God: God in Postbiblical Judaism

views updated


Postbiblical Jewish thought concerning God can be divided into four distinct periods: the rabbinic or Talmudic (from the first century bce to the sixth century ce), the philosophical or theological (represented chiefly by the medieval thinkers), the qabbalistic or mystical, and the modern (from the eighteenth century down to the present). While each of these periods has developed independently of the others, there is still a considerable overlapping of ideas from one period to another. Both the rabbinic and the philosophical approaches have had an influence on the mystical, and all three have served in modern attempts at reconstruction of Jewish theology. These four periods will be discussed in turn.

The Rabbinic Approach

Rabbinic thought as contained in the Talmud and the Midrash is unsystematic in presentation. While there is an abundance of references in these sources to the nature of God and his relationship to man and the world, the statements are general responses to particular stimuli, not precise, theological formulations. It is consequently imprecise to speak of the rabbinic doctrine of God, even though the expression is used by some scholars. The Talmud and Midrash are the record of the teachings of many hundreds of individuals, each with his own temperament and disposition, as these individuals reflected on God's dealings with the Jewish people. Even in their edited forms, the rabbinic sources constitute more an anthology of diverse views than an official consensus by an assembly of elected or inspired teachers. Nevertheless, on the basic ideas about God there is total agreement. All of the rabbis are committed to the propositions that God is One, creator of heaven and earth; that he wishes all men to pursue justice and righteousness; that he rewards those who obey his will and punishes those who disobey; and that he has chosen the Jewish people from all the nations to give them his most precious gift, the Torah. The debates, discussions, and contradictory statements in rabbinic literature are about the detailed meaning and application of these basic concepts. In this section of the article, then, material is taken from the whole, vast range of rabbinic/Talmudic literature, avoiding unwarranted generalizations. A serious attempt is made to distinguish between sober theological reflection and poetic fancy; between individual opinions and broader and more categorical views; between a kind of rabbinic consensus, even where the topic was never put to the vote, and fiercely debated arguments and sheer contradictions. It is only in the very flexible form that one can speak at all of the rabbinic approach.

From an early period, the tetragrammaton, YHVH, was never pronounced by Jews as it is written because it is God's own, special name, too holy to be uttered by human mouth. The name Adonai ("my lord") was substituted as a euphemism with regard to which a degree of familiarity was allowed. On the other hand, the rabbinic doctrine of the imitation of God suggests a close point of contact between God and man following the scriptural teaching that man is created in God's image. This doctrine is formulated as follows: "Just as he is merciful, be thou merciful. Just as he is compassionate, be thou compassionate. Just as he feeds the hungry, clothes the naked, and comforts the mourners, do thou these things" (Sifrei Dt. 11.22; B.T., Shab. 133b, Sot. 14a).

The two most frequently found names for God in the Talmud are Ribbono shel ʿolam ("Lord of the universe"), used when addressing God in the second person, and ha-Qadosh barukh huʾ ("the Holy One, blessed be he"), used when speaking of God in the third person (B.T., Ber. 4a, 7a, and very frequently). The implication of this change of person is that while God can be addressed directly in prayer, his true nature is beyond human comprehension. He is the wholly other, totally distinct from any of his creatures, and of him it is permitted to say only that he is the Holy One.

Nevertheless, there are numerous passages in the Talmud and the Midrash in which human terms are applied to God. The rabbis were as little bothered by the problem of anthropomorphism as the biblical authors, though the more human metaphors, when used of God by the rabbis, are generally qualified implicitly, sometimes explicitly, by the expression ki-ve-yakhol, "if it were really possible [to say such a thing]." Occasionally the anthropomorphisms are startling, as when God is said to have requested Ishmael, the high priest, to bless him, or when it is said that God prays to himself, his prayer being "May it be my will that my quality of mercy prevail over my quality of judgment that I might behave with respect to my children beyond the letter of the law and pardon them" (B.T., Ber. 7a).

Other rabbinic names for God were intended to suggest either his distance from man or his nearness. The name ha-Maqom ("the place"), defined as "He is the place of the world but the world is not his place" (Gn. Rab. 68.9), suggests, if this is the original meaning of the term, God's nearness. The name Shamayim ("heaven," B.T., Ber. 31a, 33b, and frequently) suggests his remoteness. In the rabbinic expression "our father in heaven" (Yomaʾ 8.9, Sot. 9.15), both ideas are combined. The name Shekhinah (San. 6.5, and frequently), a feminine form from the root meaning "to dwell," denotes God's indwelling presence.

It is incorrect, however, to think of these names as implying the transcendence and immanence of God. Abstract terms of this nature are entirely foreign to rabbinic thinking. The description of God as king is ubiquitous in the rabbinic literature with antecedents in the Bible. This metaphor is also founded on the rabbis' experiences of earthly rulers. God is the divine king whose laws must be obeyed. When he is stern to punish evildoers, he is said to be seated on his throne of judgment. When he is gracious to pardon, he is said to be seated on his throne of mercy (B.T., ʿA.Z. 3b). The rabbis urge man to stand in prayer as if he were in the awesome presence of a king (Ber. 5.1), first uttering the king's praises and then offering him supplications (B.T., Ber. 31a). Yet there are numerous instances in which the rabbis declare that God is different from a human king. God obeys his own laws, unlike a human king, who is beyond the law (J.T., R. ha-Sh. 3a-b, 57a). God commands man not to steal, and he himself refuses to accept the sacrifice of an animal that has been stolen. To steal food and offer God thanks for the food is to be guilty of blasphemy (B.T., B.Q. 94a).

Especially after the dispersal of many Jews from the Holy Land and the destruction of the Temple in 70 ce, the idea, found only sporadically in the Bible, that God shares human suffering, grieving with the victims of oppression, was deepened by the rabbis. Whenever Israel is in exile, they taught, the Shekhinah is in exile with them (B.T., Meg. 29a). The idea that God is affected by human degradation is applied even to a criminal executed for his crimes. The Shekhinah is said to be distressed at such a person's downfall (San. 6.5).

A severe problem for the rabbis was the apparent conflict between the favoritism shown to Israel by God and God's concern for the whole of humankind. In one Talmudic passage, the ministering angels are made to ask God why he shows special favor to Israel, God replying that it is right for him to do so, since Israel is extraordinarily diligent in worshiping him (B.T., Ber. 20b). The ministering angels are a device used by the rabbis to express the problem of theodicy that they themselves were compelled by their sense of integrity to face. When, in the rabbinic account, the second-century rabbi ʿAqivaʾ ben Yosef is tortured to death by the Romans for teaching the Torah, the ministering angels similarly protest: "Is this the reward for teaching the Torah?" (B.T., Ber. 61b). In the same vein, the second-century rabbi Yannʾai declared: "We are unable to understand why the righteous suffer and the wicked prosper" (Avot 4.15). Despite such awareness of the illusive nature of any solution to the problem of suffering, there are rabbinic suggestions that such suffering is the outcome of sin or the misdeeds of parents and ancestors. There is also to be found the idea of "sufferings of love," of God visiting sufferings on a man in order to demonstrate that man's faith and trust in him come what may.

Both idolatry and dualism were strongly condemned by the rabbis. The twice-daily reading of the Shemaʿ ("Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One," Dt. 6:4), Israel's declaration of faith in God's unity, was introduced at least as early as the first century bce, probably in order to constantly reject the dualistic ideas prevalent in the Near East. The third-century Palestinian teacher Abbahu, in a polemic evidently directed against both Christian beliefs and dualism, expounded the verse: "I am the first, and I am the last, and beside Me there is no God" (Is. 44:6). His interpretation is "'I am the first,' for I have no father; 'and I am the last,' for I have no son; 'and beside me there is no God,' for I have no brother" (Ex. Rab. 29.5).

In rabbinic Judaism there is little denial that the legitimate pleasures of the world are God's gift to man, who must give thanks to God when they are enjoyed. In one passage it is even said that a man will have to give an account to God for his rejection of what he is allowed to enjoy (J.T., Qid. 4.12, 66d). Yet the emphasis is on spiritual bliss in the hereafter, when man, as a reward for his efforts in this life, will enjoy the nearness of God forever. Although the first-century teacher Eliʿezer sought to limit to Jews the blissful state of the world to come, his contemporary Yehoshuʿa, whose view was later accepted, held that the righteous of all peoples have a share in the world to come (Tosefta, San. 13.2). That this bliss consists of the proximity of the righteous to God was given expression by the third-century Babylonian teacher Rav, who said: "In the world to come there is neither eating nor drinking, neither procreation nor business activity, neither hatred nor competition, but the righteous sit with their crowns on their heads and bask in the radiance of the Shekhinah " (B.T., Ber. 17a).

The Philosophical Approach

The medieval Jewish theologians, influenced by Greek philosophy in its Arabic garb, had as one of their main aims the refinement of the concept of God. Unlike the Talmudic rabbis, the medieval thinkers presented their ideas on God in a systematic way. Pascal's distinction between the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and the God of the philosophers generally holds true for the distinction between the rabbinic mode of thinking and that of the medieval theologians. For these theologians, the doctrine that God is One means not only that there is no multiplicity of gods but that God is unique, utterly beyond all human comprehension, and totally different from his creatures, not only in degree but in kind. Moses Maimonides (Mosheh ben Maimon, 1135/81204), the most distinguished of the medieval thinkers and the most influential in subsequent Jewish thought, adapts for his purpose the rabbinic saying (B.T., Ber. 33b) that to over praise God is akin to praising a human king for possessing myriads of silver pieces when, in reality, he possesses myriads of gold pieces. Maimonides (Guide of the Perplexed 1.59) observes that, in the illustration, the king is not falsely praised for possessing thousands of gold pieces when in reality he has myriads. The distinction is between silver and gold. The very coinage of praise suitable for a human king is entirely inapplicable to God. Only the standard liturgical praises of God are permitted and these only because they are formal and so not a real attempt to describe the divine nature.

The medieval thinkers insisted that all of the anthropomorphic expressions used in the Bible about God must be understood in a nonliteral fashion. Maimonides codified thirteen principles of the Jewish faith, one of which is the belief that God is incorporeal. Anyone who believes that God can assume a corporeal form is a heretic to be read out of the community of believers, and he has no share in the world to come, according to Maimonides in his Mishneh Torah (Repentance 3.7). In his stricture to this passage in Maimonides, Avraham ben David of Posquières (d. 1198) vehemently refuses to read a believer in God's corporeality out of Judaism. Such a person cannot be dubbed a heretic simply because he is not a philosopher and takes biblical and rabbinic anthropomorphisms literally.

For the medieval thinkers God was both omniscient and omnipotent. A major problem for them was how to reconcile God's foreknowledge, seemingly implied in the doctrine of his omniscience, with human freedom to choose. If God knows beforehand how a man will choose, how can he be free to choose? Unwilling to compromise man's freedom of choice, essential to Judaism, both Avraham ibn Daud in his Emunah ramah (ed. S. Weil, Frankfurt, 1852, pp. 9398) and Levi ben Gershom (Gersonides, 12881344) in his Milhamot ha-Shem (2.6) could see no solution to the problem and were led to qualify the doctrine of God's foreknowledge. God does know all the possible choices open to man, but he does not know beforehand the particular choice a man will make in a given situation. This qualification does not constitute a denial of God's omniscience. God knows all that can be known, whereas human choice, because it is free, is only possible, and the possible, the contingent, must be uncertain by definition. Such radical qualification failed utterly to convince other thinkers. asdai Crescas (13401410) felt obliged to conclude that since God does have complete foreknowledge this must, indeed, involve a denial that man is free to choose. For Crescas, man's freedom is an illusion (Or ha-Shem 2.4.5). Maimonides had earlier seized both horns of the dilemma: man is free, and yet God has complete foreknowledge (Mishneh Torah, Repentance 5.5). This is not an admission of defeat by Maimonides. His view is that for the solution of the problem it would be necessary for humans to grasp the nature of God's knowledge, and, since God's knowledge is not something outside of him but is God himself, such a grasp on the part of humans is quite impossible. In God the Knower, the Knowledge and the Knowing are one.

In addition to their discussions regarding God's nature, the medieval thinkers examined God's activity in the finite world, that is, his role as creator and the scope of his providence. That God is the creator of the universe is accepted as axiomatic by all the medieval thinkers, although Gersonides (Milhamot ha-Shem 6) is radical here, too, in accepting the Platonic view of a hylic substance, coeternal with God, upon which God imposes form but does not create. Maimonides (Guide of the Perplexed 2.1315), while at first toying with the Aristotelian idea of the material universe as having the same relation to God as the shadow of a tree to the tree, eventually accepts the traditional Jewish view that God created the world out of nothing. Maimonides' motivation is not only to preserve tradition but to emphasize the otherness of God, whose existence is necessary, whereas that of all created things is contingent. As Maimonides remarks in his Mishneh Torah :

The foundation of all foundations and the pillar of wisdom is to know that there is a First Being. He it is who brought all things into being, and all creatures in heaven and earth and in between only enjoy existence by virtue of his true Being. If it could be imagined that he does not exist, nothing else could have existed. But if it could be imagined that no other beings, apart from him, enjoyed existence, he alone would still exist and he could not cease because they have ceased. For all beings need him, but he, blessed be he, does not need them, any of them. Consequently, his true nature is different from the truth regarding the nature of any of them. (Fundamental Principles of the Torah 1.13)

Like the God of the biblical authors and the rabbis, the God of the medieval thinkers is a caring God whose providence extends over all of his creatures. Both Maimonides (Guide of the Perplexed 3.1718) and Gersonides (Milhamot ha-Shem 4) limit, however, God's special providence to humans. For animals there is only a general providence that guarantees the continued existence of animal species, but whether, for instance, this spider catches that fly is not ordained by God but is by pure chance. Yehudah ha-Levi (Judah Halevy, c. 10751141) in his Kuzari (3.11) refuses to allow chance to play any role in creation: God's special providence extends to animals as well as to humans.

Saʿadyah Gaon (882942) anticipated Thomas Aquinas's statement that "nothing that implies a contradiction falls under the scope of God's omnipotence" (Summa theologiae 1.25.4). Saʿadyah (Book of Beliefs and Opinions 2.13) observes that the soul will not praise God for being able to cause five to be more than ten without adding anything to the former, nor for being able to bring back the day gone by to its original condition. Centuries after Saʿadyah, Yosef Albo (d. 1444) similarly distinguishes that which seems impossible but imaginable from that which is impossible because it cannot be imagined. The latter as a logical impossibility does not fall under the scope of the divine omnipotence (Book of Principles 1.22).

The Qabbalistic Approach

The pre-Qabbalistic tendency in Jewish mysticism is that of the "Riders of the Chariot" which extended over the first ten centuries ce. These adepts would perform certain spiritual exercises and delve deeply in the recesses of the psyche on the mysteries of the merkavah, the divine chariot seen by the prophet Ezekiel (chapter one). The journey of the "Riders" would take them into the Heavenly Halls where God sits on his throne surrounded by the angelic hosts. Some of the descriptions of the visions they saw have come down to modern readers. Often these are so bizarre, such as the account of the Divine Body (Shiur Komah ), in impossibly immense measurements that they can hardly have been taken literally. In the account of the Four Who Entered Paradise (agigah 14b), one dies, one goes mad, one becomes an apostate, and only one, Rabbi Akiba, emerges in peace. On the basis of this merkavah tendency, the later Qabbalah became known as "The Work of the Merkavah."

The mystical movement or tendency in Jewish thought known as Qabbalah arose in twelfth-century Provence, reaching its culmination, in Spain, in the Zohar, the greatest classical work of Jewish mystical speculation. The qabbalists accepted the arguments of the philosophers in favor of extreme negation of divine attributes. Yet they felt the need, as mystics, to have a relationship with the God of living religion, not with a cold abstraction. In the theosophical scheme worked out by the qabbalists, a distinction is drawn between God as he is in himself and God in manifestation. God as he is in himself is Ein Sof ("no end," i.e., "the limitless"), the impersonal ground of being who emerges from concealment in order to become manifest in the universe. From Ein Sof there is an emanation of ten sefirot ("spheres"; sg., sefirah ), the powers or potencies of the godhead in manifestation, conceived of as a dynamic organism. Of Ein Sof nothing whatsoever can be said. More extreme than the philosophers in this respect, the qabbalists refuse to allow even negative attributes to be used of Ein Sof, but God in his aspect of manifestation in the sefirot can be thought of in terms of positive attributes. The living God of the Bible and of religion is the godhead as manifested in the sefirot. Ein Sof, on the other hand, is only hinted at in the Bible since complete silence alone is permissible of this aspect of deity. A later qabbalist went further to hold that, strictly speaking, even to use such a negative term as Ein Sof is improper (see I. S. Ratner, Le- or ha-Qabbalah, Tel Aviv, 1961, p. 39, n. 40). When the Zohar does refer obliquely to Ein Sof, the expression used is "No thought can grasp thee at all" (Tiqqunei Zohar, second introduction).

The sefirot represent various aspects in the life of the godhead, for instance, wisdom, justice, and mercy. These are combined in a very complex order, and through them the worlds beneath, including the finite, material universe, are controlled, the whole order conceived as a great chain of being from the highest to the lowest reaching back to Ein Sof. There is a male principle in the realm of sefirot and a female principle, a highly charged mythological concept that opponents of Qabbalah, medieval and modern, considered to be a foreign, verging on the idolatrous, importation into Judaism (see responsa of Yitshaq ben Sheshet Perfet, Rivash, edited by I. H. Daiches, New York, 1964, no. 157, and S. Rubin, Heidenthum und Kabbala, Vienna, 1893). The male principle is represented by the sefirah called Tifʾeret ("beauty"), the female principle by the sefirah called Malkhut ("sovereignty"). The sacred marriage between these two means that there is complete harmony on high, and the divine grace can flow through all creation. But the flow of the divine grace depends upon the deeds of man, since he is marvelously fashioned in God's image. Thus, in the qabbalistic scheme, God has made his purposes depend for their fulfillment on human conduct; in this sense it is not only man who needs God but God who needs man.

The sefirah called Malkhut, the female element, is also known as the Shekhinah. A rabbinic term in origin (meaning the indwelling of God, from a root meaning "to dwell"), the shekhinah comes to denote for the qabbalists a person in the godhead. The rabbinic idea of the exile of the Shekhinah, originally meaning no more than that God is with Israel in its exile, means for the qabbalists that until the advent of the Messiah there is incomplete balance, the female element exiled from the male, and part of God exiled, as it were, from God. The task of restoration, of redeeming the Shekhinah from her exile, is man's task on earth. Again, the rabbinic name "the Holy One, blessed be he" is now a name for Tifʾeret, the male principle. The latter-day qabbalists introduced a mystical formula before the performance of every good deed and religious act in which the worshiper declares: "I do this for the sake of the unification of the Holy One, blessed be he, and his Shekhinah. "

In qabbalistic literature produced in the school of Isaac Luria (15341572), the mythological elements become even more pronounced. In Lurianic Qabbalah, the process by means of which Ein Sof emerges from concealment is traced back beyond the emergence of the sefirot. The first act of Ein Sof (although the qabbalists stress that these divine processes take place beyond time) is one of tsimtsum ("withdrawal, contraction"). Ein Sof first "withdraws from himself into himself" in order to leave an "empty space" into which the sefirot can emerge in their separateness; the Infinite becomes self-limiting so as to become revealed as a multiplicity of powers. The whole process is conceived of in terms of a flow of the light of Ein Sof and then its recoil, as if the Infinite can only produce limitation and ultimately a finite world by God allowing himself gradually, one might say painfully, to produce that which is outside of himself. In one version, current in some Lurianic circles but suppressed in others, the purpose of tsimtsum, producing that which is not God, is for God to purge himself of the evil that is latent in his being (see I. Tishby, Torat ha-raʿ ve-ha-qelippah be-qabbalat ha-Ari, Jerusalem, 1984). It is not surprising that such an astonishingly unconventional notion came to occupy a very peripheral role in the thinking of the qabbalists.

The eighteenth-century mystical movement of Hasidism, particularly the more speculative branch of the movement known as Habad, tended toward a panentheistic understanding of the idea of tsimtsum. Tsimtsum does not really take place, since the Infinite is incapable of suffering limitation, but tsimtsum represents no more than a screening of the divine light so that finite creatures might appear to enjoy separate existence. The only true reality is God. There is a basic difference between this panentheistic ("all is in God") or acosmic view and that of pantheism ("all is God"). In the pantheistic thought of Barukh Spinoza (16321677), God is the name given to the totality of things. God is the universe and the universe is God. In Habad thought, without God there could be no universe, but without the universe God would still be the unchanging same; in fact, God is the unchanging same even after the creation of the universe, since from God's point of view there is no universe. The traditionalist rabbis and communal leaders, the mitnaggedim ("opponents"), saw the Hasidic view as rank heresy. For them the verse that states that the whole earth is filled with God's glory (Is. 6:3) means only that God's providence extends over all and that his glory can be discerned through its manifestation in the world. Speculative Hasidism understands the verse to mean that there is only God's glory as an ultimate.

In the classic work Tanyaʿ (Shaʾar ha-yihud ve-ha-emunah 1 ) by the founder of the Habad school, Shneʾur Zalman of Lyady (17451813), God is described as a sun and a shield. The sun's rays are essential to life, but the sun must be screened from view to some extent if creatures on earth are to endure its splendor. In the sun itself, however, the rays are lost in its great light. Similarly, finite creatures can only enjoy existence because the divine light is screened. They are like the rays of the sun separated from the sun itself. Yet, in reality, the analogy is very inexact, says Shneʾur Zalman, since the divine light pervades all. From God's point of view, finite creatures are like the rays of the sun in the sun itself. They enjoy no separate existence at all. The verse "Know this day, and lay it to thy heart, that the Lord, he is God in heaven above and upon the earth beneath, there is none else" (Dt. 4:39) is taken by Shneʾur Zalman to mean not only that there are other gods but that there is no ultimate reality apart from God himself. The unity of God, understood by medieval thinkers in the sense of his uniqueness, is here interpreted to mean that there is no real multiplicity of beings but only one true being.

Modern Approaches

Modern Jewish thinkers have been obliged to face the challenges to traditional theism provided by modern thought. From the Renaissance onward, the emphasis in the West has shifted from a God-centered to a human-centered universe. The inerrancy of the Bible was questioned. The idea of revelation as conveying infallible information about God appeared less convincing. Immanuel Kant and his followers questioned whether human reasoning is capable of proving the existence of God. The rise of modern science tended to favor mechanistic philosophies of existence and, in more recent years, both linguistic philosophy and existentialism, in their different ways, cast suspicion on all metaphysics. Although the Jew did not begin to participate fully in Western society and to assimilate Western patterns of thought until the end of the eighteenth century, modern Jewish thinkers have been influenced by all of these trends in Western thought, compelling them to rethink the traditional views concerning God. The result has been an espousal of differing attitudes toward theism, from a reaffirmation of the traditional to a radical transformation in naturalistic terms. In any event, the vocabulary used since, by both the traditionalists and the nonconformists, is that of modern thought, even when it is used to interpret the tradition.

Among twentieth-century Jewish thinkers, Mordecai M. Kaplan (18811983) is the most determined of the naturalists. For Kaplan and his disciples, God is not a supernatural, personal being but the power in the universe that makes for righteousness. Kaplan maintains that people really were referring to this power when they spoke of God, even though, in the prescientific age, they expressed their belief in terms of a supreme being, the creator of the world who exercises care over it. Faith in God does not involve belief in being outside the universe but is an affirmation that the universe itself is so constituted that the pursuit of righteousness will triumph. God is the power that guarantees salvation, in terms not of an otherworldly existence but of the enrichment of the human personality to its highest stage of evolution.

Martin Buber (18781965), the best-known of Jewish religious existentialists, stresses, on the contrary, the personal aspect of deity. In Buber's thought, when man has an I-Thou relationship to his fellows and to the world in general, he meets in dialogue the Thou of God. While the medieval thinkers devoted a significant part of their thought to reasoning about God's nature, Buber rejects such speculations as futile, cosmic talk, irrelevant to the life of faith. God cannot be spoken about, but he can be met as a person by persons. Franz Rosenzweig (18861929) has a similar existentialist approach. For Rosenzweig there are three elements in the universe: God, the world, and man. Religion, specifically Judaism, binds these three together through the processes of revelation, creation, and redemption.

Avraham Yitsaq Kook (18651935), the first chief rabbi of Palestine, is completely traditional in his concept of God but accepts the theory of evolution, which, as a qabbalist, he believed to be in full accord with the qabbalistic view. The whole of the universe is on the move, and man is rising to ever-greater heights ultimately to meet God. Abraham Joshua Heschel (19071972), strongly influenced by Hasidism, stresses the sense of wonder as the way to God. Because the universe is shot through with wonder, it points to the wondrous glory of its maker, who, in the title of Heschel's book, is "God in search of man." Heschel's God shares in man's tribulations. He is the God of the Hebrew prophets, involved intimately in human affairs, not a cold abstraction without power to save.

More than any other event, the Holocaust, in which six million Jews perished, compelled Jewish religious thinkers to examine again the doctrine that God is at work in human history. Efforts of medieval thinkers like Yehudah ha-Levi and Maimonides to account for evil in God's creation were, for many, totally inadequate to explain away the enormity of the catastrophe. Some contemporary thinkers invoke the idea found in the ancient sources that there are times when the face of God is hidden, when God surrenders his universe to chance if not to chaos and conceals himself because humankind has abandoned him. There is a reluctance, however, to explore such ideas, since they appear to condemn those who were destroyed, laying the blame, to some extent, at the door of the victims. The free-will defense has also been invoked by contemporary thinkers, both Jewish (e.g., Avraham Yitsaq Kook, Milton Steinberg) and non-Jewish (e.g., John Hick). For man to be free and exercise his choice in freedom to meet his God, the world must be a place in which naked evil is possible, even though the price might seem too high.

None of these theories has provided contemporary Jewry with an adequate response to the problem of evil. The widespread tendency among believers in God is to rely on faith rather than on reason; man finds it hard to believe in God but harder still to accept a mindless universe. The only Jewish thinker of note who has accepted, in part at least, the "death of God" theology is Richard Rubenstein. The others reaffirm, in their different ways, the traditional picture of God as existing and caring, even though, like Kaplan, their understanding of what this can mean departs from that picture. Orthodox thinkers accept the traditional idea in its totality, including the belief that the Torah, given by God, is the path to eternal life and that, even on earth, God will eventually intervene directly, bringing the Messiah to redeem the Jewish people and the whole of humankind. Thinkers belonging to the Reform movement also accept the idea that human history is moving toward its culmination in the acknowledgment of God with the establishment of God's kingdom; however, they speak not of a personal Messiah but of the dawning of a messianic age.

See Also

Attributes of God, article on Jewish Concepts; Holocaust, article on Jewish Theological Responses; Jewish Thought and Philosophy, article on Modern Thought; Reconstructionist Judaism; Reform Judaism.


There are three works of general Jewish theology in which the Jewish doctrine of God is discussed with full bibliographical references for further study. Jewish Theology Systematically and Historically Considered (1918) by Kaufmann Kohler, with new material by Joseph L. Blau (New York, 1968), is a pioneering work but now dated and heavily influenced by Protestant thought of the first decades of the twentieth century. Jewish Theology: A Historical and Systematic Interpretation of Judaism and Its Foundations by Samuel S. Cohon (Assen, Netherlands, 1971) and my A Jewish Theology (New York, 1973) are more adequate in that they consider more recent trends in theological thought. The same applies to my God, Torah, Israel: Traditionalism without Fundamentalism (Cincinnati, Ohio, 1990) and to Neil Gillman, Sacred Fragments: Recovering Theology for the Modern Jew (Philadelphia and New York, 1990).

On the rabbinic views, The Old Rabbinic Doctrine of God by Arthur Marmorstein (1927; reprint, New York, 1968) is a detailed examination of the names of God in rabbinic literature by an expert in this literature. George Foot Moore's Judaism in the First Centuries of the Christian Era, the Age of Tannaim, 3 vols. in 2 (19271930; reprint, Cambridge, Mass., 1970), contains much information, by a non-Jewish scholar, on early rabbinic discussions of God and his relationship to Israel. Aspects of Rabbinic Theology by Solomon Schechter (New York, 1961) is a well-written and scholarly treatment of the subject. There is also a good deal of material in A Rabbinic Anthology, edited by C. G. Montefiore and Herbert Loewe (1938; reprint, Philadelphia, 1960), in which a Reform and an Orthodox Jew also debate their differing attitudes to the rabbinic formulations. Occasionally this discussion tends to shade off into apologetics and must be used with a degree of caution.

No work exists devoted specifically to God in medieval Jewish philosophy, but the subject is treated extensively in two histories: A History of Mediaeval Jewish Philosophy by Isaac Husik (New York, 1916) and Philosophies of Judaism: The History of Jewish Philosophy from Biblical Times to Franz Rosenzweig by Julius Guttmann, translated by David W. Silverman (New York, 1964). For Maimonides' thought on the subject, the indispensable work is his Guide of the Perplexed, translated with an introduction by Shlomo Pines (Chicago, 1963). On the doctrine of God in the merkavah, qabbalistic, and Hasidic literatures, the essential work is the classic Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism by Gershom Scholem (1941; reprint, New York, 1961). Scholem's Jewish Gnosticism, Merkavah Mysticism, and Talmudic Tradition (New York, 1965) is an important work on the subject in its title. There is a good deal of material on the personal approach in my Jewish Mystical Testimonies (London, 1996).

For useful summaries of modern thinkers on God, three works can be recommended. Anatomy of Faith by Milton Steinberg, edited by Arthur A. Cohen (New York, 1960), compares Jewish thought on God with Christian thought. Modern Philosophies of Judaism by Jacob B. Agus (New York, 1941) is an excellent examination of the thought of Buber, Rosenzweig, Kaplan, and other modern Jewish thinkers. My Jewish Thought Today (New York, 1970) is an annotated anthology with a section on God. Judaism Faces the Twentieth Century: A Biography of Mordecai M. Kaplan (Detroit, 1993) is a useful introduction to Kaplan's naturalistic view of God.

Louis Jacobs (1987 and 2005)