Jewish Conceptions of God in the Middle Ages

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The belief in God's unity implies a parallel belief in God's incorporeality, God's lack of body, because by definition, bodies are made up of many parts. However, the Bible is replete with descriptions of God that suggest that the deity has some form. Most medieval Jewish thinkers responded to this challenge by interpreting these biblical passages metaphorically and stressing that the Bible speaks in the language of humans.

The attempt to create Jewish dogma or official doctrine, is a conspicuous feature of medieval Jewish thought. Maimonides' thirteen principles of faith is the most prominent list of dogmas. Seven of these doctrines relate to God: God exists, God is one and unique, God is incorporeal, God is eternal, prayer is to be directed to God alone, God knows the thoughts and deeds of humans, and God rewards good and punishes evil.

Though primarily concerned with experiencing God and affecting mystical change in the world, the medieval mystics, the kabbalists, also struggled with making sense of God's existence and unity. They suggested that there are two aspects of God, God in Himself and God revealed. God in Himself, known as the Ein Sof or the Infinite, is completely hidden from humankind. The Ein Sof has no attributes (and is thus a complete unity), and we cannot describe or comprehend it. However, we can speak about God in terms of His revealed attributes, the ten sefirot. These attributes are fragmented and dynamic. There is disharmony among the sefirot, and the purpose of human existence is to heal this disharmony, thereby perfecting the world, and indeed God Himself. The doctrine of the sefirot received its fullest treatment in the Zohar, the most important work of Jewish mysticism.

The kabbalistic doctrine of God received further elucidation in the teachings of Isaac Luria, the influential 16th-century mystic. Luria's greatest theological innovation was his explanation of creation, in which he describes how the infinite God contracted into Himself to create space for the world to exist. Luria called this contraction tzimtzum.

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