It is well-known that the Rambam and the Kabbalists espouse an ‘apophatic’ understanding of G-d, in which Hashem is understood negatively, as not-this and not-that. Could someone point me to Orthodox sources in the ‘cataphatic’ tradition - i.e. those who claim that Hashem may be known ‘positively’ (which is to say, known in the proper sense of the term)?

Many thanks for your time.

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    How about “Shema Yisroel, HaShem Elokeinu, HaShem echod!” Apr 28, 2021 at 12:57
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    @Yaakov Deane - yes of course - Amen, amen and thanks. I should clarify: I am really looking for a counter-argument to the ‘apophatic’ tradition from post-Tanakh sources :)
    – Tom W
    Apr 28, 2021 at 13:54
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    @YaacovDeane "One" would be understood not as an attribute, but as the negation of the attribute "multiple." See the Kuzari linked in Harel's answer
    – b a
    Apr 28, 2021 at 13:58
  • @ba The plain meaning from the Chumash speaks for itself. It doesn't mean "attribute" (as in middot) at all, neither in a negative nor a positive fashion. Apr 28, 2021 at 18:45
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    @TomW "I should clarify: I am really looking for a counter-argument to the ‘apophatic’ tradition" It should be noted that the "Kabbalists" use both apophatic and cataphatic approaches. In truth, this question is more a subject of Jewish philosophy than kabbalah. Apr 28, 2021 at 18:49

5 Answers 5


“R. Shimon b. Tzemach Duran (1361–1444; known as Rash-batz or Tashbeitz) in the fifth chapter of the first section of Magen Avot appears to maintain that certain positive characteristics or descriptions do not contradict His unity or incorporeality. For example, we can accurately state that He exists.”

— Illuminating Jewish Thought Vol 1: Faith, Philosophy and Knowledge of God by Netanel Wiederblank https://a.co/eHhcSvS

See there for further discussion and sources of this kind.

  • The statement of Rashbatz linked is clearly apophatic. Saying that something exists does not mean we can know anything about it.
    – N.T.
    Apr 28, 2021 at 20:15
  • Existence is not quite a characteristic; at least, not in the sense OP is asking about, I would think. Perhaps a more solid example?
    – einpoklum
    Apr 29, 2021 at 12:04
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    @Yehuda Your definition of "existence" is new and odd to me. What would be the term for existence without a broader dimension? And again, the Rashbatz was not writing in English but in Hebrew.
    – N.T.
    May 10, 2021 at 19:33
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    I'm pretty sure the Rashbatz did not consult Wikipedia before writing Magen Avot. You need a source in the Rashbatz or at least a major work prior to him (e.g. Rav Saadya Gaon or Rambam) for your claim. Our limited understanding is that there is a G-d, therefore we can say he exists, or is (as opposed to is not).
    – N.T.
    May 11, 2021 at 0:04
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    Logically, the double negative cancels out. If you are representing Wiederblank correctly, his statement is nonsense.
    – N.T.
    Jul 2, 2021 at 9:38

Possibly Rabbi Yehudah Halevi who wrote in Kuzari 2:2:

"We also style Him wise of heart, because He is the essence of intelligence, and intelligence itself; but this is no attribute."

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    Also the Rambam (Yesodei Hattorah 2:10). Apparently for both of them, God having one essence is complementary with an apophatic understanding of attributes as negations
    – b a
    Apr 28, 2021 at 13:57
  • this answer is wrong. Kuzari explicitly asrcibes to negative theology. See here for example: sefaria.org/Sefer_Kuzari.2.2?lang=bi&with=all&lang2=en Apr 29, 2021 at 0:16
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    @chessprogrammer afraid I'll have to disagree for the moment. While Kuzari describes echad and chai as apophatic titles, the last title seems to not be so. For this reason I brought that. I never stated Rihal only subscribes to that.
    – Harel13
    Apr 29, 2021 at 3:12

Any sources that are "cataphatic" would by definition be outside Orthodox philosophy. All the sources quoted in previous answers maintain the apophatic understanding of Judaism. And while there are descriptions of G-d that are similar to how humans are described and which therefore sound cataphatic, they are not actually descriptions of G-d's essence but rather of the systems he uses to run the world. As explained by Ramchal:

And do not understand when we said that the Holy One blessed is He is merciful, to say that his essence may He be blessed according to himself is such, like we would say about a person that there is this quality in his soul to be merciful - that it is so impressed upon his temperament, that it will be grasped and its matter understood from it even from one aspect G-d forbid, for this we should not think at all, for it is impossible to know from His matters may He be blessed, that which He is to himself in truth at all. But when we call him merciful, we understand that he desires in one characteristic, which is the characteristic of mercy, a character which is not according to he Himself, but is according to the values of the creations and measured in their measurements. But since he wants this, and he wants to be understood in this way, we call him by this name - merciful. But his complete and straight essence is certainly outside of all these matters. And this is the faith that we are obligated to believe in may He be blessed with certainty, as we explained above already.

Much of the early opposition to Kabbalah came from those who did not realize the Kabbalists made this distinction. However, over time, that misconception was corrected.

I will add some important quotations from one of the most authoritative works of Jewish philosophy, Duties of the Heart:

We ascribe to Him Eternity (no beginning), because rational arguments have demonstrated that the world must have a First (cause) which had no previous cause before it and a Beginning which had no prior beginning. It has been demonstrated that the number of causes cannot be infinite. It logically follows, that the Creator is the First Beginning before whom there is no Beginning, and this is what is meant by His Eternity, as written: "From everlasting to everlasting, You are G-d" (Ps. 90:2), and "before Me there was no god formed, neither shall any be after Me" (Isaiah 43:10). Regarding declaring of Him that He is One, we have already sufficiently demonstrated this by well known arguments and it has been established by clear evidence, that true Unity is inseparable from His glorious essence. This unity implies absence of plurality in His Being, the absence of change, transformation, incident, origin or destruction, joining or removal, comparison or association or any other properties of things that are plural. It is necessary for you to understand that these attributes do not imply any kind of change in His glorious essence, but only to denote a negation of their opposite. What the attribution of them should convey in our minds is that the Creator of the world is neither plural, nor non-existent, nor created.

This plurality in the Creator's attributes does not, however, exist in His glorious essence but is due to inadequacy of language on the part of the speaker to express the conception in one term. You must understand that, regarding the Creator, there is none like Him, and whatever attributes we speak of regarding Him, you are to infer from them the denial of their opposite. As Aristotle said "negating attributes of G-d gives a truer conception of Him than affirming attributes". For all affirmative attributes ascribed to G-d must necessarily ascribe properties of Etzem (essence) or Mikre (incidental properties), and He who created etzem and mikre has not the properties of His creatures in His glorious essence. But the denial of such properties to Him is undoubtedly true and appropriate to Him. For He is above all attributes and forms, similarity or comparison. Therefore, you must understand from these attributes that they refer to the negation of their opposites.

A certain person led the prayer service before Rabbi Chanina and said: "the great, the mighty, the awesome, the powerful, the glorious, the potent, the feared, the strong, the powerful, the certain, and the esteemed G-d!". R' Chanina waited until he finished. When he finished, R' Chanina said to him: "did you complete all the praises of your Master? What need is there for all of this? even us, these three praises that we say (in the daily prayers), if not for the fact that Moshe Rabeinu said it in the Torah (Deut. 10:17), and the men of the great assembly came and established it in prayer, we wouldn't be able to say them! And you say all these praises and continue? It is analogous to a king of flesh and blood who had thousands upon thousands of golden coins, and they would praise him for possessing silver coins, isn't this a disgrace to him"? 62And "to You silence is praise" (Ps. 65:2), to which our teachers said: "the best potion is silence, the more you praise a flawless pearl, the more you depreciate it" (Megila 18a). 63Therefore, you should exert your mind until you know the Creator through the evidences of His works and not strive to know Him in His glorious essence. For He is exceedingly close to you from the side of His deeds but infinitely remote in any representation of His essence or comparison with it. As already stated, we will never be able to find Him in this way. When you arrive at the stage where you abandon (trying to find Him) through your thoughts and senses because He cannot be grasped in this way, and you instead find Him in the evidence of His deeds, as though He were inseparable from you - this is the pinnacle of knowledge of Him which the prophet exhorts us on in saying "Know therefore this day, and consider it in your heart, that the L-ord He is G-d in heaven above, and upon the earth beneath: there is none else" (Deut. 4:39). 64One of the Sages said: "the more one increases knowledge of the Creator, the more one is awe-struck with regard to His nature". 65Others said: "the truly wise person in the knowledge of G-d realizes his ignorance regarding His glorious essence while the ignorant person thinks that he understands G-d's glorious essence.".

The pinnacle of knowing Him is to reach the stage where you admit and believe that you are completely ignorant of the truth of His glorious essence.

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    I don't understand why you had to go to Ramchal. Everyone who holds of an apophatic understanding by definition thinks theirs is right. The question is does everyone agree to that. Sourcing one person who thinks they are right is not a proof of anything
    – Double AA
    Apr 29, 2021 at 0:32
  • He does a good job of explaining why the sources that seem cataphatic are not. Also, he is the most definitive of Jewish philosophers, IMO.
    – N.T.
    Apr 29, 2021 at 0:56
  • @N.T. Not true at all
    – setszu
    Sep 6, 2023 at 20:02
  • @setszu what isn't true?
    – N.T.
    Sep 7, 2023 at 0:26

Rabbeinu Chisdai Kreskas disagrees with the Rambam on this issue at length, in Or Hashem, Ma'amar 1, Klal 3, Perek 3.

  • He does not disagree about the nature or knowability of G-d, but rather in how the terms used to refer to G-d are to be understood. His point is that since a term referring to G-d's wisdom really means to say G-d does not have the deficit of foolishness, it is in a way referring to G-d Himself being perfect, despite the nature of the perfection being completely unknowable. You really need to study the Sha'ar HaYichud of Chovos HaLevavos thoroughly to understand the basic idea underlying his point.
    – N.T.
    May 5, 2021 at 9:07
  • I agree that the disagreement is more to do with the definition of positive and negative, and other semantics, rather than the nature of G-d. However, it does represent a different attitude towards the limited understanding we can have of Hashem. I don't accept that understanding R' Chisdai Kreskas is contingent on understanding the Chovos HaLevavos.
    – user18037
    May 6, 2021 at 12:19
  • It is a very subtle disagreement about what the descriptors of G-d are referring to. The attitude of Rabbi Kreskas is entirely in line with the Orthodox position.
    – N.T.
    May 6, 2021 at 19:57
  • To put it in perspective: It's like someone asked, "Do any Orthodox opinions say one does not have to keep the Sabbath?" And you responded, "There is a disagreement if lighting a fire is chayav misah or just a lav", but you did not explain, you just pointed to a source the OP could not understand, so he thought you were saying such an opinion exists, when in reality it means nothing of the sort. It is horrifically misleading.
    – N.T.
    May 6, 2021 at 20:29
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    I disagree. The apophatic description is not a fundamental principle of faith according to anyone, and the question wasn't asking about fundamental disagreements explicitly. The request was for sources, which I duly provided. In addition, R' Chisdai Kreskas did not see it as a subtle difference, and was noticeably sharp in his attack on the Rambam.
    – user18037
    May 8, 2021 at 17:49

In limited scope, the Ramchal in Da'as Tevunos emphasizes that we know God's Oneness in a catapathic way:

(לד) אמר השכל - עתה כשנשיב אל לבנו כל סדרי מעשיו ית', כל המעשה הגדול אשר עשה מני שים אדם עלי ארץ, וכל אשר הבטיח לנו לעשות ע"י נביאיו הקדושים, הנה מה שמתברר לנו מכל זה בירור גמור - הוא עוצם יחודו יתברך. ותראי שכל שאר מעלות שלמותו הבלתי בעלת תכלית אינם מתבררים אצלנו כלל, שאין בנו כח להשיג אותם. דרך משל, ידענו שהוא חכם, אבל לא השגנו סוף חכמתו; ידענו שהוא יודע, ולא השגנו ידיעתו. ועל כן אמרו ז"ל (תפלת אליהו, תיקוני זוהר, הקדמה שניה), "אנת הוא חכים, ולאו בחכמה ידיעא, אנת הוא מבין, ולאו בבינה ידיעא". וכיון שאין אנו יכולים להשיג המעלות האלה, נמשך לנו מזה איסור החקירה בהם, כי על כל כיוצא בזה נאמר (חגיגה יג. בשם בן סירא ג, כא), "במופלא ממך אל תדרוש, במכוסה ממך אל תחקור"; וכן אמרו (ספר יצירה, פרק א), "אם רץ לבך - שוב למקום":

(34) Said the Intellect - Now that we have returned to your hearts the order of HaShem's actions may he be blessed, All of the great actions He has done since placing man upon the earth (Job 20:4), and everything that her promised us to do through the holy prophets, behold that which is clear to us from this with complete clarity - is the might of His singularity may He be blessed. And you will see that all of the other characteristics of his completeness which is without limitation, are not clear to us at all, because we do not have the strength to grasp them. By example, We know that he is wise, but we cannot grasp the ends of his wisdom; we know that he is knowing, but we cannot grasp his knowledge. And therefore the Rabbis may their memory be blessed said (Prayer of Eliyahu, Tikunei Zohar, second introduction), "You are wise, and not with knowable wisdom, you are understanding and not with knowable insight", and since we are unable to understand these characteristics, a forbidding of examination of these emerges for us, for in regard to all like this it says (Chaggigah 13a in the name of Ben Sirah 3:21) "In that which is beyond your comprehension do not seek, in that which is hidden from you do not examine"; and similarly they said (Sefer Yetzira chapter 1), "If your heart runs - return to your place":

אבל יחודו, אדרבא, זה מתגלה ומתברר לנו בירור גמור. ונמשך לנו מזה שלא די שהוא מתברר לנו, אלא שחייבים אנחנו להשיב אל לבנו הידיעה הזאת, לתקוע אותה בלבבנו בישוב גמור בלי שום פקפוק כלל. והוא מה שמצוינו משה רבנו ע"ה מפי הגבורה (דברים ד, לט), "וידעת היום והשבות אל לבבך כי ה' הוא האלהים בשמים ממעל ועל הארץ מתחת אין עוד". ופי עליון מעיד בעצמו ומודיע כי כל הנלקט מכל מסיבותיו הגדולות אשר הוא מתהפך בעולמו, הלא הוא גילוי יחודו הגמור הזה; כענין אמרו (דברים לב, לט), "ראו עתה כי אני אני הוא ואין אלהים עמדי", ומקרא זה נאמר אחר שכלל כל סיבוב הגלגל, שהיה עתיד ומזומן להיות סובב בעולם, שנכלל הכל בדברי השירה ההיא של האזינו, וכמו שפשטן של כתובים עצמן מוכיח, והנה חותם החזון שלו חתם בלשון הזה, "ראו עתה כי אני אני הוא" וגו'. ובדברי הנביא ישעיה נתבאר בהדיא (ישעיה מג, י יא), "למען תדעו ותאמינו לי ותבינו כי אני הוא, לפני לא נוצר אל ואחרי לא יהיה. אנכי אנכי ה' ואין מבלעדי מושיע"; וכמו שכתוב (ישעיה מד, ו), "אני ראשון ואני אחרון ומבלעדי אין אלהים"; וכמו שכתוב (ישעיהו מה, ו ז), "למען ידעו ממזרח שמש וממערבה כי אפס בלעדי אני ה' ואין עוד. יוצר אור ובורא חשך עושה שלום ובורא רע, אני ה' עושה כל אלה". והנה "למען ידעו", "למען תדעו ותבינו" כתיב, משמע שרוצה שנדע בידיעה והבנה. ותכלית כל ההצלחה שהוא מבטיח לישראל הוא התברר יחודו לעיני הכל. ודבר זה נזכר פעמים אין מספר בדברי הנביאים ע"ה (ישעיהו ב, יא), "ונשגב ה' לבדו ביום ההוא"; (זכריה יד, ט), "והיה ה' למלך וגו' ביום ההוא יהיה ה' אחד ושמו אחד"; (צפניה ג, ט), "כי אז אהפוך אל עמים לקרוא כלם בשם ה' לעבדו שכם אחד". וסוף דבר, הלא זה עדותנו בכל יום תמיד (דברים ו, ד), "שמע ישראל ה' אלהינו ה' אחד":

But His singularity, is just the opposite, it is revealed and clarified focus in complete clarity. And it emerges for us from this that it is not enough that it be clear to us, but that we are obligated to return this knowledge to our hearts, to embed it in our hearts completely settled without any doubt. And this is what we were commanded by Moshe our teacher may he rest in peace from the mouth of The Mighty One (Deuteronomy 4:39), "And you shall know today and return to your hearts that HaShem He is the G-d in the heavens above and on the earth below, there is no other". And the mouth of the One on high himself testifies and informs us that everything that is gathered from all the great occurrences that He overturns in his world, is it not the complete revelation of this - His singularity; as it says (Deuteronomy 32:39) "See now that I, I am He and there is no other G-d with me", and this passage is said after He included all the future revolutions of the globe that are planned to occur in the universe, that include everything in the words of this song of HaAzinu, and like the straightforward meaning of these writings themselves prove, and behold the ending of His vision ends with this language, "See now that I, I am He" etc. And in the words of the prophet Isaiah it is described explicitly (Isaiah 43:10-11), "In order that you know and believe me and understand that I am He, before me no G-d was created and there will be no other after me. I, I am hashed and there is no savior other than me"; and as it is written (Isaiah 44:6), "I am first and I am last and there is no G-d other than me"; and as it says (Isaiah 45:6-7), "In order that you know from the the east and the west that there is nothing other than me, I am HaShem and there is no other. The maker of light and creator of darkness making peace and creating the negative, I am hashed the maker of all of these". And behold, it is written "In order that you know", In order that you know and understand", meaning that He wants us to know with knowledge and understanding. And the purpose of all of the success that He promises to Israel is the explanation of His singularity to the eyes of all. And this matter is mentioned innumerable times in the words of the prophets may they rest in peace, (Isaiah 2:11), "...and haShem will be exalted on that day."; (Zechariah 14:9) "And haShem will be king [on all the earth] haShem will be one and His name will be one"; (Zephania 3:9) "For then I will overturn the peoples to all call in the the name of haShem and to worship him as one accord". And in the end, is this not always our testimony every day (Deuteronomy 6:4) "Hear O' Israel HaShem our G-d HaShem is One":

  • You have to keep reading to get up to the part of Da'as Tevunos I quoted, where he clearly says these are not actual characteristics of G-d.
    – N.T.
    May 9, 2021 at 23:56
  • Isn't he making an explicit distinction between God's Oneness and any other description?
    – Mordechai
    May 10, 2021 at 3:43
  • HIs point is specifically that G-d's ability to know things is not something we can relate to in any way. We are intellectually capable of understanding His oneness, because it is the negation of all multiplicity. But since G-d's ability to know things is not in any way related to human knowledge (see Abarbanel to Kings I 3 re wisdom of Shlomo), we can never understand it. Part of what we cannot understand is that G-d's knowledge is not a separate characteristic as with humans, but intrinsic to His Being.
    – N.T.
    May 10, 2021 at 7:09

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