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What is God?

Haredim 521 (photo credit:
Haredim 521
(photo credit:
What is God? Given that Jewish history spans millennia, one might think that this fundamental question would have been resolved by now. While answers certainly have been offered, a lingering divide remains on this issue that reflects a continuous struggle between various streams within Judaism’s philosophical tradition.
In a previous column, I noted the vast majority of Jewish philosophers asserted that one must metaphorically interpret corporeal depictions of God. Yet the Bible also seemingly portrays God as an entity that actively intervenes in the world, and has emotional reactions to human deeds. He is also wise, powerful and good, depictions of God that were shared by talmudic sages and collected in the first two blessings of the daily “Amida” prayer. In short, God appears to possess many human characteristics, albeit in a supreme form.
This line of interpretation was challenged by many Jewish (as well as Christian and Muslim) philosophers. They believed that discussion of God’s “human-like” traits threatens the notion of monotheism, which professes to divine uniqueness and unity. God is not merely greater in degree than humans; rather, He is of an entirely different nature, and therefore we cannot attribute human characteristics to God. Besides threatening His uniqueness, many philosophers believed that attaching traits to God introduces a sense of multiplicity that denies his oneness, since distinct qualities implies divisions within that entity.
The most extreme advocate of this position was Maimonides, who contended that humans cannot know God’s essence (say, His wisdom or knowledge) since He was not created (and therefore not dependent on any given attribute), nor is He comparable to anything else.
Maimonides further believed that God does not have affections, and that we cannot even speak of Him in comparison or relative to people or places (e.g. “God is the holiest”).
Instead, we may only speak of Him in the negative, i.e., what God is not, a philosophical theory known as “negative theology.” Stating that “God lacks no knowledge,” as opposed to “God is all-knowing,” is not mere semantics, because the negative formulation highlights that God is different in kind, not just in degree.
Yet Maimonides did concede that we may speak of the consequences of God’s actions (“It was an act of Divine mercy”), even as we may not conclude from them any Divine qualities (“God is merciful”). He thus concluded that any biblical or liturgical references to God’s attributes must be understood in the negative sense, or as a depiction of how humans perceive His actions.
While several philosophers adopted a “negative theology,” they disagreed with Maimonides on many of the details. Rabbi Sa’adia Gaon, for example, asserted we can state that God has the essential attributes of existence, omniscience and omnipotence, since any implication regarding God’s multiplicity is linguistic, but not genuine.
Rabbi Yehuda Halevi believed that we can affirm attributes like “blessed” or “glorified” since these are depictions of how humans relate to God (“relative attributes”) and consequently do not attest to anything regarding God’s essence or imply multiplicity.
Gersonides more broadly asserted that negative formulations regarding God’s attributes are mere semantics that affirm certain positive attributes. He believed that we can speak of essential divine attributes as the cause or ground of these traits in humans, even as they remain infinitely more perfect in God.
Beyond these theological quibbles, many modern philosophers fear that Maimonides’s theology is destructive to religion because it makes God overly distant, relegating central rituals like prayer to acts of intellectual abstraction. Maimonides believed that his negative theology saved us from the various traps of idolatry, by demarcating the limits of human understanding and making it possible to grasp what we can about the divine.
Some philosophers, like Yeshayahu Leibowitz, celebrated this idea because it focused religious worship on accepting the yoke of the commandments, since one could not attain a “path to God.”
Yet others criticized it precisely because they believed that religion is based on a personal engagement with God while its abstraction is secondary. Franz Rosenzweig, for example, argued that God’s reality is affirmed when individuals believe He reaches out to them. “We experience His existence directly only by virtue of the fact that He loves us and awakens our dead self to beloved and requiting soul,” he professed.
Rabbi Eliezer Berkovits trenchantly critiqued Maimonides by declaring, “The negative attributes will never do. Religion cannot forgo the love and the mercy of God, or even His justice and anger. Such attributes have to be related to Him in a positive sense, or else there is no basis for a living God of religious relevance.”
For his critics, Maimonides’s God becomes quickly irrelevant to the point of nonexistence.
Yet Maimonides believed his critics would likely fall into the traps of idolatry.
The question remains whether a happy medium may be conceived, or if all conceptions of God run the risks of idolatry or irrelevance.
Rabbi Shlomo Brody teaches at Yeshivat Hakotel, directs the Tikvah Israel Seminars, and is a junior scholar at the Israel Democracy Institute.