For more than a thousand years, the Jewish God was primarily seen and described by Christians as a vengeful God. As Robert Louis Wilken, writing in “First Things,” explains:
“One of the first major theological disputes in the early Church centered on the teaching of Marcion. Marcion thought that the Christian Gospel had nothing to do with the revelation of God to the Jewish people in the Old Testament. Christ, he said, had not been announced by the Law and the Prophets. The God of the Old Testament was a vengeful tribal God, whereas the God of the New Testament is a universal God of love and compassion.”
When Christians described the Jewish God as vengeful, their comments expressed more about what they thought of Jews than who the Jewish God truly is. For better or worse, there is a great deal of truth in the cynical anthropological assessment of God talk. Namely, all too often God becomes a mirror for who and what we are.
Most Jewish questions find an answer somewhere in the Talmud. The most notable exception to the rule is ironically, the question of who is God in the Jewish tradition. God is perhaps the most central component of religious life, and yet there is no tractate devoted to discussing the issue. The closest one gets is the tractate Avodah Zarah (Idolatry). In other words, there is more written about what God is not than what He actually is.
There are many different understandings of God in the Jewish tradition. Maimonides’ position is unique in its attempt to explicate the above-described irony. Maimonides famously argued that God could only be understood in the negative, that any depiction of God–linguistic or concrete– was akin to idolatry. In his “Mishneh Torah,” Maimonides went so far as to call anyone who sees God in any anthropomorphic sense an idolater. Those such as Rabbi Abraham ben David (Ravad) responded with force and indignation, reminding Maimonides that “greater ones than him have believed such things [that God can be understood as having physical attributes].”
The argument between Maimonides and the Ravad gets to the heart of Jewish life and thought. It forces us to ask in what sense God can be seen and understood in this world. How active a role does God play in our day-to-day lives, and in what ways is it proper to relate to God?
On the one hand, I am moved by the Ravad’s God. I want a God that is real, that is there with me in my pain, agony, joy, and love–a God I can feel and touch, see and hear everyday all the time, a God who walks with me “in all my paths.”
On the other hand, I know how dangerous such thinking is–how quickly the slope slides and how fast such a God can become but another object that I privilege, or worse, use as a weapon against others and their beliefs. A God that can be felt is a God that can be grasped and abused for the greatest evils.
So I go back and forth. When I read the paper and hear about the kind of God who kills and murders, I see God more like Maimonides–as something far more distant, divorced from the whims of peoples’ political passions. Yet, when I am in pain, hurting and need personal comfort, I look to the skies and try to bring down the God that Ravad knows.