Tuesday, January 4, 2011
The Jewish Beliefs About God
In Judaism, ultimate reality is a single, all-powerful God. It is this belief that made the Jews unique among other ancient Semitic peoples and that became the legacy Judaism has passed on to the entire Western world.
The sacred name of God, as revealed to Moses in the book of Exodus, is YHWH. Since ancient Hebrew was written without vowels, we do not know the original pronunciation of this word. The common pronunciation "Jehovah," however, is incorrect. It is derived from combining the vowels for Adonai ("Lord") with the four consonants of YHWH.
A more "correct" pronunciation, and that which is used among scholars, is "Yahweh." The discussion is irrelevant to observant Jews, however, as they do not pronounce this holiest of names. When the Torah is read aloud, Adonai ("Lord") is read in its place. This practice is reflected in most English translations, in which YHWH is rendered "LORD." Jews also refer to God as Hashem, "the Name."
The word YHWH is sometimes referred to as the Tetragrammaton, from the Greek for "four-lettered." It is also called The Forbidden Name or the Unutterable Name. The prohibition against pronouncing this name does not originate with the command to not take the Lord's name in vain, as is sometimes thought.
Although traditionally this only applies to the Name in Hebrew, some modern Jews also refrain from writing the word "God," replacing it instead with "G-d." Opinions vary within Judaism as to the necessity of such a practice.
The Nature of G-d
The nature of G-d is one of the few areas of abstract Jewish belief where there are a number of clear-cut ideas about which there is little dispute or disagreement.
The fact of G-d's existence is accepted almost without question. Proof is not needed, and is rarely offered. The Torah begins by stating "In the beginning, G-d created..." It does not tell who G-d is or how He was created.
In general, Judaism views the existence of G-d as a necessary prerequisite for the existence of the universe. The existence of the universe is sufficient proof of the existence of G-d.
G-d is One
One of the primary expressions of Jewish faith, recited twice daily in prayer, is the Shema, which begins "Hear, Israel: The L-rd is our G-d, The L-rd is one." This simple statement encompasses several different ideas:
There is only one G-d. No other being participated in the work of creation.
G-d is a unity. He is a single, whole, complete indivisible entity. He cannot be divided into parts or described by attributes. Any attempt to ascribe attributes to G-d is merely man's imperfect attempt to understand the infinite.
G-d is the only being to whom we should offer praise. The Shema can also be translated as "The L-rd is our G-d, The L-rd alone," meaning that no other is our G-d, and we should not pray to any other.
G-d is the Creator of Everything
Everything in the universe was created by G-d and only by G-d. Judaism completely rejects the dualistic notion that evil was created by Satan or some other deity. All comes from G-d. As Isaiah said, "I am the L-rd, and there is none else. I form the light and create darkness, I make peace and create evil. I am the L-rd, that does all these things." (Is. 45:6-7).
G-d is Incorporeal
Although many places in scripture and Talmud speak of various parts of G-d's body (the Hand of G-d, G-d's wings, etc.) or speak of G-d in anthropomorphic terms (G-d walking in the garden of Eden, G-d laying tefillin, etc.), Judaism firmly maintains that G-d has no body. Any reference to G-d's body is simply a figure of speech, a means of making G-d's actions more comprehensible to beings living in a material world. Much of Rambam's Guide for the Perplexed is devoted to explaining each of these anthropomorphic references and proving that they should be understood figuratively.
We are forbidden to represent G-d in a physical form. That is considered idolatry. The sin of the Golden Calf incident was not that the people chose another deity, but that they tried to represent
G-d in a physical form.
G-d is Neither Male nor Female
This followed directly from the fact that G-d has no physical form. As one rabbi explained it to me, G-d has no body, no genitalia, therefore the very idea that G-d is male or female is patently absurd. We refer to G-d using masculine terms simply for convenience's sake, because Hebrew has no neutral gender; G-d is no more male than a table is.
Although we usually speak of G-d in masculine terms, there are times when we refer to G-d using feminine terms. The Shechinah, the manifestation of G-d's presence that fills the universe, is conceived of in feminine terms, and the word Shechinah is a feminine word.
G-d is Omnipresent
G-d is in all places at all times. He fills the universe and exceeds its scope. He is always near for us to call upon in need, and He sees all that we do. Closely tied in with this idea is the fact that G-d is universal. He is not just the G-d of the Jews; He is the G-d of all nations.
G-d is Omnipotent
G-d can do anything. It is said that the only thing that is beyond His power is the fear of Him; that is, we have free will, and He cannot compel us to do His will. This belief in G-d's omnipotence has been sorely tested during the many persecutions of Jews, but we have always maintained that G-d has a reason for allowing these things, even if we in our limited perception and understanding cannot see the reason.
G-d is Omniscient
G-d knows all things, past, present and future. He knows our thoughts.
G-d is Eternal
G-d transcends time. He has no beginning and no end. He will always be there to fulfill his promises. When Moses asked for G-d's name, He replied, "Ehyeh asher ehyeh." That phrase is generally translated as, "I am that I am," but the word "ehyeh" can be present or future tense, meaning "I am what I will be" or "I will be what I will be." The ambiguity of the phrase is often interpreted as a reference to G-d's eternal nature.
G-d is Both Just and Merciful
I have often heard Christians speak of Judaism as the religion of the strict Law, which no human being is good enough to fulfill (hence the need for the sacrifice of Jesus). This is a gross mischaracterization of Jewish belief. Judaism has always maintained that G-d's justice is tempered by mercy, the two qualities perfectly balanced. Of the two Names of G-d most commonly used in scripture, one refers to his quality of justice and the other to his quality of mercy. The two names were used together in the story of Creation, showing that the world was created with both justice and mercy.
G-d is Holy and Perfect
One of the most common names applied to G-d in the post-Biblical period is "Ha-Kadosh, Barukh Hu," The Holy One, Blessed be He.
G-d is our Father and our King
Judaism maintains that we are all G-d's children. A well-known piece of Jewish liturgy repeatedly describes G-d as "Avinu Malkeinu," our Father, our King. The Talmud teaches that there are three participants in the formation of every human being: the mother and father, who provide the physical form, and G-d, who provides the soul, the personality, and the intelligence. It is said that one of G-d's greatest gifts to humanity is the knowledge that we are His children and created in his image.
By: Judaism 101