Need help from Jewish Dopers (This is definitely GD territory)

This question comes from a friend of mine. Spiritually, I don’t believe in a god, so I’m at a loss to answer him.

His question, verbatim, is:

Ego is defined as “sense of self” as in “distinct from others.”

So what say y’all?

I’m not Jewish, but isn’t the old testament God described as jealous?

Yes, absolutely. G-d’s first words of the Revelation at Sinai is “I am the Lord your G-d who took you out of Egypt…” Reference to self in the first person, and reference to specific acts performed by him.

Two Jews, three opinions, yadda yadda.

That being said, you need to look at what tradition and from what time. Kabbalistic mystics who viewed God as inherently indescribable are not likely to overlap with any groups who believed that God is a person in the same way we are (just more powerful and without a physical body, or whatever).

Well, He is what He is…

Which really makes you think… has anybody really ever seen Popeye and God in the same place at the same time?

Yeah but the key word is “traditional.” And cmkeller speaks to that with authority.

Of course Jewish thought includes a wide range of beliefs and interpretations and probably always has, but neither mystics nor pantheists can claim to represent the traditional Jewish thought POV even if they are Jewish traditions.

Certainly a traditional Jewish understanding conceives of god as an agent with an ego. I think your friend will have difficulty finding a single “traditional” Jewish view on very much, though!

The god of the Torah certainly does, but I relate to that god-idea as a literary character, rather than a spiritual entity.

Nah. There are multiple traditions.
Shall we take the centuries long Kaballistic tradition? The Reform tradition? The Orthodox tradition? The Hassidic tradition? Traditions that went on for centuries but were abandoned after the ancient era?

I don’t think it’s anywhere near as easy as you suggest to represent “the traditional Jewish thought POV”, especially if we’re looking at the 20th century. It’s a bit like defining “the traditional American POV” as that having slaves is perfectly OK because for quite some time we were a slave owning society.

So I do contend that both in history and especially in modern fact, it is functionally impossible to claim that there is one unified Jewish traditional view of God, and accurate to say that there are quite a few and many of them have been, and still are, steadily evolving over the years.


Kaballistic and Hassidic are merely subsets of Orthodox. The Torah (which, as I said earlier, is quite explicit about G-d’s self-awareness as an entity) is still the guiding document of faith. Kabalah, in fact, isn’t a distinct “sect” of Judaism, but is rather a set of esoteric teachings about the underlying nature of creation, all ultimately deriving from the Torah, which some people pay more attention or less attention to in the details of observance, but certainly does not disagree about the core tenets of the faith.

Traditions that went on for centuries but were abandoned after the ancient era…like what, Karaites and Samaritans? Even they, who refused to accept Rabbinic authority never professed to deny the divinity of the written Torah, wherein the statements of G-d’s self-hood are quite clear.

Reform tradition? At the risk of getting pitted, WHAT Reform tradition? Reform Judaism was founded 200 years ago. Whatever unified tradition Reform Judaism maintains it kept from the Orthodoxy it split from, whatever novelties they introduced since then have been so variable that it defies the definition of “tradition.”

Yes, the traditional Jewish view of God is that he is an entity with a distinct self-awareness, personality and “ego.” That was how all gods were pretty much viewed in antiquity. the only exception I’m aware of would be the Hindu concept of Brahman.

That’s not to say that some modern schools of Judaism don’t embrace more abstract views of God, but those views couldn’t really be called traditional.

ETA, I concur with cmkeller that “reform tradition” is an oxymoron.

No, they’re not. Unless Reconstructionist is ‘merely a subset’ of Reform. Hassidism, while highly observant like Orthodox Judaism, is not a subset. Nor is Kaballism, which was alive and well long before the modern codification of sects, a subset of orthodoxy.

You’d get no traction in many Reconstructionist congregations by claiming that their faith should be guided by a biblical Hebrew phrase that cast God as hahving an ego.

  1. It doesn’t have to be a sect, the question was tradition(s), not sects.
  2. Nor can you say that a system of thought which avoids defining any of God’s attributes is really a back door into belief that God has an attribute that we know as ego.

Why on Earth would that merit a pitting? It’s somewhat telling that you’d want to handwave away nearly two centuries of tradition as ‘not tradition enough!’

This is pure fiction, and I can tell that you haven’t spent much time talking to Reform rabbis, participating in Reform communities, etc, etc, etc.
The very idea that every Reform tradition is borrowed from the Orthodox is laughable, the claim that there’s nothing that unites the sect because it’s so “variable” is nonsense.


Then what, exactly, is your definition of “Orthodox”? My understanding of the definition is that Orthodox means a belief that the Written Torah (Tanach) and Oral Torah (Talmud, Midrash) were divinely given and the commandments contained therein form the instructions for how life should be lived. This is true of Hasidim and non-Hasidic Orthodox Jews. Hasidim will, without hesitation, pray in synagogues of non-Hasidic Orthodox congregations and vice versa, but neither group will pray in Conservative, Reform or Reconstructionist (or whatever else might be out there) places of worship.

As for Kabalism, the texts of Kabala are supplements - adding deeper meaning to, but never, ever superseding - the Torah and Talmud. No Rabbi who has specialized in study of the Kabalah does so without a solid grounding in Torah and Talmud first. Hence, Orthodox.

So? I was talking about Hasidim and Kabbalists. The quoted phrase does not address Reconstructionists at all.

You suggest that there is a unified tradition that can be described as “Kabalistic.” This is not true. Kabalists have come from the ranks of Ashkenazim and Sephardim, from Hasidim and non-Hasidim, each living by the distinct traditions they absorbed from their upbringing.

And by what stretch of the imagination does Kabalah do that? Kabalah absolutely recognizes a self-aware G-d, and the study of Kabalah is devoted to understanding the mystical side of creation as it reflects G-d’s will.


Perhaps if there were a consistent, distinct tradition that spanned that time that would be a true.

Not at all. What does Reform Judaism claim as a tradition? Support for Israel? Hasn’t always been the case, the leaders of American Reform Jewry were deeply anti-Zionist until the rise of Nazi-ism. Is that a “tradition”? Civil rights activism? Only ever to the degree that it was becoming fashionable to the mainstream left side of the political spectrum, maybe a bit ahead of that curve, but never radically so. Is that a “tradition”? How did that tradition not include gay rights until the mid-1980’s, but then encompass it? “Tikkun Olam”? A term that existed in Judaism before Reform, the only difference being that the definition was no longer guided by the Torah.

I hear plenty of “new traditions” being started by Reform Jews - e.g., something about oranges at a Seder (is having a Seder at all not a tradition maintained from Reform’s Orthodox predecessors?) - however, these ritual innovations are hardly Reform-wide traditions.

Well the idea that Jewish identity can be either matrilineal or patrilineal so long as the child is raised with a Jewish identity - as opposed to pure matrilineal descent that applies even if the child was raised in another faith and identifies as that faith - that counts as a Reform tradition. A greater emphasis on social action - a more secular application of Tikkun Olam, that too. Being less insular in general and allowing for more freedom of interpretation of how to apply the Law in today’s world. Yup, a Reform tradition.

So indeed there are Reform traditions. An Orthodox traditionalist may not respect them, may consider those who follow them apostates, but they are independent traditions, and ones that make sense to many Jews today.

But still while there is a Reform tradition it is not “Traditional Judaism.” For that you have to defer to the longer extant traditions, and without doubt the portrayals of God of Torah, while sometimes perhaps varied, share a conceptualization of a God with a sense of self, albeit one that is incomprehensible to us. A God who can be argued with and who can feel insulted.

And the Reform tradition also subscribes to that formulation of God.

Reconstructionism, yeah at least the original Kaplan school, goes for a non-ego God concept. But you’d find few of the Reconstructionists who would claim the mantle of “Traditional Judaism” I think. Kabbalists have a God concept that can in some forms be one with an ego but it is also moree than that. But again, few would place the label “Traditional” on them; they were never the mainstream of Jewish thought.

A non-ego God concept may be something that has been present in Jewish thought but it cannot be considered the traditional view.

There’s a certain element of semantics here. The term “traditional” is usually used to describe Orthodox and Conservative, under the generalization that there are three main branches of Judaism but many sub-sects. Hasidism itself is generally considered within the Orthodox camp, but there are plenty of different Hasidic sub-groups. Similarly, under the assumption that there are three main branches, Reform itself is sub-divided into mainstream, Humanistic Judaism (which sort of ignores God altogether), etc.

One can argue with the three branches approach. It’s similar to saying that there are three branches of Christianity: Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant. It’s an overview generalization, but useful to try to bring order to a study of the religion (and assuming that there is a single religion called “Christianity” which is distinct from other religions.)

This may be a bit off-topic, but for those in this thread who say they don’t know of/recognize a contemporary Reform Jewish “tradition”, blogger Ben Dreyfus wrote a great post in February about Reform identity, tradition and origin narratives: Toward a Reform Jewish narrative myth.