If I try to summarize answers to various theological questions, it goes like this:

  1. we understand that God is/acts/feels/desires X (good, just, etc) in the literal sense, or in this world, e.g. caring, giving, providing us with food and shelter and peace, etc.
  2. we understand that God is/acts/feels/desires Y in a higher sense, in a higher world, e.g will compensate us in the afterlife, judges for previous sins, etc.
  3. we resign to "we can't understand God", we can't explain it in our terms.

For example, if my kid thinks that I married his mother or brought him to this world in order to give him food and a bicycle, he probably does not understand me at all, not that he understands me halfway.

Is "Understanding God half-way" an understanding, if we can't comprehend it fully?

  • Related judaism.stackexchange.com/q/15842/759
    – Double AA
    Oct 16, 2020 at 12:31
  • 1
    A major problem I have understanding the Rambam is that he says both (1) we cannot understand G-d, only describe what He isn't, and yet also (2) that closeness to G-d is achieved through knowledge. Oct 20, 2020 at 18:59
  • @MichaBerger See my answer here.
    – Turk Hill
    Oct 23, 2020 at 4:24
  • See BB 16a אמר רבא ביקשיאוב לפטור את העולם מן הדין
    – kouty
    Oct 24, 2020 at 20:01
  • @kouty Saw, and what? sefaria.org.il/…
    – Al Berko
    Oct 24, 2020 at 23:40

3 Answers 3


Rambam sort of addresses this in Guide for the Perplexed 1:59 where he writes:

THE following question might perhaps be asked: Since there is no possibility of obtaining a knowledge of the true essence of God, and since it has also been proved that the only thing that man can apprehend of Him is the fact that He exists, and that all positive attributes are inadmissible, as has been shown, what is the difference among those who have obtained a knowledge of God? Must not the knowledge obtained by our teacher Moses, and by Solomon, be the same as that obtained by any one of the lowest class of philosophers, since there can be no addition to this knowledge? But, on the other hand, it is generally accepted among theologians and also among philosophers, that there can be a great difference between two persons as regards the knowledge of God obtained by them. Know that this is really the case, that those who have obtained a knowledge of God differ greatly from each other; for in the same way as by each additional attribute an object is more specified, and is brought nearer to the true apprehension of the observer, so by each additional negative attribute you advance toward the knowledge of God, and you are nearer to it than he who does not negative, in reference to God, those qualities which you are convinced by proof must be negatived. There may thus be a man who after having earnestly devoted many years to the pursuit of one science, and to the true understanding of its principles, till he is fully convinced of its truths, has obtained as the sole result of this study the conviction that a certain quality must be negatived in reference to God, and the capacity of demonstrating that it is impossible to apply it to Him. Superficial thinkers will have no proof for this, will doubtfully ask, Is that thing existing in the Creator, or not? And those who are deprived of sight will positively ascribe it to God, although it has been clearly shown that He does not possess it. E.g., while I show that God is incorporeal, another doubts and is not certain whether He is corporeal or incorporeal: others even positively declare that He is corporeal, and appear before the Lord with that belief. Now see how great the difference is between these three men: the first is undoubtedly nearest to the Almighty; the second is remote, and the third still more distant from Him. If there be a fourth person who holds himself convinced by proof that emotions are impossible in God, while the first who rejects the corporeality, is not convinced of that impossibility, that fourth person is undoubtedly nearer the knowledge of God than the first, and go on, so that a person who, convinced by proof, negatives a number of things in reference to God, which according to our belief may possibly be in Him or emanate from Him, is undoubtedly a more perfect man than we are, and would surpass us still more if we positively believed these things to be properties of God. It will now be clear to you, that every time you establish by proof the negation of a thing in reference to God, you become more perfect, while with every additional positive assertion you follow your imagination and recede from the true knowledge of God. Only by such ways must we approach the knowledge of God, and by such researches and studies as would show us the inapplicability of what is inadmissible as regards the Creator, not by such methods as would prove the necessity of ascribing to Him anything extraneous to His essence, or asserting that He has a certain perfection, when we find it to be a perfection in relation to us. The perfections are all to some extent acquired properties, and a property which must be acquired does not exist in everything capable of making such acquisition.

You must bear in mind, that by affirming anything of God, you are removed from Him in two respects; first, whatever you affirm, is only a perfection in relation to us; secondly, He does not possess anything superadded to this essence; His essence includes all His perfections, as we have shown. Since it is a well-known fact that even that knowledge of God which is accessible to man cannot be attained except by negations, and that negations do not convey a true idea of the being to which they refer, all people, both of past and present generations, declared that God cannot be the object of human comprehension, that none but Himself comprehends what He is, and that our knowledge consists in knowing that we are unable truly to comprehend Him.

(Friedlander translation)


I understand Maimonides to say that it is impossible to know anything about G-d. While Maimonides stressed that G-d has no body and is one, we cannot attribute anything to G-d because G-d is above human language. At best, all we can say is what God is not.

Maimonides emphasized the importance to “know” that G-d exists by "knowing" about G-d's universe (Exodus 33). Thus, we can only “know” G-d by knowing or having knowledge of the laws of nature that G-d created.

Maimonides said, “The only path to knowing G-d is through science—and for that reason the Bible opens with a description of the creation.” (See Gerald Schroeder, The Science of G-d, at vi, 17.) Thus, all that we can know is that G-d exists.

  • What's the difference (maybe in translation) between "knowing ABOUT God" and "knowing God"?
    – Al Berko
    Oct 23, 2020 at 6:49
  • @AlBerko I understand Maimonides to say that it is impossible to know anything about G-d. All we can know is what G-d is not. What we can know, however, is how G-d functions in the universe and we can “know” that G-d exists by "knowing" about G-d's universe that G-d created.
    – Turk Hill
    Oct 23, 2020 at 14:36

"We understand that God is/acts/feels/desires X (good, just, etc) in the literal sense, or in this world, e.g. caring, giving, providing us with food and shelter and peace, etc."

According to the Rambam, God did not create this world because it was a good thing to do so, rather because of the autonomous will of God that is not dependent on any other consideration (otherwise we would have to say that God is subservient to our notion of what is good).

"We understand that God is/acts/feels/desires Y in a higher sense, in a higher world, e.g will compensate us in the afterlife, judges for previous sins, etc."

Generally speaking, Rb Chaim Zimerman says you cannot say anything definitively about God, ilamlei yedaativ hayisiv - "Were I to know Him I would be Him." Rather says RCZ that we describe God in negated terms, "God is at least desirous of good as I am."

"We resign to 'We can't understand God, we can't explain it in our terms.'"

Yes, but we can feel what we can't understand or put to words. Hence the difference between torah and tefillah. So your son can't understand who you are, but he can feel that you love him.

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