Shiur #28: Divine Attributes and the Corporeality of God

  • Rav Itamar Eldar

     The issue of Divine attributes was a troubling theological problem for the medieval thinkers. With every attribute, every name, and every action that we attribute to God, we perforce constrict and limit His essence. While it would seem, therefore, that there is no possibility whatsoever of describing God, Scripture is filled with God's names and attributes and descriptions of His actions. Furthermore, the Torah's assumption that there exists an ongoing relationship between God and man necessitates the use of names, attributes, and actions in order to characterize that relationship, both that of God toward man and that of man toward God.


The attributes


     When R.YehudaHalevi approaches the issue of the names and attributes of God, he is forced to deal with the issue of the corporeality of God and the question that arises from the very assignation of a name.[1]


The Rabbi said: All names of God, save the Tetragrammaton, are predicates and attributive descriptions, derived from the way His creatures are affected by His decrees and measures. He is called merciful if he improves the condition of any man whom people pity for his sorry plight. They attribute to Him mercy and compassion, although this is, in our conception, surely nothing but a weakness of the soul and a quick movement of nature. This cannot be applied to God, who is a just Judge, ordaining the poverty of one individual and the wealth of another. His nature remains quite unaffected by it. He has no sympathy with one, nor anger against another. We see the same in human judges to whom questions are put. They decide according to law, making some people happy, and others miserable. He appears to us, as we observe His doings, sometimes a "merciful and compassionate God" (Shemot 34:6), sometimes "a jealous and vengeful God" (Nachum 1:2), while He never changes from one attribute to the other. (II, 2)


     Rihal emphasizes that the various attributes do not testify to changes in God Himself, but to man's perspective on God. Rihal illustrates the point with the example of a judge who, with respect to the very same verdict, appears "merciful and compassionate" to one party and "jealous and vengeful" to the other. In the same manner, the diverse attributes assigned to God by man from his perspective do not attest to changes in God, but to the manner in which subjective man comprehends His objective revelation.


     Moreover, Rihal notes the problem that rises from the fact that the terminology that we use to describe God is taken from the human realm and from man's emotional and intellectual concepts. As such, they do not faithfully reflect God's actions.


     Having said this, Rihal moves on to a detailed classification of the various Divine attributes:


All attributes (excepting the Tetragrammaton) are divided into three classes, creative, relative, and negative. As regards the creative attributes, they are derived from acts emanating from Him by ways of natural medium, e.g. "making poor and rich," "exalting or casting down," "merciful and compassionate," "jealous and revengeful," "strong and almighty," and the like. As regards the relative attributes, "Blessed, praised, glorified, holy, exalted, and extolled," they are borrowed from the reverence given to Him by mankind. However numerous these may be, they produce no plurality as far as He is concerned, nor do they affect his Unity. As regards the negative attributes, such as "Living, Only, First and Last," they are given to Him in order to negate their contrasts, but not to establish them in the sense we understand them. For we cannot understand life except accompanied by sensibility and movement. God, however, is above them. We describe Him as living in order to negate the idea of the rigid and dead… Thus, the essence of God is too exalted to have anything to do with life or death, nor can the terms light or darkness be applied to it. If we were asked whether this essence is light or darkness, we should say light by way of metaphor, for fear one might conclude that that which is not light must be darkness. As a matter of fact, we must say that only material bodies are subject to light and darkness, but the Divine essence is no body, and can consequently only receive the attributes of light or darkness by way of simile, or in order to negate an attribute hinting at a deficiency. (II, 2)


     Rihal divides the Divine attributes into three classes and to each one he attaches an explanation that attempts to confront the problem of the corporeality of God.


1.   Creative attributes – these are the attributes that describe actions that God performs by way of natural mediums ("making poor and rich," "revengeful," and the like). Through God's will and His decree, circumstances lead to the situation in which a person is made rich or is routed by his enemies. The belief in God's providence attributes to Him the act of destroying or making rich. The problem with such attributes is not so acute because the assumption that these are actions performed by way of a medium and not with actions performed directly by God reduces the problem of attributing corporeality to God. Such attributes do not necessitate the assumption that we are dealing with a corporeal act performed by God, just as the statement that a certain king emerged victorious in battle does not necessitate the assumption that the king himself took part in the fighting on the battle field.


2.   Relative attributes – these are attributes through which man praises, extols, and glorifies God ("holy," "exalted," and the like). The two problems with such attributes are the limitations and boundaries placed upon God and the issue of plurality. The very assertion that we are dealing with relative attributes resolves both of these problems, as Rihal states in the aforementioned introduction. Since we are dealing with the perspective of man, the attributes do not necessarily reflect God's essence and they therefore do not limit Him. Since they reflect different perspectives, they do not undermine His unity.[2]


3.   Negative attributes – these attributes are meant to negate ideas and attributes that are unbefitting to God. When we say that God lives, we merely wish to negate death, even though His existence is far more exalted than the idea of life as man understands it. Similarly, when we say that God is one, we merely wish to negate His plurality, even though the human concept of unity cannot contain the essential oneness of God.[3]


To these three classes of attributes, Rihal adds those attributes that are joined to the Tetragrammaton ("Creator," "Maker," "Producer"). These attributes describe those actions that are performed not by way of a medium, but rather in a miraculous manner. As Rihal explains, they are used to prove that the hand of God is in operation:


The attributes which are connected with the Tetragrammaton are those which describe His power of creating without any natural intermediaries, such as "Creator," "Producer," "Maker," "To Him who alone does great wonders" (Tehillim 136:4), which means that [He creates] by His bare intention and will, to the exclusion of any assisting cause.


This is perhaps meant in the word of the Bible: "And I appeared unto Abraham… as El Shad-dai"' (Shemot 6:3), that is, in the way of power and dominion, as is said: "He suffered no man to do them wrong; yea, He reproved kings for their sake" (Tehillim 105:14). He did not, however, perform any miracle for the patriarchs as He did for Moses, saying: "But my name, the Tetragrammaton, I was not known to them" (Shemot 6:3). This means by My name, the Tetragrammaton, since the bet in be-El Shad-dai refers to the former. The wonders done for Moses and the Israelites left no manner of doubt in their souls that the Creator of the world also created these things which He brought into existence immediately by His will, such as the plagues of Egypt, the dividing of the Red Sea, the manna, the pillar of a cloud, and the like. The reason of this was not because they were higher than the Patriarchs, but because they were a multitude and had nourished doubt in their souls, while the patriarchs had fostered the utmost faith and purity of mind. If they had all their lives been pursued by misfortune, their faith in God would not have suffered. Therefore, they required no signs.[4] (II, 2)


     The difference, from this perspective, between a miracle and a natural phenomenon, is the degree to which the hand of God steering the phenomenon is evident. When the phenomenon cannot be ascribed to natural causality, we have no choice but to conclude that the hand of God is acting.


     As an aside, it should be noted that, like other thinkers of his time, Rihal does not show preference to miracles over nature; he understands that, with respect to the measure of God's involvement in the process, there is no difference between a miraculous event and a natural one. In both cases, we are dealing with a Divine decree. The entire difference stems from the need to demonstrate God's providence to those people on behalf of whom the miracle was performed. Rihal concludes from this that those who do not require such proof are on a higher level than those who do need it. Thus, it turns out that those for whom miracles are performed may be inferior to those for whom miracles are not performed; God's providence over the latter expresses itself through natural means. This, argues Rihal, is the contrast between the patriarchs and the people of Israel at the time of the exodus.


Will, Place, the glory of GOd, Prophecy


     In the framework of the discussion of this issue, Rihal also addresses other problems that touch upon the issue of God's corporeality and are also connected to the description of God.


     The first such issue that we shall relate to is Divine "will:"


The Khazar king: Granting that you have justified the use of these attributes, so that no idea of plurality need of necessity follow, yet a difficulty remains as regards the attribute of "Will" with which you invest Him, but which the philosopher denies.

The Rabbi: If no other objection is raised, except the "Will," we will soon vindicate ourselves. We say: O philosophers, what is it which in your opinion made the heavens revolve continually, the uppermost sphere carrying the whole, without place or inclination in its movement, the earth firmly fixed in the center without support or prop; which fashioned the order of the universe in quantity, quality, and the forms we perceive? You can not help admitting this, for things did neither create themselves nor each other. Now, the same adapted the air to giving the sound of the Ten Commandments, and formed the writing engraved in the tables - call it will, or thing, or what you will. (II, 5-6)


     According to the philosophers, attributing "will" to God is impossible, because will attests to a lacking that the will wishes to fill; but surely there is no deficiency in God.


     Rihal himself does not explain how it is possible to attribute will to God. But he tries to prove to the philosophers that anyone wishing to avoid the conclusion that the world was created and continues to exist in an arbitrary manner must conclude that there is a guiding hand and primal plan on the basis of which the world was fashioned. That "guiding hand" or "primal plan" is the Divine will about which Rihal speaks.


     In his usual manner, Rihal does not try to resolve the philosophical objections against religion through logic, and, as we have seen, as opposed to the thinkers of his time, he is ready to leave the question unanswered alongside his fervent faith. This is based on his assumption that rational proof does not necessarily lead to absolute truth, and it certainly does not reach Divine values. He believes and knows that an explanation exists that resolves the difficulty, but he is aware of the fact that human reason may be incapable of comprehending it.


     The method that he adopts with respect to this question is the proof that "Divine will" is necessary according to almost any philosophical system.


     The second issue that I wish to relate to is that of assigning place to God. Rihal writes as follows:


Ado-nai, spelled alef, dalet, nun, yod, points to something which stands at such an immeasurable altitude that a real designation is impossible. Indication is possible in one direction only. We can point to things created by Him and which form His immediate tools. Thus, we allude to the intellect, and say that its seat is in the heart or brain. We also say "this" or "that intellect." In reality we can only point to a thing enclosed by a space. Although all organs obey the intellect, they do so through the medium of the heart or brain, which are its primary tools, and which are considered the abode of the intellect. Similarly, we point to heaven, because it is employed to carry out the Divine will directly and without the assistance of intermediary factors. On the other hand, we cannot point to compound objects, because they can only operate with the assistance of intermediary causes, and are connected with God in a chain-like manner. For He is the cause of causes. He is also called "He who dwells in heaven" (Tehillim 123:1), and "For God is in heaven," (Kohelet 5:1). One often says, "Fear of heaven," and "fearing heaven in secret," "mercy shall come for them from heaven." In a similar fashion, we speak of the "pillar of fire," or the "pillar of cloud," worship them, and say that God is therein, because this pillar carried out His will exclusively, unlike other clouds and fires which arise in the air from different causes. Thus, we also speak of the "devouring fire on the top of the mount" (Shemot 24:17), which the common people saw, as well as of the spiritual form which was visible only to the higher classes: 'under His feet, as it were, a paved work of a sapphire stone" (ibid. 10). He is further styled: "Living God." The holy ark is alluded to as "The Lord of the whole earth" because miracles happened as long as it existed and disappeared with it. We say that it is the eye which sees, while in reality it is the soul that sees. Prophets and pious Sages are spoken of in similar terms because they, too, are original instruments of the Divine will, which employs them without meeting with unwillingness, and performs miracles through them. In illustration of this, the Rabbis said that the words: "You shall fear the Lord your God" include the learned disciples. He who occupies such a degree has a right to be styled "a man of God," a description comprising human and divine qualities, and as if one would say: godly man.


Now in speaking of a divine being, we use the appellation, Ado-nai - alef, dalet, nun, yod - as if we wished to say: "O Lord." Metaphorically speaking, we point to a thing encompassed by a place as: "He who dwells between the keruvim," or "He who dwells in Zion," or, "He who abides in Jerusalem." (IV, 3)


     And similarly in another passage:


He is, therefore, called: "God of Abraham" (Bereishit 28:13), "God of the land" (1 Shmuel 4:4), "dwelling between the keruvim" (Tehillim 9:12), "dwelling in Zion" (Tehillim 135:21), "abiding in Jerusalem"' (Tehillim 123: 1), these places being compared to heaven, as it is said: "dwelling in heaven" (Tehillim 123:1). His light shines in these places as in heaven. (II, 50)


     With these words, Rihal denies the possibility of defining a particular place as the site of God's dwelling.  When we encounter such a place (heaven, Jerusalem, Zion, the pillar of fire or of cloud, the consuming fire at the top of the mountain, the ark of the covenant, and even Torah scholars), all this means is that in this specific place the will of God is performed without a medium. It should be noted how careful Rihal is not to overstep the boundaries of assigning corporeality to God.


     He does not say that God reveals Himself in these places; according to him, the revelation of God cannot be assigned to a particular place. He therefore describes the place or thing as a place in which the will of God is performed without intermediaries. All natural occurrences, according to Rihal, serve God's will and command; in some situations, God's will is performed without natural intermediaries. It is to such places that we attribute Divine revelation.


     It should be noted that the argument against assigning a certain place to God can be based on two different positions.


     The first is the pantheistic view that refuses to assign a particular place to God because "the whole earth is full of His glory." According to the more radical representatives of this school, distinguishing between a more sanctified place and a less sanctified place is somewhat heretical, for it constricts and limits the place of God, whose "kingdom rules over all."


     The second is the transcendental view, which refuses to assign a particular place to God because He is above the categories of space and time. God is not located in a particular place, not because He is everywhere, but because He is nowhere.


     Rihal's argument is based on the second approach. He makes no attempt to prove that God is found everywhere.


     This is also evident from Rihal's interpretation of the concepts of "the whole earth is full of His glory" and "His kingdom rules over all," which are key expressions among pantheistic thinkers:


Occasionally they are applied to objects of nature, e.g., "The whole earth is full of His glory" (Yeshayahu 6:3), or, "His kingdom rules over all" (Tehillim 103:19). In truth, glory and kingdom do not become visible except to the pious and the pure, and to the prophets who impart the conviction to the heretic that judgment and rule on earth belong to God, who knows every action of man. (IV, 3)


     According to Rihal, God's place is the place where the seal of His action is clearly evident and without intermediaries that blur His involvement (as we saw earlier regarding the relationship between miracle and nature). The encounter with God, even when it is described in unmediated terms, is not an encounter with His essence, but with His governance and actions.


     Rihal speaks in similar fashion about the sacrificial order in the Temple, which was meant to cause God's Shekhina to rest therein:


The deeper signification of this was to create a well-arranged system, upon which the King should rest in an exalted, but not local, sense. As a symbol of the Divine Influence, consider the reasoning soul which dwells in the perishable body. If its physical and nobler faculties are properly distributed and arranged, raising it high above the animal world, then it is a worthy dwelling for King Reason, who will guide and direct it, and remain with it as long as the harmony is undisturbed. As soon, however, as this is impaired, he departs from it. (II, 26)


     According to this, the resting of the Shekhina denotes guidance and direction, rather than dwelling in a particular place.


     In a similar manner, Rihal deals also with another concept that pantheistic thinkers use to describe the unmediated intimacy between man and God – the idea of devekut, "cleaving to God."


For this reason, Isaiah heard an endless: "Holy, holy, holy," which meant that God is too high, too exalted, too holy, and too pure for any impurity of the people in whose midst His light dwells to touch Him.[5] For the same reason, Isaiah saw him "sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up." Holy is, further, a description of the spiritual, which never assumes a corporeal form, and which nothing concrete can possibly resemble. God is called "the Holy One of Israel," which is another expression for the Divine Influence connected with Israel himself and the whole of his posterity, to rule and guide them, but not to be merely in external contact with them. (IV, 3)


     Devekut, then, is not unmediated "external contact," but rather "ruling and guiding." Just as God's "place" is the impression left by His actions, so, too, cleaving to Him involves walking in His ways, and His cleaving to us involves guidance and direction. In this way, Rihal preserves the gaping abyss between man of flesh and blood and God who is above all matter and form.


     In this context, Rihal relates also to prophetic visions, which at first glance challenge the idea that God is void of all corporeality. Once again, his underlying assumption is that God wants to reveal Himself to the prophets, and that the Jewish religious world is based on this revelation. This paves the path to his understanding of prophecy:


1)   The only way a person can be impressed by the phenomenon is by way of the senses that are connected to the material world. "The senses have not the faculty of perceiving the essence of things. They only have the special power of perceiving the accidental peculiarities belonging to them, which furnish reason with the arguments for their essence and causes." (IV, 3)


2)   As for abstract beings, the tool that is given to man is "the faculty of imagination, which is also merely man's encounter with the being, in this case an abstract being, and like in the case of the senses, the role of reason is to translate the vision into an abstract concept."


In this way the prophet perceives the Divine vision through his imagination and translates it into concepts and messages that God wishes to send him.[6]


This Divine vision, which is sometimes called "the glory of the Lord" or "Shekhina," is a new creation created by God, which is portrayed in the holy spirit of the prophet.[7]


The Khazar king: The secret of the attributes is now clear, and now I wish to understand the meaning of "The Glory of God," "the kingdom of God," and Shekhina.

The Rabbi: They are names applied by the prophets to things perceptible.[8] (II, 7-8)


     Using a new creation to bridge the transcendental abyss that lies between God and man was very prevalent during the Middle Ages. This is what the medieval thinkers did to resolve the problem of Divine speech, because Divine speech in its simple, literal sense was inconceivable. It was therefore suggested that Divine speech is a new creation that God created, and it is this creation that connects and, at the same time, separates between the person hearing the voice of God (the revelation at Mount Sinai and the like) and God Himself. With this explanation, they were able to maintain the encounter between God and man without undermining His transcendence. This is also how some thinkers resolved the problem of prophetic visions, and this is also what the Rambam did with respect to God's resting in a particular place. The Rambam argues that it is inconceivable that God Himself should dwell within the confines of time and space, and he therefore speaks of a created light, which is the Shekhina.[9]


     It should be noted that in their resolution of one difficulty, the medieval thinkers entered into a theological difficulty no less serious than the first. The new creation that all the prophets refer to, "Thus says the Lord," "And I saw and the glory of the Lord filled the house of the Lord," is not God Himself. How, then, is it possible to turn to that creation and describe it as if it were identical with God? The Ramban addressed this difficulty:


And if he means that it is created glory, as is maintained by the Master [the Rambam] regarding the verse, "And the glory of the Lord filled the Mishkan" (Shemot 40:35), and by others, how could they attach to it the word Barukh [blessed]. Surely one who blesses or prays to a created being is regarded as one who worships idols! And in the words of our Rabbis, there are many things that indicate that the term "Shekhina" refers to God, blessed be He.[10] (Commentary to Bereishit 46:1)


     Before concluding this point, let us add that according to Rihal, as opposed to the Rambam and Rabbenu Sa'adya Gaon, there is another perspective to dealing with problems of this sort, which touch upon his fundamental arguments regarding rational objections raised against Divine matters and the certainty of prophecy versus philosophical demonstration. I expanded upon this in my lectures on the Divine influence (nos. 15-17).


     When we read Rihal's words and see how many qualifications he places upon Divine attributes and how he limits their ability to properly reflect God, the question arises: Why did the Torah and Chazal find it necessary to assign so many names to God and to describe Him with so many attributes?


     The answer seems to lie in the difference between the god of Aristotle and the God of Abraham. As we saw earlier, the assumption that there exists between man and God an ongoing relationship, a dialogue between the two parties, demands that a language be created and names be assigned that properly reflect the connection. How are we to define the actions that God performs on our behalf in the framework of His providence, and how are we to describe our feelings and longings toward Him? The attributes and descriptions are immanent in the framework of a religious world as dynamic and replete with intensity and experiences as our religious world – this is so in the Torah, in Chazal, and in all subsequent Jewish thought.


(Translated by DavidStrauss)


[1] The Rambam does the same when he devotes extensive chapters in his Moreh Nevukhim not only to explanations of the Divine names but also to the question that arises from the very fact that God is assigned names.

[2] The combination of these two points finds expression in what Rihal says about the simplest acts: seeing, hearing, writing, and the like. Once again, Rihal is guided by the same principle that people see the actions performed by way of God's decree and refer to them with terms taken from human language (IV, 3).

[3] Elsewhere, after Rihal describes the various forces that act in this world, some of which are opposed to one another, he tries to deal with the problem of how God's unity could give rise to plurality. (The difficulty exists primarily according to the general philosophical outlook that sees the material world as having gradually emanated from the Prime Cause; the question therefore arises how the Prime Cause, which is one,. could have given rise to plurality. (The question is raised in the framework of Rihal's discussion about Sefer Yetzira, which, according to Rihal was written by Avraham on the basis of his reason, before God appeared to him). Rihal tries to answer this question, but in the end he writes: "This, however, is not satisfactory, because the object of research is either too profound to be fathomed, or our minds are inadequate, or for both reasons simultaneously" (IV, 25).

[4] In this context, Rihal brings additional attributes, explaining and classifying them: "We also style Him wise of heart, because He is the essence of intelligence, and intelligence itself; but this is no attribute. As to 'Almighty,' this belongs to the creative attributes" (II, 2).

[5] Rav Soloveitchik adopted this approach, explaining the cry of the holy serafim, "Holy, holy, holy" as "Transcendent, transcendent, transcendent" ("The Lonely Man of Faith," p. 31).

[6] In this context, Rihal mentions the main motifs in the world of prophecy – light and the image of man – which are the closest images from man's material world that can be used to describe God; this is why they are so common in prophetic visions.

[7] In the continuation, he does not reject the possibility that we are dealing here with the glory that surrounds God, i.e., the angels and spiritual essences (this is also the way he explains Moshe's request, "Show me Your glory").

[Rihal recognizes the existence of angels, which, according to him, are the most spiritual beings to be created for a limited time, or, as the philosophers argue, a link in the chain of emanation from the Divine to man.]

[8] Similarly, II, 4; I, 89.

[9] And so, too, Rav Sa'adya Gaon, Emunot Ve-De'ot, II, 10. As for the idea itself, Rihal agrees with RavSa'adya and the Rambam and relates to a created light.

It is interesting to note that Rihal, who was generally more critical of philosophy than his colleagues, was even more extreme on this issue than the Rambam and RavSa'adya were. With respect to the idea of "resting in place," he is totally unwilling to veer from the concept of providence and governance to any kind of physical reality.

[10] G. Scholem notes that already in the late midrashic literature (from the 11th century), we find hints of a distinction between God and His Shekhina ("silek atzmo u-shekhinato mi-beineihem"), but his arguments do not appear to me to be convincing. E.E. Urbach also cites those who try to show that Scripture hints at a distinction between God and His Shekhina,which is "created light," but he rejects their arguments (Chazal – Emunot Ve-De'ot, pp. 36-38).

Scholem also mentions those who criticized the philosophers on this point, such as the Ramban. He concludes by saying: "There are those who say: The philosophers of Israel, including the Rambam, will one day have to give an accounting for having impaired the monotheistic creed in Israel… by removing the Shekhina from the realm of the deity" (Reishit Ha-Kabbala Ve-Sefer Ha-Bahir, p. 190).