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Understanding God

May 9, 2009 | by Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan

The Creator of space and time is from all existence.

God is defined as the Creator of the universe, as the opening verse of the Torah states, "In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth" (Genesis 1:1). God likewise said, "I am God, I make all things" (Isaiah 44:24).

As Creator of the universe, God must be distinct from the world. Judaism therefore rejects the philosophy of pantheism.

As Creator of the universe, God's existence cannot depend on any of His handiwork. Judaism therefore rejects any definition of God as an abstract ethical force or social convention.

As Creator of all, God is on a higher plane than His handiwork. He is therefore referred to as the Supreme Being.

As Creator, God is absolutely different from anything else that exists. He is therefore totally unknowable.

Although God himself is unknowable, we can, to some degree, understand His relationship to the universe. In this manner, we speak of God through His "attributes of action." Also, although we cannot know what God is, we can learn much by realizing what He is not. In this sense, we speak of God using "negative attributes."

Absolute Unity

It is a foundation of our faith to believe that God is One and that He is a most perfect and absolute Unity.

It is written, "Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one" (Deut. 6:4). This is a positive commandment to believe in God's unity. This commandment depends on thought and can be fulfilled at any time.

Although the universe contains many galaxies, each consisting of innumerable stars and planets, there is one God who is Author and Creator of them all. It is absolutely impossible to conceive of more than one Absolute Being.

Although there may be many other universes, both physical and spiritual, God is One over all. It is thus written, "Your kingdom is a kingdom of all worlds" (Psalms 145:13).

Judaism emphatically rejects any concept of plurality with respect to God.

Judaism emphatically rejects any concept of plurality with respect to God. It therefore rejects the Christian concept of the trinity, in which God is depicted as three persons in one, corresponding to His manifestation in creation, redemption and revelation.

Since any additional quality would add an element of plurality to God's essence, we conceive of Him as being absolutely simple. His simple essence, however, implies every attribute with which He created and rules His universe.

As Creator, God's power in His universe is unlimited. We therefore speak of God as being omnipotent, and refer to Him in our prayer as "King of the universe.' It is likewise written, "All that God wishes, he does, in heaven and earth, in the seas and all the deeps" (Psalms 135:6).

We do not, however, ascribe to God the power of doing that which is categorically impossible, such as duplicating, annihilating, corporifying, or changing Himself. Judaism therefore rejects the possibility that God could have ever assumed human form.

Since God is the Creator of all matter, it is obvious that He does not consist of matter.

Because of God's antithesis to all material attributes, He is called Pure and Holy.

God's Hands and Eyes

As Creator of all things, God is also the Creator of space and time. He therefore does not exist in space and time.

It is therefore taught that God is given the appellation "Place," Makom in Hebrew. The universe of space and time is a creation of God, and does not contain Him.

The human mind can only deal with physical concepts, and it is therefore virtually impossible for it to picture any existence outside of space and time. This is but another reason that God's Essence is unknowable.

Body, shape and form are all attributes of space. It is therefore obvious that God has neither body, shape nor form.

It is a foundation of our faith to believe that God is absolutely incorporeal. The Torah therefore states, "Take good heed of yourselves, for you saw no manner of form on that day that God spoke to you at Horeb." (Deut. 4:15).

God is therefore not to be compared to any of His creatures, even to the highest angels. The prophet thus declared, "To whom will you then liken God? To what likeness will you compare Him?" (Isaiah 40:18). It is likewise written, "There is none like You, O God" (Jeremiah 10:6). The Psalmist similarly said, "There are none like You among the powers (angels), O God, and there are no words like Yours" (Psalms 86:8).

The Torah uses familiar terms to allegorically to express God's relation to His creation.

In many places, the Torah speaks of God as though He had a human body, using anthropomorphisms such as, "the hand of God" (Exodus 9:15), and "the eyes of God" (Deut. 11:12). In doing so, the Torah is in no way asserting that God has a body, shape or form. Rather, it borrows terms from God's creatures allegorically to express His relation to His creation.

Similarly, when the Torah states that God created man in His image (Genesis 1:27), it by no means implies that God looks like man. What it means is that man partakes of the same attributes that God uses when He interacts with His world. It also implies that God gave man the ability to use the same logic with which He created the universe.

Moses asked God, "Let me behold Your Glory" (Exodus 33:18). In making this request, he did not actually wish to see God, since that would be impossible. In an allegorical manner, he was merely requesting that God grant him a prophetic comprehension of His greatness. God replied that this is impossible for any living creature, saying, "You cannot see My Face, for man cannot see Me and live" (Exodus 33:20). He did allow Moses the greatest comprehension of God ever granted to any human being, but even this was not a perfect understanding. This is what God meant when He allegorically told Moses, "You shall see My back, but My Face shall not be seen" (Exodus 33:23). The same was true of the other "visions" of God experienced by the prophets.

When the Torah speaks of people hearing God's "voice," it usually refers to a prophetic voice within the individual's mind. At other times, God might actually create sound waves to convey His message...

Time and Space

God is spoken of as being "eternal," that is, as existing outside the realm of time. Time as such does not apply to God Himself, only to His creation. God therefore has neither beginning, end, nor age, since these concepts would imply existence within a framework of time.

God Himself is therefore absolutely unchangeable and unchanging. He thus said, "I am God, I do not change" (Malachi 3:6).

As Creator of time, God can make use of it without becoming involved in it.

As Creator of time, God can make use of it without becoming involved in it. He can therefore cause change in the world without being changed Himself. God is thus called the "unmoved Mover."

There are statements in the Torah that may seem to contradict this. Thus, the Torah appears to ascribe emotions such as joy and anger to God. But here too, it is merely speaking of God's interaction with man. We perceive God's actions, and ascribe to Him the same emotions that we ourselves would feel if we were performing a similar act. Thus, for example, when God punishes, we say that He is "angry." None of this, however, is meant to imply any change in God Himself.

Even the creation of the universe did not change God in any way. Similarly, it did not involve any change of God's mind. It cannot be said that at a particular moment He suddenly decided to create a world. A statement such as this has no meaning, since time, and hence, the very concept of change, were among the things created by God. Therefore, both before and after creation, God was absolutely the same.

Unknowable Yet Accessible

Creation therefore did not fill any need in God's being. God is inherently perfect, and does not have any need for the universe.

In absolutely no way can it be said that God was compelled to create the world. Hence, creation was nothing less than an act of absolute altruism on the part of God.

God is called "living" because He performs acts that are normally ascribed to living things.

Our understanding of God's relationship to the world is twofold, namely, that He is both immanent and transcendental. Thus, He both fills and encompasses all creation. This duality, however, is only due to our imperfect understanding of God, since He Himself is the most absolute Unity.

This twofold concept is expressed in the song of the angels. They sing, "Holy, holy, holy is God of Hosts, the whole world is filed with His Glory" (Isaiah 6:3). This indicates that God is immanent, filling all creation. However, they also sing, "Blessed is God's Glory from His place" (Ezekiel 3:12). Here they are speaking of god in His transcendental sense, where even the highest angels cannot comprehend His "place."

This is also expressed in the Shema, which states, "Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One" (Deut. 6:4). Before declaring that God is an unknowable transcendental Unity, we declare that He is "our Lord" -- accessible to us at all times. Similarly, in every blessing, before addressing God as the transcendental "King of the universe," we also call Him "our Lord." In the prayer, "Our Father, our King" (Avinu Malkenu), we likewise liken God to both an immanent Father and a transcendental King.

God's immanence implies that there is no place in all creation that is devoid of His being. He is therefore spoken of as being omnipresent. The Torah thus says, "All the earth is filled with God's Glory" (Numbers 14:21). It is likewise written, "His Glory is in heaven and earth" (Psalms 148:13).

In a number of places, the torah speaks of God as being in a certain place at a given time. This does not mean that God is in that place and not elsewhere. Rather, it means that God wishes to bestow special honor and attention to that place, or, alternatively, that His action is particularly visible there. Thus, God was said to "dwell" in the Holy Temple because He bestowed special honor and attention to this edifice. God was said to "lead" the Israelites at the Exodus because His activities were particularly visible in relation to them.

Dependent on God

Nothing can exist unless God wills it to exist. If God were to stop willing anything's existence, it would instantaneously cease to exist. God's will must therefore permeate all creation. But since God is an absolute Unity, His will must be identical with His essence. Since God's will must fill all creation, the same must also be true of His Essence.

The existence of all creation thus continuously depends on God's will and creative power. If this power were removed from creation for even an instant, all things would instantly cease to exist. It is thus written, "You have made the heaven… the earth and all that is on it… and You give life to them all" (Nehemiah 9:6). God constantly gives "Life Force" and existence to all things. In the morning prayers, we likewise say, "In His goodness, He daily renews the act of creation."

Although God's presence fills all creation, His existence is absolutely undetectable. The prophet therefore said to God, "Certainly, You are a God who hides Himself" (Isaiah 45:15). If God would reveal his true Glory, all creation would be nullified before it.

Furthermore, God cannot be seen because there is no place empty of Him. The reason is very much like the reason that the air cannot be seen; it is an integral part of our environment, and this is all the more true of God. The reason we cannot see God is not because He is too transcendental, but because He is too immanent. The only time we are aware of the air is when the wind blows. Similarly, we are only aware of God when He acts to manifest His presence. This is why the same word, ruach, denotes both wind and spirit.

Secrets of the Heart

It is a foundation of our faith to believe that God knows all our deeds as well as everything else that occurs in the universe.

God is therefore spoken of as being omniscient. He fills all creation and gives it existence, and therefore, He is aware of all that takes place in it. God thus said, "Can a man hide himself in secret places so that I will not see him?… Do I then not fill heaven and earth?" (Jeremiah 23:24). It is likewise written, "God's eyes are in every place, beholding the evil and the good" (Proverbs 15:3).

God knows man's thoughts, as it is written, "God probes every heart and perceives every urge of thought" (1-Chronicles 28:9). It is likewise written, "[God] knows the secrets of the heart" (Psalms 44:21).

Since God exists outside of time, He knows the future exactly as He knows the past. This precise concept is expressed in His words to His prophet, "I call the generations from the beginning; I, God, am the First, and with the last I am the same" (Isaiah 41:4).

No matter how great the number of simultaneous events, it is nothing for God's infinite knowledge.

God's knowledge is identical with His infinite Essence, and it is therefore also infinite. It is thus written, "[God's] understanding is infinite" (Psalms 147:5). God can therefore know what is happening to every single atom in the universe at every given instant. No matter how great the number of simultaneous events, it is nothing compared to God's infinite knowledge.

Above and beyond all this, God is so high above us that it is utterly impossible to comprehend Him in any manner whatsoever. It is thus written, "Can you by searching find out God? Can you probe the Almighty to perfection?" (Job 11:7). God's Essence transcends our very powers of thought, as He told His prophet, "My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are My ways your ways" (Isaiah 48:17).

It is thus taught, "No thought can grasp Him at all." Just as an abstract thought cannot be grasped by the physical hand, so the essence of God cannot be grasped even by thought. Even the highest spiritual beings cannot comprehend God's true essence.

Therefore, every name and every description that we may give to God can only apply to His relationship to His creation. Even the Tetragrammaton (YHVH) which is called God's "proper name" only denotes His highest emanation in creation. God Himself, however, is absolutely unknowable, unnamable, and innominate. Words do not exist that can describe Him or tell all His praises.

Although God is incomprehensible, we know Him through our traditions of the past and our hopes in the future. We know Him though our prayers for life, health and prosperity, as well as our hopes for mankind. In the Amidah recited three times each day, we address God and say, "Blessed are You, O Lord, our God and God of our fathers; God of Abraham, God of Isaac, and God of Jacob; Great, mighty and awesome God, Highest One, Giver of love and goodness, Master of all, who remembers the love of the fathers, and brings a redeemer to their children's children, for His name's sake, with love. King, Helper, Deliverer, and Shield." This prayer expresses our most basic feelings toward God.

From "The Handbook of Jewish Thought" (Vol. 1), Maznaim Publishing. Reprinted with permission.


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