On conceiving God

I can approach God in personal prayer and still believe that He has the power to do something extraordinary

IMAGE OF God from Michelangelo's 'The Creation of Adam.' (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
IMAGE OF God from Michelangelo's 'The Creation of Adam.'
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
One of the challenges of Judaism is that of conceiving God. It is an axiom of Judaism that we are created in the image of God. The Bible is also filled with physical descriptions of God. There we given descriptions of God as having a face, eyes, nose, mouth, back, legs and even a torso. Yet, we are also forbidden to render any image of God – another axiom of Judaism.
Maimonides tells us that belief in an incorporeal God is a fundamental belief in Judaism – 2,000 years after the Bible. We are not allowed to believe that God has any image or form. In fact, if one does, s/he is outside of Judaism. Maimonides’ God is an absolute God that has no real feelings or anything resembling humanity.
In other words, Maimonides wants us to believe in something that is expressly contradicted in the Torah itself. Not only does the Torah contradict it, but we are all guilty of violating this principle when we have any picture in our mind when we think of God. (Just like the one you’re thinking of now!)
It would seem then that only relational attributes of God are possible; yet it is difficult to imagine how this is even possible. Rabbi Eliezer Berkovits believes that there is a genuine contradiction between the concept of God that we relate to and the Absolute that is posited by many religious philosophers including Maimonides.
As Berkovits writes, “For even if man could grasp the very essence of the deity, he would still be without God. The finest theories about friendship are no substitute for a friend. Intellectual understanding do not constitute fellowship with the Supreme Being. Thinking about God philosophically or metaphysically is not encountering him. But without the encounter, there can be no Judaism. Without it, there is no religion.”
By definition, an Absolute God is incapable of a relationship with man. Berkovits explains that “The Absolute is understood as completely at rest within itself” and therefore it is not just not in need, but incapable of a relationship with man or to creation; leading Berkovits to state that “the Absolute is not God.” The God of the Bible loves man, is angered by corruption, and loves justice. The Biblical God is not ‘at rest within itself’, but is ‘in search of man’.
“What Maimonides denies God, namely affection and tenderness, are the very essence of the encounter,” says Berkovits.
Yet to make God conform with our human understandings of justice and corruption; to make God conform with our understanding of love is to be too anthropomorphic and is itself a form of idolatry. While we may be created in the image of God, we all too often create God in the image of man!
Therefore, to speak of God as “It,” instead of “He,” is, in a sense perfectly legitimate since any term we use is inadequate. Also, a too literal interpretation of “He” lends one to believe that God has a gender which is certainly untrue. I often refer to God in my classes as “She” to underline that very point. It is startling to hear it and that’s the point. And yet, to refer to God as an “It” robs God of His personality. After all, God is a person. Not a human person of course, but a person nonetheless – the ultimate person!
Rabbi Louis Jacobs explains the that when God is referred to as “It,” then “There is a failure to convey the idea that He is more than personality, not less, as an ‘it’ is less. For in our use of language an ’it’ is an inanimate thing to which a person is superior.”
Then what is God? How are we to conceive of him? After all, conception of God is the first step in having a relationship with Him/Her/It…
900 years ago, Rabbi Bachya ibn Pakuda, wrote in Duties of the Heart that only the philosopher with his pristine conception of God – and the prophet with his intuitive understanding of God–  truly worship God. All the rest of us worship something other than God; a clear violation of “Thou shall have no other gods before me.”
Can this be true?
Berkovits suggests that God is at once both Absolute and caring, and loving. God acts with His relationship with man as an act of self-abnegation. In this realm of self – abnegation God relates to man as the caring father described in the Bible. Berkovits suggests that this is the fuller meaning of the ‘hiding of God.’ God hides not only his presence in this world so He may be endured by man, but He hides his very essence, allowing the world to come to be.
Personally, I reject the Maimonidean God. An Absolute God, by being everything is nothing. ‘Theology be damned!’ I believe that the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob is a God that really cares about us. Really loves us. Is really interested in us. I cannot reconcile the contradiction of God being both transcendent and immanent, nor do I care to. I can live with the contradiction and by living with it, I can approach God in personal prayer and still believe that He has the power to do something extraordinary.