The truly great need no synthesis. They absorb whatever experience offers them. Their intensely creative personalities act like a fiery furnace, melting away contradictions. What emerges is either a harmonious whole or a creative parallelism with parts that mutually fructify and supplement each other. The truly great do not need to trim edges, as it were, to make genuine experiences fit with each other. They preserve them intact. And if their experiences appear contradictory, they build an emotional bridge spanning them allowing both the landscape and the water to be seen. Lesser mortals resort to logical means of harmonization.
— David Weiss Halivni
“God is a circle whose center is everywhere and circumference nowhere”. Indeed, to describe God is like trying to present something that is more than a three-dimensional reality on a flat surface. People say that God exists, but if there is nothing more to Him than simply existing, we would have to deny His being God. And even to argue that He is more than just existing is a serious understatement.
His Being is totally different from anything else, and even the word Being evaporates into a philosophical impossibility. All we can say is that His essence cannot be expressed but that He definitely can be addressed. For if we were able to grasp Him, that would be a defect in Him, said Yehudah Halevi. As a sage once remarked, upon being asked to describe God’s essence, “If I knew Him, I would be He”.
All God-talk is impossible. “To say too much, without qualification, is to fall into the trap of gross anthropomorphism. To say too little is to court the opposite risk of having so many reservations that the whole concept [of God] suffers, in Anthony Flew’s pungent phrase, ‘the death of a thousand qualifications’”.
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 simultaneously, making them one and the same, which means that He is beyond all of them. The notion of time, then, becomes empty of all meaning.
Since this name of God expresses the idea of otherness, Judaism does not allow this name to be uttered. Man, after all, lives in time, a kind of broken eternity. If he were to pronounce the four-letter name, it would give the impression that he actually grasps the unfathomable concept called God. That would be an untruth, and Jewish law forbids lying.
The great Kabbalist Rabbi Moshe Cordovero (1522-1570) elaborates on this:
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.
And herein lies the great paradox. Is God really perfect as we always maintain? God Himself tells Moshe Eheyeh asher eheyeh—I will be what I will be. Not “I am what I am” as the Septuagint mistranslates. But how can that be? It means that He is not yet what He should be and that He never will be. Apparently He is incomplete, because He seems capable of changing and moving toward perfection, but He will never be able to actually reach perfection. God is trapped in a contradiction. So, is God a verb? Always “godding”? Always imprisoned in a becoming mode? What then is God? An unending trial to be God?
When looking in the Torah, we see no indication that God “is,” or that He is perfect. Instead, He is always on the move. He changes His mind, regrets what He did, gets annoyed, and does things that are downright disturbing, and often irritating. That is far from being perfect.
Indeed, what does “perfect” mean? Perfect by what definition? Something can be perfect only within its own category. A bottle can be perfect as long as it is a bottle. That is its limitation. It can’t be a motorcycle. When it is made so large that it loses the measurements of a bottle, and you can no longer use it as such, it is not imperfect; it has simply ceased to be a bottle. In terms of absolute perfection, God cannot be perfect, because He must include the possibility of change. If He can’t change, He can’t be perfect. But if He is able to change, how then can He be perfect? Moreover, can God put an end to His existence? And If He can’t, how perfect is He?
This is exactly what God tells Moshe: You cannot see My face, only My back. I am a contradiction that is unsolvable. What you see of Me is only a shadow of what I should be but never will be. You can only see Me in human terms. Spinoza is correct when he writes, “I believe that if a triangle could speak, it would say, in like manner, that God is eminently triangular, while a circle would say that the divine nature is eminently circular. Thus each would ascribe to God its own attributes, would assume itself to be like God and look on everything else as ill-shaped”.
But is God not a Being “than which no greater can be conceived,” as Saint Anselm of Canterbury 1033-1109) taught us? Isn’t He the perfection of all perfections?
So why does God appear in the Torah with human attributes, which are not applicable as far as His absolute perfection is concerned?
God appears to experience all the human emotions: love; anger; involvement; indignation; regret; sadness; and so on. By so doing, He gives the seal of divinity to the very essence of our humanity. He implicitly says to man: “You cannot know what is above and what is below, but you can know what is in your hearts and in the world. These feelings and reactions and emotions that make up human existence are, if illumined by faith and rationality, all the divinity you can hope for. To be humane is to be divine: as I am holy, so you shall be holy; as I am merciful, so you shall be merciful.” Thus, there is only one kind of knowledge that is open to man, the knowledge of God’s humanity.
All of this forces us to radically rethink the concept of God.
Consider the relationship between a computer’s chip and hard disk (the inside), on the one hand, and what you see on the screen when you view the computer… What you see on the screen is the result of what is inscribed in the inside. Change the contents in the inside and you will see something different showing on the screen. What is inscribed in the inside is nothing like what you get on the screen. Inscribed in the inside are no colors or shapes of the picture on the screen…. You can peer into the inside through the most powerful microscope and you will see no pictures of people or words. [Still] the computer has a translation mechanism from inside to the screen…. In God there is nothing like what you get on the world screen. If we knew God as God is, we would not see what we see when we see God on the world screen.
So, in God there is nothing that justifies the word “exist.” When we say that He exists, we mean that there is something in God that is projected on the world screen as God’s existence, but in God there is no such thing. When we say that God changes His mind, regrets what He has done, or gets angry, it only means that on the world screen something in God (the hard disk) has been translated to state that God is changing His mind, regretting His earlier decisions, or getting angry. For God to be meaningful to man, He must appear on the screen in ways through which man can identify with Him—”In the image of God He created him”. But God on the hard disk, in His essence, is something totally different about which we mortals have no clue.
This analogy is far from perfect, but it gives us a better picture of what we are discussing when we contemplate God.
The idea that God is perfect, beyond time and space, while simultaneously entering this world and possessing emotions is as paradoxical as relativity, quantum physics, black holes, Higgs bosons and other counterintuitive phenomena. They are inexplicable but as real as they can be while lacking the character of “conventional” existence.
So, does God exist? God forbid! And precisely for that reason we should pray to Him and observe His commandments. Were He to exist, our prayers would be meaningless and our adherence to the mitzvot idol worship.
 Rabbi Professor David Weiss Halivini, “Professor Saul Lieberman z.l.,” Conservative Judaism, vol. 38 (Spring 1986) pp. 6-7. (Prof. Halivni taught Talmud and Classical Rabbinics in the Department of Religion at Columbia University until 2005. He now lives in Israel and teaches at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Bar Ilan University. He is one of the greatest Talmudic scholars of our time.)
 Voltaire: It is a pity that God allowed this profound statement to come from the mouth of a person who was an arch anti-Semite.
 Kuzari, 5,21.
 Joseph Albo, Sefer ha-Ikkarim 2, 30.
 Louis Jacobs, “God,” Contemporary Jewish Religious Thought, ed. Arthur A. Cohen and Paul Mendes-Flohr (New York: C. Scribner’s Sons, 1987) pp. 291-8.
 See the remarkable narrative in the Talmud, Yoma 38b, where Ben Kamtzar wrote the four-letter Name in one go, by taking four pens between his fingers. For the Rogatchover Gaon’s unusual interpretation of this narrative, see “The Gaon of Rogatchov: A study in Abstraction” by Dovber Schwartz, Hakirah, The Flatbush Journal of Jewish Law and Thought, vol. 15 (Summer 2013) pp. 245–270.
 Elima Rabati 1:10,4b.
 See Yoram Hazony, Jerusalem Letters, no. 21, November 26, 2012.
 Shemot 33:23.
 Benedictus de Spinoza, The Letters, tr. by Samuel Shirley (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1995), “Letter to Hugo Boxel, 1674.
 Proslogion (1077–1078), ch. 2. This is the famous ontological argument.
 Dr. Yochanan Muffs, “God and the World: A Jewish View,” in his book The Personhood of God: Biblical Theology, Human Faith and the Divine Image (Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights Publishing, 2009) p. 177.
 Jerome (Yehudah) Gellman, God’s Kindness Has Overwhelmed Us: A Contemporary Doctrine of the Jews as the Chosen People (Boston: Academic Press, 2013) pp 20-21. This remarkable book is required reading.
 Bereshit 1:27.
 Hopefully one day I will explain why this is also true when God speaks, or gives the Torah at Mount Sinai. God does this only on the world screen, but in God there is no such thing.
Questions to Ponder from the David Cardozo Think Tank:
- The author presents a paradox regarding God’s perfection. As He is always becoming, how can He be perfect? Does this construct challenge your conception of perfection? Does this make God’s apparent “humanness” more understandable?
- Professor Gellman’s God of the hard disk, only apprehendable on the world screen, evokes a frightening possible image of God as the Wizard of Oz, maybe not as perfect as we thought, the manipulator behind the curtain. Considering your human agency, how do you relate to such a prospect?
- Do Rabbi Cardozo’s reformulations of God change how you will relate to Him? If so, how abstractly? Concretely, will it change how you pray?
- Do you agree with Rabbi Cardozo’s concluding line? How did he draw this conclusion? On the assumption that Rabbi Cardozo is right about God’s existence or the nature of God’s being, could one come to a different conclusion?
Jeffrey Radon says
I have a fundamental problem with the theology that Rabbi Cardozo presents in his blog . I will focus upon one issue that for me stands out.
Rabbi Cardozo presents a theological conception that on the face of it is similar to that of Maimonides, the greatest thinker of the Jewish tradition (though significantly he does not cite Maimonides in his blog) – according to which God is beyond all human comprehension. However, Maimonides is consistent, and in his conception not only can we not say anything about the essence of God by way of description (positive or negative), but we cannot say that God exists or that God does not exist – and, we must be silent regarding God (except for what is permitted to us by tradition such as reading Scripture, praying or making blessings). Any description of what God is or what God is not, for Maimonides, is defining something that is beyond definition and beyond comprehension – but, where Maimonides goes farther than all other thinkers in our tradition is that he includes in this the existence and non-existence of God such that we must be entirely silent regarding God even regarding the existence of God.
Rabbi Cardozo in his blog cites, for example, Rabbi Moshe Cordovero, a great Jewish mystic, who says explicitly that we are to “assert God’s existence and deny the possibility of comprehending Him”. So, for Rabbi Cordovero, we can then assert that God indeed exists – but, we cannot describe God because God is beyond all human comprehension.
There is an obvious philosophic problem with such a distinction of Rabbi Cordovero. In order to make clear the problem, I want to give an analogy. If I describe a car to you that that you do not see, I cannot describe the car accurately, but I can give you a rough idea of how the car looks. If I tell you that the car is red, you will have an idea of the color of the car even though there are different shades of red. In addition, I may be describing an imaginary car and not an actual car. If, though, I am describing an actual car, and you examine the car, among other things verifying that it is indeed red as I described, you then have reason on the basis of your sensory perceptions of the car to conclude that the car does exist. Notice that such a conclusion that the car exists is not certain, as our sensory perceptions sometimes can be misleading such as when we hallucinate – and, most important, we cannot get outside our sensory perceptions in order to verify if the car actually exists apart from our sensory perceptions. But, we rely upon our sensory perceptions in the case of the car (and, in life in general), especially when others also see the car, and we thus rationally conclude that we know that the car exist, even though this conclusion is not certain.
But, regarding the concept of God the situation is different. If, as Rabbi Cordovero acknowledges, we cannot describe or comprehend God at all, and God is entirely beyond human comprehension, then in what way can we assert that God exists? This is as if I say that I have an object behind my back that you cannot see, and I tell you that any description of the object is beyond your comprehension – for example, I describe the object to you as big, but not big according to your limited understanding of big, and red but not red in your limited understanding of red. I have actually then said nothing that you can comprehend – and, in what sense then can I assert that the object exists if I can say nothing of the object that you will comprehend? The assertion that the object exists is utterly meaningless. All the more so if we are speaking of God as a Being or power outside of our sensory perception – if we can say nothing of God whatsoever, then the assertion that God exists is utterly meaningless.
So, Maimonides is thus consistent, and argues that we must be entirely silent regarding God, including not saying that God exists or doesn’t exist, given that God is beyond all human definition and comprehension. The problem then for me is that Rabbi Cardozo in his blog, unlike Maimonides, refuses to be silent regarding God. In his writings in general Rabbi Cardozo speaks a great deal about God, faith in God, and experiencing the presence of God – and, speaks about the religious experience of the presence of God as the essence of religion. The problem here for me, though, is not just Maimonides – it is the Bible and Talmudic tradition as well.
In the Bible, the term God is used often. However, God actually is a character in the Bible just as Abraham or Moses are characters in the Bible. The conception of God in the Bible is a crass, anthropomorphic conception of God conceived in human terms (and, God in the Bible even has a personal name distinguishing God from other gods that are presumed to exist in the Biblical world). Significantly, the Bible is entirely absent of abstract theology or philosophy – and, just as the Bible never asks historical questions such as whether there really existed such a character as Moses, so too the Bible never asks theological or philosophic questions such as whether God really exists.
The Biblical term emunah, inadequately translated as faith or belief, hardly appears in the Torah, and is not a central concept in the Bible except for the Book of Psalms. The problem with translating the term as faith or belief is that the term faith or belief can have two very different meanings. The term emunah is of the same root as the Hebrew term for art. The term emunah in the Bible is consistently used not in a theological sense of belief of the rational mind (of believing in the truth of a philosophic proposition such as the existence of God) but in a psychological sense of loyalty to God, which is a matter of the heart – intimately connected to our behavior such that immoral behavior is a sign of disloyalty to God and moral behavior a sign of loyalty to God. So, whereas in Rabbi Cardozo’s conception faith in God and experiencing the presence of God is the essence of religion, in the Biblical conception the essence of religion is morality as reflected in the verse (Deuteronomy 6, 18) “you shall do that which is righteous and good in the eyes of the Lord” – and, faith in God is simply not a central religious concept in the Bible except in the Book of Psalms in which the concept is used in a psychological sense connected to behavior.
Similarly, in the Talmudic tradition, the term God hardly appears in the Mishnah, which is the foundation of the Oral tradition from a legal point of view – and, the focus of the Mishnah is upon proper behavior from a legal and moral point of view. Hillel and Rabbi Akiva, the two greatest Talmudic teachers, formulate the essence of Judaism not as faith, not law or ritual practice, but as simple, moral decency – “what is hateful unto you do not do unto others” and “love your neighbor as yourself”. I find it astounding that people do not notice how shocking the formulations of Hillel and Rabbi Akiva are – their formulations are not only orthoprax (deeds) but completely secular and anti-theological in omitting God. Hillel does not even cite a verse from the Bible, and Rabbi Akiva cuts off the continuation of the verse that he cites “I am the Lord”. Again, whereas in Rabbi Cardozo’s conception faith in God and experiencing the presence of God is the essence of religion, in the conceptions of Hillel and Rabbi Akiva, faithful to the Bible, the essence of religion is morality.
Thus, Rabbi Cardozo’s blog is characterized by abstract theology and such abstract theology is entirely absent from the Bible and Talmudic tradition. On a widespread basis not just in the Jewish world, and especially the orthodox world, but also in the western culture in general, people conceive of the essence of religion, like Rabbi Cardozo, as faith in God and experiencing the presence of God – in contradistinction to the Biblical conception of morality as the essence of God.
In the case of Maimonides, our greatest theologian, he is consistent in his conception that we cannot say anything whatsoever about God including that God exists or does not exist – and, he then presents conceptions of fundamental religious issues such as revelation, providence, prayer, observance of commandments that do not presuppose belief in the existence of God at all so that he is not dealing merely in abstract theology. For example, Maimonides conceives of prophecy not as a prophetic revelation of the will of God in a literal sense of God speaking from Above to a prophet below – rather, he conceives of prophecy in a psychological sense of a prophet attaining intellectual enlightenment without presupposing the existence of God or belief in the existence of God. Indeed, in his presentation of his sixth principle of prophecy among his “13 Principles of Faith” he actually omits God from his description of the prophetic process of attaining intellectual enlightenment.