The Nature of God

It is no small matter that seven of the Thirteen Principles of Faith set forth by Maimonides pertain to God. The Jews' relationship to God is fundamental to Judaism. The principal declaration of Jewish faith is the Shema, a prayer that begins with the following words: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord is one.” This avowal affirms the belief in one God, a unity that encompasses everything.

Yet the Jews admit that comprehending God is beyond their ability. When Moses asked God for His name, he received the following enigmatic response: “Ehyeh asher ehyeh” (Exodus 3:14), which may be translated as “I am that I am,” but literally means, “I will be what I will be,” and has also been taken to mean “I am what I will be.”

God Is the Creator

Nonetheless, Judaism does hold a number of concepts about the nature of God. Of course, the most important belief is that God is One. In addition, God is considered to be the Creator of everything. Even many nonobservant Jews have held to this belief.

Baruch (later Benedict) Spinoza (1632–1677) was a Dutch philosopher who belonged to the Jewish community that fled from the Inquisition in Spain and Portugal. Spinoza's most famous work, Ethics, reflects his deductive, rational, and monistic philosophy.

Baruch Spinoza, a Jewish philosopher who was excommunicated from the Jewish community for questioning the accepted nature of God, ultimately concluded that God “is the free cause of all things.” Albert Einstein, a nonobservant Jew, compared the universe to a clock, with God as the “clockmaker” who cannot be envisaged or understood.

God is also responsible for the creation of humans, which Judaism considers to be an unceasing process. The Talmud teaches that parents provide the physical form of every human being, but God supplies the soul. A prominent piece of Jewish liturgy repeatedly describes God as Avinu Malkeinu, “Our Father, Our King.” Judaism purports that we are God's children.

Not a Bearded Old Man in the Sky

While God is often described with anthropomorphic features, such portraits are not designed to be taken literally. Instead, they are employed to help humans understand God's actions. The Jews know that God is incorporeal. He has no limbs nor parts, and He is neither male nor female. God is referred to in the masculine because Hebrew has no gender-neutral nouns. Indeed, there are occasions when feminine terms are applied to God. For instance, the manifestation of God's presence that fills the universe is called shechinah, a feminine word.

Should you have the occasion to correspond with an observant Jew, don't forget that Jews are not permitted to write out the word “God.” To avoid offense, follow the common practice of observant Jews who eliminate the vowel and write “G-d.”

Since God is incorporeal, Jews are forbidden to represent God in a physical form. (Such an act would be considered idolatry.) This admonition has been heeded in many ways, from the way Jews adorn synagogues to the prohibition of tattoos on the body. However, the prohibition to write the name of God has nothing to do with this commandment, nor with the commandment that prohibits Jews from taking the Lord's name in vain. The fact is, Jews may not write down the name of God because they are enjoined from erasing or defacing it. Because no one can ever be certain what may subsequently happen to the paper (or any other medium) written with the name of God, avoiding writing it down in the first place ensures that it cannot be destroyed. The source for this practice is found in Deuteronomy 12:3, which recounts how God commands the Israelites to obliterate the names of all local deities, but not the name of God, when they take over the Promised Land.

God Is Eternal

Judaism holds that God is omnipotent (all-powerful), omniscient (all-knowing), and omnipresent (filling all places at all times). God is eternal. Past and future, here and now, are irrelevant in terms of God. Einstein attempted to describe this idea in more scientific terms: For God, “a thousand years and a thousand dimensions are as one.”

Now, you may ask, if God is eternal and did act in history and intervene in human affairs in the past, why doesn't God continue to do so now? Where has God been hiding? While there is no single answer to this question, an important principle of Judaism does offer an explanation grounded in the notion that the relationship between God and people is reciprocal. One way this has been expressed is in the following Hasidic tale:

“Where is the dwelling of God?” This was the question with which the rabbi of Kotzk surprised a number of learned men who happened to be visiting him. They laughed at him: “What a thing to ask! Is not the whole world full of his glory?” Then he answered his own question. “God dwells wherever man lets him in.”

Martin Buber, the twentieth-century Jewish philosopher and scholar, used the phrase “eclipse of God” as a metaphor to demonstrate something that has come between people and God, a something that may well be within ourselves. Imagine you are standing under a bright glaring sun. You raise your hand and lift your thumb so it blocks the sun from sight. The sun is no longer visible. You cannot see it. Yet, it is there just the same. All you have to do to experience its existence is to remove your thumb. So it is with God. Before experiencing God, you must first remove the impediment you have erected.

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