Larchmont Temple Chevra Torah

Questioning faith in the parsha

Chol Ha’Moed Sukkot

KOSHI: What do the revelation of “Divine Attributes” teach us about “Knowing God” and ourselves?

P’Shat…The Text: Hearing Echoes:  Exodus 34:1-7

Remez…TheContext: Forging Faith

V.5   The Lord descended in a cloud; he stood with him there and proclaimed the name Lord.

RASHI…We read this as does TARGUM ONKELOS, “And he called out with the Name YHVH.”

ARTSCROLL…The translation “and he [Moses] called out…” follows MIZRACHI and SIFTEI CHACHAMIM, but according to GUR ARYEH [based on TOSAFOT to RH, 17b] it should read “and He [God] called out the Name…”

MUNK.…  That is, “And He called out with the Name—HaShem”  In the description of the giving of the second tablets, God is referred to by the Ineffable Name, replacing Elohim, the Name used in reference to the first tablets.  WHY?  Initially, Torah bore the stamp of absolute justice-midat ha-Din, for man was meant to serve with perfect faith.  But after Moses saw Israel yielding to the sin of idol worship , he understood that man could not survive by strict justice alone, and so destroyed the first tablets.  Accordingly, in response to Israel’s repentance, the second set of tablets were presided over by Divine love and mercy—midat ha-Rachamim, as God solemnly proclaimed His Name by enumerating the Thirteen Attributes.  Henceforth, Israel shall be governed by a combination of justice and mercy

 V.6   The Lord passed by him and proclaimed:
Adonai, Adonai—God compassionate and gracious, slow to anger

PIRKEI D’R’ELIEZER…  When the ministering angels heard that Moses would behold God’s Glory, they were jealous, and sought to harm/kill him…But God sheltered him in The Presence—the palm of His Hand [Ex 33:22] And as He passed by, the Holy One of Blessing removed His Hand from before him and Moses beheld Shechinah’s aftereffect. And [as he did] Moses began to shout in a great voice: Adonai, Adonai, Eyl Rachum v’Chanun…

SA’ADIA… [first great Medieval Yphilosopher, head of Sura Academy, intellectual head of Jewry-Babylonia] It must not be thought that the attributes involve a plurality, for we use multiple expressions only due to the limitations of language.  They are all simply implications of one expression…The Christians erred in this matter in making God a trinity…For in saying that there are several attributes in him distinct from one another, they say in effect that he is corporeal…They quote Scripture in their support, for example, “The Spirit of the Lord spoke through me, and his word was upon my tongue.” [II Sam, 23:2]

“Word,” they say, denotes his attribute of wisdom and “spirit,” his life.  But they are mistaken.  There are other similar instances which they cite, and in their ignorance of  Hebrew, take metaphorical  expressions literally.  If they were consistent, they would add many more persons to the Godhead, in accordance with the many phrases of the Bible:  the hand of God, the eye of God, the glory of God, the anger of God, the mercy of God, and so on…

BACHYA ibn PAKUDA…[11th cent Spain, Dayyan—judge of the Jewish community, classical work of ethics, Duties of the Heart] God is the cause of the universe, hence, he is the true and absolute unity, and all change and multiplicity are foreign to him.  This unity of God is not in any way derogated from by the acsription to him of attributes.  For the latter are of two kinds, essential and active.  We call the first essential because they are permanent attributes of God, which he had before creation and will continue to have after the world ceases to be.  These are three in number: Existing, One, Eternal.  These attributes do not imply change in the essence of God…The active are those attributes which are ascribed to God by reason of his actions or effects on us.  We are permitted to apply them because of the necessity which compels us to get to know of his existence so that we may worship him…

MAIMONIDES… [12th cent, Spain…Egypt—doctor to Sultan; Greatest Yphil-Guide for The Perplexed & legalist-Mishneh Torah of all] It is a self-evident truth that an attribute is something different from the essence of a thing; an accident added to the essence. Otherwise, it is the thing over again, or the definition of that thing and the explanation of its name, composed of these elements…This is absurd. We who believe in the Unity of God uphold that He is a simple essence, without any additional elements whatsoever…There is no difference whether these various attributes refer to His actions or to relations between Him and His works.  In fact, these relations, as we have shown, exist only in the thoughts of people’s minds. [Guide I, 191]…Because Moses request for God to reveal His essence was met by Moses perceiving “achorai—My back”…He proclaimed these thirteen attributes, a lesser revelation, representing “Kol Tuvi—the totality of God’s goodness.” [Ex 33:23]


 Rabbi Isidore EPSTEIN… [Principal of Jews’ College, London & Editor of Soncino Talmud]  The whole Jewish religion revolved around the acceptance of the existence of a personal God.  By this is meant the affirmation that…God is not a blind force about which we know little…Being a Supreme Being, though beyond our imagining, God is possessed of intelligence, purpose, will and other excellent qualities which we are wont to associate with the term “personality.”  Of course…the term “personality” is totally inadequate with which to describe God…When we speak of God as “person,” we mean that God is not an impersonal force.

This must be insisted upon, as we could not, as persons, have any relationship, such as that which constitutes the essence of all religious belief, with an impersonal force.  An impersonal God must remain impervious to human prayer and supplication, and cannot be possessed of those higher values we strive to realize in our lives.  It was in order to awaken and safeguard  this sense of personal relationship that the Bible did not hesitate to resort to anthropomorphic descriptions of God, ascribing to Him the attributes of a person….To obviate any religiously dangerous implications, Judaism emphasizes the incorporeality of God, as all limitations in human personality are imposed in large measure by the body that envelops it; but God is affirmed to be Pure Spirit.

…It is evident that religion has no meaning without the postulate of a “personal” God. The mistake of moderns who recoil from the thought of ascribing to God human attributes is to confuse “personality” and “corporeality.”  “Corporeality” is restrictive;” “personality” is expansive….What imparts to a mind personality is the power to direct and unify the various component parts of the body into a single purpose.
[from Jewish Thought, Louis Jacobs 1970, pgs 29-34]


 Rabbi Harold SCHULWEIS… [For Those Who Can’t Believe, 1994]

In our home, the children were put to bed at night with some conversation and a prayer.  One evening my young daughter, six or seven, asked the perennial question, “Where is God?”…I decided to adapt her “where” question, so I asked her to touch my arms.  She did.  I asked her to touch my nose.  She did.  Then I asked her to touch my love.  She stopped for a minute…She could not. She smiled…The “where” question anticipated a question about the reality of God.  The exercise enabled my daughter to learn that there are things in the world that are very real, in fact the most real, things we care deeply about, but they cannot be touched, probed, or located in space…

In the course of spiritual growth, many questions and answers will refer to the nonmaterial qualities ascribed to God, such as mercy, or justice, or loving-kindness, or truthfulness.  Like touching love, the attributes of God cannot be seen or touched…Theologians consider ineffability, the inability to express certain experiences in words, as a sign of the mystical…But the mystery is not based on a split universe, material and spiritual, natural and supernatural.  The power and significance of transcendence, something beyond the limits of the five senses, is grounded in earthly love…Godliness, like love, is located not “in me” or “in you” but between us…Like the experience of God, love points to a relationship with an “other.”  …This concept of “betweenness” means that there is a spiritual reality greater than me or you, but that includes us both..

…In the Bible, Moses’ request to know God’s Name is rejected.  God is “I am what I am…” [Ex 3:14]  God is not a static noun but a dynamic verb…The focus on the Godly attributes that make up Godliness instead of viewing God as an unknown subject noun possesses a venerable history.  Both mystic and rationalistic theologies agree on the unknowability of God…For the mystics the infinite God is concealed beyond the reach of our intellect.  The rationalist Maimonides agreed that God’s essence is unknowable, and that even His qualities may be grasped solely in terms of what they are not.  Thus God’s goodness, life, and power mean at most that God is not evil or lifeless or impotent.  If we know anything about Divinity, it is not God the noun but God the verb, not God the inscrutable person but God’s knowable qualities that may be emulated.  What is it then to know God?…Godliness is behaved.  Godliness is believed through doing justice, in caring, in curing…To behave in Godly fashion, is this not to know the divine? The 20th century philosopher Franz Rosenzweig asserted, “Truth is a noun only for God; for us it is an adverb.”


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