Originally published in Mircea Eliade (ed.), Encyclopedia of Religion (1987), vol. 1, pp. 509-11.
ATTRIBUTES OF GOD. [This entry consists of three articles on the characteristics attributed to the divine being in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. For broad comparative discussion of divinity in the history of religions, see Supreme Beings and Deity. For further discussion of God in the scriptures of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam and in later thought, see God.]
Postbiblical Jewish teachers sensed no incongruity in attributing to God qualities having strong human associations; the rabbis of the Talmud and the Midrash rely on the biblical attributes by which, as they remark, God is called in place of his name. This reliance on biblical attributes should not be taken anachronistically to mean that God is only called just, compassionate, and the like, but that, in reality, his true nature cannot be known, since this kind of distinction between essence and attributes did not surface in Judaism until the more philosophically oriented Middle Ages. God is called by his attributes because he is so described in scripture, which, as God’s revealed word, informs humans how God is to be thought about and addressed.
The Hebrew word middah, used by the rabbis, corresponds roughly to the word attribute and means quality or measure. The medieval distinction between God’s attributes and his essence could have had no significance for the spontaneous nature of rabbinic thinking. The term middot (pl. of middah) denotes the proper limits by means of which each of his qualities finds its expression when required in particular circumstances. A good part of the rabbinic thinking on divine control of the universe consists of the subtle interplay between God’s justice and his mercy. For God to overlook sinfulness and wickedness would be for him to betray his quality of justice. As a rabbinic saying has it: “Whoever declares that God is indulgent forfeits his very life” (B.T., B.Q. 50a). Yet God’s justice is always tempered by mercy. He pardons sinners who return to him in sincere repentance and is ever ready to be entreated to exercise his compassion. God’s mercy is extended to human beings who show mercy to one another. A typical rabbinic doctrine is that of measure for measure (Sot. 1.7-10). To the extent that man is prepared to go beyond the letter of the law to be excessively generous and forgiving, God can, with justice, be gracious; the more merciful a human being is in his conduct with his fellows, the more will God extend to him his sympathy and his pardon (B.T., R. ha-Sh. 17a).
The rabbis explore the biblical record, elaborating on the attributes found there. For the rabbis, the teaching that emerges from biblical statements about God is that he is omnipresent, omniscient, and omnipotent, although these abstract terms are never used by the rabbis, who prefer the concrete language favored by the Bible. God is present at all times in the universe, which he fills. Yet reservations are implied about the language used when God’s presence (shekhinah) in the universe is compared to the human soul filling the body it inhabits (B.T., Ber. 10a), with the clear implication that the pervasiveness is spiritual, not spatial. God knows all there is to be known, including all future events (B.T., San. 90b), although the idea of God’s foreknowledge receives little prominence in rabbinic thought. As in the Bible, so for the rabbis, God possesses unlimited power, but here, too, the consideration of whether the doctrine of God’s omnipotence embraces even contradiction had to wait until the rise of medieval theological speculation.
That God is one and eternal is as axiomatic for the rabbis as it is for the biblical authors upon whom they based their views. God is totally unaffected by the passage of time. Nevertheless, the Midrash (Mekhilta’, Beshalah 4) can say that God appeared to the children of Israel at the crossing of the sea in the guise of a youthful warrior, whereas he appeared at Sinai as a venerable sage teaching the Torah to his disciples. In another Midrashic passage (Ex. Rab. 5.9) it is said that God’s voice at Sinai adapted itself to the temperament and disposition of the individual recipients. God spoke to the young in youthful terms, to the older folk in more mature ways. Men heard the voice speaking in a form suitable to males, women in a form suitable to females. Implied here is the idea, later to be developed more fully, that a distinction is to be made between God as he is in himself and God as he becomes manifest in creation. The differentiation is said to have been only in the way in which the divine revelation had its effect. In God there is no trace of age or sex. God is unchanging and unlimited.
The rabbis do not, however, refuse to allow all attributes of the divine nature to be used. The rabbis, following literally the biblical accounts, seemingly believe that God possesses the attributes of goodness, justice, wisdom, truth, and holiness and that these are not simply metaphors, although God possesses these attributes in a manner infinitely greater than human beings can imagine; human beings can only approximate these attributes in very faint measure in their conduct. The divide between God and man is never crossed, but it is the duty of man to be godlike by trying to make the divine attributes his own insofar as this is possible (B. T., Shab. 133b). Man can and should be holy, but he can never be holy in the way that God is holy (Lv. Rab. 24.9). Man can pursue the truth and live a life of integrity, but even of Moses it is said that he failed to attain to the fiftieth and highest gate of understanding, that is, of perception of the divine (B.T., Ned. 38a). Man must be compassionate like his maker, but his compassion must not stray beyond its legitimate boundaries. If, for example, a man mourns beyond the period specified by the law when his relative has died, God is said to protest: “Cease from mourning. You are not more compassionate than I” (B.T., Mo’ed Q. 27b).
The change that came about in the Middle Ages, when a more systematic theological approach dominated the scene, resulted in a completely fresh examination of the whole question of divine attributes. In their quest for the most refined, abstract formulation, the medieval thinkers tended to speak of God as simple, pure, a complete unity, with neither division nor multiplicity. Their difficulty with the divine attributes found in the Bible and the rabbinic literature was not only because in these God is described in human terms. Even if the attributes could be explained as metaphors, there remained the implication that the realities the metaphors represented were coexistent with God for all eternity, seeming to suggest for many of the thinkers a belief in a plurality of divine beings. For the more thoroughgoing of the medieval thinkers, to ascribe attributes in any positive sense to God was to be guilty of idolatry.
Not all the medieval thinkers saw reason to qualify the older doctrine of attributes. Hasdai Crescas (1340-1410) refused to accept the notion that to say God is good or wise is to impose limits on his nature or to set up goodness and wisdom as rival deities. Maimonides (Mosheh ben Maimon, 1135/8-1204) and others, however, sensed the difficulties so keenly that they felt themselves obliged to develop the idea of negative attributes. For Maimonides, the attributes referring to God’s essence (his unity, wisdom, and existence) are not to be understood as saying anything at all about God’s true nature. All that they imply is the negation of their opposites. When God is said to exist, the meaning is that he is not a mere fiction. When he is said to be wise, the meaning is that there is neither ignorance nor folly in him. When it is said that he is one, the meaning is that there is neither plurality nor multiplicity in his being, although the actual nature of that being is beyond all human comprehension, and of it no human language can be used. For Maimonides, the knowledge of God is a constant process of negation. The finite mind can never hope to grasp the divine nature, but the more one knows of what God is not the closer one comes to such perception. Secondary attributes, on the other hand, such as goodness, justice, and mercy, may be used of God even in a positive sense, since these do not refer to his essence but to his activity. Maimonides gives the illustration of God’s care for the embryo in the womb. If such care were possible for a human being, we would attribute it to that person’s compassionate nature, and in this sense we are permitted to say that God is compassionate.
The qabbalists, in their doctrine of Ein Sof (“the limitless,” God as he is in himself) and the sefirot (the powers by means of which the godhead becomes manifest), tread a middle road on the question of attributes. The qabbalists, more radical here than the philosophers, do not allow even negative attributes to be used. But for God as he is expressed in the realm of the sefirot, even the positive attributes of essence are in order. God can be described positively as existing, as one and as wise, provided it is realized that the reference is to his manifestation in the sefirot.
The question of the divine attributes receives little attention in modern Jewish thought, there being a marked tendency to see the whole subject as somewhat irrelevant to living faith.
[See also Shekhinah; Qabbalah; Folk Religion, article on Folk Judaism; and God, articles on God in the Hebrew Scriptures and God in Postbiblical Judaism.]
For the rabbinic period the best treatment is still the section “The Attributes of God,” in The Old Rabbinic Doctrine of God by Arthur Marmorstein (1927; reprint, New York, 1968), pp. 148-217. For the medieval period, the passages referred to in the index under “Attributes” should be consulted in A History of Mediaeval Jewish Philosophy by Isaac Husik (New York, 1916).