What is God?

Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim

Reader: Thank you for your thought provoking article “God is not Here.” It generated the following contemplation: Among our discussions on Pesach, we spoke of the great challenge the Jews had in altering their concept of God. Heretofore, they had lived with the gross misconception of their Egyptian upbringing, viz. that God had some form of corporeality. It was a tangible entity with which they could connect. Now they were expected to accept the concept of Hashem, this mysterious, unknowable Deity that was somehow totally transcendent, beyond description, with zero chance of even grasping an iota of His essence. This was indeed a tall order for the Jewish people, a supreme challenge. 

As a result of these ideas, we came to our own challenge: If Hashem is totally beyond grasp, so what exactly is our thought when we pray? To whom or what are we addressing? To Hashem in His essence, that is impossible; to some this-world entity, a creation, then we are dangerously treading upon the precipice of idolatry.

So what then should be in our thoughts [of what God is] when we pray?

Somewhat confused and seeking clarification.

Thanks. Kol Tuv.

Rabbi: Rabbi Israel Chait answered:

“First we must negate the premise of the idolaters, mainly [their misconception] that the only thing that’s real is the physical. Then we say just the opposite: What is truly real is not physical, and He is the source of all existence; He has created and controls everything that exists. This is all subsumed under the first of the 10 Commandments, “I am God.”

In the second commandment—“Do not have any other gods”—we posit that we can’t worship anything physical, even if we believe that the non physical is the source of all existence.”

Rabbi Chait says that we must accept God as being non-physical and exclusively in control of all else. He also says that, even if we do accept this, we cannot worship anything else. Thus, we must agree that all that exists is due to something non-physical, and we also must not worship anything else.

Since God told Moshe that “man cannot know Me while alive” (Exod. 33:20), it is impossible to have any concept of God. Maimonides explained that we cannot have any positive knowledge of God, but only negative knowledge: i.e., He is not cruel, He is not unjust, He is not ignorant. What we can know are His actions and his words. Our concept of God is that He is the sole source of the universe and the author of Torah, the being that has Providence over the righteous and over the Jewish Nation. 

It is for this reason that our morning prayers start with “Blessed is the One who spoke and the world came into existence.” Before commencing our prayers we must first define before whom we pray. And this is the Creator of all.