After Moses gets his instructions from the Burning Bush in Exodus 3 to lead the Israelites out of Egypt, he politely asks for its identity, like a secretary might ask on the phone: “Who should I say is calling?”
And Moses said to God, “Behold I come to the children of Israel, and I say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they say to me, ‘What is His name?’ what shall I say to them?”
And God answers back in Exodus 3:14 with an answer that has perplexed Jews for ages:
אהיה אשר אהיה
Ehyeh asher ehyeh
The translation of this phrase is even more perplexing. The Chabad site translates it as: ‘I will be what I will be’ while the Septuagint translates it into Greek as “ego eimi ho on”: “I am the one who is”. The Chabad translation has a certain dismissiveness to it, as in: don’t try to pin me down, or, it’s none of your business who I am. The Greek version, on the other hand, is conveying a certainty: my existence is not in question, and that’s all you need to know. Whichever translation you prefer, they both describe an abstract entity which has no attributes other than its existence.
From this simple phrase has evolved the Jewish notion of a conception of God. In Judaism, there has never been a single prescribed conception of God. Everyone is free to form their own.
The only limitation is that your conception of God should remain abstract. It should not be concrete, like a specific person, or a statue or any other physical object. If you have a specific image of God in mind, like, say, the statue of Lincoln in the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, or a winged angel in a renaissance fresco, then your conception is not consistent with the Jewish God. But that’s pretty much the only limitation. Beyond that you can define the abstraction however you see fit.
This limitation is laid out in the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20:
You shall not make for yourself a graven image or any likeness which is in the heavens above, which is on the earth below, or which is in the water beneath the earth. You shall neither prostrate yourself before them nor worship them.
How, then, do we explain the many Anthropomorphisms in the Bible? Textual references to God that appear to convey objectification and human attributes like speaking, anger, disappointment, or even the image of the bush which is burning and talking? This is one of the main subjects tackled by Maimonides in his Guide To The Perplexed:
“The Torah speaks according to the language of man,” that is to say, expressions, which can easily be comprehended and understood by all, are applied to the Creator. Hence the description of God by attributes implying corporeality, in order to express His existence: because the multitude of people do not easily conceive existence unless in connection with a body, and that which is not a body nor connected with a body has for them no existence.
While many people are uncomfortable with an abstract notion of God, we seem to have no problem embracing abstract notions in math and science. For example, what conception do we have of the mathematical notion of infinity (∞)? We are being asked to conceive of something that has no end, while every experience we have ever had or will ever have in our life is with finite objects. And what about the mathematical concept of imaginary numbers? What conception do we have of the number i whose square is -1? And even in Physics, what conception do we have of Dark Matter, which is a type of matter hypothesized in astronomy to account for a large part of the mass that appears to be missing from the universe? And what about Dark Energy, which is a hypothetical form of massless energy that permeates all of space and tends to accelerate the expansion of the universe?
As an Engineer, I understand very well that mathematical and physical abstractions have a purpose. We don’t need to have a concrete conception of them in order to use them effectively to explain concrete physical phenomena. For example, we use the mathematical abstraction of an infinite limit to define derivatives, and we use derivatives to define the relations between speed, time, distance and acceleration, all of which we can measure directly. Thus, mathematical and scientific abstractions are useful tools to express regularities in our universe, and harness the physical world to our benefit. They are abstractions that provide physical and mental benefits in our lives.
In future articles, I will present some abstract conceptions of God based on classic and modern Jewish texts that I have studied. Hopefully, these ideas will help you decide whether an abstract conception of God can provide any benefits in your life.