This question is more ancient than the sequoias and so is its answer, but it’s usually framed in terms unfamiliar to 21st-century minds. It’s essentially a simple idea, only requiring an open mind and some imagination.

It’s important to ask this question, because it brings us to a proper understanding of what we mean when we say, “G‑d. ”

It’s also a fruitful question, because by answering it we end up with many more very juicy questions. Most significantly: "Why is there anything at all?" And: “If that’s what we mean by 'G‑d,' how can there be any relationship between Him and us?”

Hang in there, and we’ll touch as many bases as we can in one brief article. For more, click the embedded links.

Is This Question a Question?

Let’s start with an astonishing phenomenon. Perhaps the greatest enigma of the human brain is that it is capable of comprehending anything at all about the nature of the universe and the parameters of its own existence.

The greatest enigma of the human brain is that it is capable of comprehending anything at all about the nature of the universe and the parameters of its own existence.

Yes, your brain is the most complex system we know in the universe, comprising about 86 billion neurons, each with some one thousand connections. But it remains a two-and-a-half pound cut of meat, usually consuming as much energy as a 20-watt light bulb. Furthermore, for most of our species’ history this brain has been primarily concerned with fundamental survival tasks—locomotion, nourishment, procreation, and social interaction.

On what basis should we believe that any of our brain’s questions about the universe could get us anywhere?

Quite simply, because the universe so often answers back.

It answers by revealing a substructure of harmonious patterns and fundamental forces. The fact that we can use this knowledge to construct devices that actually work validates our hypothesis, as wild as it is, that the universe lends itself in some small part to human comprehension.

If we had never asked why things fall down, why the heavenly bodies orbit in circles, why some things are red and others are blue, why magnets attract metals, why storms produce light, and a myriad of similar questions, none of the technology you are using at this moment would have been possible.

Although many kinds of questions prove productive, they mostly orbit around one question that we keep asking in different formats: “Why is the universe as it is and not otherwise?” It’s a simple question, but it has proven an inexhaustible tool for unearthing layers and yet deeper layers of understanding.

Why is the universe as it is and not otherwise?

It’s also a recursive question: As soon as we have an answer, we need to ask again, “Why is that the answer and not some other answer? Why is this deeper layer of reality the way it is and not some other way?”

Problem is, if this process was an infinite loop with no definitive answer at the end of the road, then every answer along the way would dissolve into a string of zeros. We would be like the villager who explains how a locomotive train works by saying, “Well, car number 100 is pulled by car 99, and car 99…” until he arrives at the locomotive, shrugs, and concludes, “Look, I’ve explained 99 out of a hundred!”

No, sir, if your answer has no bottom, you’ve answered nothing.

So what is the terminal at which our question ends? It’s when we get to the question that Blaise Pascal, inventor of the first calculating machine, called “the only question that really matters.” That is: Why is there anything at all and not just nothing?

One answer is, “Because there is a Creator who chose that there should be something and not just nothing.”

But then we’ve got another question: “Why is there a Creator who made everything?”

Which is pretty much the same question as, “If G‑d made everything, who made G‑d?”

But hold on—that’s not the same question anymore. Our original question that served us so well was, “Why are things this particular way and not somehow else?” But at that point, they aren’t in any “particular way.” Nothing has yet been created. Time, space, matter, energy, and all that breathes within them are still just options.

Anything could be. Nothing has to be. If you would ask our question to the Creator at this point, the answer might be, “Well, how would you like things to be?”

The Creator of all boundaries is unbounded by any definition. Otherwise, He too would require a creator.

In other words, the Creator of all boundaries is unbounded by any definition. Otherwise, He too would require a creator.

This must be a Creator who doesn’t exist “as something” so that you could say the Creator “is this” or even “is not this.” Not being and not not-being. Just pure, pre-binary existence.

The Creator Game

Here’s a simple game that provides a handle on this idea of a non-binary Creator.

You play the game by creating a world built from scratch out of your own, original ideas. No synonyms allowed. Create a world with an uneven number of ideas and you win the jackpot.

Simple, you say. I’ll create just one thing: somethingness. What sort of somethingness? Nothing in particular, just that it’s not nothingness.

See? Right away you’ve got a pair. Before there was something, there’s no concept of nothing. With the creation of somethingness, nothingness implicitly appears. That being so, you have yet to reach an uneven number.

So you decide to create light. You’re now at four creations—since the creation of the concept of light creates by implication the concept of darkness.

What about “sky”? Well, then you’ve got earth. “Woman” could only exist if there is man. We don't give anything a name unless we can imagine something to contrast it with. Like they say, "We don't know who discovered water, but it certainly was not the fish."

Is there nothing then within a creation that doesn’t come with its opposite?

Is there nothing then within a creation that doesn’t come with its opposite? Well, there is one, but not part of the creation. The Creator is neither something, nor nothing. The Creator creates that notion by creating something—and thereby, retroactively, the notion of nothing.

It’s clear then that Pascal’s favorite question, “Why is there something and not just nothing?” doesn’t apply to G‑d. G‑d is neither something nor nothing, and He is both.

That explains, by the way, why the narrative of divine creation begins with the letter “bet”—the second letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Everything created is a duality. The only absolute singularity is the Creator.

Which is what we mean when we say that “G‑d is one.”

Back to the Foundations

This is the way Maimonides, the classic Jewish codifier and theologian, understood the central creed of the Jewish people that “G‑d is one.” Whereas the preeminent Arabic philosopher, Ibn Sina, and others after him had written similarly, they felt this knowledge should be kept to scholars alone. Maimonides wrote it at the very beginning of his Mishneh Torah, under the title “Foundations of Torah,” which was written for “every man, woman, and child.” He held that this idea of a non-contingent absolute existence was just another way of articulating what Jews had always believed.

God is one. He is not two or more, but one, singular in a way unlike the oneness of any singularity that is found in the world.

He is not one like a general category, which includes many individual entities.

He is not one like a body, which is divided into different parts and dimensions.

Rather, He is singular in such a way that there exists no singularity like His in the world.1

In the second chapter he continues to explain how there is nothing bounding or defining about this absolutely singular absolute existence. We say He is powerful, kind, compassionate, wise, etc., but these attributes are entirely integrated into His perfect unity.

It’s inaccurate to say, for example, that “G‑d is all-knowing,” he writes, because that implies that He’s not one, but two—Him and His knowledge. Rather, He and His knowledge are one, and from that knowledge emerges the entire universe.

To use an analogy presented much later by R. Schneur Zalman of Liadi, all these attributes exist much as light exists within its source. In contemporary terms, as photons exist within an electron. They are there, not as “somethings,” but as the capacity for something.

I highly recommend studying that chapter of Mishneh Torah for yourself. You can also read more on this in “Is G‑d an It, an I, or Nothing.”

But with G‑d, existence is a possibility that could emerge out of His unboundedness.

In his Guide for the Perplexed, Maimonides further explains that to say that G‑d exists, or “G‑d is,” is also inaccurate. I can say, “Jack exists” because there’s a concept of a guy named Jack with whatever baggage makes him Jack and not someone else, and the current state of this Jack guy is that he exists. That implies a duality: There is some sort of being and that being exists.

But with G‑d, existence is a possibility that could emerge out of His unboundedness.

And that indeed is how Maimonides explains why we use a conjugation of the verb “to be” as G‑d’s name. If we had to say that in English, we might say “isness.” Or perhaps “that which causes existence—whatever it may be.”

This is why Maimonides doesn’t need to raise the question, “Who made G‑d?” It makes no sense to ask, “Why is there isness?”

Here is a passage from the Guide to the Perplexed2 that is likely the best-known statement on this matter. Many great minds have spent good chunks of their lives wringing out the intent of every word and phrase of these concise and rich words. I’ve attempted to present the passage here in as accessible language as I am able, adding and subtracting words as Maimonides himself insisted translators must do:

‪It’s well-accepted that existence is a kind of event. Each thing could be or not be. If so, a thing’s state of being is not the thing itself—there is the thing, and there is the fact that it exists (or does not exist). This is clearly the case with everything that exists out of some cause—its existence is an additional factor to what it is.

‪But that which has no cause to its existence—meaning G‑d [...]—His existence is His very being and reality, and His very being is his existence.

‪He is not a being with the attribute of existence—which would imply that existence is an additional factor to His being [which would render Him no longer a perfect unity]. Rather, since He is always a necessary existence, no event occurs to Him, nothing happens to make Him be.

If so, we could say that He exists without existence.

Why Is There Anything?

Like I said, good answers to good questions beget more good questions. In this case, we have to ask, "If that's what we mean by G‑d, why is there anything at all?"

Here's how the heavyweights of Jewish thought handle that one:

All we really mean when we say that there is an original Creator is that the beginning of everything is open at all ends. Whatever emerged from that point on was only due to an absolutely free choice that something should be—since an unbounded being has unbounded choice.

To paraphrase R. Meir ibn Gabbai (15th century Spain), if we would say, “Nothing could come out of that perfect oneness—it’s too perfect!” we would be defining Him somehow and He wouldn’t be perfect anymore.3

There’s an allusion to this idea in an ancient Midrash:

Before the world was created, there was only He and His name alone.4

Why “He and His name”? Why not just “He”?

Rabbi Yeshaya Horowitz (16th century) explains that “His name” doesn’t mean anything distinct from Him. It means simply His ability to generate absolutely anything—or not to generate anything at all. He also points out that “His name” in Hebrew has the identical numerical equivalent as “will.” He can will whatever He decides to will.5

What did He will? He didn’t say. It was certainly not out of any need. But we have a tradition that emerges out of the Torah He gave us: He desired that there should be a world that behaves as something distinct from its Creator, with creatures that naturally act and feel as though they created themselves, and a story will unfold within this creation by which its denizens will come to know their Creator through this creation of His, by working with it and refining it through Torah and its mitzvahs by their own free will.

He desired that there should be a world that behaves as something distinct from its Creator, with creatures that naturally act and feel as though they created themselves.

So our question now is only, “Why must everything start with a free choice? Why must it have a beginning at all? Why must it have a purpose or meaning? Why can’t it regress deeper and deeper ‘turtles, all the way down’?”

And yes, you are perfectly free to ask that question. Just that there’s no reason to believe it’s a good question. The universe has yet to return an answer to it or anything like it. In fact, it would undermine the value of all the answers to every other question we’ve ever asked the universe, answers that have proven so useful. As we said, it would mean all those useful answers were dead-end non-answers.

The notion of an original Creator, then, says two very fundamental things about existence:

One is that at least something of our understanding of this universe is real.

The other is that at the very core of reality lies not an old man with a long, flowing beard, not a quantum field or a big bang, but just the raw, free will of an unbounded agent. And that continues to be the core of everything.

How Do You Connect to a G‑d Who Has No Borders?

There's a yet more burning question that we've ignited with this answer: If G‑d is so absolutely infinite and indefinable, how on earth do we pray to Him, trust in Him, and follow in His ways?

And yes, that’s a crucial question to ask. For one thing, it means you’re on the right track. In fact, Rabbi Moshe Cordovero (16th century Tsfat) wrote that this is a question for which every thinking person must be provided an explanation.6

The explanation he was referring to is a kind of interface between the infinite and the finite. It’s a problem with which physics and mathematics have been struggling since Zeno, the Greek philosopher who proved that any section of space can be divided ad infinitum. How does the finite world we observe emerge from mathematics that technically has no bounds?

How does the finite world we observe emerge from mathematics that technically has no bounds?

Human life provides a similar quandary: On the inside is a complexity we ourselves cannot understand, yet we are in constant need to interface with others in a consistent, harmonious way. So we develop a persona, the bridge between our inner selves and our social world.

The same problem and solution exists on a cosmic plane:

There’s an essence-point where everything is one. Then there’s a creation, which is all the vast diversity the Creator chose to create.

The bridge is an interface between the two, a point at which that absolute oneness relates to this highly diverse world through the medium of wisdom, understanding, knowing, love and kindness, justice and restriction, beauty and compassion, victory, glory, connection, and majesty.

In the words of the Tikkunei Zohar to which Rabbi Cordovero was referring:

You [i.e. G‑d] are one, but not in a numerical sense. You are absolutely transcendent, absolutely mysterious, and no thought can grasp you.

So You emanate ten modalities with which to direct the worlds…and within them you are hidden from the human being.7

We could call this G‑d’s persona. The kabbalists call it the ten sefirot, or divine modalities, of the World of Emanation. Emanation—not creation, and not truly a world at all—because it is a pure light that emanates unobstructed and unfiltered from that original oneness.

The essential element of this interface-world is an inner wisdom that is one with G‑d. As we explained above, G‑d’s will is not something separate from His essence and being, rather “He and His will are one.” That original will and desire are manifest within this inner wisdom which is the Torah in its primordial state, the keys to the meaning of the world and G‑d’s desire for each thing.

The outer layer of that wisdom reflects its inner wisdom, and from that emerges all the creation, so that every detail of our world is in concert with its meaning and purpose in that higher world and within Torah.

Within these ten sefirot and this Torah is found the absolute oneness of G‑d, much as you are found within your body. When I grasp your body, I grasp you. Within a healthy persona lies the person himself. When I grasp G‑d within these ten attributes of His—through a mitzvah, some Torah wisdom, or a prayer from my heart—I grasp Him and His innermost will and wisdom at His very essence in all His absolute oneness.

The psalm goes, “G‑d is close to all who call upon Him.”8 The sages note, “He is close to those who call upon Him, but not to those who call upon His modalities.”9

Which means: Just as when you speak to a person, you don’t speak to his body, or his personality, rather, you speak to the essential person inside that cannot be described or truly known—so too, when we call upon G‑d’s compassion, or His justice, or His loving-kindness, we are addressing His essential oneness that breathes within those modalities.

When we call upon G‑d’s compassion, or His justice, or His loving-kindness, we are addressing His essential oneness that breathes within those modalities. 

For the Atomically Inclined

What if you’re not interested in answering questions all the way to the core? What if questions about existence don’t concern you as much as they did people like Pascal, Maimonides, and Ibn Sina? What if you’re satisfied with a world of atoms and energy as described in the standard model of quantum physics? Is the idea of a free, unbound non-entity at the core of existence still relevant?

I would give that a definite yes, and I’ll explain why. Let’s start with a story.

John Hertog was a brilliant student at Cambridge. As a reward for best marks on a critical exam, he was summoned to the office of Stephen Hawking. He writes:

…I found Stephen sitting behind his desk with his head leaning against a headrest on his wheelchair. The office window was open and I later learned that he liked to keep it that way at all times, even in freezing weather. On one of the blackboards were equations that appeared to date from the early 1980s. I wondered if they might be his last handwritten scrawls.

“The universe appears designed,” he said through his speech synthesizer. He continued: “Why is the universe the way it is?”

None of my physics teachers had asked questions like this before. “Isn’t that a philosophical matter?” I tried.

“Philosophy is dead,” Stephen replied, his eyes twinkling.10

To explain: Particle physics is built of beautiful mathematical structures with blanks to fill in. The blanks are twenty or so numbers such as the speed of light, the charge of an electron, the mass of a particular particle, etc. You can’t just do the math and get them—the only way to know what to put in there is by measuring them.

In some instances, we’ve guessed what the number should be, and we were pretty close. In other cases, we were way off. There are other numbers that would have worked so much better. Until you realize that the numbers we get turn out to be just what the universe needs so that carbon-based life can exist.

Consider the fine-structure constant α, a fundamental, dimensionless constant. There is no accepted theory explaining the value of α. Here’s Richard Feynman, America’s greatest homegrown scientist, on that:

There is a most profound and beautiful question associated with the observed coupling constant, e – the amplitude for a real electron to emit or absorb a real photon. It is a simple number that has been experimentally determined to be close to 0.08542455. (My physicist friends won't recognize this number, because they like to remember it as the inverse of its square: about 137.03597 with an uncertainty of about 2 in the last decimal place. It has been a mystery ever since it was discovered more than fifty years ago, and all good theoretical physicists put this number up on their wall and worry about it.)

Immediately you would like to know where this number for a coupling comes from: is it related to pi or perhaps to the base of natural logarithms? Nobody knows. It's one of the greatest damn mysteries of physics: a magic number that comes to us with no understanding by man. You might say the "hand of G‑d" wrote that number, and "we don't know how He pushed his pencil." We know what kind of a dance to do experimentally to measure this number very accurately, but we don't know what kind of dance to do on the computer to make this number come out, without putting it in secretly!11

The α constant is very close to 1/137, a ratio that keeps turning up everywhere, something like the golden ratio. But here’s the cruncher: If that ratio would have been 1/138, stars would not be able to produce carbon. Without carbon, there is no life as we know it.

But here’s the cruncher: If that ratio would have been 1/138, stars would not be able to produce carbon. Without carbon, there is no life as we know it.

Then there’s the Higgs Boson, charged with the responsibility of giving everything else its mass. As far as particles go, the Higgs mass is huge—10-25 kg. Nothing about quantum mechanics demands that number. In fact, to suit its job description, it was expected to be many orders of magnitude heavier.

But it's not. And that’s a good thing, because move that number up just slightly and the only stable element in the universe would be its simplest one, hydrogen. A dull universe indeed.

Then there’s the cosmological constant. Steven Weinberg pointed out that the cosmological constant measures at some 120 orders of magnitude smaller than the value particle physics predicts (“the worst prediction in physics”). But just like Higgs, if this constant were only several orders of magnitude larger, the universe would suffer catastrophic inflation, hence no stars, hence no life.

Decades ago, the pioneering cosmologist, Fred Hoyle kvetched that it appeared as though some super-intellect had been tweaking the fine-tuning of the universe. Hawkings wanted a better solution.

So Hertog went on to work closely with Hawking on his solution: Turn the sequence of time on its head, beginning from the moment now, from the subjective experience of a carbon-based organism (such as us, the observer), and frame everything that ever happened in the universe as an evolutionary pathway reaching towards that. After all, quantum theory, as John Wheeler demonstrated, doesn’t privilege the past over the future. It’s perfectly okay for an observation made now to retroactively establish a new past.

Decades ago, the pioneering cosmologist, Fred Hoyle kvetched that it appeared as though some super-intellect had been tweaking the fine-tuning of the universe. Hawkings wanted a better solution.

It’s a wonderful hypothesis with many implications if it could provide some solid evidence. But it doesn’t explain why there should be life now that looks back and frames the past evolutionary pathways.

On the other hand, consider our above explanation that everything begins with a free will for existence. That’s precisely what life is: Things that have a will of their own. Things that want to live, to grow, to make more of themselves. Life is the will to be.

It all makes sense. The origin of our reality and its very core is an autonomous will for existence, and that is reflected in the result: a world of willful, living beings.

Life is also an exquisite expression of its Creator. It is, after all, a paradoxical fusion of opposites: body and soul. Perhaps the best description of a living organism is a body transcending itself. That is only possible because life is created by a Creator who transcends opposites, and is therefore able to harmonize them as a single entity.

None of the above is meant as a foundation for faith, or as proof for the truth of monotheism. Basing your faith on intellectual reasoning is shaky ground, because reasoning can never prove anything 100%. Faith is an inner conviction. Reason can help uncover faith and provide it structure, but not create it.

So consider all the above as a statement that our belief in a Creator who is perfectly one is not only compatible, but friendly to the ways of modern science. Indeed, the Chabad school of Chassidut is a profound contemplation of these concepts of divine oneness and absolute existence, discussed extensively with the same rigor and critical approach as any science. Just the sort of reasoning those inner convictions require.