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Judaism (among other faiths) affirms theism – the belief in God. In practice, while religious people affirm this belief as true, most have never seriously considered the question “What is God?” Merely stating that “God is real” says nothing about what God is. The average person only can repeat claims about God’s actions or love. Even assuming that said actions happened, this says little about the nature of God; it only tells us about a particular historical incident, or about how people describe their relationship to the divine. This is what brings us to philosophy:
The great philosophers
Since the dawn of rabbinic Judaism, the Jewish people have produced many of the world’s greatest philosophers. Showing great intellectual courage, they met the question of “What is God?” straight on, and have produced a voluminous and inspiring literature that proposes answers to this question. Not surprisingly, their efforts have been continually challenged by people who are afraid that philosophical inquiry posed a threat to simple faith.
When early medieval Jewish philosophers accepted Platonic philosophy as a way to help understand God, some responded with claims of heresy. When later medieval thinkers such as Saadya Gaon and Maimonides accepted Aristotelian philosophy as a way to help understand God, some responded with claims of heresy. When modern day thinkers such as Joseph Soloveitchik used a Kantian take on Platonic philosophy as a way to help understand God, some responded with claims of heresy. When modern day thinkers such as Max Kaddushin and William E. Kaufman used Albert North Whitehead’s concept of process philosophy as a way to help understand God, some responded with claims of heresy.
Yet in all these ages, the spirit of rational inquiry prevailed. “Most medieval Jewish philosophers considered intellectual inquiry essential to a religious life, and were convinced that there could be no real opposition between reason and faith. Thus, Sa’adiah Gaon held that, ‘The Bible is not the sole basis of our religion, for in addition to it we have two other bases. One of these is anterior to it; namely, the fountain of reason…’ (Book of Beliefs and Opinions, 3:10). Bahya ibn Paquda believed that it is a religious duty to investigate by rational methods such questions as God’s unity, because, of the three avenues which God has given us to know Him and His law, ‘the first is a sound intellect’ (Hovot ha-Levavot, introduction; cf. 1:3)….This attitude toward the relationship between reason and faith dominated medieval Jewish philosophy. It reached its highest, most elaborate, and most familiar expression in the thought of Maimonides, and was reaffirmed by later philosophers, such as Levi b. Gershom and Joseph Albo.
[“God”, “in Medieval Jewish philosophy”, Encyclopaedia Judaica]
Thus, the purpose of this resource is to help readers become acquainted with the various answers proposed by Jewish philosophers to the question “What is God?”. It is, of course, only an introduction, and the reader is urged to follow-up by reading a number of books on Jewish philosophy and theology.
How does theism differ from deism?
Judaism affirms theism as the basis for religion, as does Islam and Christianity. Beyond merely teaching that a god exists – which rules out atheism and agnosticism – Judaism specifically notes that only one god exists, thereby ruling out polytheism. God is conceived of as a creator and a source of morality, and has the power to intervene in the world in some fashion. The term ‘God’ thus corresponds to an actual ontological reality, and is not merely a projection of the human psyche. Maimonides describes God in this fashion: “There is a Being, perfect in every possible way, who is the ultimate cause of all existence. All existence depends on God and is derived from God.”
“Deism was still another conception of God that confronted Jewish theology. Deistic doctrine contains two main elements. First is the view that God, having created the world, withdrew himself from it completely. This eliminates all claims of divine providence, miracles, and any form of intervention by God in history. Second, deism holds that all the essential truths about God are knowable by unaided natural reason without any dependence on revelation. The vast bulk of Jewish tradition rejected both deistic claims. It is hardly possible to accept the biblical God and still affirm the deistic view that he is not related to the world. Numerous rabbinic texts are attacks on the Greek philosophers who taught such a doctrine. Similar attacks continued throughout the history of Jewish philosophy. Of the medieval philosophers, only Levi ben Gershom (Gersonides) seems to have had deistic tendencies.”
[Conceptions of God, Encyclopaedia Judaica]
On the other hand, Maimonides’ rationalist interpretation may well be considered to be a bridge between deism and theism. “Maimonides’ grandiose attempt at a synthesis between the Jewish faith and Greek-Arabic Aristotelian philosophy was received with enthusiasm in some circles, mainly of the upper strata of Jewish society, and with horror and dismay in others, imbued with mysticism and dreading the effects of Greek thought on Jewish beliefs. The old and continuously smoldering issue of ‘Athens versus Jerusalem’ now burst into flames. Essentially the problem is one of the possible synthesis or the absolute antithesis between monotheistic revealed faith and intellectually formulated philosophy.”
[Maimonidean Controversy, EJ]
This is no doubt a reason why his “Guide of the Perplexed” became popular during the Haskalah movement. (Enlightenment movement/ideology which began in Jewish society in the 1770s.) “Haskalah, like its parent the European Enlightenment movement, was rationalistic. It accepted only one truth: the rational-philosophical truth in which reason is the measure of all things. During the 1740s some of the youth had already begun to study Maimonides’ Guide of the Perplexed. Haskalah accepted Enlightenment Deism, giving it a specifically Jewish turn. Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, in the parable of the Three Rings in Nathan der Weise, rejected the claim of any religion to represent the absolute truth. Mendelssohn held that there was nothing in the Jewish faith opposed to reason and that the revelation on Mount Sinai did not take place to impart faith but to give laws to a nation, because faith cannot be achieved by decree, while the laws which were given on that occasion were designed to serve as the laws of a unique Jewish theocratic state. Mendelssohn thus attempted to remove Judaism from the struggle between Enlightenment and revealed religion.”
The mainstream of classical Judaism affirms that God is personal. Adonai is a God that not only exists, but also cares about humanity. Rabbi Harold Kushner writes that “God shows His love for us by reaching down to bridge the immense gap between Him and us. God shows His love for us by inviting us to enter into a Covenant (Brit) with Him, and by sharing with us His Torah”. One of the ways that we relate to God is through the many names of God; In Judaism, each of the many divine names is indicative of a different aspect of God’s presence in our world.
On the other hand, note that Maimonides rejected the idea of a personal God in this sense.
How can we use words to describe God?
Judaism posits that human language is inadequate to describe God. “No one who thinks of God as a person is unaware that personhood is associated with the human condition and is totally inappropriate when applied to God; but then, so is all human language. The description of God as a person is meant to imply that there is a Being (this term, too, is totally inadequate) by whom we were brought into existence, and whom we encounter and who encounters us. To affirm that God is a person, is to affirm that He is more than a great idea…”
[Louis Jacobs “God, Torah, Israel: Traditionalism without Fundamentalism” Hebrew Union College Press, p.4]
Maimonides explains “In many places our holy scriptures do speak of God in physical terms. Thus we find concepts such as walking, standing, sitting and speaking used in relation to God. In all these cases, though, scripture is only speaking metaphorically. In the Talmud our sages teach us that “The Torah speaks in the language of man” (Berachot, 31b).
It is a fundamental heresy to believe that God has a gender. Grammatically, most of the Hebrew names for God are masculine; a few are grammatically feminine; This is not held to have literal significance. In regards to translating Hebrew names of God into English, most Orthodox and many Conservative Jews argue that it would be wrong to apply English female pronouns to God, not because God is of the male gender, but because doing so tends to draw attention to God as having gender, and also because the Hebrew Bible usually uses names that are grammatically masculine.
Is God “one”? The Unity of God
“Shema Yisrael”, the credo par excellance of Judaism, states “Hear O Israel, Adonai is Our God, Adonai is One”. This bespeaks an absolute commitment to belief in the absolute unity of God. Not only do Jews reject the idea that other gods exist, but Jews also reject the idea that the Divine contains any kind of plurality whatsoever. This is in contrast to Christianity’s Nicene Creed, which teaches that although there is one being called God, in that one there are three separate persons (termed the Father, Son and Holy Spirit). Such a belief is foreign to the Jewish mind-set. “The Jewish tenant of the Unity of God also precludes the belief in any other creative force besides Him. Satan, the power of evil and completely independent of God, plays a very important role in Christianity. Judaism knows of no Satan as a creative force of evil opposed to the benevolent creative power of God. Judaism only knows one creator, Who made both the light and the darkness and Who created in man the good inclination and the evil inclination, together with the faculty of free ethical choice.”
[Trude Weiss-Rosmarin “Judaism and Christianity: The Differences” Jonathan David, p.16]
Maimonides writes that “The second foundation is God’s unity, may He be exalted; to wit, that this One, Who is the cause of [the existence of] everything, is one. His oneness is unlike the oneness of a genus or of a species. Nor is it like the oneness of a single composed individual, which can be divided into many units…..Rather, God, may He be exalted, is one with a oneness for which there is no comparison at all.
Maimonides believes that no positive attributes can be assigned to God whatsoever. This is described in detail in his “Guide for the Perplexed.” A different position can be found the Tanakh and Talmud, where they assign a number of attributes to God.
“Both Levi b. Gershom and Hasdai Crescas argued in favor of the view that if God is to be intelligible, His attributes must be understood as positive predications. They did not think that positive predication compromises the divine unity and perfection. Moreover, Levi b. Gershom believed that positive predicates could be applied to God literally because their primary meaning is derived from their application to God, while their human meaning is secondary.”
[God, Encyclopaedia Judaica (EJ)]
Both the Maimonidean and the non-Maimonidean view are acceptable within normative Jewish theology.