Maimonides’ Conception of God

The Guide for the Perplexed tells us more about what God isn't than what God is.

At the heart of Maimonides‘ Guide for the Perplexed is his conception of God. When we say that “God is one” every day [in the Sh’ma prayer], what do we mean by that statement? For many Jewish philosophers, Maimonides chief among them, this is the central question of Jewish philosophy. He argues that God is a perfect unity, not admitting of any plurality. God does not have parts, either literally or figuratively–no arms or legs, no back or front, no end or beginning. (One of the alternate names for God in Jewish dis­course is Ein Sof [Without End].)

That also means that, in Aristotelian terms, one cannot actually say “God is . . .” and proceed to enumerate God’s attributes. To describe the Eternal One in such a sentence is to admit of a division between subject and predicate, in other words, a plurality. (Maimonides writes in Chapter 50 of the Guide, “Those who believe that God is One and that He has many attributes declare the Unity with their lips and assume the plurality in their thoughts.”) Therefore, he concludes, one cannot discuss God in terms of positive attributes.

On the other hand, one can describe what God is not. God is not corporeal, does not occupy space, experiences neither generation nor corruption (in the Aristotelian sense of birth, decay, and death). For obvious reasons, Mai­monides’ conception of the Supreme Being is usually characterized as “negative theology,” that is, defining by the accumulation of negatives. Maimonides writes, “All we understand is the fact that [God] exists, that [God] is a being to whom none of Adonai’s creatures is similar, who has nothing in common with them, who does not include plurality, who is never too feeble to produce other beings and whose relation to the universe is that of a steersman to a boat; and even this is not a real relation, a real simile, but serves only to convey to us the idea that God rules the universe, that it is [God] that gives it duration and preserves its necessary arrangement.”

But what of all the anthropomorphic terms that we encounter in Jewish sacred texts? What of “Adonai’s rod and staff . . .” or the Creator who “reaches out a hand . . .”? There are thousands of passages like this in the Torah, in the Talmud, in Midrash, and in our liturgy. Maimonides’ response is that these are allegorical passages, designed to ease the transition of the Jewish people from idolatry to monotheism. Even the famous description of man’s creation b’tselem Elohim (in the image of God) is meant metaphorically. God created out of free will and we are granted the ability to reason and a free will of our own, but there is no “family resemblance.”

The way that we come to know God and the world is through a com­bination of revelation and reason. Prophecy, for example, is not merely a gift from God processed through the human imagination. According to Maimonides, prophecy also requires perfection of wisdom and morality as well as a developed imagination. And that gift from God is passed through the mediation of the Active Intellect (a “rational emana­tion” of the presence of the Almighty in the world), so reason must always play a part.

Indeed, reason must play a role in the love of God, Maimonides holds. It is in large part through the intellect that we attain religious and spiritual goals. By the same token, he says, the sacred writings of Judaism are truthful and do not require us to accept anything that can­not be proven by reason. Where they appear otherwise, we are to read them as allegory. For this reason, study of Torah is one way of achieving greater knowledge of God, engaging the intellect in the search. Faith and reason are not enemies but, in Maimonides’ thought, essential to each other if we are to understand God.

Reprinted with permission from Essential Judaism: A Complete Guide to Beliefs, Customs & Rituals, published by Pocket Books.

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