Jewish theology is divided among the three broad subject headings of God, Torah, and Israel. Our last post discussed Torah. In today’s post we’ll discuss God from various Jewish perspectives.
Reflecting on the nature of Jewish theology, I’ve started using the preposition, “a” in front of Jewish theology. There really isn’t a definitive Jewish theology, rather, there is a broad sense of Jewish history that has yielded interrelated, but non consistent theologies. Jewish theology is more akin to Wittgenstein’s concept of family resemblance than a systematic enterprise.
No where is seen better than in Jewish approaches to divinity. There is no definitive Jewish statement on God other than the central Jewish prayer called the “Shema/S’hma” which means “Listen” in Hebrew:
Shema Yisrael, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Echad – Listen Israel, Yahweh is God, and Yahweh is One.
Jews have turned to Torah and their own thinking and experiences to wrestle with understanding Yahweh.
Jewish – Christian Differences
It’s relatively safe to say that most Christians are what might be termed, “Classical Theists”, meaning, they affirm in some sense, the personal, all-powerful God found throughout the bulk of Christian theology. Classical theism further yields concepts such as God’s will, God’s salvific action, and so on.
Many Jews are secular Jews, and most secular Jews self-report as being atheists. Of those Jews who describe themselves as religious, less than a majority subscribe to Classical Theism.
One reason for this is that the God of Classical Theism is strongly a product of Greek and Christian philosophy, traditions not part of Judaism. The Jewish God is not the God of Greek philosophy.
Another reason for diversity in thought is the Holocaust, which raised the issue of theodicy to the fore of Jewish theology and motivated the rethinking of God on the part of many Jews.
Jews base their theology of God on Torah and experience, and neither offer a definition of God or a description of God’s ontological nature. Torah describes God as a power, a force, the summation of being, the ground of being, and a person, with qualities ranging from anger, indifference, mercy, love, and jealousy.
Many Jews therefore approach God from a variety of perspectives, some adhering to Classical Theism, some to views shaped by Process Theology, some to views of God as an impersonal force or power, others holding a view of God as person, but different in nature to human persons, and so on.
Let’s dive into some broad Jewish approaches to God.
A Jewish Understanding of God
If there is any meaningful sense to Divinity it is approaching God metaphorically. All notions of Divinity are metaphors for the creative and ordering principles found within the universe. The “Divine” can be metaphorized in many ways, as change, relatedness, love, life, and so on. Some metaphors describe God as a person. But we must never forget that any talk of God is a metaphor.
Jews find the metaphor of God employed throughout Torah, so let’s begin there.
The opening chapters of Genesis depict reality as a unity – everything is interrelated – everything has evolved/emerged from a divine singularity – everything comes from the One sacred, creative source.
Further, in the words of Genesis – all things are deemed good – reflecting the sacred character of the divine and creation. Calling nature sacred establishes an ultimate value to nature and indicates that all creatures deserve our respect.
Torah informs us that the way of encounter with the sacred is by engaging the world, not escaping it. A holy life is a richly lived and full life – one that affirms the better aspects of human nature and is placed at the service of others.
Our secular age has experienced the desacralization of the world and nature – a rendering of nature as flat, lifeless, and spiritually meaningless. A pivotal aim of Jewish spirituality is to create awareness of the sacredness of the world and nature.
Judaism fosters an attitude of awe at the beauty, preciousness, oneness, and interconnectedness of everything. Rather than being perceived as flat and mechanical, nature is once again perceived as an interconnected web of vitality and meaning.
Our experience of this sacredness – nature’s and our own – addresses us as persons, asking us to freely live in harmony with nature, and calling us beyond ourselves to relationships with others based on reciprocity and mutual cooperation.
The sacred is the sum of the animating, organizing forces and relationships that are forever making a cosmos out of chaos. We hold sacred that coordinating, integrating factor we find in nature that bespeaks the interconnectedness and unity of everything that exists – our ultimate concern, the creative principle in nature, and the life-affirming power that animates evolution and brings order out of chaos.
Various cultures and religions have named this unifying, creative principle – some calling it the One, God, Tao, Awen, and some personalizing it while others treating it as a force.
From a Jewish perspective, the sacred, by whatever name we wish to call he/she/it – is the vitalism that interpenetrates nature and empowers the interconnected web of life – the energy flowing throughout nature and immanent in the earth’s cycles of birth, growth, death, decay and regeneration.
Philosophically, God has been spoken of in terms of being the ground of existence, the uncaused cause, the first principle of creation, and the underlying non-contingent being.
These philosophical categories yield to other concepts such as understanding God in terms of the absolute and the contingent, the necessary and the fortuitous, potency and act, possibility and impossibility, being and nonbeing, transcendence and immanence.
We relate to the divine – whatever he/she/it is. Rabbi Arthur Green offers this insight:
In biblical language, the “I Am” of Sinai is already there behind the first “Let there be …” of Genesis. Creation is revelation, as the Kabbalists understood so well. To say it in more neutral terms, we religious types personify Being because we see ourselves as living in relationship to the underlying One. I seek to respond to the “I Am” that I have been privileged to hear, to place myself at its service in carrying forth this great mission of the evolving life process. To do so, I chose to personify, to call Being by this ancient name Yahweh/God. (Green – Radical Judaism)
Again, in Genesis, at the burning bush, Moses asks God for God’s name – a question meant to understand the essence of God as well as a way to control God through invocation. What is God’s response? “I Am.” Or in Hebrew, Ayer Asher Ayer – translated roughly as “I am, I am what is, I will be what I will be” a vague response of sorts.
One interpretation of the ambiguous answer is God telling Moses, “never mind my name, I’m not telling you.” Another interpretation is that God is trying to convey that God is being itself or at least the necessary existence that allows for being to be.
Christian theologian David Bentley Hart offers this commentary on our confusion:
God is not something posed over and against the universe, in addition to it, nor is he the universe itself. He is not a “being,” at least in the way that a tree, a shoemaker, or a god is a being: he is not one more object in the inventory of things that are, or any sort of discrete object at all. Rather, all things that exist receive their being continually from him, who is the infinite wellspring of all that is. (Hart – The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, and Bliss)
For those who find meaning in a God-concept, metaphors and symbols that help fuel the religious imagination prove valuable, allowing us foundations on which to build relational constructs from which to conduct our spiritual practice. No metaphor will adequately capture the essence of the divine. Yet each vision offered contains seeds of promise that can spark imagination, moral impulses, and move the heart and mind.
Many find a Sacred Presence within natural activity – the unity and teleos of the processes or powers within the natural order. In this sense, God is the power that leads to the fulfillment of nature, including human nature, and not in the suspension of the natural order. Again, Rabbi Green:
Teshuvah is the universal process of return. All things run toward their center, as fully and as naturally as plants grow in the light, as roots reach toward their source of water. The same universal will that is manifest in the evolution of life, ever striving toward higher forms of consciousness, is present in the desire of all things to turn inward and show that they are tied to a single source. The world that flows from the One seeks to return to the One. Yahweh is manifest throughout being, we recall, only to attest anew in each moment to the oneness of all that is. (Green – Seek His Face)
One begins to recall the God of Tillich or Kaplan – our ultimate concern, the creative principle in nature, or the Power that causes salvation. Such approaches posit the divine as the ordering principle within the natural order – implying God as the creative power within nature and the universe – the one who brings order out of chaos, the life-affirming power that drives evolution.
In these perspectives, the divine impulse/energy (grace) operates freely in an open universe, empowering, but not controlling events and circumstances. The divine energy is creative and constant, not capricious – mixing with nature’s inherent ways, the human heart, and random happenstance.
Regardless of what God is in itself, we can assert some meaningful sense of God as orientation, as the unifying focus of our values and commitments. God is the concept of unity among the diversity of being – the great oneness that speaks of the truth of the interconnectedness of everything. Such notions underlie most mystical experience.
When we contemplate our highest aspirations – loving families, faithful marriages, honest livelihoods, safe communities, and care for the needy – we begin to understand that these goals require lifelong commitments that in reflection cannot be satisfactorily explained in terms of our taking these upon ourselves. There is a sense that these are ultimate concerns – concerns that seem rightly grounded in a reality transcendent to humanity.
Humans experience their lives as containing inherent meaning, purpose, and direction. We are capable of experiencing being commanded by something beyond ourselves, something that both speaks to our nature and is yet embedded there. In moments of quiet honesty, we find ourselves with a given orientation – and that orientation offers itself up as an approach to God.
God serves, therefore, as the focal point of our prayers, of our desires, of our better thinking – the context for human history, the goal of our religious efforts, and the ground of our spirituality.
Such an orientation offers the outline of a path away from the unfortunate effects of secularization – the tendencies toward nihilism and dehumanization – and provides an Archimedean point from which culture can be judged and renewed.
In sum, this decision-orientation overlaps with what the great religious traditions call God. Such analysis reveals the divine to be the symbol-metaphor for ultimate values and meaning in all their dimensions. It connotes an absolute claim on our loyalty. It bespeaks a sense of trust and a claim on how we order our priorities and commitments. It points us in the direction of our lasting fulfillment.
The words God, Sacred, Divine – all imply something of ultimate value for human life. These words, taken in their minimalist meaning serve as the name for something of supreme value. God, Sacred, Divine may be more than this, but it is certainly this at its core.
Such a vision of the sacred would command our loyalty. Such a vision contains obligations, a sense of primacy and priority. Such reality points us in the direction of our own purpose, fulfillment, and meaning.
Communing with this sense of the sacred is the key for living life at its depths and heights, for reconnecting to all things, for the interior ordering of our own soul, and for reconnecting to others as well. In this sense, God, Sacred, Divine represents the fullness of reality in its interconnected, interdependent.
The human mind grasps the patterns of order, goodness, structure, and cycles present within nature. Underlying these patterns we find some sense of our own place within the rhythm of the world. Many also sense a common source to reality – it’s existence, structure, order, and regularity – the fact that reality is cosmos rather than chaos.
We are careful not to assert the above as an argument for God from design. We are not seeking to justify claims of a personal God, or a specific vision of deity. Rather, we are talking of the abstract, metaphysical sense of contingency and noncontingency and speaking of our glimpses into the ultimate realities that uphold the being of noncontingent realities.
To conclude, in a basic sense, the Jewish vision of God is the root of the traditional Western concept of monotheism as the apprehension of a unified transcendent value source.