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Conceptions of God

The conception of God in Judaism is monotheistic. The God of Israel was known by two principal names in the Bible. One is YHWH, which stands for the Hebrew letters yud-hay-vav-hay. This pronunciation with vowels is impossible to say aloud since it lacks consonants. This name is sometimes vocalized theoretically by scholars as Yahweh, and for tabuistic reasons is replaced with Adonai "Lord" in liturgy. The other commonly used name in the Bible, Elohim, may be related to the Northwest Semitic generic term for "god", El, though plural forms of El, such as elim and the diminutive elilim, are found in the Bible.


Godhead is the English-language term which in Judaism is sometimes used to refer to "God-as-He-is-in-Himself."

Rationalistic conception

In the philosophy of Maimonides and other Jewish-rationalistic philosophers, there is little which can be predicated about the "Godhead" other than its "existence," and even this can only be asserted equivocally.

How then can a relation be represented between Him and what is other than He when there is no notion comprising in any respect both of the two, inasmuch as existence is, in our opinion, affirmed of Him, may He be exalted, and of what is other than He merely by way of absolute equivocation. There is, in truth, no relation in any respect between Him and any of His creatures.

—Maimonides, Moreh Nevuchim (Pines 1963)

Mystical conception

In Jewish mystical thought (Kabbalah), the term "Godhead" usually refers to the concept of Ein Sof (אין סוף), which is the aspect of God that lies beyond the emanations (sefirot). The "knowability" of the Godhead in Kabbalistic thought is no better that what is conceived by rationalist thinkers. As Jacobs (1973) puts it, "Of God as He is in Himself—Ein Sof—nothing can be said at all, and no thought can reach there."

Ein Sof is a place to which forgetting and oblivion pertain. Why? Because concerning all the sefirot, one can search out their reality from the depth of supernal wisdom. From there it is possible to understand one thing from another. However, concerning Ein Sof, there is no aspect anywhere to search or probe; nothing can be known of it, for it is hidden and concealed in the mystery of absolute nothingness.

—David ben Judah Hehasid, Matt (1990)


Judaism is based on a strict monotheism. This doctrine expresses the belief in one indivisible God. The worship of multiple gods (polytheism) and the concept of a Singular God having multiple persons (as in the doctrine of Trinity) are equally heretical in Judaism. The prayer par excellence in terms of defining God is the Shema Yisrael, originally appearing in the Hebrew Bible: "Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One", also translated as "Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is unique/alone."

God is conceived of as eternal, the creator of the universe, and the source of morality. God has the power to intervene in the world. The term God thus corresponds to an actual ontological reality, and is not merely a projection of the human psyche. Maimonides describes God in this fashion: "There is a Being, perfect in every possible way, who is the ultimate cause of all existence. All existence depends on God and is derived from God."

The Hebrew Bible and classical rabbinic literature affirm theism and reject deism. However, in the writings of medieval Jewish philosophers such as ibn Daud and Gersonides, perhaps influenced by neo-Aristotelian philosophy, one finds what can be termed limited omniscience. [See Gersonides "Views on omniscience"]

God is creator of the universe

According to the first account of creation in Genesis, the world was created by God in six days. While many Haredi Jews take this literally, some Modern Orthodox, Conservative and Reform authorities[who?] regard the six days as "stages" in the creation of the universe and the earth.

God is one

The idea of God as a duality or trinity is heretical in Judaism - it is considered akin to polytheism. "[God], the Cause of all, is one. This does not mean one as in one of a pair, nor one like a species (which encompasses many individuals), nor one as in an object that is made up of many elements, nor as a single simple object that is infinitely divisible. Rather, God is a unity unlike any other possible unity." This is referred to in the Torah (Deuteronomy 6:4): "Hear Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One." (Maimonides, 13 principles of faith Second Principle).

While Jews hold that trinitarian conceptions of God are incorrect, there is a minority view which holds that non-Jews who maintain such beliefs are not held culpable.

See also Divine simplicity.

God is all-powerful

The Jewish belief in God's omnipotence is rooted in the Bible:[1]

  • 'Why did Sarah laugh, and say "Shall I indeed bear a child now that I am old?" Is anything too hard for the Lord?'" (Gen. 18:13-3).
  • “Attribute to the Lord all glory and power” (Psalms 29)

Most rabbinic works also present God as having the properties of omnipotence, omniscience and omnibenevolence. This is still the primary way that most Orthodox and many non-Orthodox Jews view God.

The issue of theodicy was raised again, especially after the extreme horrors of the Holocaust and several theological responses surfaced. These are discussed in a separate entry on Holocaust theology. The central questions they address are whether and how God is all powerful and all good, given the existence of evil in the world, particularly the Holocaust.

God is personal

Most of classical Judaism views God as personal, meaning that humans have a relationship with God and vice versa. Much of the midrash, and many prayers in the siddur portrays God as caring about humanity in much the same way that humans care about God.

Harold Kushner, a Conservative rabbi, writes that "God shows His love for us by reaching down to bridge the immense gap between Him and us. God shows His love for us by inviting us to enter into a Covenant (brit) with Him, and by sharing with us His Torah". Hasidism seems to endorse this view to some degree.

On the other hand, Maimonides and many other medieval Jewish philosophers rejected the idea of a personal God as incorrect. This may, however, simply be an emphatic form of the common Jewish view that God is unchanging, not describable and not anthropomorphic: see next section, and negative theology.

The nature of God

God is non-physical, non-corporeal, and eternal. A corollary belief is that God is utterly unlike man, and can in no way be considered anthropomorphic. All statements in the Hebrew Bible and in rabbinic literature which use anthropomorphism are held to be linguistic conceits or metaphors, as it would otherwise be impossible to talk about God at all. See Divine simplicity; Negative theology; Tzimtzum.

To God alone may one offer prayer

Any belief that an intermediary between man and God could be used, whether necessary or even optional, has traditionally been considered heretical. Maimonides writes that "God is the only one we may serve and praise....We may not act in this way toward anything beneath God, whether it be an angel, a star, or one of the elements.....There are no intermediaries between us and God. All our prayers should be directed towards God; nothing else should even be considered."

Some rabbinic authorities disagreed with this view. Notably, Nachmanides was of the opinion that it is permitted to ask the angels to beseech God on our behalf. This argument manifests notably in the Selichot prayer called "Machnisay Rachamim", a request to the angels to intercede with God. Modern printed editions of the Selichot include this prayer.


Among the ancient Hebrews, the seven names for the Deity over which the scribes had to exercise particular care were:[2]

  1. El
  2. Elohim
  3. Adonai
  4. Ehyeh asher ehyeh
  5. YHWH
  6. Shaddai
  7. Zebaot

In medieval times, God was sometimes called The Seven.[3]


  1. "Jewish Beliefs about God" in C/JEEP Curriculum Guide American Jewish Committee
  2. The Facts on File Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins (Robert Hendrickson, 1987) [1] ISBN 0816040885 ISBN 978-0816040889
  3. The Reader's Encyclopedia, Second Edition 1965, publisher Thomas Y. Crowell Co., New York, editions 1948, 1955. Library of Congress Catalog Card No. 65-12510, page 918


  • Pines, Shlomo (1963). Moses Maimonides: The Guide of the Perplexed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 
  • Matt, Daniel C. (1990). "Ayin: The concept of nothingness in Jewish mysticism". The Problem of Pure Consciousness. New York: Oxford University Press. pp. 121-159. 
  • Jacobs, Louis (1973). A Jewish Theology. West Orange, NJ: Behrman House. 
  • Scholem, Gershom (1962/1991). On the Mystical Shape of the Godhead: Basic Concepts in Kabbalah. New York: Schoken. 

See also

  • Shekhinah (divine presence)
  • Chokhmah (wisdom)