3.5 - Conceiving of God

Sources refer to Rabbi Bachaye ibn Pakuda's Chovos HaLevavos (Duties of the Heart)


Conceiving of God (Chapter 10, part III)

Since God is incorporeal, we cannot conceive of Him visually. Therefore, Tanach directs most praise to God’s Name, as in Nehemiah 9:5 (“May they bless the Name of Your glory”), Deuteronomy 28:58 (“To revere the glorious and awe-inspiring Name”), Psalms 99:3 (“May they praise your great and awe-inspiring Name!”), among many others. This underscores that, aside from the fact that God exists, we cannot fix a concept of Him in our minds other than the greatness of His Name.

The Torah often identifies God with things we understand and through which we can know Him, such as Heaven and Earth, which He made. (Example: “I will cause you to swear by Hashem, the God of Heaven and Earth” – Genesis 24:3, among many other such verses.) He is also identified with the Forefathers, who transmitted to us their knowledge of Him. (Example: “Hashem, God of your fathers, God of Abraham, God of Isaac and God of Jacob…” – Exodus 3:15, again among many other verses.) Similarly, He is called the God of Israel, with whom He shares a special relationship.

If we were able to conceive of God as He is, there would be no need for us to identify Him with anything else. Since we can’t, He associates His glory with some of His finest creations. This is why, when Moshe asked God His Name, God replied “Eheyeh Asher Eheyeh” (“I will be that I will be” – Exodus 3:14). While this might be an acceptable response to someone on the level of Moses, it would be incomprehensible to the majority of the people. This is why God instructed Moses, “You shall say to the children of Israel, ‘Hashem, God of your fathers, God of Abraham, God of Isaac and God of Jacob, has sent me to you.’ This is My Name forever and this is My memorial for all generations” (3:15). The meaning of this is, even if a person cannot understand God’s nature on his own, he can rest assured that this is the God Who was described to him by tradition from his ancestors. (The latter is a valid way to know God even if it’s not the optimum way – refer back to chapter 2.)

We can perceive things that exist in three ways: by using our physical senses (sight, taste, touch, etc.), through logical analysis, and by relying on a trustworthy tradition. It is impossible, however, to perceive God through the senses, so we are forced to rely upon dependable traditions and logical deductions based upon observing His works.

Since God’s works are so many, there are many different descriptors of God in Tanach, such as “the Rock, His deeds are perfect, for all His ways are justice” (Deuteronomy 32:4), “the great, mighty and awesome God, Who performs justice for the orphan and the widow…” (Deuteronomy 10:17-18), and “merciful and gracious, slow to anger, full of kindness and truth…” (Exodus 34:6). The proof of all such statements is evident through observing His creations. However, so numerous are God’s creations that we cannot begin to understand Him. To this end, David wrote, “You have performed many deeds, Hashem, my God. Your wonders and Your thoughts to us - none can be compared to You! If I would declare and speak of them, they are too great to be told” (Psalms 40:6).

The Talmud relates a story (Brachos 33b) in which a person who led the prayer service ad-libbed that God is “great, mighty, awesome, powerful, strong and courageous.” Rabbi Chanina chided him by asking, “Have you completed all the praises of your Master?” He explained that the only reason we say “great, mighty and awesome” is because Moses used this expression in the Torah and the Sages instituted it into the liturgy. If not for that, it would be prohibited for us to praise God because anything we could possibly say would still be “damning with faint praise.” The example the Talmud uses to illustrate this point is, if a king has a million gold coins, praising him for having silver is actually an insult. This is why King David writes, “To You, silence is praise” (Psalms 65:2).

Because of this, we must strive mightily to acquire knowledge of God by observing His works and not by trying to understand His essence. He is very close to us through His works (which are literally all around us) but an understanding of His glory might as well be a million miles away. When we stop trying to picture God and instead we extrapolate Him from His deeds, then we will reach the highest understanding of Him. This is what the Torah tells us when it says, “Know this day and place within your heart that Hashem is God in Heaven above and upon the earth below; there is no other” (Deuteronomy 4:39).

Rabbeinu Bachaye cites a number of aphorisms that all have the same bottom line: the more one knows about God, the more he realizes how little he actually understands anything about God. At the end of our investigations, we should be aware that we really grasp nothing of His actual nature. Ultimately, we can only know Him through logical deductions. We can’t see or measure the soul; we can only infer its nature through its effects. If we can’t know the soul through direct experience, how much more so we cannot know the Creator! The scholar Ben Sira wrote, “Do not seek that which is beyond you and don’t investigate that which is hidden from you. Delve into that which you have been granted; what is hidden is not your business” (Wisdom 3:21-22). Along these lines, the Sages said, “Whoever is too casual with his Creator’s honor would be better off never having been born” (Chagigah 11b). The Chovos HaLevavos cites a number of additional sources from Tanach (and one from the Talmud Yerushalmi) supporting this idea, but the bottom line is this: “It is God’s glory to conceal the matter” (Proverbs 25:2).

Each human sense is uniquely suited to perceive particular stimuli: colors require sight, music requires hearing, odors require the sense of smell, etc. Even when it comes to the appropriate sense, there are limits to perceiving these stimuli. For example, the farther away an object is, the blurrier it gets and it will eventually be too far to be seen at all. The same is true for our mental faculties: each is suited to perceive a different kind of thing and, even then, it has limits. We can intellectually perceive something that is “close” enough but not something that is too “far.” God’s nature, as we have said, is like a million miles away, so we cannot perceive it. Attempts to do so will inevitably fail. We must therefore search to know God through His creations, which are nearby. If we try to visualize God with our imaginations, whatever we picture in the mind’s eye simply isn’t Him.

Trying to envision God, mistakenly thinking it will bring one closer to Him, can actually have the opposite effect and corrupt whatever proper conceptions one originally had. It’s like trying to get to know the sun by staring at it – a person who does this will ultimately lose his vision and be unable to use the sun’s light at all! Getting to know God through His works is proper and will lead to the ultimate possible human understanding of Him. Trying to experience God directly – or deluding oneself into thinking he is doing so – will only damage one’s receptors.

We must likewise take care when it comes to God’s “attributes” that we not take them too literally, whether they are terms that were applied to God by the prophets or even by God Himself. It should be clear that they are mere metaphors, utilized to facilitate human comprehension. Whatever attribute is used to describe God, a person must understand that He is in fact infinitely beyond those words. As Nehemiah 9:5 tells us, God is “greater than any blessing and praise.” The words used in Scripture to describe God are like whistling to call an animal: the whistling is used for the animal’s benefit because it’s more effective than using words, if less elegant. Similarly, the metaphors used to describe God are for the human reader’s benefit; we respond better to them even if they are less precise.

When a person reaches this stage in his knowledge of God’s unity, he will become one of those who seek God. Then God will grant him the strength to understand Him, as King David wrote, “The mysteries of God are for those who revere Him; He makes His covenant known to them” (Psalms 25:14).

The God Book – now available from OU Press!