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More Than Just God’s Name


I. Proving God

You expect members of an enslaved nation to ask many questions before agreeing to rebel against their masters. However, asking the name of their proposed redeemer’s deity seems only marginally relevant, a low priority considering the logistical issues they face. Yet Moshe, before asking how to prove his ability to redeem the Jews from Egypt, asks what name to call God when the people ask. God’s answer is: “I will be what I will be” (Ex. 3:15). This is hardly a simple answer to a straightforward, if unusual, question.

Rambam (Moreh Nevukhim 1:63) sees in this exchange a more profound exercise. Except for the Levites, the Jews in Egypt adopted the local idolatries (Mishneh Torah, Hilkhos Avodah Zarah 1:3). Before accepting that Moshe was God’s messenger, they first had to be convinced that God exists. Following R. Sa’adiah Gaon’s translation of the verse, Rambam explains that God gave Moshe a three-word proof for God’s existence. A Necessary Being must exist eternally (see Maimonides III in this post: link).

God gave Moshe a philosophical proof for the existence of an all-powerful, eternal deity as the first step in convincing the Jews that Moshe was their savior. Moshe then asked for further proof, this time of his selection, for which God gave him two signs (Ex. 4:1-9).

Ramban (Ex. 3:14) rejects the premise that the Jews questioned God’s existence. These believers descendants of believers did not require proof of God’s existence. Rather, they would ask with which of God’s attributes, which His names represent, they would be redeemed. Would God save them through mercy or through judgment? The answer: mercy within judgment.

II. God and Partnership

Why did Ramban find Rambam’s approach so implausible? I suggest it revolves around the status of Christianity within Judaism. Rambam unequivocally rejected Christianity as polytheism (Mishneh Torah, Hilkhos Ma’akhalos Assuros 11:7; Hilkhos Avodah Zarah 9:4). The concept of trinity, including divine incarnation in a human, so violates God’s unity as to qualify as polytheism, notwithstanding the objections of Christian philosophers. The Rambam believed that sharing divine power with any other being detracts from God’s sovereignty and unity. He cannot be all-powerful if other gods have power. He cannot be a single deity if He can be divided into parts (or even attributess).

According to some interpretations, Tosafos (Sanhedrin 63b sv. assur) disagreed on this (see Pischei Teshuvah, Yoreh De’ah 147:5). They believed that Noachides are allowed to accept more than one god; they may worship God in partnership (shituf) with other beings. While Jews are forbidden to commit shituf, gentiles, operating under the Noachide covenant, may do so. Whether this interpretation accurately reflects the view of Tosafos is a matter of significant debate, with significant authorities on each side.

According to Rambam, any dilution of God’s unity constitutes belief in a being other than God. Shituf, an impure form of monotheism, is a lesser form of atheism. (In a similar vein in the reverse direction, I have been accused by some Christians of being an atheist because I reject Jesus, which to them means rejecting God.) According to an interpretation of Tosafos, shituf is acceptable. An impure monotheism is still monotheism.

III. Polytheism and Atheism

If Ramban agrees with Tosafos, even if only with the underlying theory and not necessarily its application to the Noachide code, then we can understand why he rejected Rambam’s interpretation of God’s name. According to the Rambam, because the Jews in Egypt were idolators, they rejected the true, all-powerful God, the Necessary Being. Their polytheism was mild atheism. Moshe had to prove to them the existence of a pure God, an infinite and eternal unity, before claiming to be His messenger.

However, if our assumption is correct, Ramban would find this all strange. Shituf is not atheism. A polytheist can still believe in God even if he believes in other deities as well. The Jews’ false extra beliefs did not imply lack of belief in God. Therefore, any proof of God’s existence would be unnecessary.


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Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the founder, publisher and editor-in-chief of Torah Musings.

The opinions and facts here are presented solely by the author. Torah Musings assumes no responsibility for them. Please address religious questions to your rabbi.

9 Responses

  1. IH says:

    I am reminded of a passage at the beginning of Halbertal’s People of the Book:

    In the Jewish tradition the centrality of the text takes the place of theological consistency. Jews have had diverse and sometimes opposing ideas about God: the anthropomorphic God of the Midrash, the Aristotelian unmoved mover of Maimonides and his school, the Kabbalah’s image of God as a dynamic organism manifested in the complexity of his varied aspects, the sefirot. These conceptions of God have little in common and they are specifically Jewish only insofar as each is a genuine interpretation of Jewish canonical texts.

  2. Arny Handelman says:

    While the books of the bible have many contradictions, and were written at different times and in different places, by different authors, I believe they do represent the writings of people genuinely inspired by G-d. Many statements in the bible are amazingly brilliant with ostensibly divine insight and wisdom. God said let there be light and there was light. Then later, He created the sun and the moon etc. Where did the first light come from? The big bang? Light from other galaxies? It was shocking to conceive that light emanated before the physical light that came for the sun and stars, which were other suns.That writing could only come from divine inspiration and insight.

    God’s naming Himself as “I will be what I will be” is astoundingly deep. It encompasses the essence of Being. It also carries with it the seed of evolving. God is unknowable, He just “is”. He “Be’s” ie He just “is”. He will also be what He will be, so the future and the present and the past are at one with God. As Einstein showed, in the abstract there is no time. The past and the present and future are all merged as in a frieze.

    Although humans seek to understand, our finite minds can at best get glimpses of the infinite through our subconscious, and divine inspiration and revelation. We are doomed to be seekers of the infinite. So we are just as well not to worry about infinite unknowable things, and to go about our business to be good human beings.

  3. micha says:

    I think the Ramban was objecting to the Rambam’s general opinion that the whole Torah is to inculcate monotheism. That the ideal Jew has perfect philosophical knowledge about G-d, rather than one who has a relationship with G-d and who emulates Him.

    The Moreh opens with a statement that the ideal human judgement is between truth and falsehood, and closes with a similar statement. The vast majority disagree. R’ Hirsch (19 Letters, letter #18) even points to this belief of the Rambam as the ultimate point about which Aristotelianism (or Neo-Platonism, if you prefer) led him astray!

  4. Shlomo says:

    For a nice overview of the issue of the Israelites’ beliefs while in Egypt, see

  5. Zvi Lampel says:

    Shlomo on January 7, 2013 at 1:08 pm

    For a nice overview of the issue of the Israelites’ beliefs while in Egypt, see

    What an ingenious use of links and other computer-unique features to clarify points!

  6. Sammy Finkelman says:

    The rather irrelevant question of what is God’s name (which seems to annoy God a little, so first he gives him a non-answer) hints at some belief by the Egyptians (Paroah also has a similar question) that the Isrtaelits had absorbed.

    It’s really not even a question the Israelits have – it’s a question Moshe is afraid they might ask, which he might not have an answer to. They don’t actually ask this question.

  7. Sammy Finkelman says:

    Although it could be objected that the reason they don’t ask this question is that God has told Moshe what to say, and that answers the question in advance.

    Still, I think this is more Moshe’s fears.

    A person doesn’t have confidence in speaking unless he knows how to answer whatever it is he thinks he might be asked.

    It’s a good quesdtion for Paroah and the Egyptians but not one the Bnai Yisroel will have if he explains this is the one true God – the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, which there is no way he wouldn’t mention. God is not some minor secondary deity that needs a name.

  8. Charlie in NY says:

    The famed folklorist Theodor H. Gaster, son of the Chief Sephardic Rabbi of the UK at the turn of the 20th century, once observed that in ancient societies where superstitions reigned, the ability to gain power over another through curse or incantation depended in part on using some of that person’s physical essence as part of the spell ritual. Such “essence” could be found in obvious things such as hair, nails, a piece of favorite clothing and the like. However, it also included the individual’s true name which was viewed as a significant marker of his person and shared only with intimates. In that light, Prof. Gaster suggested that when Moshe asked God for his name, had God given it to him, Moshe would have gained some power over God. To forestall this possibility, God responded as he did, cryptically, keeping everyone since guessing at his true name. That possession of such knowledge remained a matter of mystical inquiry for future generations, one need look no further than the golem stories.

  9. Ed says:

    The Ramban, being a kabbalist, understood that God was both a unity but also could be described through discrete aspects — sephirot. Could it be that he therefore could understand how Christians could be monotheists but also speak of the trinity?


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