By Rabbi Yerachmiel D. Fried
Dear Rabbi Fried,
We were given an assignment over religious school summer break to define what Jews believe about God and how it differs from other beliefs.
All we are clear about is that we don’t believe in Jesus, but we haven’t found anything that clarifies we do believe.
We hope you can help us.
— Chelsea K. & Taylor W.
Dear Chelsea and Taylor,
This is truly an important assignment. Most people go through life without ever really stopping to think who God is, even if they believe in Him.
In fact, you can try an experiment. Take a room full of people and ask who believes in God. I wager that even if everyone in the room will raise their hands when you ask who believes in God, when you ask them to define what they mean by that, they will probably have very different or even contradictory ideas.
In many religions, God is a philosophical concept. God is something that they believe in by looking around at the world and concluding there must be a creator.
Although Judaism shares that notion, the source of our belief in God is different. We don’t merely “believe” in God, rather we “know” God.
We know He exists because He revealed Himself openly to our entire people through the miracles He performed for us in Egypt and in the desert.
We know Him because He spoke directly to us when He uttered the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai.
That’s why God introduces Himself to us in the first of the Commandments as “I am the Lord your God who took you out of the land of Egypt…” (Exodus 20:2).
He didn’t introduce Himself as the one “ …who created the heavens and the earth,” because we didn’t witness that creation ourselves. God wanted our belief to be based upon facts we experienced personally, and to extrapolate what we know to other things we believe.
Another thing we learn from the miracles of the exodus from Egypt is that God didn’t just create the world and leave it alone. He knows what is happening, cares about the world, and interacts with it. He speaks to people through prophecy, as He spoke to Moses, and makes changes in the world when necessary for those He loves.
Maimonides, the classical 13th century Jewish philosopher, encoded 13 core principals of Jewish belief, the first 5 of which deal with our belief in God. These principals include the belief that God is the source of all existence, doesn’t need anything else outside of Himself to exist, but everything else needs Him.
Secondly, God is an absolute oneness; not only to say that no other gods exist, but that His oneness includes all that exists in the universe.
Thirdly, God has no physical characteristics whatsoever, no front or back, arms or legs.
The fourth point is that God is infinite, and always existed and always will, as He is above time.
Lastly, only God is to be worshipped and prayed to and nothing else. This, at one level, means not to worship idols. More deeply it means that we have a loving relationship with God, in which serving Him is our opportunity to express our love and appreciation for all the love and blessings He showers upon us through the gift He gave us called Life.
All these points are discussed by Maimonides and other pivotal Jewish philosophers at great length. These are, however, in a nutshell, the key points of our belief.
I wish you the best of luck in discussing and internalizing them, and please feel free to contact me for more explanation.
Rabbi Yerachmiel D. Fried, noted scholar and author of numerous works on Jewish law, philosophy and Talmud, is founder and dean of DATA, the Dallas Kollel. Questions can be sent to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.