The Absolute Unity of God[1]

שמע ישראל ה' אלקינו ה' אחד.[2]

Hear Israel, HaShem is our G-d, HaShem is one.

This verse is understood within Judaism as the fundamental confession of our belief in one G-d. It is the proclamation that there exists one and only one god, and He is the one who Israel worships. By saying it we confess our belief in the Unity of G-d. Any hint of multiplicity in G-d is anathema in Judaism, and heresy. If you don’t believe this, quite simply, you are outside of the Jewish religion, a violator of the Torah, and a worshiper of strange gods.

This does not mean that there was total agreement as to the specific nature of G-d in Jewish thought. We find that traditionally[3] there was a disagreement that revolved around the idea of G-d’s attributes. Attributes in classical philosophy and theology refer to character traits, or qualities of G-d. Examples are: “merciful”, “wise”, “living” etc.

The question was: Does G-d’s eternal essence include attributes or not? Some, like Saadiah Gaon say yes, while others like Maimonides say not really. Saadiah Gaon contends that when G-d is called “wise” we mean that He has the attribute of Wisdom, while Maimonides contends that we mean it in the negative way; i.e. G-d is not foolish. The ‘problem’ they were dealing with was if when we refer to G-d as being “wise”, does that mean that G-d’s essence has the attribute of ‘Wisdom’. And if it does, are we implying division in the essence of G-d, which would be a compromise to G-d’s unity[4]. This present discussion will revolve around this disagreement and lead to some conclusions using modern philosophical methods[5].


To introduce this discussion we need to remember two key points:

First, all Jewish sources will agree that G-d’s nature and essence is unchanging. How He was, He is now and will forever be. So when we are discuss His essence, it is not that at one time He is one way and later ‘changed’ but His essence is unchanging and was always as it is, and will always be so.

The second issue is that to understand G-d’s essence we need to consider how it was from before the world was created. Since Judaism believes in creation ex nihilo, we are talking about when G-d alone was all there was.[6] This is one of the most difficult concepts to understand but it is the key to comprehend any discussion of G-d’s essence. We need to recognize that before creation, it was G-d alone. Nothing else existed; no other beings were there with Him.


To further this discussion we need a good definition or description of an attribute.[7] Let’s look at the attribute of mercy first, and then expand this format for some other attributes. What do we mean when we say that ‘X is merciful’? In modern terms we are saying that X is a member of the set M of all beings who have done an act of mercy. This does not really help very much as it leaves open the question of how does one become a member of that set. We need to define what we mean by doing an ‘act of mercy’? Consider a simple example: A gives to B food because B is hungry.

From this we see that an ‘act of mercy’ can be looked upon as a function in 2 variables: Fm(a,b), where a is the one doing the act and b is the recipient of the act. We can now define the mercy function Fm as follows:

A being ‘a’ is a member of the set ‘M’ of merciful beings if and only if there is a being ‘b’ such that Fm(a,b) = True[8].

This just says that ‘a being is considered ‘merciful’ if he/she does an act of mercy to someone.’ This can serve as a model of the attribute of ‘merciful’ and many other attributes like it.

Now that we have it formalized we can consider how does this apply to G-d? The being ‘b’ is always one which lacks something that ‘a’ provides. Simply put is there a being ‘b’ such that we have this function?

It would seem natural that we could answer yes, however that is not the case. Before the creation of the world the answer is an obvious no. Only G-d existed. Fm(G,b) would be undefined and have no meaning because we are before any being ‘b’ was created. Were there a second eternal being then we would no longer have monotheism. Even worse Fm(G,G) is absurd! What kind of merciful act could G-d do to Himself? G-d lacks nothing. Therefore since before creation it is not possible to say G-d was ‘merciful’, it is not possible to say that G-d’s essence has the attribute of mercy[9].

If we considered ‘mercy’ in the manner of Maimonides we are no better off. The problem is that Fm is an undefined function before the creation as there are no beings for which we could formulate the function Fm, and negative of an undefined function would also be undefined.[10]

We have a similar problem with ‘Wise’. What do we mean by that? How do we define ‘a’ as a member of the set ‘W’ of wise beings? Here we can define the function Fw(a,B) where B is a set of people who ‘a’ has more wisdom than:

A being ‘a’ is a member of the set ‘W’ of wise beings if and only if there is a set of beings ‘B’ such that Fw(a,b) = True for every member of B, and the number of beings in B is more than the threshold of X[11].

People are considered wise because they are wiser than a lot of other people. So we say a is ‘wise’ because he has exhibits more wisdom then a large number of people. Therefore, because ‘wisdom’ is a function of comparison it is undefined for G-d before creation and so cannot be made to apply to G-d.

Finally let’s look at existence (living)[12]. We can define a function of existence: Fe. But what would Fe(a) mean? We might just say that it simply means ‘a’ exists. But there is a problem here. The problem is a simple one if we consider the following statement: “George Washington exists.” Is that true or false? If the date is 1776, it is true, but if it is 1976 it is false. Therefore an existence function is not a unary function as it needs another variable ‘t’ for time. Then Fe(GW,t) is true when t is any date during the period when George Washington lived and false otherwise.

Again if we look at G-d, we have the problem that ‘t’ is undefined before creation. Time did not exist then, as it was part of creation. That means the function: Fe(F,t) is undefined before creation and hence the attribute of existence could not apply.


At this point we see that no attributes can be assigned to G-d as part of His essence since they involve relations between multiple beings or are functions of time. Therefore Saadiah Gaon was incorrect when he applied attributes to G-d’s essence[13]. Maimonides was closer, but still not correct, as negative attributes are either real attributes, or in the cases we discussed, undefined, because the positive function is undefined. Although both Saadiah Gaon and Maimonides were correct in their beliefs about G-d’s essence being one, their explanations of it, based on Greek philosophical ideas, were not, as they lead to results that they did not consider.

We need therefore to understand what do we mean when we call G-d merciful, or wise etc., since we cannot mean that it is part of His essence? The answer is simple: When referring to any of the attributes to Him we mean that later, after creation, He would act in ways that would be called merciful, etc. The attributes are not part of the Essence of G-d, but are descriptions of His future actions.

Interestingly this is the view brought in the Kabbalistic work Eitz Chaim from the Ari, based on the Zohar in the portion of Pinchos[14]:

Before the world was created he was called all of these levels[15] (i.e. attributes) because of the creatures He was going to create. If he did not create the world why should He be called ‘Merciful’ ‘Judge’? He is only called that because of His future acts to the creatures he creates.

All these attributes are not part of G-d’s essence, but they are potentials which become actualized ONLY after He has created the world. A famous parable is given to this. It is compared to a stone which when you strike it a spark comes out and starts a fire. There is neither spark nor fire in the stone, but it has the ability to cause fire.


From the above approach to eternal attributes and pre-creation, we can clarify the problem Judaism has with the Christian concept of god as an eternal Trinity with a single essence. The problem is that the definition of Trinity leads directly to a non-monotheistic understanding of god.

Let’s look at it as we have looked at attributes. According to their theology the ‘son’, though in some way equal, is eternally begotten by the father. This leads to a function Fb with two variables: Fb(f,s). (The son ‘s’ is eternally begotten from the father ‘f’) It cannot be that f=s in the sense of identity as they claim that they are two different persons. But that means that there are two and not one. Fb(s,s) or Fb(f,f)[16] are false according to everyone as they make no sense theologically or otherwise.

Likewise if we look at the spirit ’sp’ which proceeds from the father ‘f’ and also the son[17] ‘s’ we have the function Fp(f,s,sp)[18] which has three non-identical variables. Again we are forced to say that this is not one, but three.

In both cases we have functions which require that the variables be non-identical, hence, the claim of the relationship being eternal, and that the persons are equal, does not collapse the variables into identities. This leaves us numerically with three and not one. Notwithstanding their equality they are not identical and hence have of cardinality[19] of 3 and not 1. In fact this non-identity is fundamental, and without it there could be no Trinity in the Orthodox sense[20].


The conclusion we draw from this discussion is that the proper way of looking at G-d’s attributes is that they do not apply to the essence of G-d, but that they are used in reference to actions that He does (will do) after the world has been created.

This view of monotheism, which is what is maintained by Kabbalists, is in a sense more radical than that of the philosophers. While the Kabbalists’ view does stand up well to modern approaches, the philosophers’ view fails, and leads to implications that the formulators had not considered. According to this approach it is not even possible to discuss any attributes in relation to G-d’s essence, or to discuss Him in any satisfying manner before creation. He just is.

© Moshe Shulman 2013

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[1]  This is the first of three articles on the most fundamental belief in Judaism: G-d. In this article I will discuss the Unity of G-d. In the second I will discuss the issue of incorporeality (Heb. Ruchniyos). In the final one I will discuss the seferot and how they fit in to this. It is strongly suggested to read them in order as they assume the material in the previous articles.

[2]  Deuteronomy 6:4.

[3]  Here I mean the philosophical discussions in the Middle Ages.

[4]  Neither Saadiah nor Maimonides considered their view a compromise on monotheism, but those taking the view of Maimonides did so because they felt that the other view implied multiplicity. The arguments on each side can be complex and are based on ideas that were at one time commonly held, but are no longer relevant in modern philosophical discourse. After Hume’s empiricism, Kant’s Copernican revolution, Nietzsche’s existentialism, and 20th century Analytic philosophy, among others, the assumptions that led to these disagreements are no longer valid.

[5]  What I mean by a modern approach is a method based on the philosophical methods used in the 20th and now 21st century. They are in use by modern religious philosophers like Alvin Plantinga in his books.

[6]  This is not an easy concept to grasp and I hope in later articles to return to this issue and give more of an idea about it.

[7]  My approach here follows the method of Analytic Philosophy which is the common approach today.

[8]  This could be made more complicated by saying that ‘b’ needs to be set of people having a certain amount of members for ‘a’ to be considered in the set M. I have used the simplified approach as this will make it easier to illustrate my point later.

[9]  This does not mean that G-d cannot act with mercy, but only that in His essence there does not exist that trait.

[10]  The logic here is difficult. Let there be the set of non-merciful beings where the function Fm is always false. Before creation Fm is undefined. It is neither true nor false, just like division by 0.

[11]  If there were only one person in the world, how could we call him ‘wise’? There is no comparison.

[12]  In philosophy it has long been accepted that ‘Existence is not a predicate’. That means that in modern thought attributes like ‘existence’ and ‘living’ are not real attributes that a being can have. This whole discussion is to show that even were we to not accept this modern conclusion, it would not change anything.

[13]  Which is what Maimonides had contended.

[14]  Zohar III 257b.

[15]  Wise, Merciful Judge etc.

[16]  i.e. The son begets the son, or the father begets the father.

[17] This is the formula in Western Christianity.

[18] In the Easter churches it would be a function of two variables: Fp(f,sp).

[19]  Cardinality refers to the idea of ‘number’ of elements. So, for example {a,b,c} has cardinality of 3, because there are three elements.

[20]  There are Christian ‘heresies’ who posit that the three are identical and are essentially different names of the same being based on its actions. The problem with this is different and the discussion here does not cover that.