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The Nature of God

Level:  Intermediate

The nature of God is one of the few areas of abstract Jewish belief where there are a number of clear-cut ideas about which there is little dispute or disagreement.

God Exists

The fact of God's existence is accepted almost without question.  Proof is not needed, and is rarely offered.  The Torah begins by stating "In the beginning, God created . . .".  It does not tell who God is or how He came to be.

In general, Judaism views the existence of God as a necessary prerequisite for the existence of the universe.  The existence of the universe is sufficient proof of the existence of God.

God is One

One of the primary expressions of Jewish faith, recited twice daily in prayer, is the Shema, which begins "Hear, Israel:  the LORD is our God, the LORD is one".  This simple statement encompasses several different ideas:

God is the Creator of Everything

Everything in the universe was created by God, and only by God.  Judaism completely rejects the dualistic notion that evil was created by a Satan or some other deity.  All comes from God.  As Isaiah said, "I am the LORD, and there is none else.  I form the light and create darkness, I make peace and create evil.  I am the LORD, that does all these things" (Isaiah 45,6-7).

God is Incorporeal

Although many places in scripture and Talmud speak of various parts of God's body (the Hand of God, God's wings, etc.) or speak of God in anthropomorphic terms (God walking in the garden of Eden, God laying tefillin, etc.), Judaism firmly maintains that God has no body.  Any reference to God's body is simply a figure of speech, a means of making God's actions more comprehensible to beings living in a material world.  Much of Maimonides' Guide for the Perplexed is devoted to explaining each of these anthropomorphic references and proving that they should be understood figuratively.

We are forbidden to represent God in a physical form.  That is considered idolatry.  The sin of the Golden Calf incident was not that the people chose another deity, but that they tried to represent God in a physical form.

God is Neither Male nor Female

This followed directly from the idea that God has no physical form.  God has, of course, no body; therefore, the very idea that God is male or female is patently absurd.  We refer to God using masculine terms simply for convenience's sake, because Hebrew has no neutral gender; God is no more male than a table is.

Although we usually speak of God in masculine terms, there are times when we refer to God using feminine terms.  The Shechinah, the manifestation of God's presence that fills the universe, is conceived of in feminine terms, and the word Shechinah is a feminine word.

God is Omnipresent

God is always near for us to call upon and He sees all that we do, wherever we are. Closely tied in with this is the idea that God is universal:  He is not just the God of the Jews, but the God of all nations.

God is Omnipotent

God can do anything.  It is said that the only thing that is beyond His control is the fear of Him; that is, He has given us free will, and He does not compel us to do His will.  This belief in God's omnipotence has been sorely tested during the many persecutions of Jews, but we have always maintained that God has a reason for allowing these things, even if we in our limited perception and understanding cannot see the reason.

God is Omniscient

God knows all things, past, present, and future.  He knows our thoughts.

God is Eternal

God transcends time.  He has no beginning and no end.  He will always be there to fulfill His promises.  When Moses asked for God's name, He replied, "Ehyeh asher ehyeh".  That phrase is generally translated as, "I am that I am", but the word "ehyeh" can be present or future tense, meaning "I am what I will be" or "I will be what I will be".  The ambiguity of the phrase is often interpreted as a reference to God's eternal nature.

God is Both Just and Merciful

We have often heard Christians speak of Judaism as the religion of the strict Law, which no human being is good enough to fulfill (hence the need for the so-called sacrifice of Jesus).  This is a gross mischaracterization of Jewish belief.  Judaism has always maintained that God's justice is tempered by mercy, the two qualities perfectly balanced.  Of the two Names of God most commonly used in scripture, one refers to his quality of justice and the other to his quality of mercy.  The two names were used together in the story of Creation, showing that the world was created with both justice and mercy.

God is Holy and Perfect

One of the most common names applied to God in the post-Biblical period is "Ha-Kadosh, Barukh Hu", The Holy One, Blessed be He.

God is our Father

Christianity maintains that God has one son; Judaism maintains that God has billions of sons and daughters.  We are all God's children, and the people of Israel are His firstborn (Exodus 4,22).  The Talmud teaches that there are three participants in the formation of every human being:  the mother and father, who provide the physical form, and God, who provides the soul, the personality, and the intelligence.  It is said that one of God's greatest gifts to humanity is the knowledge that we are His children and created in His image.

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