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The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob vs. The God of the Philosophers

As the 11th century Jewish philosopher Judah HaLevi observed in his Kuzari, the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, is intimately concerned about the life of humankind.

When Moses first spoke to Pharaoh, he informed him: “The God of the Hebrews sent me unto you,” i.e., the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. For Abraham was well known to the nations, who also knew that the divine spirit was in contact with the patriarchs, cared for them, and performed miracles for them. Moses never said to Pharaoh, “The God of heaven and earth,” nor did he refer to God as, “Our Creator sent me to you . . .” By the same token, when God gave the Israelites the Decalogue, the words of the Divine oracles began with the words, “I am the God (whom you worship,) Who has taken you out of the land of Egypt . . . ” Note that God did not say, “I am the Creator of the world and your Creator. . . .This is an appropriate answer to not only you, but also to the people Israel, who have long believed in such a faith based upon their self-authenticated personal experience. Moreover, this belief is something that has been confirmed through an uninterrupted tradition, which is no less significant . . .”

Many of the more theistic-minded Greek philosophers like Plato or Aristotle never had a personal name for the One God, whom they regarded as the Prime Mover of the cosmos. To the Greek imagination, it is inconceivable that God could have any interest in the affairs of mortals, much less have an ethical relationship with humankind.[1]

But for HaLevi, God is more than a Creator; He is also a Liberator  who takes interest in the needs of all His Creation. Although Maimonides tried to merge Greek and Judaic thought together much like Philo of Alexandria attempted to do in the 1st century, even Maimonides discovered that such a new symbiosis had its challenges. To his credit, Maimonides’s critique of God‑talk reveals that the mystery of God’s reality transcends all analogies. Furthermore, Maimonides stresses that when we construct a theology about God, we must be careful not to take our metaphors and categories of faith too literally. Maimonides himself did acknowledge the importance of analogical language and its importance as a model for emulating God’s ethical conduct (Imitatio Dei). Contemplation of the Divine can only reveal to us God’s behavior (but not His essence) and relationship to the world. Contemplation alone, however, only produces a flawed understanding of God. To know God is to follow God’s moral ways (Exod. 33:13). Maimonides observes:

We are commanded to follow these intermediate paths—and they are the good and decent paths alluded to in the Torah: “And you shall walk in His ways” (Deut. 28:9): The Sages define this precept in the following manner: Just as He is called “Gracious,” so shall you be gracious. Just as He is “Merciful,” so shall you be merciful. Just as He is called “Holy,” so shall you be holy. In a similar manner, the prophets called God by other titles: “Slow to anger,” “Abundant in kindness,” “Righteous,” “Just,” “Perfect,” “Almighty,” etc. These metaphors serve to inform us that these are good and worthy paths. A person is obligated to accustom himself to these paths and emulate Him to the extent of his ability.[2]

Significantly, Maimonides at the end of his Guide (III 34) concludes that the philosophical knowledge of God means little if anything if it does not inspire humanness, justice and compassion. Our experience and knowledge of God is mediated through acts of love and compassion with our fellow beings. Wisdom must engender a reverence for life. Any knowledge that places wisdom above works of compassion cannot know the God of Israel. Despite his concerns about the dangers of anthropomorphism, the moral qualities of God provide an essential template for realizing God’s Presence in the world. It was here Maimonides politely parted company with Aristotle and the Greeks. The love or knowledge of God can never exist solely in the realm of nous (thought). When Moses seeks a personal theophany from God, he discovers God’s thirteen attributes of mercy. Moses learns that to know God is to emulate His compassionate ways. Without it, our knowledge of God becomes a caricature—even a mockery. To profess an abstract knowledge of God that is divorced from morality, borders upon the idolatrous.


[1] Despite the disdain the ancient Greek philosophers felt toward anthropomorphisms, their philosophic writings often made use of anthropomorphism (cf. Aristotle’s “Unmoved Mover” is one small example) in describing the nature of the soul, cosmos, God, and the universe. The cosmos was still seen in broad anthropomorphic terms.

[2] Maimonides, MT Hilchot Deot 1:5‑7.