Jewish Philosophy

Philosophically, the idea of a complex, indivisible unity is not foreign to the Bible. The nation of Israel is a complex, indivisible unity-one nation made up of 12 tribes, the Law of Moses is a complex, indivisible unity-one law made up of 613 commandments, and marriage is a complex, indivisible unity-a one flesh relationship consisting of man and woman. Is it inconsistent if the God of the Universe is a complex, indivisible unity as well?

There is a book written by Dr. J. David Bleich entitled With Perfect Faith-The Foundations of Jewish Belief. In this book Dr. Bleich develops Jewish thought around Maimonides’ Thirteen Principles of Faith. He introduces the Thirteen Principles in the first chapter and then develops each principle in the succeeding chapters. In his overview of principle number two which is unity, he makes these comments:

  • Saadya (HaGaon) is willing to attribute to God the attributes of Life, Power, and Wisdom.[1]

  • Bahya ibn Pakuda distinguishes between what he terms ‘essential’ and ‘active’ attributes. The first are three in number: Existing, One, and Eternal.[2]

  • (Judah) HaLevi regards divine attributes as being divisible into three classes: actional, relative, and negative.[3]

Is it not interesting how the number three keeps popping up in relation to the unity of God? In his footnote to Saadya’s thought, Dr. Bleich makes these remarks:

God in whom no change takes place is living, wise and powerful by virtue of His essence. In other words, these three attributes are identical with His essence(emphasis mine). Saadya stresses this point in his treatment of the Christian doctrine of the Trinity, which, in his opinion interpreted the three attributes of Existence, Wisdom and Life in the sense of the three separate persons of Father, Son (Logos) and Holy Spirit … the three attributes of Life, Wisdom and Power are identical with the essence of God.[4]

Dr. Bleich’s footnote reveals an error in Saadya’s understanding of the Christian/biblical doctrine of the Trinity. The Christian/biblical doctrine of the Trinity does not teach that the Father, Son (Logos) and Holy Spirit are three separate persons. The misunderstanding is revealed in the presence of the word “separate.” There are two observations that are more accurate.

First, the Christian doctrine of the Trinity teaches about the essence of God in personal terms. God is a “person,” and it is accurate to describe Him in personal terms. God is not simply an attribute or a force. Second, the Christian doctrine of the Trinity teaches that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are identical with the essence of God, not three “separate persons.” The three are more accurately described as the same in essence but distinguishable.

Saadya’s understanding needs to be refined by borrowing the terminology employed by Dr. Bleich. These three persons (Father, Son, Holy Spirit) are identical with His essence. If three attributes can be distinguishable yet identical with God’s essence, why is it so radical if three persons are distinguishable yet identical with God’s essence? In both cases we are talking about three-in-one-one God who is a complex, indivisible unity. Finally, one of our rabbinic traditions is that fact that God has made and arranged everything in a Trinitarian way.

Let me quote Midrash Tanchuma on Exodus 19.

Exodus 19 starts with the words, “In the third month.” This is explained by the words of Proverbs 22:20, “Have I not written to thee excellent (Hebrew, threefold) things in counsels and knowledge.” On this, Rabbi Joshua bar Nehemiah said that this is the Torah who’s letters are threefold, alf, bet, g(i)mel, and everything is a trinity. The Torah is trinitarian, for it is composed of the Torah, the Prophets, and Writings. The Mishna (talmudical learning) is a trinity composed of talmud (learning), halakhot (daily Jewish laws), and haggadot (historical items). The mediator consisted of a trinity of Miriam, Moses, and Aaron. Prayers are a trinity of morning, afternoon, and evening prayers. Israel is a trinity consisting of Priests, Levites, and Israelites. The name Moses, in Hebrew, consists of three letters. He is of the tribe of Levi, which is in the Hebrew, three letters, from the seed of the Patriarchs who are a trinity of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; in the third month, which is Sivan, after Nisan and Iyar, on Mount Sin, whose letters are three, as it is written, “And they rested in the wilderness of Sin.”

Midrash Tanchuma clearly sees a Divine pattern of “threes.” The pattern is that of a complex, trinitarian, indivisible unity. If this pattern and understanding is part and parcel of the Jewish community, is it inconsistent, non-biblical, and un-Jewish to hold that God Himself is a complex, trinitarian, indivisible unity? There is clear evidence of complex, indivisible unity in the thinking of the Jewish community regarding the nature of God. It is, ironically, denied and argued against by the very people who write about it, but it is still there. God is a complex, indivisible being, and this is reflected in the biblical data as well.

  1. ^ Bleich, Dr. J. David, With Perfect Faith-The Foundations of Jewish Belief (New York, Ktav Publishing House, Inc., 1983), p. 108

  2. ^ Ibid

  3. ^ Ibid, p. 109

  4. ^ Ibid, p. 117