Skip to main content

The Theory of Divine Attributes (1)

Prof. Shalom Rosenberg
21.09.2014

 

     In our last few lectures we have discussed two topics, which demonstrated the close and somewhat complex relations between the doctrine of prophecy and the philosophical tradition.  The first of these topics is the theory of Divine attributes.  Rihal discusses this topic in various places in his book; it is mentioned at the beginning of the second and fourth sections and elsewhere as well.  The second subject is the topic of miracles.  For the sake of convenience we will begin with the theory of attributes.

 

     I do not intend to delve into the philosophical problems raised by this approach.  We will simply attempt to gain an overall understanding of the issue.  We will start by examining the topic of the Divine attributes as presented in the Scriptures; we will look at the various traits, characteristics and names attributed to God throughout the Scriptures.

 

An'im Zemirot: A Song Of Praise

 

     The Shabbat Musaf prayers conclude with the congregational singing of a philosophical poem entitled An'im Zemirot.  The poem expounds upon religious language in general and the Divine attributes in particular.  The poem refers in particular to the origin of religious language, and to the way in which the Scriptures describe God, both in prophetic visions and in biblical thought and poetry.  In essence, this poem is a justification of the use of religious language, a plea for forgiveness for the fact that we dare pray at all.  The same message is actually expressed in the Kaddish, in which we state that God's Name is blessed above all other blessings.  God exists on a plane beyond the reaches of humanity, yet we desire and continually attempt to surpass our limitations.  This is the ultimate goal of the theory of Divine attributes, which employed various methods, in the various stages of Jewish philosophy, to teach us how to perform the miraculous act of transcending the limitations of human knowledge and language.

 

     However, An'im Zemirot teaches us that this is not a purely philosophical issue.  We use it to express our feelings, our ambitious desire to comprehend the Divine.  This ambition contains a certain  amount of audacity, an aspiration towards understanding that which is beyond our reach.  Of course we must not interpret the plea, "to fathom ALL the mystery of your secrets" literally.  Even in the little that we are  capable of understanding, we must be cautious indeed.  However, another desire hides behind the quest for understanding.  This request of ours is simply an expression of a deeper desire: "for my soul longs for You."  We pray and speak to God and about God, we weave poems, sing melodies, use religious language, and through these methods we wish to express our longing.  Beneath our desire for comprehension hides a deep and abiding love.

 

A Child's Question

 

     On Pesach we use the symbol of the Four Sons.  One of these is the wise son, the one who knows how to ask.  I would like to use one of his questions to illustrate the theory of Divine attributes which we will be studying during the next few lectures.  The child who knows how to ask asks wisely indeed.  We try to search independently for the right answer.  However, there is much to be learned from the various answers that our Sages have given to these same questions.  Although they sometimes disagree with each other, they can teach us much about the many facets of truth.

 

     We will begin with a discussion of one of the questions every child asks: "Where is God?" - or, to use the language of the angels, "Where is the place [Hebrew: makom] of His glory?"

 

     One of the classic answers given to every child - an answer whose origin is in the Scriptures - is that God is in Heaven.  We will return to this answer shortly.  But before we explain this concept, we must mention a phrase connected to this question, a term we use as a name for God: "ha-Makom" [literally, the Place].

 

     Our Sages tried to explain this in their cryptic statement, "He is the place of the world, and the world is not His place."  This is a philosophical explanation, to which we will return at a later stage.  Its accepted explanation is that God is beyond the concept of location or space, and yet He is the One who allows our spatial reality to exist.  Various thinkers have related similarly to the concept of time.  This idea can be illustrated through the example of a teacher and his classroom.  An entertaining anecdote tells of a teacher who dreamed that he gave a class, woke up, and found it was true.  This description, which is not very complementary to teachers, demonstrates that we must distinguish between two different situations.  Generally speaking, the classroom is the teacher's place.  However, when the teacher dreams of the classroom, the relationship between the teacher and the classroom reverses.  The classroom is located within the teacher's mind, but the teacher is not located inside the classroom.  In our case, by the use of the term "Makom," we claim that the dimensions of, and the very concept of "Makom," do not apply to God.  On the other hand, we claim that spatial reality, or the concept of makom as we know it, is possible only because God exists.

 

     This is the unique message of the concept of Makom.  The heavens and the heavens of the heavens cannot contain You" (Kings 1 8:7). Yet, despite all this talk of God being beyond the confines of space, the Scriptures refer to "the heavens" as the Divine abode: "And You will hearken from the heavens" (Kings 1 8:32).  What does this concept of heaven mean?  In order to explain this we will must interpret two concepts.  We encounter these concepts in various guises, both in philosophical terms and scriptural ones.  In philosophical terms we speak about immanence and transcendence.  The Scriptures speak of kedusha (holiness) and kavod (glory).  The concept of kedusha creates for us a sense of distance.  According to our Sages' interpretation of the angels' cry, "kadosh, kadosh, kadosh" (holy, holy, holy), an explanation which was accepted by the philosophers, these words describe our journey through each of the spiritual worlds, in search of God.  In each world we inquire if God is to be found there, in that world.  Each world answers us in turn, "kadosh" - God is beyond me.  This is transcendence: God is beyond.  However, along with the cry of "kadosh, kadosh, kadosh," we repeat the angels' additional cry: "The world is filled with his glory."  The concept of glory creates in us a feeling of closeness, that God is near.  This is the concept of imminence.  God is transcendent, yet the world is suffused with His glory.

 

     One of the great Chassidic masters, R. Tzadok Ha-kohen of Lublin, used these principles to explain the beginning of the talmudic tractate of Eruvin.  The Talmud wrestles with two terms: "mikdash" (temple) and "mishkan" (sanctuary).  Mikdash and mishkan express the dual meaning that we found above.  In the mikdash, God is transcendent.  Mishkan, on the other hand, literally means "that which dwells with them."  These two perspectives of distance and closeness express a central religious assumption.  Every blessing we recite contains the formula "Blessed are you God ... Who sanctified us ...."  At the beginning of the blessing we refer to God in the second person, and at the end we refer to Him in the third person.  These are the two aspects of our relationship with God.

 

     This interpretation can help us understand why we refer to the heavens as God's abode.  Perhaps when we say that God is in heaven, we mean that He is above us, He sees us, and we do not see Him.  The concept of a God in heaven expresses the experience of a transcendent God.

 

Chassidism and the Existential Makom

 

     Chassidic legend relates how R. Menachem Mendel, the Kotzker Rebbe, answered the question, "Where is God?"  R. Menachem Mendel responded, "Wherever he is allowed in."  This idea is well-developed in Chassidic thought; however, it originates from the Scriptures themselves: "God is near to all who call Him, to all who call Him sincerely" (Psalms 145, 18).  This is a different concept of closeness.  God is close to whoever calls Him sincerely.  This is not an objective place, but a place in the heart.  This is beautifully expressed in the writings of R. Nachman of Braslav.  R. Nachman used the medium of a tale to express the complexity of the concept of Makom.  He relates the story of seven maimed beggars who tell wondrous stories.  The blind beggar presents the secrets of Time, and the hunchback presents the secrets of Makom.  This beggar expounds the secret of tzimtzum [Divine constriction] - the tzimtzum of Makom.  He explains the paradox of the smaller vessel containing the larger one.  We often find such paradoxes in the writings of our Sages.  For example, they write of the Temple that the people "stood crowded and bowed down comfortably ... and no one said 'it is too crowded for me to find a place in Jerusalem'" (Avot 5:7).  Another example is the paradox of the tiny land capable of containing the entire nation of  Israel.  These strange statements try to teach us that there are some things which are not measured by miles, things which seem to exist in another dimension.

 

     When we presented the child's question, "Where is God?" we were actually asking a metaphysical, philosophical question.  We asked something about God's concept of space.  Chassidism is not merely interested in metaphysical questions.  It is more interested in human existential questions.  Certainly, R. Nachman's story has a metaphysical interpretation.  However, R. Nachman's student, R. Nosson, revealed the existential meaning of the story: the secret of Makom is different; our Sages said, "there is no man who does not have his hour, and no thing which does not have its place [makom]."  To understand this, we must recall another phrase, "Do not judge your friend until you reach his place [makom].  In other words, the true Makom is the subjective location of each of us.  Every person looks at the world from his place, from his perspective.  Every point of view creates a world, and if we change the point of view, the world changes.  Our subjectivity is our inner perspective, from which we look at the world around us.  This perspective does not permit us to correctly judge another person, who sees his problems from his own point of view.  We cannot enter the subjective "makom" of another person, his perspective, his intimate inner world.  Do not judge your friend until you reach his place, his subjectivity.  We call God "Ha-makom," the Place, because he is with every person in his place.  He is the only one who can judge me from within my subjectivity, because he is with me in my internal world.  God is the world's place, meaning that he looks at every situation and every problem from the subjective perspective of each of us.  In every child's development, he reaches the Chassidic stage, when he moves beyond metaphysical questions and deals with existential questions.  At this point his central interest shifts to the inner, personal issues.

 

(This lecture was translated by Gila Weinberg.)

 

This website is constantly being improved. We would appreciate hearing from you. Questions and comments on the classes are welcome, as is help in tagging, categorizing, and creating brief summaries of the classes. Thank you for being part of the Torat Har Etzion community!