The Nature of the Divine

A recent FaceBook conversation with a Christian lead to following, deceptively succinct question, “But as a Jew, do you believe [Hashem] is a person, or a force?”

My response was that Hashem is beyond human comprehension, and I was respectfully asked to explain the position.  As I started gathering scriptural passages to support this view, my response grew to a blog post, and here we are.  I also realized I had never really thought about the ineffable nature of Hashem before.  It was an assumption–one I had never consciously tested against the peshat (plain meaning) of the TaNaKh.  It is an idea that, in my experience and study, is common among most Avrahamic religions, including many denominations of Christianity.  This is an idea with which I was raised.  I never questioned it.  It was frequently reinforced, and I never saw anything contrary to it in scripture.  

What was the official “party line” on the subject?  Honestly, I had to look it up.  The answer I found, was that Jews (in general, both Rabbinic and Karaite) consider Hashem to be beyond comprehension, but also know Him to be infinite, omnipotent, omnipresent, and omniscient.  Some would also add omnibenevolent, although I would argue that benevolence is a highly human attribute, and that omnibenevolence is not supported by peshat.  

For Rabbinical Jews, what is known and understood about the Nature of Hashem also includes various statements in Maimonides’ Thirteen Articles of Faith.  And Maimonides’ Thirteen Attributes of Mercy describe what Rabbinical Jews believe to be the human understanding of Hashem’s methods of action (they are not part of Karaite belief).

For Karaite Jews, HaDassi’s Ten Articles of Faith, which were written in the century preceding Maimonides’ life, include our understanding of Hashem’s Nature:

  1. The uniqueness of God’s creation and wisdom; God is the Creator who causes life and death. 
  2. He is the first, one without a second, powerful, knowing, existent, and living in his essence as we understand; there is none like him.

However, Karaites also pride ourselves on “searching the Scripture,” instead of relying on the interpretations of man.  HaDassi and Maimonides may have had insightful things to say, but they were not prophets.  What does the TaNaKh tell us?

First, both Rabbinical and Karaite Jews hold that human-like characteristics (face, hands, wrath, repentance, love, etc.) ascribed to Hashem in Scripture are metaphorical in nature, and not literal characterizations of Hashem.  Moreover, without such comparisons, we would be hindered in our effort to understand Hashem’s will for us. Hashem sometimes describes Himself in an anthropomorphized manner in order to help us understand His message.

“You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.”–Shemot (Exodus) 20:4

The wickedness of idolatry is never far from the subject in discussing Scripture.  If we believe we understand what Hashem is, whether “person,” “force,” or something else, a solid definition is a man-made creation, and therefor and idol, even if not a material one.  A solid definition is also a limitation of Hashem, as the act of defining requires exclusion as much as inclusion.

God is not man, that he should lie,
    or a son of man, that he should change his mind.
Has he said, and will he not do it?
    Or has he spoken, and will he not fulfill it?
Bamidbar (Numbers) 23:19

This verse is from the story of Balak and Bilam.  It tells us about the consistency of Hashem.  That is something we can know.  He has a Plan, and He sticks to it.  However, He “is not a man,” and so we should not try to understand Him in human terms.  We may use human terms as descriptors and to impress upon ourselves what He desires of us in the context, but only on the understanding that such mechanisms are metaphorical and mnemonic.
But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him. For the Lord sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.”–1 Shmuel (Samuel) 16:7

Hashem is not interested in cover so much as He is in the book.  That doesn’t just apply to His interest in man, it applies to everything.  Hashem is interested in the heart of the matter, too–in His larger plan, rather than the outward appearance of finite details.

And he said, “Go out and stand on the mount before the Lord.” And behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind tore the mountains and broke in pieces the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. And after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. And after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire the sound of a thin silence.–1 Melechim (Kings) 19:11-12

Scripture tells us to approach Hashem with awe, with trembling, and even with fear.  In this passage concerning Eliyahu (Elijah) waiting to speak with Hashem, Eliyahu experiences several awe- and fear-inspiring phenomena, but none of them are Hashem, who is in the silence.  The awe with which we should approach the Divine is the awe of encountering that which we do not understand.  This is a common experience in the natural world.  The falling silent of a flock of birds, an army of frogs, or an orchestra of crickets is a good reason to stop and listen intently.

In a prophecy against the city of Ariel, Yesheyahu (Isaiah) wrote:

You turn things upside down!
Shall the potter be regarded as the clay,
that the thing made should say of its maker,
    “He did not make me”;
or the thing formed say of him who formed it,
    “He has no understanding”?
–Yesheyahu 29:16
The vessel has no understanding of its maker beyond its experience of being made and inspected. Neither can a vessel make a potter.  We, the vessels, must understand our role in that relationship.  We do not understand the Potter, although we know that we experience a relationship with Him, and we know that He seeks to make us better vessels.  We must also be careful not to confuse the Potter and His wheel.  The mechanisms He uses to accomplish His Will are part, but not the whole, of Him.
To whom will you liken me and make me equal,
    and compare me, that we may be alike?
Yesheyahu 46:5
When humans seek to understand something that we cannot observe directly, we use comparisons to describe it.  Hashem has no absolute comparison. 
O Lord, what is man that you regard him,
    or the son of man that you think of him?
Man is like a breath;
    his days are like a passing shadow.
–Tehila (Psalm) 144:3-4

Time does not apply to Hashem as it does to man.  The Creation story as related in Bresheit (Genesis) tells us that the mechanisms of time Hashem created for man.
“But will God indeed dwell with man on the earth? Behold, heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you, how much less this house that I have built!”–2 Dvrei HaYomim (Chronicles) 6:18

Hashem is infinite.


“How you have helped him who has no power!
    How you have saved the arm that has no strength!
How you have counseled him who has no wisdom,
    and plentifully declared sound knowledge!
With whose help have you uttered words,
    and whose breath has come out from you?
The dead tremble
    under the waters and their inhabitants. 
Sheol is naked before God,
    and Abaddon has no covering.
He stretches out the north over the void
    and hangs the earth on nothing
He binds up the waters in his thick clouds,
    and the cloud is not split open under them.
He covers the face of the full moon
    and spreads over it his cloud.
He has inscribed a circle on the face of the waters
    at the boundary between light and darkness.
The pillars of heaven tremble
    and are astounded at his rebuke.
By his power he stilled the sea;
    by his understanding he shattered Rahab.
By his wind the heavens were made fair;
    his hand pierced the fleeing serpent. 

Behold, these are but the outskirts of his ways, 
and how small a whisper do we hear of him! 
But the thunder of his power who can understand?”
–Yov (Job) 26:2-14

I think Immanuel Kant was on to something when he hypothesized that we can never understand the true nature of a thing, because our own methods of perception influence what we perceive.  What we can really know is the existence of the thing perceived.  So it is with Hashem.  We can never step far enough back from preconceptions or far enough away from our own experiences (the blinders with which Hashem has equipped us) to understand Him in a pure and total sense.  We can, however, know what He desires of us, because He gave us that information and even put it in terms we can comprehend and preserve.
The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man.  For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil.
–Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) 12:13

For this commandment that I command you today is not too hard for you, neither is it far off. It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will ascend to heaven for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will go over the sea for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ But the word is very near you. It is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it.
“See, I have set before you today life and good, death and evil. If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I command you today, by loving the Lord your God, by walking in his ways, and by keeping his commandments and his statutes and his rules, then you shall live and multiply, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to take possession of it. But if your heart turns away, and you will not hear, but are drawn away to worship other gods and serve them, I declare to you today, that you shall surely perish. You shall not live long in the land that you are going over the Jordan to enter and possess. I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Therefore choose life, that you and your offspring may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying his voice and holding fast to him, for he is your life and length of days, that you may dwell in the land that the Lord swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give them.”–Devarim (Deuteronomy) 30:11-20, emphasis mine.


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