 5. Everything we say about G-d in any positive sense is a limited human metaphor. Even to say that G-d "created" is really just a limited human description. From G-d's perspective, can there be such a thing as the moment when He "became" a Creator? From our perspective, there has to be a thing called the moment of creation. Even science today agrees that we haven't been around forever. But from G-d's perspective, the idea of a moment of creation, where something "happened" really makes no sense!

So even an idea as basic as creation, is only our limited human way of grappling with something beyond our comprehension.

Let's try to bring this idea a little closer to home. Take a moment right now and look at something in the room you're sitting in. Let's say that you're seeing a door. Are you actually seeing the door itself? Scientifically, what is happening? There are rays of lights bouncing off the door and entering through your pupil into your eye. From there, photo-sensitive cells have a chemical reaction that sends a message to the visual cortex, with the image (upside-down) forming in your brain. You're not seeing the door, you're seeing the image in your brain of the door! In other words, what you're viewing is not the reality outside of you, but your perception of that reality.

That's true about everything we perceive in the world around us, including G-d. We never deal with an apprehension of G-d Himself, only with our perception of G-d, like our perception of the door. Is the door really brown? No, that's just what we perceive of it. If our eyes processed images differently, we'd perceive it as a different color, which would be just as real and true. Similarly, since we have no choice but to work within our perceptions, we use those experiences to describe G-d.

So once we realize that every description we can conjure up is limited, we can ask: From our perspective, does G-d seem to us to be a law of nature, or a personality? Does G-d seem to be a source of existence connected to everything "it" creates? Does G-d seem to be a force that, unlike gravity which must make objects attract to each other, didn't "need" to create out of compulsion, but rather chose to? It seems pretty clear that such a source is better described as a personality than as an impersonal force of nature.

Is G-d a He?

So now back to our question of G-d's "gender." When we look at the first instance of gender in the Torah, we see it in the creation of Adam and Eve. Eve is created as the ezer kenegdo, the "helpmate" to support Adam in his mission (Genesis 2:18). The Torah's paradigm of male-female is one where the male plays the more public and proactive role, and the woman the more nurturing and hidden role. Man is the giver, and woman is the receiver. We see that paradigm clearly in their physical differences, and in how they relate to physical intimacy. But the physical is just the outer guise of a deeper reality on an emotional and spiritual plane.

This is obviously a major discussion in itself, beyond the scope of this essay. But as it pertains to understanding the labels we use for G-d, we call G-d "He" to mean that we, as the recipients of His creation, will most naturally relate to G-d as proactive and giving. It's not a coincidence that at the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai, the Sages describe the scene metaphorically as G-d, the groom, offering Torah (the ketubah – the contract that spells out the terms of the marriage and relationship) to the Jewish people as the bride.

This also probably explains why women usually struggle less in creating a harmonious relationship with G-d. They are more naturally attuned to playing the feminine side of the relationship that really every human has with G-d. Hence, women need less commandments and ritual-physical reminders of how to form that relationship. This is, of course, touching on a very deep topic.

Questions to Think About

  • We have said that there are three categorical ways of dealing with G-d: describing what He is, what He is not, and what He does. Give your own example of each.
  • Which is the primary way that we emotionally relate to G-d? Why?
  • Why would the Torah describe G-d as jealous or angry if, in reality, G-d doesn't experience such emotions? Isn't that misleading?


  1. Rabbi Yehuda HaLevi (1075 – 1141), in his masterpiece, Kuzari, makes a further breakdown of G-d’s attributes into three categories. See “Deeper Insights” at the end of this essay.
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