Jewish Tradition forbids the pronunciation of the four-letter name of God. This name, rooted in the Hebrew word for “being,” consists of the Hebrew letters: Yud, Heh, Vav and Heh. According to the Sages of Israel, the name reflects the different dimensions of “being” related to time: past, present and future. As such, God figures as the One Who lives in these three dimensions and exists simultaneously in all three, thereby making them, in reality, one and the same, which also means He is beyond all of them. Since this name of God expresses that idea, we are not allowed to utter it, for God is beyond time or, if you will, in all time. Man, however, who is bound by the limits of time, cannot possibly grasp this. Man, after all, lives in broken eternity. If he were to pronounce the four-letter name, he would give the impression that he actually grasps the unfathomable concept that God lives simultaneously in the past, present, future and beyond. That would be an untruth, and Jewish law forbids lying. God is incomprehensible and beyond all description. He can only be addressed; His being cannot be expressed (2).
The great Kabbalist Rabbi Moshe Cordovero elaborates on this in his famous work Elima Rabati:
When your mind conceives of God, do not permit yourself to imagine that there is really a God as depicted by you, for if you do this, you will have a finite corporeal conception, God forbid. Instead your mind should openly dwell on the affirmation of God’s existence and then it should recoil. To do more than that is to allow the imagination to reflect upon God as He is Himself and such a reflection is bound to result in imaginative limitations and corporeality. Therefore one should put reins on one’s intellect and not allow it great freedom, but assert God’s existence and deny the possibility of comprehending Him. The mind should run to and fro – running to affirm God’s existence and recoiling from any limitations, since man’s imagination pursues his intellect. (3)
Introducing God is one of the most difficult things to do. It is like presenting a three-dimensional reality on a flat surface. Still, God is the most captivating figure in human history and His track record is most unusual. His deeds are unprecedented, yet very disturbing. He is to be loved, but often irritates. He is above all human limitation, but He gets angry and outright emotional. He is beyond criticism, yet He is judged by the strictest criteria of justice. Religious people, as well as thinkers, believe that He is the only One who really has it all together and knows what He is doing. But others are convinced that He is absent-minded, lets things get out of hand and causes unnecessary pain to some of His creatures.
Nobody has ever been the cause of so much controversy, deafening silence and admiration. And no one is so conspicuous while using an ingenious hideout called the universe. While He is the great mystery in man’s life, some human beings have a relationship with Him as if He is their best friend, one with whom they can converse and to whom they can complain. He is the personal psychologist of millions of people but is ultimately blamed for anything that goes wrong. Others deny His existence because of the many inconsistencies in His behavior; and then there are those who believe in Him but, out of anger or frustration, refuse to speak to Him. In the words of famous novelist and poet Miguel de Cervantes, “Man appoints and God disappoints.”
Who is this strange figure called God?
The first thing to realize is that the term God is used arbitrarily. It often stands for completely opposing entities used by religious and quasi-religious ideologies. All of them agree that “God” affirms some absolute reality as the ultimate. But, they fundamentally disagree as to what that reality is all about. For Benedictus Spinoza, the Dutch philosopher and supreme Jewish rebel, and for other pantheistic thinkers, He is really an “It,” a primal, impersonal force, identical with all nature—some ineffable, immutable, impassive Divine substance that pervades the universe, or is the universe. God is only immanent. He is permanently pervading the universe but is not transcendent; a Divine spirit that has little practical meaning in man’s day-to-day life.
Although this view is close to the kabbalistic idea of En Sof—the One Who is infinite and boundless—this is not identical to the Jewish perception of God. In the Jewish tradition, God is not an idea or just a blind force. God is the Ribono shel Olam, the Master of the Universe, Who besides being immanent is also transcendent, surpassing the universe, which is His creation. He has the disturbing habit of being everywhere and anywhere, and He is known to interfere with anything and everything. He is a living God, a dynamic power in the life and history of man, moving things around when He sees fit, smiling when He is pleased with the behavior of His creatures and annoyed when they have blundered yet again. But most important, while He does not fit into any category, He has—for lack of a better word—“personality,” and His own consciousness. His essence cannot be expressed, but He can definitely be addressed.
This radical difference in the conception of God makes for an equally profound divergence in attitudes about all of life and the universe. While in pantheistic and other non-monotheistic philosophies He has no moral input, nothing could be further from the Jewish concept of God. In Judaism, He is the source par excellence of all moral criteria, although He seems to violate some moral standards in the way He deals with man. Apparently, this is due to the fact that He needs to achieve certain goals with His creation that are only known to Him and remain unintelligible to man. God’s perfection, then, is not that He is already perfect but that He strives for it. Would He be perfect, He would lack the capacity to become perfect, which would be a terrible deficiency in His being. (4)
According to pantheism and the like, the world is eternal, without a beginning. As such, it does not have a purpose, since purpose is the conscious motivation of a creator to bring something into existence. It therefore follows that in the pantheistic view man, too, has no ultimate purpose. He, like the universe, just is; so, moral behavior may have some utilitarian purpose but no ultimate one. For radical pantheists, acting morally is not the goal of man; it is simply a means to his survival, a way to prevent pain and achieve happiness.
On a deeper level, some pantheists view the universe as an illusion—an unreal, shifting flux of sensory deception. As such, it needs to be escaped. Made from a purely Divine substance, it cannot accommodate any physical reality and therefore can have no real meaning. In that case, neither can man. Once his physical existence is branded as an illusion, he can no longer be of flesh and blood. Nor are his deeds of any real value. Since it is the body that enables man to act, and man’s body is part of the deception, it must follow that all man’s behavior belongs to the world of illusion. It is this view that Judaism protests against. God is a conscious Being Who created the world with a purpose. This world is real and by no means a mirage. Man’s deeds are of great value, far from an illusion. While they may not be the primary goal of creation (5), they are of enormous importance. Judaism objects to the pantheistic view of man, which depersonalizes him and must finally lead to his demoralization. If man is part of an illusion, so are his feelings. Why then be concerned with a fellow man’s emotional and physical welfare?
Paradoxically, this pantheism infiltrated western culture via the back door. When we are told by certain modern philosophers that man is only physical and his body a scientific mechanism in which emotions are just a chemical inconvenience, we are confronted with pantheism turned on its head. While pantheism denies the physical side of existence, this scientific approach rejects the spiritual dimension of man. In both cases, emotions are seen as part of an illusion and are therefore of little importance.
Judaism, on the other hand, declares that emotions are what make man into man; they are real and of crucial importance. In fact, emotions are central to man’s existence, since they are the foundation of moral behavior. It is for this reason that Judaism views God as an emotional Being. By metaphorically attributing emotions to God, they are raised to a supreme state. If God has emotions such as love, mercy, jealousy and anger, then they must be genuine, important, and not to be ignored when found in man. While some philosophers considered such anthropomorphism as scandalous, the Jewish tradition took the risk of granting God emotions so as to uphold morality on its highest level and guarantee it would not be tampered with. For the sake of man, even God is prepared to compromise His complete Otherness, albeit not to the point where He would be regarded as a human being.
The great philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein pointed to the danger in western society where God has become insignificant. While the vast majority of people in the Western Hemisphere declare their belief in God, they seem to add two words to their declaration of faith: “I believe in God; so what?” In this way, the most radical encounter man could ever have with the Master of the Universe is reduced to a senseless blur of charlatanism. It is to this that Judaism objects. Abraham Joshua Heschel put it very plainly: “God is of no importance unless He is of Supreme importance.”
1. G.K. Chesterton, G.K.C. as M.C., (London: Methuen & Co. Ltd., 1929), “Introduction to the Book of Job,” p. 47. This book is a collection of 37 introductions by Chesterton to books by others.
2. Chulin 90b, Yoma 69b, Rabbi E.E. Dessler, Michtav Me-Eliyahu, vol. 3, pp. 314-5.
3. Elima Rabati 1:10, 4b.
4. One is reminded of American writer and philosopher Elbert Hubbard’s famous observation: “Life is a paradox. Every truth has its counterpart which contradicts it; and every philosopher supplies the logic for his own undoing.” [Elbert Hubbard’s Selected Writings: Part 9 (Whitefish, MT: Kessinger Publishing, 1998) p. 408].
5. See TTP 319 – God and Sandy.