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When You Say “God,” 
What Do You Mean? 
A brief look at the evolution of what Jews 
have meant by the “G” word 
over the last 3,500 years
The God of the Tanakh 
 The Attributes of God 
 -- Exodus 34: 4 - 9
The God of the Tanakh 
 A God Who Can Smell? 
 An Anthropomorphic God? 
 Walks in Garden of Eden 
 Appears in human form 
at Abraham & Sarah’s 
tent 
 -- Leviticus 1: 14 - 17
The God of the Tanakh 
 A God Who Can Be Argued 
With 
 A God Who Makes 
Covenants 
 A God Who Can Change 
God’s Mind 
 -- Exodus 32: 7 - 14
The God of the Tanakh 
 A God who can change 
God’s mind 
 A God who creates and 
controls, but permits free will 
 A God who makes mistakes, 
learns and grows? 
 -- Genesis 6: 5 - 8
The God of the Tanakh 
 -- Genesis 6: 5 - 8 
 6:1] Now as people began to 
multiply on the earth, daughters 
were born to them, 2] and when the 
divine beings (b’nai elohim) saw 
how fair were the human women, 
they took wives for themselves, as 
they chose. 3] Then the Eternal 
One said, “My spirit will not forever 
endure the humans, as they are but 
fallible flesh – their lifespan shall be 
[only] 120 years.” 4] The Nephilim 
were on earth in those days; and 
afterward, too, when the divine 
beings mated with the human 
women, they bore for them those 
heroes who from of old enjoyed 
great renown. 
 Is this God alone in 
heaven?
The God of the Tanakh
The God of the Tanakh 
 A God who frees the oppressed and is 
more powerful than even the mightiest 
human empires 
 A God who authors supernatural 
miracles 
 A God who champions the stranger, the 
orphan, the widow, the poor, and the 
vulnerable, and who will hear them if 
they cry out due to injustice.
The God of the Tanakh 
 Paradox 
regarding 
God in the 
Tanakh: can 
a human see 
God’s face? 
 -- Exodus 33: 7 - 11
The God of the Tanakh 
 Paradox 
regarding 
God in the 
Tanakh: can 
a human see 
God’s face? 
 -- Exodus 33: 12 - 21
The God of the Tanakh 
 -- Exodus 3: 13 - 15 
 A non-anthropomorphic 
God beyond human 
comprehension. 
 Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh: 
“I Am That I Am,” or 
“I Will Be What I Will Be.” 
 Y-H-W-H – the sacred 4 
letter Divine name is a 
blending of the various 
tenses of the Hebrew 
verb “to be.” Past, 
present, and future are 
all rolled together into a 
grammatically 
impossible word that we 
can’t pronounce!
The God of the Talmud’s Rabbis 
A God who gave two Torahs, not one, to Moses at Mt. Sinai 
The Written 
Torah 
The Oral Torah
The God of the Talmud’s Rabbis 
A God of a defeated 
people in exile, 
longing to return 
home 
•Messiah will come / redemption will 
come 
•Part of God is in exile while we are 
in exile
The God of the Talmud’s Rabbis 
A God Who Changes Forms to Meet the Needs of the 
People and the Occasion 
Because the Holy One appeared to Israel at the Red Sea as a mighty man 
waging war, and appeared to them at Sinai as a pedagogue who teaches the 
day’s lesson and then again and again goes over with his pupils what they 
have been taught, and appeared to them in the days of Daniel as an elder 
teaching Torah, and in the days of Solomon appeared to them as a young 
man, the Holy One said to Israel: Come to no false conclusions because you 
see Me in many guises, for I am God who was with you at the Red sea and I 
am God who is with you at Sinai: [as Scripture says,] I am the Eternal your 
God. The fact is, Rabbi Chiyyah bar Abba said, that God appeared to them in 
a guise appropriate to each and every place and time. 
-- from the Midrashic collection, Pesikta de Rav Kahanah
The God of the Talmud’s Rabbis 
A Transcendent, Incomprehensible God who is also 
an Intimate, Personal God 
Rav Hanina bar Isi said: Sometimes it is that the world and all that fills it cannot 
grasp or contain the glory of God’s divinity; sometimes it is that God speaks 
with the human being from between the hairs of his/her head. Therefore it is 
written in Scripture [Job 38:1], “And the Eternal answered Job from the 
whirlwind – [we can also read it as saying] And the Eternal answered Job from 
between the hairs of his head.” [The midrash is using a word-play.] 
Hebrew word: סְּעָהרָהה
The God of the Medieval 
Philosophers  Mystics 
 God as a 
Mystical, 
Emanating 
Energy
The God of the Medieval 
Philosophers  Mystics 
 Science / philosophy and Torah both 
reveal truth, and when both are correctly 
understood they don’t contradict each 
other. 
 God is unchanging, non-anthropo-morphic 
and indescribable. All words 
used to describe God are inadequate 
and therefore inaccurate. 
 God uses Torah as a teaching tool, and 
includes “gracious ruses” including 
commandments that are intended to take 
a community from Step A to Step B, but 
which are not what God desires for all 
time. Sacrificial offerings are one 
example. 
Maimonides, 
aka the Rambam, 
(d. 1205)
The God of the Medieval 
Philosophers  Mystics 
 God as a 
Mystical, 
Emanating 
Energy: 
influence of 
Greek 
philosophical 
ideas
The God of the Medieval 
Philosophers  Mystics 
 God as a 
Mystical, 
Emanating 
Energy – the 
sefirot of the 
Kabbalists 
shown as 
concentric 
spheres
The God of the Medieval 
Philosophers  Mystics 
 God as a 
Mystical, 
Emanating 
Energy – the 
sefirot of the 
Kabbalists shown 
in the more 
familiar form of the 
Tree of Life 
 God has both 
masculine and 
feminine energies
The God of the Medieval 
Philosophers  Mystics 
 The Kabbalistic God of 
Isaac Luria: God as a 
Mystical, Emanating 
Energy 
 New Creation Story: 
Shvirat ha-kelim / the 
Shattering of the Vessels 
 Tikkun Olam 
 Human beings help repair 
God! 
1534 - 1572
The God of the Hasidim 
 Semi-pantheistic 
 God who is present and directly 
accessible throughout the universe 
 God who is near to us, and who loves 
humble piety and goodness 
 Even the most irretrievable evil is 
capable of, and longing for, redemption 
 Each Jew has a role to play in the 
transformation of coarse matter into 
elevated spirit, and a role to play in the 
transformation of the mundane into the 
holy. “Raising up the sparks.” 
Based on Arthur Green’s chapter in Back to the Sources
The God of Martin Buber 
 God is the Eternal Thou 
 Buber describes two kinds of relationships, the I-It, and the 
I-Thou. The I-It relationship is one based on detachment 
from others and involves a utilitarian approach, in which one 
uses another as an object. In contrast, in an I-Thou 
relationship, each person fully and equally turns toward the 
other with openness and ethical engagement. This kind of 
relationship is characterized by dialogue and by total 
presentness. In an I-Thou relationship, each participant is 
concerned for the other person. The honor of the other--and 
not just her usefulness--is of paramount importance. The 
ethical response of the I-Thou relationship is central to 
Buber's understanding of God. For Buber, God is the 
Eternal Thou. God is the only Thou which can never 
become an It. In other words, while relationships with other 
people will inevitably have utilitarian elements, in a genuine 
relationship with God, God cannot be used as a means 
towards an end. --Rabbi Rachel S. Halachmi 
 We can’t really talk about God; rather, 
God is encountered and experienced, 
especially through each Thou we 
encounter 
1878 - 1965
The God of Mordecai Kaplan 
 God is the Power or Force that makes meaning and 
goodness possible. 
 God is like electricity, magnetism, or love: 
real, ever-present, available, amazing, and 
animating all creation. 
 Not supernatural – God is part of Nature 
 God is a cosmic process that makes for 
humanity’s life abundant … As a cosmic process, 
God is more than a physical, chemical, biological, 
psychological, or even social process. God 
includes them all, but what is distinctive about the 
God-process is that it is greater than the things 
and experiences it includes. 
 “We affirm that the Torah reveals God, not that God 
revealed the Torah.” God didn’t write the Torah; rather, the 
Torah is our ancestors’ record of their seeking after God. 
 “Any teaching about God which fails to make humanity 
free cannot be true religion.” 
 God doesn’t favor one people over another – God loves 
all peoples’ equally. 
1881 - 1983
The God of Judith Plaskow 
 A Theology formed by the intersection of feminism 
and Judaism 
 An inclusive monotheism 
 Deliberately shifting the metaphors we 
use 
 A “naming towards God” in which all 
Jews are encouraged to speak the 
names that come from their personal 
experience 
 God’s presence emerges richly in 
community – a community of empowered 
equals 
 Rediscover traditional images of God that have 
tended to be overshadowed 
 God as lover, friend, Shekhinah 
 God as place 
 God as intimate, imminent, as well as mysterious 
and beyond our comprehension. 
 God is One yet has many faces. 
Born 1945
Closing Words 
 In a midrashic collection, various rabbis debated why the Torah uses the words, “I am 
the Eternal One your (singular) God who brought you out of the land of Egypt…” to 
open the announcing of the 10 Commandments to the Israelites at Mt. Sinai. Since 
God was addressing the entire nation, the sages puzzled over why the text didn’t say 
“I am the Eternal One your (plural) God…” Here’s how some of them responded: 
 Rav Hanina bar Papa said: the Holy One appeared to Israel with a stern face, with a neutral 
face, with a friendly face, and with a smiling face. With a stern face: appropriate to the 
teaching of Scripture…; with a neutral face: appropriate for the teaching of Mishnah; with a 
friendly face: appropriate for the teaching of Talmud; and with a smiling face: appropriate to 
the teaching of Aggadah. Therefore the Holy One said to them: Though you see me in all 
these guises, [I am still One] – [and that is why the Torah uses the singular form of the word 
“your”, to acknowledge that each individual at Mt. Sinai saw something different and 
appropriate to his or her capacities.] 
 Rabbi Levi said: The Holy One appeared to them as though in the form of a statue with 
faces on every side, so that though a thousand people might be looking at the statue, they 
would be led to believe that it was looking at each one of them. So too, when the Holy One 
spoke, each and every person in Israel could say, “The Divine Word is addressing me.” 
[And that is why the Torah text uses the singular version of the word “your” and not the 
plural version of it.]

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Variety of Ideas about God throughout Jewish Religious History

  • 1. When You Say “God,” What Do You Mean? A brief look at the evolution of what Jews have meant by the “G” word over the last 3,500 years
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  • 8. The God of the Tanakh  The Attributes of God  -- Exodus 34: 4 - 9
  • 9. The God of the Tanakh  A God Who Can Smell?  An Anthropomorphic God?  Walks in Garden of Eden  Appears in human form at Abraham & Sarah’s tent  -- Leviticus 1: 14 - 17
  • 10. The God of the Tanakh  A God Who Can Be Argued With  A God Who Makes Covenants  A God Who Can Change God’s Mind  -- Exodus 32: 7 - 14
  • 11. The God of the Tanakh  A God who can change God’s mind  A God who creates and controls, but permits free will  A God who makes mistakes, learns and grows?  -- Genesis 6: 5 - 8
  • 12. The God of the Tanakh  -- Genesis 6: 5 - 8  6:1] Now as people began to multiply on the earth, daughters were born to them, 2] and when the divine beings (b’nai elohim) saw how fair were the human women, they took wives for themselves, as they chose. 3] Then the Eternal One said, “My spirit will not forever endure the humans, as they are but fallible flesh – their lifespan shall be [only] 120 years.” 4] The Nephilim were on earth in those days; and afterward, too, when the divine beings mated with the human women, they bore for them those heroes who from of old enjoyed great renown.  Is this God alone in heaven?
  • 13. The God of the Tanakh
  • 14. The God of the Tanakh  A God who frees the oppressed and is more powerful than even the mightiest human empires  A God who authors supernatural miracles  A God who champions the stranger, the orphan, the widow, the poor, and the vulnerable, and who will hear them if they cry out due to injustice.
  • 15. The God of the Tanakh  Paradox regarding God in the Tanakh: can a human see God’s face?  -- Exodus 33: 7 - 11
  • 16. The God of the Tanakh  Paradox regarding God in the Tanakh: can a human see God’s face?  -- Exodus 33: 12 - 21
  • 17. The God of the Tanakh  -- Exodus 3: 13 - 15  A non-anthropomorphic God beyond human comprehension.  Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh: “I Am That I Am,” or “I Will Be What I Will Be.”  Y-H-W-H – the sacred 4 letter Divine name is a blending of the various tenses of the Hebrew verb “to be.” Past, present, and future are all rolled together into a grammatically impossible word that we can’t pronounce!
  • 18. The God of the Talmud’s Rabbis A God who gave two Torahs, not one, to Moses at Mt. Sinai The Written Torah The Oral Torah
  • 19. The God of the Talmud’s Rabbis A God of a defeated people in exile, longing to return home •Messiah will come / redemption will come •Part of God is in exile while we are in exile
  • 20. The God of the Talmud’s Rabbis A God Who Changes Forms to Meet the Needs of the People and the Occasion Because the Holy One appeared to Israel at the Red Sea as a mighty man waging war, and appeared to them at Sinai as a pedagogue who teaches the day’s lesson and then again and again goes over with his pupils what they have been taught, and appeared to them in the days of Daniel as an elder teaching Torah, and in the days of Solomon appeared to them as a young man, the Holy One said to Israel: Come to no false conclusions because you see Me in many guises, for I am God who was with you at the Red sea and I am God who is with you at Sinai: [as Scripture says,] I am the Eternal your God. The fact is, Rabbi Chiyyah bar Abba said, that God appeared to them in a guise appropriate to each and every place and time. -- from the Midrashic collection, Pesikta de Rav Kahanah
  • 21. The God of the Talmud’s Rabbis A Transcendent, Incomprehensible God who is also an Intimate, Personal God Rav Hanina bar Isi said: Sometimes it is that the world and all that fills it cannot grasp or contain the glory of God’s divinity; sometimes it is that God speaks with the human being from between the hairs of his/her head. Therefore it is written in Scripture [Job 38:1], “And the Eternal answered Job from the whirlwind – [we can also read it as saying] And the Eternal answered Job from between the hairs of his head.” [The midrash is using a word-play.] Hebrew word: סְּעָהרָהה
  • 22. The God of the Medieval Philosophers Mystics  God as a Mystical, Emanating Energy
  • 23. The God of the Medieval Philosophers Mystics  Science / philosophy and Torah both reveal truth, and when both are correctly understood they don’t contradict each other.  God is unchanging, non-anthropo-morphic and indescribable. All words used to describe God are inadequate and therefore inaccurate.  God uses Torah as a teaching tool, and includes “gracious ruses” including commandments that are intended to take a community from Step A to Step B, but which are not what God desires for all time. Sacrificial offerings are one example. Maimonides, aka the Rambam, (d. 1205)
  • 24. The God of the Medieval Philosophers Mystics  God as a Mystical, Emanating Energy: influence of Greek philosophical ideas
  • 25. The God of the Medieval Philosophers Mystics  God as a Mystical, Emanating Energy – the sefirot of the Kabbalists shown as concentric spheres
  • 26. The God of the Medieval Philosophers Mystics  God as a Mystical, Emanating Energy – the sefirot of the Kabbalists shown in the more familiar form of the Tree of Life  God has both masculine and feminine energies
  • 27. The God of the Medieval Philosophers Mystics  The Kabbalistic God of Isaac Luria: God as a Mystical, Emanating Energy  New Creation Story: Shvirat ha-kelim / the Shattering of the Vessels  Tikkun Olam  Human beings help repair God! 1534 - 1572
  • 28. The God of the Hasidim  Semi-pantheistic  God who is present and directly accessible throughout the universe  God who is near to us, and who loves humble piety and goodness  Even the most irretrievable evil is capable of, and longing for, redemption  Each Jew has a role to play in the transformation of coarse matter into elevated spirit, and a role to play in the transformation of the mundane into the holy. “Raising up the sparks.” Based on Arthur Green’s chapter in Back to the Sources
  • 29. The God of Martin Buber  God is the Eternal Thou  Buber describes two kinds of relationships, the I-It, and the I-Thou. The I-It relationship is one based on detachment from others and involves a utilitarian approach, in which one uses another as an object. In contrast, in an I-Thou relationship, each person fully and equally turns toward the other with openness and ethical engagement. This kind of relationship is characterized by dialogue and by total presentness. In an I-Thou relationship, each participant is concerned for the other person. The honor of the other--and not just her usefulness--is of paramount importance. The ethical response of the I-Thou relationship is central to Buber's understanding of God. For Buber, God is the Eternal Thou. God is the only Thou which can never become an It. In other words, while relationships with other people will inevitably have utilitarian elements, in a genuine relationship with God, God cannot be used as a means towards an end. --Rabbi Rachel S. Halachmi  We can’t really talk about God; rather, God is encountered and experienced, especially through each Thou we encounter 1878 - 1965
  • 30. The God of Mordecai Kaplan  God is the Power or Force that makes meaning and goodness possible.  God is like electricity, magnetism, or love: real, ever-present, available, amazing, and animating all creation.  Not supernatural – God is part of Nature  God is a cosmic process that makes for humanity’s life abundant … As a cosmic process, God is more than a physical, chemical, biological, psychological, or even social process. God includes them all, but what is distinctive about the God-process is that it is greater than the things and experiences it includes.  “We affirm that the Torah reveals God, not that God revealed the Torah.” God didn’t write the Torah; rather, the Torah is our ancestors’ record of their seeking after God.  “Any teaching about God which fails to make humanity free cannot be true religion.”  God doesn’t favor one people over another – God loves all peoples’ equally. 1881 - 1983
  • 31. The God of Judith Plaskow  A Theology formed by the intersection of feminism and Judaism  An inclusive monotheism  Deliberately shifting the metaphors we use  A “naming towards God” in which all Jews are encouraged to speak the names that come from their personal experience  God’s presence emerges richly in community – a community of empowered equals  Rediscover traditional images of God that have tended to be overshadowed  God as lover, friend, Shekhinah  God as place  God as intimate, imminent, as well as mysterious and beyond our comprehension.  God is One yet has many faces. Born 1945
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  • 33. Closing Words  In a midrashic collection, various rabbis debated why the Torah uses the words, “I am the Eternal One your (singular) God who brought you out of the land of Egypt…” to open the announcing of the 10 Commandments to the Israelites at Mt. Sinai. Since God was addressing the entire nation, the sages puzzled over why the text didn’t say “I am the Eternal One your (plural) God…” Here’s how some of them responded:  Rav Hanina bar Papa said: the Holy One appeared to Israel with a stern face, with a neutral face, with a friendly face, and with a smiling face. With a stern face: appropriate to the teaching of Scripture…; with a neutral face: appropriate for the teaching of Mishnah; with a friendly face: appropriate for the teaching of Talmud; and with a smiling face: appropriate to the teaching of Aggadah. Therefore the Holy One said to them: Though you see me in all these guises, [I am still One] – [and that is why the Torah uses the singular form of the word “your”, to acknowledge that each individual at Mt. Sinai saw something different and appropriate to his or her capacities.]  Rabbi Levi said: The Holy One appeared to them as though in the form of a statue with faces on every side, so that though a thousand people might be looking at the statue, they would be led to believe that it was looking at each one of them. So too, when the Holy One spoke, each and every person in Israel could say, “The Divine Word is addressing me.” [And that is why the Torah text uses the singular version of the word “your” and not the plural version of it.]

Editor's Notes

  1. 7 min video by clicking on subtitle – start at minute 7 in the video.