Q: Jesus said to the Samaritan woman at the well “God is spirit” (John 4:24). Does Judaism agree that God is spirit/breath? How would you describe spirit? I know what spirit is not: physical, material, visible, etc. After years of pondering, I still am trying to learn more about what spirit is, and by “spirit” I do not mean the Holy Spirit. I am a “resting” Presbyterian elder, so you can guess that “reconciliation” is a subject of great interest to me.
— H, via email
A: To answer your question properly, we must first remember that the Hebrew Bible came before Aristotle figured out how philosophy actually describes the nature of what is real. This contact between the Bible and Greek philosophy happened when Alexander the Great conquered Judea in 331 BCE and brought with him his tutor Aristotle.
Aristotle had a fruitful dialogue with Pharisees who would later evolve into rabbis. This group would take one big idea from Aristotle and weave it into the fabric of Judaism, and through Judaism it would become a part of Christianity and Islam. That big idea was that everything in the universe is made up of matter and form. Matter is the principle of potentiality and form is the principle of actuality. Matter is like clay in the hands of a sculptor. Form is like the idea in the mind of the sculptor of how to shape the clay.
The religious translation of matter and form is easy to see. Matter is our body. Form is our soul. God is pure form. Spirit is form. God is immaterial because God’s perfection never requires that God change. This is what John meant by, “God is spirit.” God is not made up of stuff like every other thing in the world. The pre-philosophical biblical take on this in the first chapter of Genesis is that God is like a hovering spirit, “And the spirit of God hovered over the face of the waters” (Genesis 1:2). Though there is no notion of soul in the Hebrew Bible, there is an idea that God is like a breath of life, which is what God breathed into Adam to make him a living being.
Of course Christianity emerged after Greek philosophy bequeathed matter/form into Judaism’s body/soul duality, and Christianity had to try to accommodate the contradiction that God is immaterial with the belief that God had become incarnate in the material body of Jesus. The belief in the mystery of the Trinity was the Christian solution to Aristotle’s assertion that God is “thought thinking itself.” The commitment to an invisible, immaterial God is the theological courage of Judaism and Islam. The commitment to a God/man who came to earth to die for our sins is the theological courage of Christianity. So that is spirit. Spirit is the idea of goodness and love and hope and faith and all the other religious virtues that cannot be touched by our fingers but can be touched by our souls.
A thought about spirituality, which absorbs and transforms the word spirit: Today you hear many folks say, “I am not religious but I am spiritual.” What they mean is not always clear, but I think what they are saying is that organized religion turns them off but the idea that there is a higher power in the universe that is not material makes sense to them. I get that and support every spiritual seeker in his or her journey to the truth of God and goodness.
However, I also think that organized religion has taken a bad rap. Try to teach your kids about God, or get baptized, or organize a church soup kitchen, or bury your mother, or get married, or study or pray regularly if you are just spiritual and alone.
We can find a spiritual feeling alone on the beach at sunset, but we cannot make spiritual communities that will last through the generations and preserve ancient wisdom and Scriptures for our children unless we come together to find God while we are also finding one another. Organized religion has taken the world out of darkness to hope. Yes, organized religion can be perverted and that is abominable, but spirituality can also become just an empty word for people making their way alone through a broken world. There is a wise old Maasai saying, “Sticks in a bundle are unbreakable. Sticks alone can be broken by a child.”