Nothing has to be. Existence has a deliberate cause. We call that G‑d.

But what is G‑d? What is it that causes all things to be?

What Do Jews Mean When They Say G‑d?

The Problem of Definition

The philosopher will likely explain that G‑d is absolute existence. Or that G‑d is the true reality of all things.

The kabbalist will utter some mysterious words about the Infinite Light—or perhaps just “The Infinite.” He’ll explain that the Infinite Light, being infinite, is found everywhere, within all things, and beyond all things.

The simple Jew will tell you that G‑d is the one you talk to when things get rough, the only one who truly knows what’s in your heart, and also the only one, given His position, who can really take care of any problem you have.

And anyone blessed with a basic Jewish education will tell you that G‑d is the One who created the world, chose Abraham and his seed, took our people out of Egypt, appeared to our ancestors at Sinai, and struck an eternal covenant with us, as recorded in His holy book, the Torah.

Of course, they’re all right, and they all agree with one another. But none of these are definitions. They’re descriptions of what G‑d does, or what G‑d isn’t. None of this defines what G‑d is.

And that makes sense. If G‑d had a definition, He wouldn't be G‑d.

Somehow, a Jew knows intuitively what G‑d is.1 It’s just that there aren’t words that can express it or ideas that can explain it fully.

Nevertheless, the Torah tells us there are things we can say about G‑d that are true—and even more that we can say are not true.

Here are a few of those nays and yays:

G‑d Is Not a Superhero

On Polytheism

Many people believe in a supreme god over all the other gods. The minor gods, they believe, dominate various forces such as fire and wind, while the supreme god reigns over all of them—although rarely mixing in.

This is called polytheism.

Belief in one G‑d, on the other hand, means believing that there is only one force behind all things—life, physics, even existence. Whatever happens, G‑d is there, intimately involved. And yet, at the same time, He remains above it all.

If that’s hard to conceive, think of a story with many heroes and villains, each with their particular powers. Who is the most powerful being in this story? Who can switch the direction of the narrative at any moment? Who decides who will rise and who will fall, who will win and who will lose? Who can eliminate any character with a single stroke, as though that character never was?

Obviously, the author. The author isn’t just stronger or bigger. The author is the only being that is real.

So too, G‑d isn’t just the most powerful being in the universe. He’s the Author of the universe. The universe and all it contains is His idea.

Of course, the universe has certain elements that are not in a story. For one thing, its characters are real in a way that story characters are not real. They are (within limits) their own free agents. They can choose the paths by which their story will play out (again, within limits).

But even that freedom is endowed to them by their Author. Just as they are created out of nothing in a way that is beyond our understanding, so, too, they are granted a certain degree of autonomy by their Creator. And it is limited, so that, no matter what they choose, and what the immediate consequences of their choice, they can change neither the plot of the story nor its theme, and ultimately the story will come to the same ending.

If so, in all that exists, there is really only one force, one grand will and consciousness that directs every detail of the cosmos, from the galaxies and superstars to the tiniest worm beneath the earth to the movement of every subatomic particle. Even within our very sense of existence and autonomy, our discretion and agency, there lies G‑d.

So, just like in the story example above, in the entire story of existence there is only one being that is absolutely real—the one we call G‑d. That’s what the prophet Jeremiah meant when he said, “G‑d, your G‑d, is real.”2 He meant that nothing else is real in the way that G‑d is real.3

It’s also what Moses meant when he told the people, “Know today and take it to heart, that G‑d is G‑d in the heavens above and the earth below. There is nothing else.”4

And: “You have been shown so you will know: G‑d is G‑d, there is nothing else but Him.”5

That puts to rest a common question: Where is G‑d?

Quite simply, it’s the same question as “Where is the author in a story?”

The answer: Where isn’t He?

Read: Who Created G‑d?

G‑d Is Not an Old Man in the Sky

On Anthropomorphism

The Torah and the prophets often speak about G‑d as though He has a right hand and a left hand, steams with anger through His nose, sits on a throne, writes with His finger, hears with His ears, and peers down from heaven with His eyes.

He also fills the heavens and the earth,6 knows everything everyone is planning to do even before they do,7 and remains unchanged by any of it.8

If that seems contradictory and absurd to you, you’re right on track.

Because it is all obviously metaphor. G‑d not only has no physical form, He has no form at all.9 He’s not a fire, or a wind. He's neither physical nor spiritual—as He created both. Even to say that G‑d is pure love or spiritual light is misleading.10

And indeed, the Torah prohibits making images of G‑d because, when G‑d spoke to the Jewish people at Mt. Sinai, as Moses points out, “you didn’t see any image.”11

It’s just that, since we have no other words to discuss G‑d, we borrow terms from human experience to get a point across.

In short, G‑d is neither a person nor a thing. His existence is unlike anything else we can imagine.

As for His knowledge of events, He has no need to see or hear since He is there within every event, and every event is within Him. You could say He knows everything by knowing Himself.12

For a classic treatment of the fundamental Jewish beliefs, see MaimonidesFoundations of Torah.

G‑d Has Many Titles

Names of G‑d

“G‑d” is a relatively new European word of Proto-Germanic origin. In Hebrew, quite a few titles are used, each with a different meaning according to the circumstance.

The only title that is referred to as G‑d’s name, and not simply a descriptive title, is YHVH (י–ה–ו–ה).

(We don’t want to write out divine names, since we are not permitted to erase them.13 We’ve interpolated those hyphens to get around that.)

This name is only pronounced in the Temple in the priestly blessing, or by the High Priest when he enters the Holy of Holies. Since the Temple is not currently under operation in Jerusalem, we never pronounce it today. Instead, we substitute the name A-do-nay.

Even though it is a name and not a description, it still contains meaning. It is a conjunction of all tenses of the verb “to be,” implying G‑d is unchanging, atemporal—beyond time.14

Alternatively, it is a causative verb, meaning, “He who causes being.”15

Then there is the name E-lo-him. We also don't pronounce that unless necessary, so you will often hear us say, Elokim. This title refers to G‑d as He is mighty and powerful, capable of achieving anything anywhere.16

You’ll find the Torah and the prophets reiterating in multiple ways that YHVH is E-lo-him. That’s a direct retort to the superhero, polytheistic version that places a supreme deity in the distant heavens while minor deities take care of the world down here.

No, the Torah says, it’s all one. The same G‑d who transcends time and space is the same G‑d who directs every detail of life. And He’s also the same G‑d who pays attention to your prayers and answers them.

For a list of the most common names, including the seven that we are not allowed to erase, see “Eighteen Names for G‑d Used by Jews

For a discussion of names used in Kabbalah, see “The Kabbalah of Divine Names

For more on pronouncing these names, see “Why Don’t Jews Say G‑d’s Name?

G‑d Is One

The Shema

“Hear O Israel, YHVH is our G‑d, YHVH is one.”17

You might think this just means that there’s only one G‑d. But that’s not what it says. It says G‑d is totally one.

In simple words: G‑d is not made of parts. Neither is He an idea that encapsulates many ideas. Neither does He occupy space. Neither does He change over time.

And if you are looking for a parallel of some sort to grasp this, there is none.

Here is how Maimonides, the great codifier of Jewish law, describes the oneness of G‑d:

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.18

Someone who believes G‑d has a body will have a big problem with the belief that G‑d is one. A body or form is a limitation. It implies a force of some sort outside of G‑d. In consequence, if G‑d would have a body, there would be at least two gods.

So belief that G‑d has no body or form is an essential component of belief that G‑d is one.

For more from Maimonides on the Jewish belief in G‑d, see his Foundations of Torah.

Does G‑d Have a Personality?

The Mind of G‑d

Fine, G‑d doesn’t have a nose or eyeballs. But what about emotions? Doesn’t the Torah describe G‑d’s wrath and jealousy, His love and compassion? And what about a brain? Isn’t G‑d wise and understanding?

Yes, but those are not descriptions of G‑d. Because, like we said, G‑d has no parts or details. Those are the modalities by which He interacts with His universe.

When G‑d created the universe, He did it through these modalities. He continues to direct it through these modalities. But He’s not limited or defined by any of them, and neither is He affected or changed by any of them.

Does that mean that G‑d has no personality? Because, if it does, how are we supposed to relate to Him?

But no, it doesn’t mean that. Because G‑d truly invests Himself, all of Himself, within these modalities. So that when we call upon Him and relate to Him through these, we truly have Him, all of Him.

Rabbi Dov Ber, the Magid of Mezritch, a great kabbalist and Chassidic master, provided an analogy that makes this easier to understand.19 He described a wise, strong, loving, and mature father who sees his child playing on the ground. The father is stirred by his love for the child to get down on the ground and play along with him.

So the father not only makes himself small—he restrains his strength so that he can tussle and play in the world of the child. He speaks in a language the child can understand about the things that are important in the child’s world. He even acts like the child, excited about those things that excite the child, laughing as a child, upset at the things that upset the child, having fun as a child.

And it’s not that he simply pretends. No, the Magid taught, he truly feels that way, as though he were the child.

Yet, the father remains a father, an adult. As he plays and laughs, he watches out for the safety of the child. As he rolls and tussles with the child, he cares for the child as only a father could. Indeed, he is only able to throw himself into this childishness, only able to accomplish such restraint, only able to be both child and father at once because he is an adult.

So, too, but on an unimaginably higher plane, an infinite G‑d injects His infiniteness within the way He relates to us in His Torah. Like that loving father, He stoops down, constraining Himself, so to speak, to consider the features, the functions, and the concerns of this world. He speaks to us through the stories in His Torah and the stories of our own lives. He listens to us when we share what is in our hearts in prayer.

The result is that He can be felt within His creation. We can sense something entirely transcendent and wondrous. We can feel that He relates to us, that we can speak with Him and ask Him for our needs, while at the same time understanding that within this relationship we are holding onto something that is infinitely beyond us and our world.

For more on G‑d’s modalities, often referred to as sefirot, see Children of the Universe and The Sefirot.

G‑d Did Not Retire

Constant Creation

Here’s a common question: Why can’t G‑d just build a world, program it to do what it does, zap it with sufficient energy for a few trillion years, and then leave it running?

Could the problem be that He has to step in to get things back on track once in a while? That would be strange—if He’s an all-powerful, all-knowing G‑d, why couldn’t He get the program right on the first iteration?

Quite simply, G‑d can’t retire because if G‑d would step away from His creation even for a moment, it would all be gone. It would be as though it never was.

Because the universe isn’t made out of something. It’s made out of nothing. “In the beginning, G‑d created…” As Nachmanides, the classic commentator, explains, the word for “created” (bara ברא) here means to create out of nothing.20

It’s not like G‑d found some clay, or atoms, or quantum fields lying around and said, “Hey, this is great stuff for building a world!” Rather, He started from only Himself, willed that there be a world, articulated to Himself exactly how that would be, and there was a world, clay, atoms, quantum fields and all.

So, if He would stop willing and stop articulating, then immediately past, present and future of this world would be gone.

Just like that. No need to dismantle the parts. No need to unplug the cord. Not even an off-switch. Just stop thinking about it and it’s gone.21

Jews say every morning in their prayers that G‑d “renews every day the act of creation.”22 And not just every day, but every moment and micro-moment, again and again. Not just by breathing life into it, keeping the planets spinning and the stars shining. But by sustaining the very existence of every single detail.

Which means that believing in G‑d isn’t about believing in something outside of this universe. It’s not, “So there’s this universe here and I wonder how it got here.” It’s about, “What is this universe? How real is it?” Is it “stuff happening” or is it G‑d thinking? Or better: G‑d telling a story.

For more on this topic, see Perpetual Creation.

The Universe Is Not G‑d

On Pantheism

Take a look at the first statement of the Torah: “In the beginning, G‑d created the heavens and the earth.”23

First of all, that tells us He is not the universe. He is the creator of the universe.

But there’s a yet more important point: Saying that a higher sentience deliberately created this place means that it doesn’t have to be here. It didn’t pop up by accident or by necessity. Rather, G‑d chose to create it, purposefully and with intent.

Which makes exquisite sense. Our world is filled with life, creatures that are doing something now to achieve something in the future. That’s what “life” means. If the universe emerged out of a place void of purpose and intent, how could it contain living beings, defined by their purposefulness?

Rather, each creature reflects its Creator. Just as He is a free agent who acts purposefully, so His universe is filled with life, defined by agency and intent.

In other words, the universe is an “it.” G‑d is a free agent.*

If the universe were G‑d, we would be its prisoners, neatly predictable, ultimately boring. Belief in G‑d is belief that the universe is an open system. It means you can break out of the grind at any time you want. You can transcend yourself. You can transcend the universe.

Read Pantheism and Judaism

*That’s why we say “He.” To find out why we don’t say “She,” read “Should We Use Gender-Neutral Language for G‑d?

G‑d Wants Something From Us

G‑d and Humanity

So if the universe is purposeful, what does G‑d want with these creatures He made—meaning you and me?

Basically, He wants us to do just what He does, but in reverse.

Just as He relates to us through the things we find important, He wants us to reach up to Him through the things He desires. That way, the whole world will feel His presence and it will be a wholesome world. That’s the ultimate purpose of this world—to be a place where G‑d sort of “feels at home.”

What are the things He desires? As you might expect, He hasn’t been shy about telling us. He’s let us know through his Torah and through the humble men and women who unravel it for us.

The Torah tells us that G‑d wants harmony and peace in His world. More acts of kindness and sensitivity to others. More oneness, in other words, just like He is one. He also wants us to call upon Him in our time of need, and to return to Him when we get off track.

He wants the Jewish people to be a beacon of light to the world, and for that purpose He gave them many more responsibilities. Jewish people have a special kosher diet, a sacred day of rest, an obligation to study G‑d’s Torah, and many other responsibilities, called mitzvahs.

So, back to the question of “Where is G‑d?”—a deeper answer is that, yes, you can find Him in His story. You can find Him in any of those things He wants you to do. Do them well, and you’re holding Him tight.

Read “What Is the Purpose of Existence?

Addendum: Absolute Existence

The problem of defining G‑d can be stated simply: Everything we know of is defined in relation to something else. Light is only light because there is dark. Big is big relative to something smaller. The same with all categories, events, and things. The definitions we use for them describe their relationship to the rest of the universe.

But when we say “G‑d,” we are speaking of absolute existence. We are speaking of the one form of existence that is just because He is. This is what Maimonides is speaking of in his very first halachot in the Foundations of Torah:

The foundation of foundations and the pillar of wisdom is to know that there is a First Existence, and He generates all existence. All that exists, in the heavens, the earth, and that which is between them, exists only from the reality of His existence.

If one would imagine that He does not exist, no other existence could possibly exist.

And if one would imagine that nothing aside from Him exists, He alone would continue to exist, and He would not be voided by their absence. Because all other entities require Him and He, blessed be He, does not require them nor any one of them. Therefore, the reality of His existence is not like the reality of any of their existence.

This is implied by the prophet's statement: “And YHVH, your G‑d, is true”24 - meaning: He alone is real and no other entity is real in a way that compares to His realness. This is what is meant by the Torah's statement, “There is nothing else aside from Him”25 - meaning: there is no existence other than His that is real as His existence is real.26

And here’s Maimonides again, this time in his philosophical work, “Guide for the Perplexed”:

‪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.‬27

For more on this topic, see “Who Made G‑d?