The Rambam, in his Morei Nevuchim, says that when it comes to knowledge about G-d, we can only know what G-d is not. I.e. He is not limited in space, or time, He does not have property A, nor does he have property "not A". We can have no positive knowledge of G-d's essence.

Of course this poses an obvious question that statements like "G-d is not A" or "it is not true that G-d is A" are themselves some forms of positive knowledge about G-d. But that's not my question here.

My question is - given the above restriction, how can we then ever know about or relate to G-d, and in particular how are we to understand statements like "G-d is Just" or even "G-d Created heaven and earth". It seems that the these statements are to be given meaning only in terms of observable effects by humans or by an analogy. For example, "G-d is Just" means that G-d's actions are seen to be 'just', as humans define that term. Or that "G-d created heaven and earth" means that the appearance of the physical reality bears some resemblance, via an analogy (or some sort of isomorphism?), to an act of creation as defined in common usage by man.

But even an analogy or even some conception connecting what is physically observed to G-d, also represents some knowledge of G-d. Namely, it is some sort of model inside one's mind, that links the concept of G-d to normal everyday concepts or structures such as "creating", "justice", etc. If we are able to have these models in our heads, then how is this knowledge qualitatively any different from knowing G-d's essence? For in truth, even for regular things (cars, rocks, humans, numbers, etc.) we do not know truly know their 'essence' - we speak only in terms of abstractions, models of these concepts that we have in our minds, and theories that allow us to link our models to observable reality. If so, how is that any different then from knowing G-d in the sense described above? If the knowledge about a computer, say, consists of various abstractions in our head about the mechanisms of how its inputs get transformed to outputs, then how is that knowledge different (qualitatively) from the various abstractions and models that we have in our minds about G-d (both with observable effects or not)?

  • On a related note, the Ramchal (Da'as Tevunos #20-22) says that perfection can only be understood through understanding what imperfection is
    – b a
    Commented Nov 13, 2012 at 2:49
  • See here too: chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/84827/jewish/…
    – Michoel
    Commented Nov 13, 2012 at 2:56
  • Thanks, those links were helpful. A main theme seems to be - you have to realize that G-d is not like anything you know/can think of. In other words, the true knowledge or model of G-d in your mind is supposed to be the single thought "G-d is not any of the abstract ideas, thoughts, logical constructions, etc. that I have in my mind". So the more you learn, the more you can say that G-d is not. But the problem then is that if this is the true knowledge you are supposed to have of G-d, what status does any other knowledge (like "G-d is merciful", etc.) supposed to have?
    – Eliezer
    Commented Nov 13, 2012 at 17:05

2 Answers 2


Rambam himself deals with these issues toward the end of Part One of the Guide. In 1:53 he writes (emphasis mine):

Many of the attributes express different acts of God, but that difference does not necessitate any difference as regards Him from whom the acts proceed. This fact, that from one agency different effects may result, although that agency has not free will, and much more so if it has free will, I will illustrate by an instance taken from our own sphere:

Fire melts certain things and makes others hard, it boils and burns, it bleaches and blackens. If we described the fire as bleaching, blackening, burning, boiling, hardening and melting, we should be correct, and yet he who does not know the nature of fire, would think that it included six different elements, one by which it blackens, another by which it bleaches, a third by which it boils, a fourth by which it consumes, a fifth by which it melts, a sixth by which it hardens things--actions which are opposed to one another, and of which each has its peculiar property. He, however, who knows the nature of fire, will know that by virtue of one quality in action, namely, by heat, it produces all these effects.

If this is the case with that which is done by nature, how much more is it the case with regard to beings that act by free will, and still more with regard to God, who is above all description. If we, therefore, perceive in God certain relations of various kinds--for wisdom in us is different from power, and power from will--it does by no means follow that different elements are really contained in Him, that He contains one element by which He knows, another by which He wills, and another by which He exercises power, as is, in fact, the signification of the attributes of God] according to the Attributists.

My understanding is that whenever the Torah says that God is something, it really means that God is acting in a way that if he were subject to our comprehension, he would be that thing. The Torah simply "speaks the language of man" in this way, according to the Rambam.

  • 1
    Isn't it true just about anything? Can we "know" what the Sun is or a table? we can only observe our interactions with those objects and generalize results.
    – Al Berko
    Commented Jul 16, 2019 at 9:56
  • 1
    Thank you for stimulating me to think about this. The thought that comes to me is as follows. There is no sun or table in and of themselves. Everything material is merely stimuli and nothing in and of itself. Where does the stimuli come from? We are living in a (mental) construction. We - at least in the sense we presently know ourselves - did not construct the construction. We can't attribute anything to the constructor because we only know the construction, which is nothing in reality. Still from our perspective we must admit there is a constructor, even if לית מחשבה תפיסא ביה כלל.
    – Dov F
    Commented Jul 17, 2019 at 13:30

The main difference of perception, IMHO, regarding "what a computer is" and "What G-d is" stems from the observations that a computer's behaviour is deterministic. e.g. for the same input it will always emit the same output.

Our understanding of G-s is that it is "nondeterministic in nature" - e.g. everything that is deterministic is, by definition, not-G-d (from similar reasons to those the Rambam states about why anything that's compound can't be G-d).

So a better analogy would be to think of G-d as a non-deterministic model, or at least mathematically chaotic entity. E.g. any model you might have in your mind as of what G-d is would never allow you to predict G-d's "doings".

  • But even non-deterministic models have properties you can know about them (it is a model of some sort after all). For example, quantum mechanics is a non-deterministic model of the world, yet even though we can't predict individual outcomes we can predict probabilities, expected values, etc.
    – Eliezer
    Commented Nov 13, 2012 at 16:54
  • @Eliezer right, I think the same holds for the "model of G-d".
    – Guy
    Commented Nov 14, 2012 at 6:57

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