Jewish Conceptions of God in the Middle Ages

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The Jewish philosophers and mystics of the Middle Ages developed systematic conceptions of God, speculating specifically on God's existence and unity. 

In all their thinking, the Jewish philosophers of the Middle Ages were greatly influenced by the Arabic thinkers of their time, who themselves were influenced by Greek systems of thought, particularly Aristotelianism and Neoplatonism. These Arabic thinkers proposed proofs for the existence of God, and the medieval Jewish philosophers proposed similar proofs.

Saadiah Gaon (882-942) and Bahya ibn Pakudah (1040-1080) both presented versions of the teleological proof. This proof highlights the complex order of the world and stresses how unlikely it would be for such a perfect world to have appeared by accident. From this, thinkers like Saadiah and Bahya deduce the existence of a creator.

The cosmological proof for God's existence was also espoused by Jewish thinkers, including Maimonides (1135-1204), the greatest of the medieval Jewish philosophers. Maimonides focuses on the motion inherent in nature and posits that while every motion requires a mover, it is incomprehensible to keep regressing back in time from motion to motion for eternity. Maimonides suggests that there must be a first mover who is, Himself, unmoved. This unmoved mover is God.

Medieval Jewish thinkers stressed the unity of God, often rejecting compartmentalized descriptions of the deity. Biblical descriptions of God, which characterize God in numerous roles (e.g., creator, liberator, legislator) and with numerous attributes (e.g., "merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love" [Exodus 34:6]) were considered philosophically problematic. When we list attributes of God, we divide the deity into a plurality, implying that, for example, God's attribute of truth is distinct from God's attribute of compassion.

god in heavenMaimonides' philosophy of negative attributes is the classic solution to this problem. He suggests that we cannot say anything positive about God. Anytime we say something positive like, "God is good," all we can really mean is "God is not evil." However, there were Jewish thinkers, including Hasdai Crescas (1370-1430) and Gersonides (1288–1344), who supported the articulation of positive attributes.

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