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God! Who? What? Where? and Why?

"What Is God?"

by: Shmuel ben Shlomi

CHAPTER TWO - “What is God?”

The next question — What is God,? may actually seem to be a tad easier to answer using the same source material we foraged in Chapter One, but don’t be fooled by that.

Perhaps at this point it is important to correctly define terms as they are being used in this enquiry. In Chapter One the question asked was “Who is God?” The meaning of Who was meant as an interrogative expressing the purpose of identifying a subject, in this case the subject being God. For this chapter we are interested in the question “What is God?” By the term ‘What’ we are concerned with the formal use of the word versus the informal. ‘What’ here implies learning about the nature, character, traits and very Essence of God.

We will not dabble into the views of Hinduism and other Asian concepts of ‘What’ God is since there is not just one god to place our focus on with most of those ideologies, philosophies and religions. Our main focus will be on the Avrahamic faiths developed over the centuries in the Middle East and within the Greco-Roman influence upon all three of those faiths — Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

Both Judaism and Islam have a very distinct and clear concept of ‘What’ God is. Basically it can be summed up in one Hebrew word — אחד (Echad/One). What God is Is One. By this term אחד is meant the simplest form of its meaning. God is the ONLY One, there is no other. What God is is not only relegated to “His” display of attributes; although we will endeavor to look into those expressions as focused elements of how God wishes to display to "His" creation as to ‘What’ “He” is.

Apart from the arguments made mainly by the trinitarian Christian view that the term אחד can be derived from the idea that it can represent as more than one in number (a plurality) while expressing One in essence — such as the use of the term in the Torah when describing the אחד of grapes brought out of the Promised Land during the exodus (Numbers 13:23). However, as intriguing as it may be to ponder such ideas, the fact of the matter is that within Judaism, going all the way back to its traditional founding by Moses and its religious/philosophical understanding of its tenets during the first Temple period and taught by generations of sages and rabbis and later Muslim Imams, the idea has been firmly understood as meaning One in Essence, One in Being and One as in The Only One without division of any kind. For Muslims this idea is as firmly entrenched in their minds as it has been in the mind of traditional Judaism — “Hear. O Israel: The Lord our God is one (אחד) God.” [Deuteronomy 6:4] The meaning of One in this foundational verse of the Torah is expressly clear from the ancient Hebrew. God is One - not many, not composite, not three not a hundred, not even a many unified one (yachid). God is One!

The early Christian view of ‘What’ God is was greatly influenced by the end of the 1st Century CE by the Greco-Roman worldview. Having made substantial inroads into the Greco-Roman world through the efforts of the Apostle Paul and his disciples (none of which, including Paul, ever met or were taught directly by Jesus or any of Jesus’ original followers); the idea of ‘What’ God is can be best summed up by a man in around 100 to 150 CE who either was named John, or as was common in past times, took on the name of the famed “Beloved Disciple” of Jesus. He wrote these very famous words in his Gospel of John describing the essence of God (and to his mind Jesus) this way: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” (John 1:1). Written several years after the death of Paul this verse can best be understood as the pinnacle of Paul's teachings to the non-Jewish world concerning the essence of Jesus as God. By this time, beginning where Paul left off, the Christian world had completely left behind its Jewish roots and totally embraced a Hellenistic spiritual worldview, which would allow for the later Constantine Trinity Doctrine to take hold as Church law in the Nicene Creed adopted by the Roman Church in 325 CE and fully amended in 381 CE. This was the final and lasting break of Christianity from its Jewish anchor causing the birth of a new religion that combined Greco-Roman spirituality to now become the foundation of the Christian faith and something that was totally foreign and unrecognizable from the Judaism from which it originally sprang three hundred years earlier.

The concept of God being the Word (Logos in Greek - the language John wore his gospel in) changed the idea of ‘What’ God is from the One to an expression of God that can be identified in a myriad of ways. It no longer kept God ‘intact’ so to speak as the One but allowed for division within the Source of all, again, laying the groundwork for a trinitarian god that would find its full expression in the Nicene and later creeds of the Roman/Christian Church that still are practiced and taught in the 21st Century CE. When John employed the Greek word λόγος (Logos) to describe what the essence of God, and by attrition Jesus, is he moved the concept of the One God into the nebulous idea of a God that is no longer One but can be seen as many, as an analogy of divine utterance instead of a Being of One Essence. To John, and later Christianity God was now simply the expression of the thoughts of the Father God through the Spirit God within the Son God (Jesus); as can be seen from the rest of the verse in John 1:14 — “And the Word (Logos) was made flesh [Jesus], and dwelt among us, and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.” By relegating the original Jewish and later Islamic idea of the Oneness of God as God’s Essence to the trash heap John, in one stroke of the pen caused a division in God’s people the repercussions of which still reverberate all these millennia later.

To say that God is One in the truest sense of the meaning of echad doesn’t mean that this God cannot or will not find ways to express “His” Oneness through what could best be described as attributes.

If you wish to know ‘what’ a fellow human being is or even ‘what’ other creatures are you simply have to look no further than how one exposes themselves in various situations. When put to the test how does this One God attribute “Himself?”

Within Judaism we find within the Tanakh (the sum total of the Jewish Bible which includes the Torah, the Prophets and the Writings) many ways in which the One God reveals by “His” actions and words ‘What’ “He” is. From them we learn that he is All-Powerful, All-Knowing, All-Wise, Omnipresent, has Creative Expression, can get angry, hostile, even jealous, loving, caring, protective and a bevy of other anthropomorphic expressions that help to define the “What’ of God.

One of the best sources of learning “What God is” can be found in the Kabbalah. I’m not talking about the pseudo Kabbalah being tossed around and taught in Hollywood elitist circles or at your nearby corner storefront and bookstore gathering. The Kabbalah I am speaking about here is that which is taught within limited Jewish circles by highly respected Kabbalistic Rabbis well versed in the art of understanding the wisdom found within the pages of its sacred writ. The Kabbalah that cannot even be undertaken by an initiate until the age of at least forty years and one who has already spent their entire lives in the study of Torah, Talmud and Midrash.

I will not go too deeply into it here as to not give cause for stumbling to those who are not quite ready for a deep dive into this area of Jewish teachings. But, as it relates to ‘What’ God is there is a Kabbalistic teaching known as Ein Sof (boundless?) which reveals the pure transcendence and essence of the ‘what’ of God. Ein Sof gives revelation to the expressive attributes of God in the form of the Tree of Life with its roots, trunk, branches and head as all being the the revelation of the expression of the Divine Essence — or the “What is God?”

Without getting too deeply into the teachings of Kabbalah as written in the Zohar, a basic understanding of the Tree of Life can be seen in its Ten Sefirot or branches. These are, beginning from right to left — Netzach, Chesed (Hesed), Hokhmah, Hod, Din, Binah; and bottom to top — Malchut (Shekhinah), Yesod, Tiferet and Keter.

As the name of each Sefirot implies they help us in our limited capacity to try and grasp the ‘What’ of the One Eternal, Everlasting, Infinite and Unknowable God in our finite created existence while in a corporal state. Each section of the Sefirot is divided into halves with a bottom, middle and top. The right side composed of Netzah (Eternity), Hesed (Mercy) and Hokmah (Widom). These represent the harmonious benevolence of the One God while the left side - Hod (Glory/Radiance), Din (Justice) and Binah (Understanding) give rise to the justice, reverence and unified respect/fear and awe of God.

At the bottom of the Sefirot acting as the foundation for the entire Tree of Life is the Shekinah which represents and gives expression to God’s very Presence within “His” creation which includes all that has been, is and ever will be in the Eternal Now. The rest of the middle section of the Sefirot is what gives a balance to the ‘What’ of God between the right and left sides of the Tree. While the left side is feminine and the right is masculine the middle, particularly the branch known as Tiferet (Beauty) brings harmony between the two sides with Yesod (Foundation) acting as the cornerstone and trunk, and Keter (Knowing/Intuitive) as the Divine Crown.

We can then sum up our discussion about “What is God” with this:

While in our current corporal and finite life we cannot ever fully understand ‘What’ the Unknowable is, we can from a serious intent of study come to recognize through the means and ways provided by God through His Word and earthly teachers come to realize that the Essence of What God is are the following:

Glorious, Brilliance, Awesome, Mighty, Knowing, Love, Righteous, Forgiving, Just, Good, Retributive, Spiritual, Creative, Wise Beyond human understanding, Merciful, Eternal, Infinite, Understanding of “His” creation - including those made in “His” Image and Likeness, Beautiful beyond measure, All Intuitive and the Source and Resting Place of all Knowledge.

What is God? God is One!

[Coming up soon will be Chapter Three: "Where Is God?"]

{Special thanks to Prof. Eliezer Segal for the image of the Tree of Life}

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