A basic axiom of the Jewish faith is that G‑d transcends all description and definition. This axiom is closely related to another fundamental idea in Judaism—that everything was created by G‑d ex nihilo, “something from nothing.” Not only the physical universe, but everything—time, space, logic itself, even the very concept of “existence”—did not exist before G‑d chose to create it. Obviously, then, the creator and definer of existence cannot be defined by a concept of His creation.
In other words, anything we say about G‑d is, ultimately, as confining a definition of Him as to depict Him as a loinclothed, white-bearded figure pointing from a cloud. For what are words but representations of things and concepts that He created? Any words we use—even words like “infinite” and “ultimate abstraction”—are meaningful only in the context of our logic, and as such are utterly meaningless when applied to G‑d, the creator of logic and its terms.
But the very same sages and mystics who explain how impossible it is to talk about G‑d, talk about Him all the time. In thousands of kabbalistic treatises and chassidic discourses they explain, at great length and in great depth, the Torah’s overt statements and subtle inferences on the “nature” of G‑d. So, can we discuss Him intelligibly or can’t we?
This question mirrors (and ultimately answers) another question, one posed by many great Jewish thinkers:
One of the basic principles of the Jewish faith is that G‑d has “no body, nor any semblance of a body.” How, then, can we teach a child verses of the Torah that speak of “the great hand” or “the mighty hand” of G‑d? When a mature adult studies these verses, he understands that such words and phrases are to be understood allegorically. But to a first-grader, a hand is a hand. No matter how much his teacher will try to abstract the concept, the child will envision a great and mighty hand such as his father’s—though, this being G‑d, one that is even bigger and stronger than his father’s. It would therefore follow that to teach the Torah to a five-year-old is to teach him heresy!
But why question only the child’s image of the Almighty? Ultimately our mature perception of G‑d is no less “heretical” than the child’s. For no matter how we labor to abstract our vision of G‑d, we cannot but think of Him as a being and existence, albeit an infinite and intangible being and existence. To think and speak of Him is to define Him: to attribute to Him a reality that, in essence, is no closer to His truth than the child’s perception of a great and mighty hand.
[Which brings to mind the story told of one of the great chassidic masters of the 19th century. A well-known freethinker once came to see this rebbe. The rebbe, much to the dismay of his chassidim, spent many hours in conversation with his visitor. After the man had left, one chassid could not contain himself and asked:
“Rebbe, how could you possibly receive such a person? The man is a heretic!”
“A heretic?” responded the rebbe. “Why do you say so?”
“Why,” exclaimed the chassid, “his views are well known. He has even written a book in which he claims to prove that G‑d does not exist!”
“And you,” queried the rebbe, “what do you think? That G‑d does exist?”
“Certainly,” replied the chassid. “G‑d exists.”
“In that case,” said the rebbe, “your vision of G‑d is, in a certain respect, just as heretical as his.”]
Nevertheless, the Torah commands: “You shall know today, and take unto your heart, that G‑d is the L‑rd, in the heavens above and the earth below; there is none else” (Deuteronomy 4:39). Maimonides thus begins his codification of the entire body of Jewish law with this first and most basic imperative of a life consistent with its Creator’s desire: “The foundation of all foundations, and the pillar of all wisdom, is to know that there is a First Existence, who brings all existences into being; that all existences of heaven and earth and between them, derive existence only from the truth of His existence.”
G‑d expressly told us that He wants us to know Him—to perceive Him with our mind and its finite tools of logic; to perceive Him as the first and ultimate existence (for the only logical alternative to existence is nonexistence, and G‑d is certainly not nonexistent), and at the same time to understand that this describes Him only in relation to our existence, not Him as He is.
Let us return for a moment to the first-grader who is learning about “the mighty hand” of G‑d. Why did we think that the image these words create in his young mind is heretical? Because a hand, no matter how great and mighty, is a finite and definitive thing, while we know that G‑d is infinite and indefinable. But what is infinity? Is there any objective meaning to this word?
For years I thought that for something to be infinite it must exist outside of time and space, since anything existing within time and space is defined and limited by their finite parameters. Then, one day I learned the axiom stated by the 15th-century kabbalist Rabbi Meir ibn Gabbai: “Just as He has power in the realm of the infinite, so too He has power in the realm of the finite. For should you attribute infinite power to Him but disattribute finite power to Him, you are diminishing His perfection.” I then understood that the word “infinite” is an oxymoron: if something is not finite, then it is not truly infinite either, for it is confined to a certain area of reality—the area that lies outside of the realm of the finite. To be truly infinite, a thing must transcend both the finite and the infinite, and permeate them both, so that it is neither locked in nor locked out of their respective domains.
Does my newly gained insight describe the true meaning of infinity? Of course not. This is my infinity, my conceptual leap beyond what I now understand as finite—which includes what I once thought to be infinite. In ten years from now, I will probably understand the finiteness of my present vision of infinity, and a new infinity will be abstracted by my mind. And I know that even as I now understand infinity in a certain way, there are minds to whom my infinity is finite, and others to whom what I understand to be finite is infinite.
Every mind, then, can be said to function on three levels of abstraction. It categorizes finite things and concepts by grasping their defining parameters. It abstracts an “infinity” that lies beyond everything it understands to be finite. And it recognizes that there is an ultimate infinity to which it cannot relate in any way, not even by placing it beyond the borders of its comprehension.
The child contemplating the mighty hand of G‑d achieves a genuinely abstract understanding of the divine—the understanding that G‑d’s reality transcends even his most infinite vision of existence. To a child, his own hand, or that of his friends, or even that of his older brother, is a finite hand—a hand that can do many impressive things, but is also limited in the sense that there are things it cannot do. But the child also knows infinite hands: his father’s hand, for example, can do everything. Never mind that it is a hand of a certain physical size and shape; the idea that size and shape imply finiteness is not yet part of his logical perception of reality. In terms of his five-year-old mind’s infinity—an infinity no more and no less accurate than the infinity defined by any other mind’s maturity and knowledge—his father’s hand is infinite. So when his teacher explains that G‑d’s hand is even greater and mightier than his father’s, the child not only sees G‑d as infinite, but comprehends that G‑d is something beyond the beyond of his finite existence.
Never mind that a five-year-old’s “beyond infinity” would be a heretical anthropomorphization for you and me. If a person’s understanding of G‑d were to be measured against G‑d’s perception of His own reality, then our every thought of G‑d, and that of every mind that has ever thought, would be no less heretical. The very fact that G‑d commands us to know Him means that He wants us to think of Him on our terms. What He wants is for our minds to embark on a lifelong quest for a vision of His truth, a quest in which one is constantly advancing the frontier of one’s individual infinity to ever more abstract appreciations of the infinity of His being.
What, then, is heresy? Heresy is the placement of G‑d within the scale of our reality, the attribution to Him of qualities that are part of our vision of ourselves and our world. The challenge in the endeavor to know G‑d is not to fall short of the degree of abstraction of which we are capable based on our mind’s potential and the knowledge of Himself that He has made available to us in His Torah.