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Can We Speak Intelligibly About G‑d?

Can We Speak Intelligibly About G‑d?

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Question:

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?

Answer:

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”1 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.2

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.”3 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.4

FOOTNOTES
1. Such as Exodus 13:9 and 14:31.
2. This is how the Rebbe explains the deeper significance of the second halachah (paragraph) of Maimonides’ opening chapter, in which he goes on to write: “Should it arise upon the mind that He is nonexistent, then nothing else can possibly exist.” Many have puzzled over this seemingly strange passage. At first glance, it seems entirely superfluous: if the point is that without G‑d nothing would exist, this is already clear from the first halachah (“all existences . . . derive existence only from the truth of His existence”). And why give any credence to the hypothesis that G‑d does not exist? And what is the meaning of the curious phrase, “Should it arise upon the mind”?
But Maimonides, the Rebbe explains, wishes to allude to a higher understanding of G‑d, one that transcends the conception of G‑d as First Existence that he discussed in the first halachah. Should you rise above the terms of logic imposed by your mind, Maimonides is saying, you will appreciate that He is not an existence, and that, on this level, indeed nothing else can possibly exist. For we, and all of creation, exist only in terms of G‑d’s relationship with us; if G‑d had not chosen to allow for such a relationship (a relationship in which He would inevitably be perceived by us as an existence), the very term “existence,” and the myriad of realities it defines, would not have been. Put another way: we exist only on the level on which G‑d projects His reality to us as the First Existence; on the level on which He is as He is, we indeed have no existence.
3. Avodat Hakodesh, part I, chapter 8.
4. This may perhaps explain a most difficult statement by Rabbi Abraham ben David (Raavad), a contemporary and often critic of Maimonides. In his Mishneh Torah (Laws of Repentance 3:7), Maimonides writes that one who says that G‑d is a body, or is possessed of an image, is a heretic. Raavad takes issue with this statement, and writes in a gloss on Maimonides’ work: “Why does he call such a one a heretic? Many, greater and better than he, have presumed so, based on what they saw in the scriptures and confusing aggadot.”
Many have puzzled over the meaning and tone of Raavad’s words. Does he not agree that it is wrong to envision G‑d as a corporeal image? And who are the “many greater and better than” Maimonides who so erred? But perhaps Raavad wishes to emphasize that no mind is ever free of a confining image of G‑d: if we are to study Him and explore what He tells us of Himself in His Torah, we will always do so in terms that are confining in relation to His objective reality. So there is no objective yardstick against which to measure the corporeality or noncorporeality of our perceptions; against such a yardstick we would all be heretics. If a mind appreciates that G‑d is above and beyond the horizons of its individual infinity, it is no further from the truth than the G‑d of Maimonides’ lofty mind—even if, due to limitations of maturity or information, it is a more corporeal vision of the divine.
By Yanki Tauber; based on the teachings of the Rebbe.
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Discussion (13)
July 12, 2012
G-d
I honestly think we spend more time trying to pad peoples emotions about G-d instead of doing what he tells us to do. We follow very little of the 613 commandments and are always blaming it on everything that goes on in our lives. I think we need to stop beating around the bush and show Our Father that we can follow the rules...
G-d's Child
April 10, 2012
G-d Talk
I liked this article a lot. It addresses some very important issues. I listen to a lot of debates between "believers" and "atheists." The debates are interesting, but they tend to miss much of what Rabbi Tauber writes about here. The "believers" are usually Christian, and I think that compared to them, even the most religious Jews are practically atheists. On the other hand, compared to the atheists, many Jews are practically believers. The story about the rebbe whose student was just as heretical as the free thinker gets to the heart of the matter. That's why I never give a simple "yes" or "no" when people ask me if G-d exists. I respond that G-d is too lofty and transcendent to fit neatly into either of those little boxes. I don't need G-d to exist in order to worship G-d; all I need is to appreciate that G-d has allowed me (along with everything else) to exist.
Rob W.
Pittsburgh, PA / U.S.A.
January 26, 2012
Clarification
I do not mean that if we can perceive something, then it is not Divine. I certainly was not trying to demean or diminish anyone's connection with G-d. Of course we can think and speak about G-d, He gave us His Torah, and also we are conscious of ourselves, and of the rest of the universe, and recognize that we did not create it. It depends on what is meant by intelligibly.
I said no, because what I thought it meant is that we exhaust our capacity to understand. The human capacity is to completely understand everything that is created, everything that is not G-d Himself, so I said no because we cannot understand G-d like we can His creation.
We say that the Essence of the Almighty is outside of creation, but also there are avenues within it to perceive Him. But since the Essence is outside, how can we be sure that there is no difference between the Essence of G-d and what we perceive?
We often call big numbers that change in an unpredictable fashion infinity. But like the author said
Kyle
Bulah, TX
January 22, 2012
one thing I have learned
You cannot discount another person's personal experience of the ineffable, of G_d. I do not ever do that to another. If another person feels one way, that's how they feel, but I have met, in my life, many people who are saying they are deeply in touch with G_d and see personal evidence of G_d moving within their lives all the time. I see it too.

So to say, "learn about Creation only", well it could be we are learning by being so sensitive and exquisite sensitivity and love just might produce an opening of consciousness. I know my experience. I own my story. And I totally respect others who say they have this connection and it is personal.

If I blew my mind, it was because the answers blowing in the wind, came my way. And I am managing nicely, and so are others who also feel deeply this way, having a personal relationship with what is, Divine.

There are myriad ways to approach this, and Awe is deeply part of this. Chaos contains patterns, and if G_d shows us these patterns: why not?
ruth housman
marshfield hills, ma
January 20, 2012
No
Learn about creation, only. There is no way to be more right about the nature of G-d than to remember that we do not comprehend Him. It is even in the Torah, we are not designed so. Even to say that He cares what we do is too confining, of course to say He doesn't is also incorrect. It comes down to, why ask the question?
We wanna look to the sky, to understand what is an image. Hashem created as He did, leaving for us to draw the lines.
Confusion is infinity, we don't have to know the numbers to know that there are numbers. Some are big, why blow our minds? We don't want to learn how perfect chaos can be.
We have to understand why we ask questions.
Kyle
Rusk, TX
January 17, 2012
in EFF (F) able the keys are in the words!
There is a paradox here, and life itself, as a very astute female rabbi, pointed out to me, in the midst of a Meah class run by Hebrew College, is about paradox. We have to live with this. I was told by an Orthodox Rabbi that I could never have a personal relationship with what is Divine, but I do have such a personal relationship, and I feel what is Divine moving throughout my life. I can prove this and I have. I had a conversation today with a woman, an old friend, who is speaking to me also about what is astounding in terms of the connectivity of her life, a life not without its share of sorrows.

It is mindblowing to imagine that G_d is personally not only involved in our lives but is a conductor. Conductivity in physics is about energy, and in music, it's that person who runs the orchestra. They look to him for direction.

I see that direction in my own life, constantly, and in going down the years I see how it all threads together, a story that is beautiful.

FLOCK: lock & key
ruth housman
marshfield hills, ma
January 17, 2012
article is amazing!
.. and to Anonymous from Watermill , NY - may G-D bless you with a complete healing right away.
izzy
s
November 1, 2009
that essay contradicts itself
The essayist asserts that:

"Not only the physical universe, but everything--time, space, logic itself, even the very concept 'existence'--did not exist before G‑d chose to created it."

To create anything, one must first exist.
What does not exist, cannot create.
If existence didn't exist, nothing would ever exist to somehow "create" it.
Therefore, nothing and no one could somehow have existed before existence.
Anonymous
Albany, NY/USA
May 5, 2008
Profound
I think this essay is utterly profound, and does a brilliant job of conveying something that, on an ultimate level, cannot truly be conveyed in all its fullness, and its myriad dimensions. I also see in one phrase towards the end, an encapsulation of the entire theme: beyond the beyond. I honestly think that the mind that can rest in deep contemplation on this one phrase can come to an understanding of the meaning of this essay, a comprehension of the very notion of an infinite Creator.
nlg
Philadelphia, PA
May 4, 2008
Re: Herb
Honestly, something like discussing the concept of talking about something undefinable and infnite (in the most real sense of the word i.e. beyond our limited definition of infinity) SHOULD require many, many words. I thought that Yanki Tauber wrote on this very well. However, if you read it quickly and superficially, this type of thing is very easy to interpret as a sort of "jumble" of excess words that gets us lost in the process. The key is to read each paragraph carefully; if you feel that you're getting lost, that's exactly the reason that you need to stop and read it carefully and think.

We wouldn't read a lengthy, detailed work on theoretical physics; so much more so, reading about infinity and the undefinable requires the most careful reading and consideration.

In any case, shkoyach, Yanki!
Anonymous
Thornhill, Canada
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