Jewish Ways of Understanding G-d
In this section we will consider traditional Jewish theology, or ways of understanding G-d. Before we begin, it should be noted that we cannot assume all Jews share these beliefs, and beliefs will vary among different denominations or individual interpretations. In fact the 2022 Institute for Jewish Policy Research report shows that many European Jews see their Jewishness as much about remembering the Holocaust or being part of their local community, as beliefs about G-d (find more details in the section ‘What makes a Jewish Identity?’).
In traditional belief, G-d is eternal and beyond time and space; not limited by a physical body; omnipresent; the creator of the world and everything in it. G-d is omnibenevolent; is interested in people’s moral behaviour; is omnipotent and omniscient and judges each individual. Let’s look at these beliefs in a bit more detail.
What are traditional Jewish beliefs about G-d?
Judaism is a monotheistic tradition, the world’s first significant monotheistic tradition. Therefore a key aspect of Jewish belief about G-d is that G-d alone is the creator and ruler of the universe. This belief is central to Judaism and is expressed in the ‘Shema’, Judaism’s most important prayer; ‘Hear! Oh Israel. the Lord your G-d, the Lord is one.’ (found in Deuteronomy 6: 4-9, 11: 13- 21 and Numbers 15: 37- 41).
G-d is both transcendent and immanent. G-d is beyond human comprehension, seen when G-d is described as infinite, eternal, and all-powerful. G-d is not limited by time or space and is not bound by physical form. G-d is also immanent, or close to human lives. G-d is present and active in the world. This belief is expressed in the concept of Shekhinah, the divine presence that can be experienced in prayer, study, nature and acts of kindness. G-d who is interested in human lives made a ‘covenant’, or a special agreement with Abraham and then later the Israelites as a group, or the Jewish people. Records of the covenant are found in the Torah. This includes the commandments and teachings given to Moses on Mount Sinai. Jews believe that by following the commandments, they can maintain a close relationship with G-d.
G-d is just, merciful and fair and wishes humans to live in a just and loving way. Humans are given many instructions encouraging compassion and generosity, as well as chances to rethink their behaviour and, if necessary, make changes. A traditional view is that G-d is good and giving, and that the world was created so that G-d could give to people, meaning all events are ultimately derived from G-d. If events or situations seem ‘bad’, they still serve a purpose and are part of a grand scheme. An example of this way of thinking is found in a traditional Jewish response when hearing of a death; ‘Baruch dayan emet’ which means ‘Blessed be the one true Judge’ in Hebrew.
What are Jewish ideas about G-d based on?
Jewish beliefs about G-d are primarily based on the Tenakh, the Torah (laws), Prophets (Nevi’im) and Writings (Ketuvim). These texts contain stories, laws, prophecies, and poetry that provide insights about the nature of G-d (you will find more details in the section ‘Jewish Texts’).
The Torah, the foundational text of Judaism, contains the narrative of G-d’s creation of the world, the covenant with Abraham, the liberation of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt, and the giving of the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai. These stories and teachings shape Jewish beliefs about G-d’s role as the creator, lawgiver, and protector of the Jewish people.
In addition to the Hebrew Bible, Jewish beliefs about G-d are also influenced by centuries of interpretation and commentary by Jewish scholars and thinkers. These interpretations, found in works such as the Talmud, Midrash, and various philosophical writings, provide further insights into the nature and attributes of G-d.
Furthermore, Jewish beliefs about G-d are shaped by the collective experiences of the Jewish people throughout history. The Jewish tradition emphasises the importance of personal and communal experiences, such as prayer, study, and acts of kindness, in developing a relationship with G-d.
A Note on Terminology
You will notice the formulation ‘G-d’. This is due to the idea that G-d’s name should not be destroyed or disrespected. Many Jewish people choose to write ‘G-d’, so that is not written fully, the document can be thrown away or deleted with no problem. Some believe that as G-d’s true names are in Hebrew and any word written in another language is not a real name of G-d, just a representation of the concept of G-d, therefore think that using the full English word ‘God’ is not a problem.
However, Jews living in a dominant Christian culture, where the name of G-d is used freely, have adapted to honour their traditions while remaining comprehensible to Christians.
The most sacred word for G-d is made up of four Hebrew letters: Yod, He, Vav, and He. This word is often referred to as ‘the Tetragrammaton’, or ‘four letters’. The exact meaning of the Tetragrammaton is not definitively known. Scholars believe that it may be derived from the Hebrew verb “to be” or “to exist,” indicating G-d’s eternal and self-existent nature. as the 4 letters contain versions of the verb ‘to be’, including ‘was’, ‘is’ and ‘will be’. It is often translated as “I am who I am” or “I will be what I will be.” and some have understood the original meaning to be “He who brings being into being.” The name is the most sacred and personal name for G-d in Judaism. To avoid any potential misuse or disrespect, Jews traditionally substitute the name with other terms when reading from the Torah, in prayers or writing, which are given below.
This practice partly stems from the commandment in the Hebrew Bible to not take the name of G-d in vain (Exodus 20:7). Only the High Priest was allowed to utter the name, and only when in the Temple and reciting the priestly blessing. As this name is not used, the actual pronunciation has been lost over time. Some say the name is pronounced as Yaweh or Jehovah. This practice also reflects the belief that the name of G-d is too sacred to be spoken casually or without proper intention. By refraining from using the name, a sense of awe and reverence for the divine is maintained.
Alternative Jewish words for G-d:
Hashem: This Hebrew term means “The Name” and is used as a respectful way to refer to G-d. This is most commonly used in conversation.
Adonai: This name is commonly used as a substitute for the Tetragrammaton, particularly when reading from the Torah and in prayer. It means “Lord” or “Master” in Hebrew.
Elohim: This name describes G-d as the creator and ruler of the universe. It is a plural form of Eloah, meaning “G-d” in Hebrew.
El Shaddai: often translated as “G-d Almighty” or “G-d of the Mountain.” It emphasises G-d’s power and might.
A Chosen People?
The Torah describes the Jews as G-d’s ‘chosen people’. This concept is primarily found in Deuteronomy, “For you are a people holy to the Lord your G-d. The Lord your G-d has chosen you out of all the peoples on the face of the earth to be his people, his treasured possession.” (Deuteronomy 7: 6).
The idea of being chosen does not imply superiority or exclusivity, but rather a special relationship and responsibility between G-d and the Jewish people. A modern version of this idea is rather of Jews being a ‘choosing people’. The tradition, according to the midrash or the oral tradition, is that G-d offered the Torah to many nations who all refused it and the Jewish people chose to take the Torah and its teachings on as a way of life, therefore creating a special relationship with G-d. By the Israelites decision to choose to follow G-d and the Torah, G-d chose to have a stronger ‘bond’ with them. There is no belief by Jews that Jews are ‘better’ than other people.
In the following section, we focus on 3 key points of Jewish theology; covenant, commandments and the land of Israel.
Theology Focus: Covenant
The idea of an agreement between G-d and the Jewish people is key strand of Jewish theological thought.
Jewish belief in a covenant goes back to the covenant made between G-d and Abraham, as described in Genesis 12- 17. Abraham pledged allegiance to G-d (refuting all other deities) and in return G-d promised Abraham that his descendants would become a great nation and inherit the land of Canaan (later known as the Land of Israel). The covenant in Judaism later established at Mount Sinai is between G-d and the entire Jewish people, found in Exodus 19- 24. According to Jewish tradition, the Israelites agreed to accept G-d’s guidance with the phrase ‘Na’aseh v’nishma’ meaning ‘We will do and we will listen’, showing that they were agreeing to take on G-d’s law before even hearing it. This was because G-d had just rescued them from slavery in Egypt and they had witnessed G-d’s miracles and protection. G-d revealed the Torah to Moses and the Israelites at Mount Sinai, 3 months after the exodus from Egypt.
This covenant forms the basis of Jewish religious and ethical life. The Tenakh contains many references to the covenant in the prophetic books. Prophets like Jeremiah, Isaiah, and Ezekiel often call the Jewish people back to their obligations and warn of the consequences of straying from the covenant. The Psalms and other wisdom literature in the Tenakh also reflect a sense of covenant. These writings express gratitude for G-d’s faithfulness to the covenant and provide guidance on how to live in accordance with its principles.
The covenant is seen as a mutual agreement with obligations for both parties. G-d promises to protect and guide the Jewish people, give rain and ensure produce grows in Israel while the Jewish people commit to obeying G-d’s commandments and living according to the teachings of the Torah. The covenant is eternal and unbreakable. Despite invasion, exile, persecution and oppression, the covenant remains and G-d’s promises endure.
The covenant carries a sense of responsibility and purpose for the Jewish people. They are called to live in accordance with the ethical and moral teachings of the Torah, promoting justice, compassion, and righteousness in the world. Jewish beliefs about covenant have been shaped and developed through centuries of interpretation, commentary, and rabbinic teachings. Rabbinic literature, such as the Talmud and Midrash, as well as the works of Jewish philosophers and scholars, have contributed to the understanding and application of covenantal concepts in Jewish thought and practice. You will find more information about covenant, including circumcision of boys, in the section below- Theology Focus: Covenant.
Theology Focus: Commandments
A key aspect of Jewish theology is the idea of ‘mitzvot’, which means ‘commandments’ in Hebrew. Not all Jews follow all the biblical commandments, but nevertheless, the notion of following G-d’s wishes is a significant aspect of Jewish belief. Fulfilling the mitzvot is traditionally a way to keep the covenant (see above). The Torah provides a comprehensive list of 613, covering a wide range of topics including ethical behaviour, ritual practices and social justice. Additionally, the oral tradition and subsequent rabbinic literature have further expanded upon and interpreted the mitzvot found in the Torah. Interpretation and understanding of the mitzvot can vary among different Jewish denominations and scholars.
Many of the mitzvot are a guide for leading an ethical life. They provide a framework for individuals to act in accordance with G-d’s will and to contribute positively to society. Therefore observing the mitzvot is something that is done, as well as something that is believed. For example, to care for the poor and vulnerable, treat others with fairness and honesty and pursue justice. The Torah also provides detailed instructions for various rituals and ceremonies, such as the observance of Shabbat, the celebration of Jewish holidays, the dietary laws (kashrut), and the laws of ritual purity. The Torah also provides guidelines for personal conduct, including laws related to marriage and family, business practices, and interpersonal relationships.
Observing the mitzvot is a means of spiritual growth. By fulfilling the commandments, individuals can theoretically strengthen their relationship with the divine and enhance their own spiritual well-being. Mitzvot often involve family gatherings and communal practices and rituals. Many mitzvot are designed to be performed collectively, fostering a sense of shared identity and purpose.
The principles outlined in the Ten Commandments provide a moral and ethical framework for Jewish life. While the specific practices and interpretations of the commandments may vary among different Jewish denominations and individuals, the principles themselves are widely recognized and observed. The Ten Commandments include instructions such as the prohibition of idolatry, the observance of the Sabbath, honouring one’s parents, not stealing, not committing murder, and not bearing false witness, among others. These commandments are seen as guiding principles for ethical behaviour and are considered essential in Jewish religious and moral teachings.
Judaism does not expect or even wish for all people to convert to Judaism or to follow all Torah laws. The guidance for non- Jewish people would be to follow the 7 Noachide laws.
There are some mitzvot that are challenging or impossible to follow in today’s world. Many mitzvot in the Torah are related to the functioning of the Temple in Jerusalem, such as offering sacrifices, observing certain festivals in Jerusalem, and the appointment of priests. Since the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE, these mitzvot cannot be fully observed. Some mitzvot are specifically related to agricultural practices in the land of Israel, such as leaving the corners of fields for the poor (pe’ah) or observing the sabbatical year (shmita). These mitzvot are challenging to observe in modern agricultural practices. The Torah contains laws related to the appointment and conduct of a Jewish king. Since Israel does not have a monarchy, these mitzvot cannot be practically followed.
Reform and Liberal (Progressive) Judaism view some of the mitzvot as no longer applicable or subject to reinterpretation in light of changing circumstances in the world and modern technology.
Theology Focus: the Land of Israel
Jewish theology regarding the land of Israel is multifaceted and has evolved over time. It is rooted in Jewish religious texts, historical experiences, and the idea of the covenant. In the Tenakh, the land of Israel is often referred to as the Promised Land, given to the Israelites by G-d. It is seen as a sacred place for the Jewish people where they can fulfil their religious obligations and live in accordance with G-d’s commandments.
The concept of the land of Israel is also tied to the idea of Zion, which represents both a physical place and a spiritual ideal. The word ‘Zion’ is mentioned 152 times in the Tenakh. Originally the word referred to the hill in Jerusalem where the ancient Temple stood, it has become synonymous with ‘Jerusalem’, or even the whole of ‘Israel’. Throughout history, Jews have maintained a strong connection to the land of Israel, including in periods of exile. The longing for a return to the land is a central theme in Jewish prayers and liturgy. In modern times, the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 has had a profound impact on Jewish theology. You might have heard the term ‘Zionist’ or ‘Zionism’ to describe the religious idea that the land of Israel by rights belongs to the Jews.
Many Jews view the return to the land of Israel and the establishment of a Jewish homeland as a fulfilment of biblical prophecies and a manifestation of G-d’s protection. It is referred to as making ‘aliyah’ (going up spiritually) to live in Israel. Religious Zionism is a specific movement, but it is not the only way of seeing the land of Israel in Jewish theology.
Zionism is also a political and ideological movement that emerged in the late 19th century with the aim of establishing a Jewish homeland in Israel. The political movement was founded by Theodor Herzl, an Austro-Hungarian journalist and writer, who published The Jewish State in 1896. Zionism is based on the belief that Jews are a distinct national or ethnic group with a right to self-determination and a homeland, moreover, that Jews need the protection of a sovereign state to escape oppression and violence. The aim of Zionism was to ‘ingather’ Jews from around the world to Israel. Zionism gained momentum in the early 20th century in response to rising anti-Semitism and the Holocaust. In 1948, the State of Israel was established, fulfilling the vision of a Jewish homeland. The modern state of Israel is viewed as the fulfilment of the political Zionist vision. The religious Zionist vision includes a 3rd temple being built and used in service, so that all mitzvot relating to the temple can be fulfilled.
It is for political and religious or ideological reasons that Jews have been moving to Israel since around 1800. Waves of immigration have continued since then to the present day. Some have travelled as refugees, escaping persecution and violence in their countries of origin. Some have made the journey for ideological reasons and have overcome practical and financial hardships to settle in the land.
As well as Jewish self-determination, protection from genocide and fulfilment of G-d’s wishes, Israel represents the cultural and spiritual centre of Jewish life, a beacon of Jewish unity and the preservation of Jewish cultures and practices.
Jewish theology regarding the land of Israel is not monolithic. Critics of Zionism argue that it has led to the displacement and marginalization of the Palestinian people and has contributed to ongoing conflicts in the region.
While Zionism is a mainstream view among Jews there are also those who oppose or critique the ideology and policies associated with the State of Israel. Some scholars’ interpretation of religious texts leads to the conclusion that establishment of a Jewish state should only occur with the arrival of the Messiah. They argue that the current political entity of Israel does not align with this religious understanding and that the Zionist movement is a deviation from religious teachings. Some Haredi Jews are non-Zionist as they do not view the modern State of Israel as being run by Jewish law – for example, not all restaurants are kosher and people are allowed to travel on Shabbat. A tiny percentage of Haredi Jews are anti-Zionist, as they believe that no-one should live in Israel until the Messiah has come and ‘gathered’ all the Jews together in the Land of Israel.
Other Jews oppose specific policies or actions of the Israeli government, such as the occupation of Palestinian territories, expansion of Jewish settlements, or the treatment of Palestinians. They argue that these policies contradict Jewish values of justice, equality, and compassion.
Taking an anti-Zionist position is not the same as anti-Semitism, which is hatred of Jews. Criticizing Israeli policies or holding anti-Zionist views does not necessarily imply hatred or discrimination against Jews as a religious or ethnic group, although the situation is highly charged and painful for all groups involved. Anti-Zionist views can overlap with anti-Semitic views, such as relying on stereotypes about Jews, refusing Jews’ right to self-determination or denying the Holocaust.