Shiur #09: God is One

  • Rav Joshua Amaru

1.         Shema Yisrael


"Shema Yisrael Hashem Elo-heynu Hashem Echad."  "Hear O Israel the Lord is our God the Lord is one."  This famous verse has been the Jew's testimony of loyalty to God for thousands of years.  It is a mitzva to recite the Shema twice daily and it has also been the final words of many Jews who died sanctifying God's name.[1]  While the verse's importance is not in doubt, its full meaning and significance deserves further clarification.  In previous shiurim I have written a lot about our complex conception of God (though certainly not enough!); today's shiur is going to focus on the declaration that God is one. 


The Rambam has the unity of God as his second principle:


The second foundation is God's unity, may He be exalted; to wit, that this One, Who is the cause of the existence of everything, is one.  His oneness is unlike the oneness of a genus, or of a species.  Nor is it like the oneness of a single composed individual, which can be divided into many units.  Nor is His oneness like that of the simple body which is one in number but infinitely divisible.  Rather He, may He be exalted, is one with a oneness for which there is no comparison at all.  This second foundation is attested to by the verse: "Hear O Israel the Lord is our God the Lord is one" (Devarim 6:4).


The Rambam's conception of God's unity is formulated entirely in negative terms.  God is one, but not in any of the ways that we would normally understand something as being one.[2]  This leaves us with a few questions: What is it about these types of unity that is objectionable?  Once these notions of oneness have been rejected, what is left?  How are we to understand that God is one? 


2.         Three Notions of Unity


The Rambam lists three different notions of oneness: 1. oneness of a genus or a species; 2. oneness of a single composed individual; 3. oneness of a simple body that is yet divisible.  Let us begin with the last.  Consider a simple but divisible entity: a lump of some pure metal.  Nowadays we think of such an object as composed of atoms beyond which it cannot be broken down without losing its identity; the Rambam did not have an atomic theory, so he considered such things to be infinitely divisible.  There is one lump of metal in front of us but there could easily be two, by dividing what we have in half.  The Rambam objects to thinking of God's unity in this way because of this possibility.  There does not just happen to be one God.  It is not a contingent fact that could change, if He decided to split His identity into two or more parts.[3]  Rather, His unity is a necessary aspect of His existence: God, as we conceive Him, could not have partners or competitors.  I will return to this point shortly.


The second sort of unity is that of a single composed individual.  Many things in our experience are made up of parts that together form a larger whole.  A book is composed of chapters, a personality of personality traits, etc.  Take enough of the parts away and the whole ceases to exist as a coherent entity.[4]  Why is it objectionable to think of God in this way?  If we insist that God's existence is necessary, then any properties or attributes that He has must also be necessary. But why is it objectionable to think of God as the whole of necessary parts?  Moreover, do we not think of God that way anyway?  He is both the divine Judge and the merciful Father; in thinking of God in these ways, are we not attributing to Him different attributes that compose who He is?


Before answering that question, let us turn to the final (and first in the Rambam's list) conception of unity that the Rambam says we cannot attribute to God.  The Rambam says that God cannot be one in the manner that a genus or a species are one.  A genus or a species are abstractions that refer to a type or a natural kind: cows, birds, stone, water (in Aristotelian thinking, notions of species and genus are not limited to biology).  If you think about it, species and genera are composed as well, though in a different way than, say, organisms or personalities are composed.  These types exist insofar as there are individuals (tokens) of that type.  If there are no such individuals (say the species goes extinct – though the Rambam could not imagine such a thing), then the type is merely an abstraction, a possibility of existence rather than its actuality.


What is objectionable about thinking of God as the single instantiation of the species Divinity?  That is to say: there is such a notion of divinity and that only one Being exemplifies it – God.  There are two reasons the Rambam found this objectionable.  First of all, thinking of God as the actualization of a potential type of being implies that others such beings are possible, they just happen not to exist.  If only one token of some type could possibly exist, then it is not a type of anything at all, but rather its own unique thing.  That is, of course, the Rambam's point: as I pointed out above, for the Rambam, God's existence and His uniqueness are necessary – remember the first principle in which all existence depends upon Him but not the other way around. 


3.         Unity as a Category of Human Understanding


There is a deeper explanation (that lies behind this rather fussy philosophical one) which serves to explain the Rambam's rejection of thinking of God as composed of different attributes.  Species and genera (broadly understood as types or classes of things) are ways that human beings analyze and understand the world and explain our experience of it.  We might argue as to whether they are real or not (medieval Aristotelians like the Rambam were certainly committed to their reality; modern thinkers less so).  However we answer the metaphysical question (and I do not think it makes much difference), such categories are essential to our ability to understand and control our surroundings.  Similarly, the analysis of understanding a whole in terms of its component parts is another way that people understand things. 


One way to appreciate the importance of this fact is to think about the components of an organism: livers, hearts, lungs, etc., never come into being independently – they are always part of something larger (e.g., a human body).  They are distinguished from one another by us when we think physiologically.  That is not to say that there are not really livers and hearts and other organs – that they are products of our minds or something obscure like that.  It is just that they come into our sight and our understanding by a process of abstraction and analysis that allows us to divide up the various pieces of meat that make up a body in terms of their functional and other properties.  If you think about it, the singular identity of any entity, not only of the components or organs that make up an organism, comes into focus only through a similar (though usually unconscious) process of abstraction and analysis.  Trees, rocks, mountains, cities, planets, stars and people are distinct from the rest of the universe because people have the ability to draw distinctions and to analyze their environments in terms of categories of things.  Though it sounds slightly spooky, there is nothing particularly mysterious about this idea – understanding anything requires that there be a conscious being that is doing the understanding, and that being is ourselves. 


To return to the unity of God, we can see now an explanation of the Rambam's insistence that none of our normal conceptions of unity can apply to Him.  To ascribe one of our usual categories of oneness to God is to subject Him to human understanding – He is then conceived of as a thing within our construction of the world.  The Rambam's whole focus in this principle is to resist the inclination to believe that we understand God.[5]  This inclination was supported at least to some degree by the first principle in which God was brought into human metaphysics as the First Cause.  This was a necessary move, since we must have some idea of what makes the world possible, but the Rambam is concerned that we not derive from that move the confidence that we now understand God's nature.  In this second principle, the Rambam offers a counterbalance: God's nature is to be one, but not in any sense that we can understand; God's unity is understood only negatively as the absence of plurality.


For the Rambam, the unity of God is a focal point for human appreciation of divine transcendence.  Insisting on the uniqueness and unity of God alongside the insistence that those terms do not mean what they usually mean is a kind of incoherence, and that is precisely the point – we do not and cannot understand God at all. 


4. The Role of the Completely Transcendent Conception of God


This philosophical conception of transcendence is an important part of our religious consciousness in that it forces us to recognize our own limitations and reduces the risk that, in our religious enthusiasm, we will create God in our own image.  Nonetheless, as I have pointed out in previous shiurim, if that is all we have, then we are left with a religion devoid of content and significance.  There are other routes to God besides abstract philosophizing, and these can be more productive.  We require a conception of God, even as we recognize that it is only partial.  Once we appreciate that our religious concepts are not ultimate metaphysical definitions but rather attempts to make sense of our own experience and traditions, we still need to do so.  As such, I am going to present here a few interpretations of the oneness of God that have arisen in our tradition.


5.         Accepting the Yoke of Heaven and the Rejection of Monolatry[6]


In massekhet Berakhot, the Talmud describes the mitzva of reciting the Shema as kabbalat ol malkhut shamayim, accepting the yoke of heaven.  This very central part of our daily liturgy seems to focus more on the first clause in the Shema, "the Lord is our God," rather than the concluding phrase, "the Lord is One."  But it is not accidental that the two are brought together.  A Jew declaring his allegiance to his God does something that looks very similar to the ancient Greek declaring his allegiance to Zeus.  The additional "the Lord is One" is crucial.  "Our" God is not merely the private god of the Jewish people, or the chief god of the pantheon to whom one must declare allegiance because he has competitors.  Our God is the one and only God.  "The Lord is God, the Lord is One," is accepting the yoke of heaven in that it bridges the gap between the particularistic pagan notion of local deities and the universalistic notion of monotheism, without giving up on either one.  God is both our private deity to whom we owe particular allegiance (and hence make a daily declaration of such) and the singular, unique God who is the sole Master of the universe; He has no equals or competitors.  This declaration is a function of our special role – to be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation and thereby to represent the one God in the world.


6.         Unity as Unification


Another conception of the unity of God that plays a significant role in our tradition is that which conceives of God as the unification of properties or forces that exist in the universe.  The most explicit rendition of this idea appears in Kabbala, which posits ten Sefirot or divine manifestations that interact with each other and the world.[7]  Some versions of this way of thinking emphasize that at the top of the hierarchy of Sefirot lies the Ein Sof – the ineffable Infinite God.  On this point the Kabbalists and the Rambam agree, though the Rambam understood it as a limitation on saying anything, while the Kabbalists understood the acknowledgement of the fundamental ineffability of God as that which freed them to develop a robust and elaborate positive theology.  This theology, despite its depictions of what looks like distinct divine entities that operate in concert, remains monotheistic because all of these entities are unified in that they are aspects of the divine.  The assertion that God is one takes on great importance in this system in that it sets a formal constraint on the religious exuberance and creativity of the Kabbalistic tradition.[8]


7. The Unity of God as a Goal


The closing verse of the Aleinu prayer, which is said at the end of each tefilla, is a quote from the prophet Zekharia.  In describing the ultimate redemption, the prophet declares (14:9): “And the Lord will be King on all the earth – on that day the Lord will be one and His name one.”  The commentators offer various interpretations to this rather obscure verse; I want to focus on the comments of the Radak (ca. 1160-1235, Provence).  Radakunderstood the import of this verse to be about recognition: God will be one when He is invoked as the King of the Earth by the whole world.  This implies that God's unity is the culmination of a process.  The concept of unity is not just part of a conception of God, but a conception of how the world ought to be.  So long as God's majesty is not recognized by all, his Oneness is threatened.  His uniqueness cannot be easily separated from people's commitment to Him and the only way it is complete, the only way God's project (which is the world) is complete (and thus He himself is complete), is when all people recognize His majesty.


8. Conclusion


In the first part of this shiur, I focused on the Rambam's understanding of unity, which was mostly negative – God is neither many nor one in any of the normal senses.  This way of thinking brings into focus God's complete transcendence – He is entirely inaccessible to our understanding.  At the same time, He makes himself available in less philosophical ways – through prayer and prophecy, religious experience and revelation.  There are different aspects of our experience of the divine and hence different meanings to the claim that God is one, some of which I sketched in this shiur



[1]  Mostly famous is Rabbi Akiva, who died, according to the account in Berakhot 61b and other places, as the word "Echad" left his lips.

[2] The argument for Rambam's famously radical 'negative' theology (in Part I chapters 56 and on in the Guide) is to a large extent dependent upon how all alternatives to denying attributes to God threaten His unity. 

[3] There might be a subtle critique of the Christian notion of the trinity here, though the Rambam did not live in a Christian milieu.

[4] I am not going to fuss with the difficult questions that arise in this context as to what constitutes the identity of composed objects – at what point do missing pages make us regard something as no longer a book.  I do not believe there is a single general answer to such questions, and in my opinion it is a mistake to look for one.  The answer will vary according to context.  The medieval Aristotelians drew a distinction between essential and accidental attributes of something, in which the former constitute its identity and the latter are properties attached to that essence. 

[5] I am not claiming that that the Rambam would have put the thought in this way.  The Kantian anti-metaphysics that I am espousing would not have made much sense to the Rambam.  I think, however, that the deep reason for the Rambam's unwillingness to state a positive theological metaphysics (at least most of the time) does lie in a Kant-like insight into the limits of human understanding.

[6] Monolatry is the doctrine that there is more than one God but only one of them is deserving of worship.

[7] Kabbala is not so much a set of doctrines, mystical or otherwise, but rather a vast discourse of theology, philosophy, psychology, exegesis and folklore, and it includes many different and often opposing doctrines. I do not pretend to any kind of expertise in Kabbala – this is just an overview.

[8] Another conception of the Divine Unity that is prominent in the Kabalistic tradition, particularly in the writings of Rav Shneur Zalman of Liadi, the author of Tanya and the founder of Chabad, is a focus on panentheism (not to be confused with pantheism) – the doctrine that the universe itself, in all its manifestations, should be understood as "part" of God.  I will not go into this here.