Major ways of understanding God

What is God? In no particular order, Here are the most common, mainstream, Jewish ways of understanding monotheism:

Neo-Aristotelian rationalism

Sa’adiah Gaon, Maimonides, and other medieval rabbis taught that Biblical descriptions of God are metaphorical, and are not true in a literal sense. Every description of God, such as His actions, appearance, emotion, and speech, are by necessity imperfect metaphors, as God is beyond the capacity of the human mind to understand.

The Jewish medieval philosophers developed the idea of approaching a knowledge of God through negative attributes. For example, we should not say that God exists in the usual sense of the term; all we can safely say is that God is not nonexistent. We should not say that God is wise, but we can say that God is not ignorant, i.e. in some way God has some properties of knowledge. We should not say that God is One, but we can state that there is no multiplicity in God’s being.

“In denying God’s corporeality and in developing the doctrine of negative attributes, the philosophers went far toward protecting the unity of God. However in proclaiming this absolute metaphysical unity they also generated serious problems. If God is conceived as the metaphysical One, eternal, absolute, unique, and incomparable, how should His relationship to man and the world be understood?…The issue was particularly acute with respect to the question of divine providence and God’s relationship to man. To remain consistent with the Bible and rabbinic teaching, the philosophers had to affirm the doctrine of reward and punishment and, thus, support the view that God knows and is concerned about individual human life and action. Yet, such a God seems to be a temporal, changing being, not the absolute, eternal One. In a most radical statement Maimonides asserted that, “the relation between us and Him, may He be exalted, is considered as non-existent” (Guide of the Perplexed, 1:56).” [God, in Medieval Jewish philosophy, Encyclopaedia Judaica]

Note that “Two major figures of the late medieval period rejected the doctrine of negative attributes. Both Levi b. Gershom [Gersonides] 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.” [EJ]

After Maimonides published “The Guide for the Perplexed” many denounced his work as heresy. Today, in many ways, his is among the predominant ways that Jews understand God. A good introduction to the thought of Maimonides is Kenneth Seeskin’s “Maimonides: A Guide for Today’s Perplexed” (Behrman House), the entries on Maimonides in Jules Guttman’s “The Philosophies of Judaism” and the entry in the Encyclopaedia Judaica.

What is God? An analysis of Maimonides’ views

Kabbalah (Jewish mysticism)

Kabbalah teaches that God is neither matter nor spirit. Rather God is the creator of both, but is Himself neither. But if God is so different than His creation, now can there be any interaction between the Creator and the created?

“The kabbalistic view of God is in principle a derivation from the desire to abolish the contradiction between the two concepts: God’s unity and God’s existence. The emphasis of God’s unity leads the philosopher to reject anything that could undermine that absolute unity – any attribute, determination, or quality that can be interpreted as an addition to His unity and as evidence for plurality. On the other hand, the emphasis on God’s life which is characteristic of religious faith endangers His unity, since life is variegated by its very nature: it is a process and not a state. In the opinion of many kabbalists the divinity should be conceived of in the following two fundamental aspects:

(1) God in Himself who is hidden in the depths of His being;
(2) the revealed God who creates and preserves his creation.

For kabbalists these two aspects are not contradictory but complement one another. Regarding God Himself the first aspect suffices, and in the opinion of some (Moses Cordovero, and the Habad Hasidism), one could doubt whether from this point of view anything at all exists apart from God. It is precisely the second view, however, that is required by religious faith: namely, a revealed God who can be recognized by His action and revelation.” [“God”, “In Kabbalah”, EJ]

Kabbalists speak of God as “En Sof”, “that which has no limits”. Of this aspect of deity nothing at all can be said. Even the way of negation is impermissible when applied to En Sof. En Sof reveals the impersonal character of this aspect of the hidden God from the standpoint of man as clearly as, and perhaps even more clearly than [the other Hebrew names of God] (3)

Kabbalists remove the contradiction by positing that there are ten emanations from God, called sefirot. The sefirot mediate the interaction of God in Himself who is hidden, with the physical and spiritual world. Some explain the sefirot as stages of the creative process whereby God, from His own infinite being, created the progression of realms which culminated in our finite and physical universe. Others suggest the the sefirot may be thought of as analogous to the fundamental laws of physics. Just as gravity, electro-magnetism, the strong nuclear force, and the weak nuclear force allow for interactions between matter and energy, the ten sefirot allow for interaction between God and the Universe.

The difficulty with this view is that the Kabbalah teaches that the Sefirot are not distinct from the Ein-Sof, but are somehow within it. “The Sefirot are also attributes…but in actual fact they are more than attributes: they are the various stages at which God reveals Himself at the time of creation; they are His powers and His names. Each quality is one facet of his revelation. Hence every name applied to the divine is merely one of these qualities: Eheyeh Yah, El, Elohim, Zeva’ot, Adonai – each points to a special aspect in the revealed God, and only the totality of all these qualities exhausts the active life of God. It is this totality, its order, and its laws, in which the theology of the Kabbalah is fundamentally interested. Here the personality of God is manifested…God revealed himself not only at Mt. Sinai; He revealed Himself in everything since the beginning of the creation…From this position stems a certain dualism in the realm of the revelation of the divine: on the one hand there is Ein-Sof which is transcendental…yet on the other hand the traces of the living God, who is embodied in the world of the Sefirot, are found in everything. [“God”, “In Kabbalah”, EJ]

As one might guess, the idea that there are ten divine sefirot could be corrupted into the idea that “God is One being, yet in that One being there are Ten”. This would be similar to the Christian belief in the Trinity, which states that while God is “One”, in that One there is Three. This distortion of Kabbalah in fact did occur among some Jews in the 17th century. Rabbi Leon Modena, a 17th century Venetian critic of kabbalah, wrote that if we were to accept the Kabbalah, then the Christian trinity would indeed be compatible with Judaism, as the Trinity closely resembles the Kabbalistic doctrine of sefirot. This critique was in response to the fact that some Jews went so far as to address individual sefirot individually in some of their prayers. Kabbalah had many other opponents, notably Rabbi Yitzchak ben Sheshet Perfet (The Rivash); he stated that Kabbalah was “worse than Christianity”, as it made God into 10, not just into three!

The critique, however, was unfair. Most followers of Kabbalah never believed this. More to the point, the Christian Trinity concept posits that there are three persons existing within the Godhead, one of whom literally became a human being. In contrast, the Kabbalistic sefirot have no mind or intelligence, they are not addressed in prayer, and can not become a human being. They are conduits for interaction – not persons or beings.

When Isaac Luria and his followers first developed the modern form of Kabbalah (16th century) many denounced it as heresy. Today, especially among Orthodox Jews, some consider it the most authentic Jewish theology. Two introductions to this topic are Aryeh Kaplan’s “Inner Space: Introduction to Kabbalah, Meditation and Prophecy” (Moznaim Publishing) and Gershom Scholem’s “Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism” (Schocken Books).

There are many schools of Kabbalistic thought. To learn more about Kabbalah (and even about the non-Jewish variants of it that later developed) see the Kabbalah FAQ.


A notable understanding of God is to be found in some versions of Hasidic thought, based an interpretation of Kabbalah. In this view, “God is not a Being totally above His creatures but the One who embraces All in the fullness of His Being.” (4) While Hasidim refer to this belief as a form of Kabbalah, this system of thought is more formally known as panentheism. One does not need to accept Kabbalah, to have this view of God.

It is important to understand that panentheism is not the same as pantheism. (Note the small but crucial difference in spelling.) Pantheism, a non-Jewish belief, states that God is simply identical with the universe, the sum total of everything in existence. There is no transcendent nature to God, no Mind. In contrast, panentheism holds that while the universe is a part of God, it is not the whole of God’s being. Nature is thus but an aspect of divinity. In panentheism God maintains a transcendent character, and is viewed as creator and the source of morality.

When Hasidism first developed as a movement and as a theology, many saw these views as heretical; among others, the Gaon of Vilna scathingly denounced it as such. Today, panentheism is a fully accepted path in Jewish theology; it is even becoming increasingly popular in the non-Orthodox denominations through the writings of rabbis Abraham Joshua Heschel, Arthur Green, Wayne Dosick, and Lawrence Kushner.

Limited theism

“We must consider the idea of a limited personal God. Among many other thinkers, Gersonides in the Middle Ages…presented a view of theism in which the idea of God’s omnipotence is qualified. Sa’adiah Gaon, in his _Beliefs and Opinions_ argued that God, who can do that which is impossible for us to do, cannot do that which is logically impossible. For instance, says Sa’adiah, God cannot pass the whole world through a signet ring without making either the world smaller or the ring larger….The doctrine of omnipotence can be qualified in still other ways. There is the classic problem of predetermination for example. Gersonides, bothered by the old question of how God’s foreknowledge is compatible with human freedom, holds that what God knows beforehand is all the choices open to each individual. God does not know, however, which choice the individual, in his freedom, will make.” [Louis Jacobs]

“Other thinkers similarly qualify God’s omnipotence. God has all the power there is, but God is limited by what is called “The Given”, that is, by things as they are….[For example] take the problem of evil, often expressed in the form: Either God can prevent evil and does no choose to do so, in which case He cannot be good. Or God wishes to prevent evil but cannot do so, in which case He cannot be omnipotent. An answer often given is that God does have the power to banish evil but does not do so because in some way evil serves the cause of good….Exponents of the limited God idea, however, see no dilemma. God is good and would prevent evil if He could, but He cannot. He is, in fact, not omnipotent, and evil is simply there. Of course, God can and does mitigate the banefulness of evil, and God can and does urge His creatures to fight evil and be on the side of good.” (5)

While not himself a limited theist, Rabbi Jacobs writes: “On a surface reading of the Jewish tradition, the picture which emerges is indeed one of God struggling, as it were, with that in the universe which frustrates His will. Gersonides, in his _The Wars of the Lord_ holds that only such a view does complete justice to the Biblical record. The abstract term “omnipotence”, after all, was coined by thinkers influences by Greek thought. Neither the term nor the idea of an all powerful God is found in the Bible or the rabbinic sources.” (5)

Another classical Jewish proponent of limited theism was Abraham Ibn Daud. “Whereas the earlier Jewish philosophers extended the omniscience of God to include the free acts of man, and had argued that human freedom of decision was not affected by God’s foreknowledge of its results, Ibn Daud, evidently following Alexander of Aphrodisias, excludes human action from divine foreknowledge. God, he holds, limited his omniscience even as He limited His omnipotence in regard to human acts”. (18) See Ibn Daud’s “Sefer Ha Emunah ha-Ramah”, translated by Samson Weill [Frankfurt 1852] p.96.

One modern proponent is Milton Steinberg, a Conservative rabbi associated with the development of Reconstructionist Judaism. While in terms of halakha and a social agenda he agreed with Reconstructionists, in terms of theology he differed, and affirmed theism.

Those who affirm this position believe that God acts in the world, but through persuasion, not coercion; through inspiration and the creation of possibility, and not by miracles or violations of the laws of nature.

For more information see Rabbi Harold Kushner’s “When Bad Things Happen to Good People”

Process theology (neoclassical theism)

The basis of process philosophy was developed in the early 1900s by the French Jewish philosopher Henri-Louis Bergson. (He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1927.) It was later developed into fully developed theologies by Alfred North Whitehead and Charles Hartshorne. While they developed their ideas independently of the Jewish tradition, many have noted that their ideas about God’s relation to the world paralleled similar ideas in Kabbalah.

“The key word here is process. Process means an ongoing series of events that leads to novelty. Whitehead’s picture of the universe is that of creative movement to novelty – a passage, a constant dynamic flow of events. A flow, a tree, a brook, a pond: All of these are new manifestations of nature, ever evolving, ever renewing itself. But nature is not only novelty. If it were, there would be nothing but chaos. Nature is also order, structure, harmony. What, then, is the source of nature’s order and novelty? How do order and novelty coexist? To account for their existence, Whitehead introduces God into his system [“The Case for God”, William E. Kaufman, p.56]

“Why is it necessary to introduce God as a factor in the world? For Whitehead, the necessity lies in the following considerations….the world is a vast network of momentary events [actual entities] coming into being and then lapsing into the past. Each new event, to be an event, must take account of other events that make up its world and must do so in a definite way, for without definiteness there is no actuality. Now, if the forms of definiteness derived only from the past, the actual entity would exhibit no freedom or spontaneity. Thus, the form of definiteness must be derived from the realm of possibility. But the realm of possibility is purely abstract; it lacks agency. ‘There must be an agency that mediates between these abstract forms or pure possibilities and the actual world.’ This factor, for Whitehead, is God, who envisages the eternal objects, the abstract forms of definiteness, in such a way as to establish their graded relevance to each new situation in the world.” [“The Case for God”, William E. Kaufman, p.58]

Process theology views God as the creator and guiding principle of the cosmos. Like Hasidic Kabbalah (panentheism) the cosmos is viewed as, to use analogy, the body of God. “As the human mind is something more than the human body, the Divine is not simply equal to the sum of the ingredients of the universe.” Where process theology differs from classical theism is in its tenet that God is not omnipotent. Rather, God is said to be in process with the universe. “God is affected by the elements of the universe, living the joys and sorrows of every created entity, yet God is not overcome by this multitude of feeling. God’s vision of the perfection of the created universe remains as an eternal vision of hope. God gently persuades all entities towards this perfection by providing each of them with a glimpse of the divine vision of a better future. And yet all entities retain the freedom to depart from that vision. (6) God acts in the world through persuasion, not coercion; through inspiration and the creation of possibility, not by miracles.

Those versed in the works of Abraham Joshua Heschel will find these ideas familiar – the concept of Divine pathos. See pages 158-163 of Heschel’s “Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity”, and his essay “Pathos and Prophecy”.

While process theology first was adopted by some liberal Protestant Christians, it soon influenced a number of Jewish theologians, including British philosopher Samuel Alexander (1859-1938), and Rabbis Max Kaddushin, Milton Steinberg and Levi A. Olan, Harry Slominsky and even Abraham Joshua Heschel. Today some rabbis who advocate process theology or a related theology include Rabbis William E. Kaufman, Harold Kushner, Anton Laytner, Nahum Ward, Donald B. Rossoff and Gilbert S. Rosenthal.

For more information see Kushner’s “When Bad Things Happen to Good People” and “Jewish Theology and Process Thought”, eds. Sandra B. Lubarsky and David Ray Griffin. Excellent introductions to classical theism, limited theism and process theology can be found in “A Question of Faith: An Atheist and a Rabbi Debate the Existence of God” and “The Case for God”, both written by Rabbi William E. Kaufman.

A God worthy of worship – Reform Rabbi Donald B. Rossoff

Religious naturalism and religious humanism

Reconstructionism was developed by Rabbis Mordecai Kaplan and Ira Eisenstein, from the 1930s to the 1950s, and formally became a separate denomination with the foundation of the Jewish Reconstructionist Federation in 1954. It is a variant of the naturalism of John Dewey, which combined secular humanist beliefs with religious terminology; this was done in order to construct a religiously satisfying philosophy for those who had lost faith in traditional religion.

In agreement with the classical medieval Jewish thinkers, Rabbi Kaplan affirmed that God is not personal, and that anthropomorphic descriptions of God are, at best, imperfect metaphors. Kaplan’s theology went beyond this to hold that God is better described as the sum of all natural processes that allow man to become self-fulfilled. In this view, God does not love Mankind, and cannot reward or punish.(7) So what then does it mean to say that one believes in God? “To believe in God means to take for granted that it is man’s destiny to rise above the brute and to eliminate all forms of violence and exploitation from human society.”(8)

Kaplan taught that “the cosmos is so constituted as to enable man to fulfill the highest human need of his nature”.(9) In this view, God is defined as “the power in the universe that makes for salvation” (10); or as part of “the cosmos itself”, which is really “a unified field of relationships”. God is also defined by Kaplan as the sum of everything that is needed for “human fulfillment or salvation, both individual and collective, which is compatible with the cultural climate of contemporary life.” (11) He also referred to God as “those forces in human life and its environment which make for health, happiness and progress.” (12)

Given these definitions, the Shema Yisrael (Hear, O Israel) is kept only as a cultural folkway, but it is dismissed it as ontologically false.

It must be noted that not all of Kaplan’s theological writings were consistent; his position evolved somewhat over the years, as is usual with many religious thinkers. Two distinct theologies can be discerned with a careful reading. At times Kaplan believed that God does have ontological reality, i.e. a real existence independent of human beliefs. In this latter theology Kaplan still rejects theism and traditional, supernatural belief in miracles, and holds to a position that in some ways is neo-Platonic.

Also note that some fraction of the Reconstructionist movement has shown openness towards accept neo-Hasidic beliefs about God – see the writings of Arthur Green, a prominent American Reconstructionist rabbi and Neo-Hasidic theologian.

Reconstructionists view Judaism not as a religion, but as a social structure or a civilization. In the movement’s “Platform on Reconstructionism” (1986) they state that “Reconstructionists seek to interpret Judaism in terms of naturalism and religious humanism. Reconstructionism understands Judaism to be the natural product of the Jewish people’s experience in history, rather than the result of supernatural revelation or divine intervention”.

Acceptance of Kaplan’s naturalism became widespread in much of the Reform Jewish community. Both officially and historically, the Reform movement has always affirmed theism. However, since the 1940s, there has been a growing naturalist and humanist influence within the Reform movement.

Psychologist Eric Fromm is known for his conception of God as a symbol. Fromm did not believe that God actually exists; rather, what exists is our idea of God, and our ideas of Godly behavior. In this view, all that matter is our conception of God. God should be seen as a symbol that allows people to live their lives in a way consonant with the highest ethical standards. (13) Fromm’s beliefs have found a home in some of Reform Judaism. This is similar to the theology of the Rabbi Alvin Reines, Professor of Jewish Philosophy at one of the Reform movement’s primary seminaries, Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati. He teaches that theology is not the study of God, but is instead the study of the possible meanings of the term “God”. He terms his theology “polydoxy”.

Reines defines the word “God” as “the enduring possibility of being”. He reasons that since nothing can exist without the possibility of its being, whenever we experience existence, we experience God. Thus, everyone can be said to believe in God. (14) Reines’s views are well accepted in Reform Judaism.

Prof. David Ray Griffin and Rabbi Louis Jacobs have critiqued these views: They state that these views of God are atheist beliefs garbed in religious terminology. They term this “conversion by definition”, as non-theistic beliefs are given theistic labels. (15) In support of this contention, note that some atheists have adopted Kaplan’s Reconstructionism, Fromm’s humanism and Reines’ polydoxy as affirmation of atheist beliefs. Some examples include:

Not all Reconstructionists accept Kaplan’s redefinitions. A growing number affirm more traditional Jewish idea of God; there is a renewed interest in the idea of God as envisioned by Hasidic Kabbalists (panentheism) or by limited theists. Well known Reconstructionist rabbis who have promoted such beliefs include Milton Steinberg, Arthur Green, and Edward Feld.(16) As Kaplan was a staunch naturalist and an opponent of mysticism, he would probably be astonished that some of his followers have traded naturalism for Kabbalah or limited theism.

Conservative Rabbi Neil Gillman criticises the traditional Reconstructionist view: “We wonder why Kaplan focuses on and unifies the ensemble of goodness in nature and call them God, but refuses to unify the ensemble of evil qualities in nature and call these Evil. The dualistic implications of Kaplan’s position are clear: If God is one of many processes in nature, there can be others, and these others can also be unified. Potentially, then, we can have two Gods – a good God and an evil one – or even more.” [“Sacred Fragments”, p.200]

Masorti Rabbi Louis Jacobs writes that “Some religious thinkers, notably Paul Tillich and the ‘Death of God’ theologians on the Christian scene, and Mordecai Kaplan and his Reconstructionist school on the Jewish, reluctant to allow victory to the bleak philosophy of atheism, have argued that the only way to meet the challenge [of man’s tendency to dismiss God as irrelevant] is to give up not the idea of theism, but the understanding of God as a divine person. Yes, these thinkers concede…it is impossible to believe in the God who creates and fashions, who intervenes in the affairs of the universe, who loves His creatures and listens to their prayers, who can endow the human soul with immortality, and who can guarantee that evil will ultimately be vanquished. That personal God, they maintain, is dead because, as we now see, God never existed in the first place. But if God is understood as the power in the universe that makes for righteousness, if belief in God means that, by faith, we affirm that the universe is so constituted that goodness will ultimately win out, then God, far from being dead, is truly alive.”

Rabbi Jacobs continues The trouble with religious naturalism, however, is that it does not deliver what is promised, a God capable of being worshiped. How can a vague belief that there is a mindless something ‘out there’ be a real substitute for the traditional theistic belief that there is Mind behind the universe? The advocates of religious naturalism, influenced by science, appear to imagine that to describe God as an impersonal force or power is more philosophically respectable today than to think of Him as a person? Is it? As the medieval thinkers never tired of saying, all human descriptions of God are really inadmissable; yet since the object of worship, to be worshiped, has to produce some picture in the mind, it is necessary to use halting human language, the only language we have, always with the provision that the reality is infinitely more than anything we dare utter. [The view of God] as a force or power, precisely because it is impersonal, and hence mindless, is inferior in every way to the human personality….Of course it is absurd to speak of God as a person, a term laden with all too human associations. But it is even more absurd to speak of God as an ‘It’, which is what speaking of him as a force or power involves. William Temple was on surer grounds, philosophically and religiously, when said that to speak of God as ‘He’ is to say that God is more than a He, but not less. An ‘It’, however, is less than a ‘He’ “(17)


Thanks to: All the good people on Mail Liberal Jewish, especially Rabbi John Sherwood, and to my Jewish philosophical role models: Maimonides, Abraham Joshua Heschel, and William E. Kaufman.

Footnotes and sources

(1) Louis Jacobs “God, Torah, Israel: Traditionalism without Fundamentalism” Hebrew Union College Press, p.4

(2) Trude Weiss-Rosmarin “Judaism and Christianity: The Differences” Jonathan David, p.16

(3)  Louis Jacobs “God, Torah, Israel: Traditionalism Without Fundamentalism” Hebrew Union College Press

(4) Louis Jacobs “God, Torah, Israel: Traditionalism Without Fundamentalism” Hebrew Union College Press, p.17

(5) Louis Jacobs “God, Torah, Israel: Traditionalism Without Fundamentalism” Hebrew Union College Press, p.14-16

(6) Sheela Pawar “Basic Synopsis of Process Thought” Center for Process Studies website.

(7) Mordecai Kaplan “The Meaning of God in Modern Jewish Religion”, 1962, p.88

(8) Mordecai Kaplan “Judaism Without Supernaturalism”, 1958, p.112

(9) Mordecai Kaplan “Questions Jews Ask”, 1956, p.83

(10) Mordecai Kaplan  “The Meaning of God in Modern Jewish Religion”, 1962, p.40

(11) “The Reconstructionist” Mordecai Kaplan, Oct. 2, 1964, pp. 14-15

(12) “The Meaning of God in Modern Jewish Religion”, Mordecai Kaplan, 1962, p.294

(13) Eric Fromm “You Shall Be As Gods: A Radical Interpretation of the Old Testament and Its Tradition” Henry Holt Inc., 1991

(14) Alvin J. Reines “Polydoxy: Explorations in a Philosophy of Liberal Religion” Promethean Press, 1987

(15) “God, Torah, Israel: Traditionalism Without Fundamentalism”  Louis Jacobs, Hebrew Union College Press, Cincinnati, 1990.

See Griffin’s response to Alvin Reines in “Jewish Theology and Process Thought”, edited by Sandra B. Lubarsky and David Ray Griffin, State University of New York Press, 1996

(16) Milton Steinberg “Basic Judaism” Harcourt Brace;  Arthur Green “Seek My Face, Speak My Name: A Contemporary Jewish Theology” Jason Aronson Inc, 1994;   Edward Feld “Can Halakha Live?” The Reconstructionist, Vol.59(2), Fall 1994, p.64-72

(17) “God, Torah, Israel: Traditionalism Without Fundamentalism”  Louis Jacobs, Hebrew Union College Press, Cincinnati, 1990. 55,6,7

(18) “Philosophies of Judaism” Julius Guttman, JPS, 1964. P.150, 151

(19) “The Case for God” William E. Kaufman, Chalice Press, 1991

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