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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?

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  • Related judaism.stackexchange.com/q/15842/759
    – Double AA
    Commented 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. Commented Oct 20, 2020 at 18:59
  • @MichaBerger See my answer here.
    – Turk Hill
    Commented Oct 23, 2020 at 4:24
  • See BB 16a אמר רבא ביקשיאוב לפטור את העולם מן הדין
    – kouty
    Commented Oct 24, 2020 at 20:01
  • @kouty Saw, and what? sefaria.org.il/…
    – Al Berko
    Commented Oct 24, 2020 at 23:40

4 Answers 4

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"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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    Thanks for this absolutely wonderful explanation of the Rambam. I have really been enlightened shkoyach
    – Rabbi Kaii
    Commented May 11, 2023 at 14:38
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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.

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  • What's the difference (maybe in translation) between "knowing ABOUT God" and "knowing God"?
    – Al Berko
    Commented 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
    Commented Oct 23, 2020 at 14:36
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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)

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Given that all the answers here are rational leaning answers from the Rambam (he's, I'm glad to say, very popular here), I thought I'd just add, for completeness, that Chassidus tends to explain that we can know Hashem completely. That's the whole point of Torah and Mitzvot, to give us a true understand of Hashem, who reveals Himself in them completely (see for example much of Tanya, e.g. ch 35). This is the hidden meaning of Ana Nafshi Ketovit Yehovit, (Shabbat 105a), which literally means "I put My Soul in writing and gave it".

When the Rebbe Rashab was asked "how can you know Hashem, for didn't it say if 'I knew Him, I would be Him' (Yedayah Ben Abraham Hapenini cited in Ikkarim 2:30), implying we can only know Hashem if we are Him?" he responded "so be Him".

So to understand how this works and how we can taich this with the Rambam, we'd need a huge amount of study, however, I'll give a quick mashal that I've often heard Rav Manis Friedman give that helps:

A father has a young child and sits down to play with him. They play a game of horsey. The father is a sophisticated banker, head of his firm. He's 40 and has a rich inner life, a set of interests, complicated memories, feelings and relationships, ideas and responsibilities way way beyond the childs level of comprehension. Of course, the father can't bring any of that to the child, he just sits down, simplifies and plays.

An onlooker, such as one of his employees, might look over and feel like the father is unable to connect to the child. The employee knows the father well, and what he sees in front of him - the father giggling, saying silly sentences, playing imaginative games, and flushing with his delight in his child - will feel like this is not the father. The father is just acting, in an effort to give some joy to his child.

But let's really think about this. When the father sat down and got into "connect with my child mode", what happened? Did he really depart from "himself", become "someone else" for a while? The father would strongly object! Of course not, I am still me, being me, 100%. It's not an actor, it's not a demon, it's not a puppet. It's me. In fact, pay close attention, because you are seeing more of me than you normally see... My love for my child, our bond, IS me...

So what we are saying is, while it's impossible to know the details of Hashem, for they are infinite, and beyond comprehension (Essence cannot be shared as the Rambam explains), Hashem in his incredible omnipotence, is able to create an external expression of Himself that contains everything that He is, and gives us a way to know that. It's all there, and the Nimshal and the mashal are one.

Once you are done with Tanya, may I finally recommend a reading of Ma'amar Veyadata (english translation here), for a very exquisite treatise on this concept, with lots of detail and examples from the Rebbe Rashab. The conclusion is that by performing mitzvot, especially the mitzva of learning Torah, we are getting to know Hashem completely.

Therefore I disagree with the premise. Or rather, I agree that knowing half way is not knowing, but I disagree that that is our mission. Our mission is to get to know full-way. Full-way doesn't mean every detail, it just means get to the Essence (the Essence is simple, not detailed).


Here is a long message I wrote a friend recently to help them understand the above mashal based on all my thousand hours of listening to the Rav who originally gave it, and I believe it helped him, so fwiw:

(note, there are two separate ideas in the mashal, the last sentence was the second).

What I am trying to hone in on is: what is a person? I would argue many of the statements the objectors to our perspective have declared about Hashem apply to anyone. You cannot know me. In fact, I hate to say it, but even my wife cannot know me, in and of myself. I can't even know myself in that way! There's too much to me, not only is my finite set of attributes, experiences and actions far larger than is possible to enumerate (and most of it is too esoteric for words anyway), but there's also an infinite amount of potential in me too, all of it utterly unique to me and me alone. How I relate to every aspect of the universe is purely a me thing (essence can't be shared), and you have zero access to it. You can't know me in and of myself - if I could share that with you I wouldn't be me. So is the situation hopeless? Far from it.

Whenever we act, we are able to put ourselves into that action to whatever degree, from zero to infinity. If I am forced to do something I hate doing, chances are the action will contain zero of me. If I am doing my favourite thing, chances are I am fully putting myself into that action. This is why the child knows the father better than the employee. The employee knows more about the details of the father, but certainly he hardly knows the father. The child, who knows nothing about the details of the father knows the father best of all.

Why? What's the difference? What's powering all this? The answer is desire. Desire is just one word, and it's not good enough by itself. This concept goes beyond desire, beyond words altogether. The father's real life, real desire, real place, real delight is his child. If the father had to give up all his business, his sophistication, his memories, his abilities, his other relationships in order to be with his child, he wouldn't even think twice. "All that stuff isn't really me, but this is really me, and I can't not be me!".

So, many commentors on the Torah, and in fact I'd argue the Torah itself, tells us this is also true of Hashem. It's 100% right when we say we can't know Him in and of Himself. So, some people say that there is a disconnect between Himself, and the way He manifests in the creation, but we have to be very careful about what we say next. Is this disconnect a severance, or simply a "tzimtzum"? I would say that we must not say it is the former. It is the latter (fact), and what that means is this. Whenever Hashem "acts", He pours Himself 100% into that action - it is really Him, not an avatar, not an act, not a lie or a fakeness or an "as if". Unless "as if" only means this: It may not be the totality of His eternal infinity, i.e. the father's sophisticated adult life and sumtotal experiences/feelings/thoughts in a very literal way. But nay, it gets to the core of Who He IS, completely.

So does Hashem get angry? You bet He does. When the Nazis sadistically humiliated and then murdered whole families including little innocent children, to say that Hashem "didn't really get angry" is just about the most blasphemous thing a person can utter (sorry, I don't think anyone who says this is really being blasphemous or a heretic etc, but I have to say what I just said). Certainly, you'll never find anything in gemara or midrash that would ever say that, and there's a reason for that.

So, hold on. Am I saying that Hashem is just like us? Am I removing the "Ultimate Mystery"? The words of the Rambam, Rabbeinu Bachaye, and all the other great men who exhorted us to not personify Hashem, or attribute parts to Him (chas veshalom) etc simply mistaken? Definitely not. This is the Ultimate Mystery:

Firstly, I would argue far harder to understand about Hashem is not His infinity (by the way, I would say that He is beyond infinity, not 'infinite'), but the fact that He was never created. This means that He must be utterly simple, One. This is the bit that's impossible to get our heads around. We can't comprehend how it's possible for Him to get angry, because we can't picture non-created, non-timebound anger, non-disconnected/part-like anger. On top of that, we can't understand what it is like for a (beyond) infinite being to get angry - surely that anger is infinite and that is something I can't understand. If I felt it, raw, I'd be blotted out of all existence on every level! Thank GOD, He is able to "mtzamtzem" Himself in some miraculous paradoxical way that allows us to have a relationship with Him and not die an infinite death. And good for Him too (this is why the Rebbe says "chas veshalom" in Tanya Shaar HaYichud VeHaemuna Ch1).

So how can I relate to His anger? Why does the Torah even bother to tell me that He gets angry if I can't actually understand it? Three steps: I can't even understand your anger, friend. Your anger is very you-flavoured, very you-themed, and certainly unless I am you, I can't possibly know what that is like. But also, I can know your anger, because we both get angry, it's the same raw material, but built into a different structure (l'havdil). So does that argument work with Hashem? No, and yes. The gulf between my anger and yours, vs my anger and His, is infinite. But what specifically is the difference? His anger isn't created, His is infinite, His is ultimately simple and not a separate part of Him, His is perfect, and He always, only pours/identifies/"personalizes" (Zohar) His complete Self into His anger in a way I can only envy (and I think this roughly explains what it means that He is Simple/One; His anger IS Him). Mine is none of those, and the bridge between any one of them is infinite. But also, it's the same "raw material". Meaning: He gets angry in response to injustice, and I also get angry in response to injustice - that's what anger is. If He got angry in response to chesed and I got it in response to gevura, that would be a step too far. The qualia of anger I have, which is indescribable, is from Him (where else?), so in that sense it's the same.

So, can I know Him in and of Himself? No. Can I know Him? Completely. Who is He? The God of Israel. That's all I need to know. What is His delight? Where is His home? When can I see the "real Him" as oppose to "the totality of his being"? He tells us: "Ha'ben yakir li, Ephrayim". This "desire", "need", "delight", "home" of His is who He really is - and He can't not be Him! It doesn't tell me everything, and I can't know it "in and of itself", but I know it's true, it's Him, He pours His complete Self into it, and tell's me all I need to know. In fact, Kabballah teaches that "need" is the closest possible "attribute" to perfect simple Oneness that you can get. Every other one adds an extra layer of "tzimtzum" and distance from the truth.

Aye, I can only understand it in finite terms, there's still an infinite bridge to walk across to get to Him. Baruch Hashem. If I could figure Him all out by the time I am 5 (or 120), that would be disappointing! Thankfully, He gave me the mitzvot, and the Torah, and a finite guf to perform and learn them, and insodoing, I can walk across that bridge towards my Father, Who I know, step by step, closer and closer.

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  • I personally think my answer goes well with the GRAPKE's, they are saying much of the same thing using different words, and what they say that I don't adds to the above points (imo)
    – Rabbi Kaii
    Commented May 11, 2023 at 14:40
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    Beautifully put, thank you.
    – Al Berko
    Commented Jun 5, 2023 at 6:22
  • In my experience, Hassidus is undetachable from anthropomorphism and thus inherently incompatible with Rambam's Aristotelianism. Hassidus is all emotional, as opposed to intellectual, and it appeals to feelings, rather than logic. Thus Hassidus is not about the truthfulness of God or its existence but about Yihud with it. Like you don't need to know the essence and the truthfulness of your wife to experience a satisfactory Yihud.
    – Al Berko
    Commented Jun 5, 2023 at 6:38
  • @AlBerko thank you. As for your last statement, I've only really learned Chabad chassidus in depth, which places intellectualism primary (it's in the name, and not an exaggeration, their maamarim are very philosophical). They do not settle for anthropomorphism, they sort the problem out properly. Just want to put that out there.
    – Rabbi Kaii
    Commented Jun 5, 2023 at 11:04

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