J. (Joshua) Abelson.

The immanence of God in rabbinical literature online

. (page 1 of 32)
Online LibraryJ. (Joshua) AbelsonThe immanence of God in rabbinical literature → online text (page 1 of 32)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

i-ji'^'^i^f ="nfc:: '^W:^

'■'f.v.j' ■


-1 .-5rt^''.7^.

J<Sl»'^ »^ **^ r'^ *J












J. ABELSON, M.A., D.Lit.






The following pages treat of an aspect of ancient Jewish
theology which has, as yet, received an all too scant
attention. Indeed, the number of modern books dealing
with Jewish theology, whether as a whole or under any
of its many constituent aspects, is absurdly small. A
few distinguished names leap to the mind at once. Bnt
admirable and thorouo;h as is the work of these scholars,
the output is by no means commensurate with the scope,
importance, and complexity of the subject. As a result
of this barrenness of production, the theology of Rabbinic
Judaism — and hence Judaism itself — has never yet had
the good fortune to be weighed in the scales of absolute
fairness. The average Jew, unable to read the originals
for himself, is, through a shortage of text-books, quite
incompetent to pronounce an opinion of any worth upon
the religion which has meant so much for his fathers
and for the world. The average Christian does pro-
nounce opinions, but as these opinions are drawn, neither
from the orio^inals nor from the few Jewish scholars who
have written on these topics, they are invariably one-
sided and incomplete. I believe that the' silence of Jews
about their own theology has been construed by many
non-Jews into a proof that they really have no theology
worth writing about.


The present work is a humble attempt to fill up a
small portion of this lamentable gap. I am painfully
conscious of how faultily this filling up has been done
by me. I know full well how infinitesimally small a
portion of the gap has really been filled up. But let
the reader attribute these defects to the poorness of
my ability. Let him not impute them to an imagined
sterility of my subject. The rashness of my attempt
became more and more apparent to me as the work grew
under my pen. But perhaps a justification may lie in
my having merely done the rough work of breaking
down the fence of a field hitherto unnoticed and un-
trodden. Others, after me, may enter with more ease
than I have been able to do. And the fruits of their
labours will be far more satisfying than anything which
I can ever hope to gain credit for.

It is a pleasant duty to oflfer my heartiest thanks to
two kind friends, who in addition to correcting many
errors, gave me all kinds of help and encouragement
while the book was passing through the press. To Mr.
Claude G. Montefiore my obligation is exceptionally heavy.
Not only did he evince a generous interest in the pro-
gress of the book, but he also read through the proofs
with a most painstaking diligence, writing down for
my benefit a number of observations, comments, and
criticisms, which, coming from a mind so overflowing
with Biblical and theological learning, have proved an
asset to the book, as well as an education to myself
generally. To Mr. Israel Abrahams, the learned Eeader
in Rabbinic Literature at Cambridge University, my
gratitude is due for having given me the first hint as


to the necessity and possibility of writing a work on
the subject of Immanence from the particular standpoint
adopted. Mr. Abrahams, although hard pressed at the
time with other literary labour, also read through the
proofs and jotted down from the well-spring of his
original mind a wealth of notes, comments, and counsels,
many of which I have incorporated either in the text or
in the notes which follow each chapter.

I ought to add that part of the substance of the
Introduction and of Chapters I. -VI. appeared in the
Hihhert Journal for January 1912. It is here reprinted
by kind permission of the Editor.


July 8, 1912.




Introduction ....... 1


how does the hebrew bible present the subject of

Divine Immanence and Transcendence ? . . .46


Some Post-Biblical Views of Divine Immanence (outside

Rabbinic Literature) . . . . .55


The Shechinah — General View . . . .77


The Shechinah as Light or other Material Object . 82


Shechinah Personified — (A) The "Face of the Shechinah" 98


(B) General Personification . . . . .104




(C) The Personified Shechinah as the Immanent God in

Palestine, the Temple and the Synagogue . .117


(D) The Personified Shechinah as the Immanent God in

Israel , . . . . . .126


(E) The Shechinah and Sin . . . . .135


(F) The Shechinah and the Torah . . . .143


(G) The Shechinah and the Word . . , .146


(H) The Memra . . . . . .160


The Holy Spirit . . . . . .174


In what Respects is the Rabbinic Treatment of Holy

Spirit an Adv^vnce upon the Old Testament Treatment? 205


Materialistic Conceptions of the Holy Spirit in Rabbinical

Literature . . . . . .212




Personification of Holy Spirit .... 224


Holy Spirit and Prophecy from the Eabbinic Standpoint (1) 238


Holy Spirit and Prophecy from the Rabbinic Standpoint (2) 258


Holy Spirit as Ideal ...... 268


Holy Spirit in its Relation to non-Jews . . .275


The General Rabbinic Conception of God . . . 278


Rabbinic Doctrines op Sin and Evil from the Standpoint

OF Divine Immanence ..... 304


Rabbinic Views of Prayer from the Standpoint of Divine

Immanence . . . . . . .321


The Compatibility of Mysticism and Rabbinic Theology . 340




Chronology and Development . . . .357


On the Interchanging of the terms " Shechinah " and

"RuAH Ha-kodesh" . . . . ,377


On the Connexion between " Kabod " (Glory) and Shechinah 380

INDEX ....... 383


or DV »3iN "ina
Tiyi inay Vdw


(From the Dtwdn of A bH- 1- Hasan Je,huda
Ha-Levi, edited for Mekize Nirdamim
by H. Brody. Berlin, 1911.)



The present essay is an attempt at a work on the
Immanence of God in Rabbinical literature. The
two terms, "Immanence of God" and "Rabbinical
literature," require definition. I will deal with the
latter first.

People commonly understand Rabbinical literature
in two senses. Firstly, the narrower sense, comprising
the literary output of the Palestinian and Babylonian
Academies, which commenced in or about the century
preceding the rise of Christianity, and ended with
the age of the last Geonim in the eleventh century
— in other words, the literature familiarly known as
the Mishna, Midrash, and Gemara. Secondly, the wider
sense, which embraces the aforegoing epoch and, in
addition, the literature of the mediaeval commentators
and philosophers, the works of Rashi and Ibn Ezra,
Maimonides, Nahmanides, Karo, Isserles, the authors
of the Kabbalah, and a host of others contemporane-
ous with these and stretching down to about the
Mendelssohnian period. This ambiguity of the term
" Rabbinical " really arises from the uncertain and
elastic usage of the term " Rabbi." Whereas some
would understand "Rabbi" to refer to a teacher of the
Talmudic or Geonic age, like R. Akiba, R. Judah the

1 B


Prince, and 1^. kiherira Gaon, others would claim that
title equally for Rashi, Maimonides, Ibn Gebirol, Nah-
manides, Abarbanel, Luria, and ever so many others of
the same category. In the course of this essay I am
confining myself to the narrower connotation. Had I,
in my search for material about the Immanence of
God, ventured into the larger field, I should have
found far ampler substance. For I should then have
comprehended the later Kabbalah in the scope of my
investigations ; and the later Kabbalah is the fullest
expression of Jewish mysticism.

Yet I feel convinced that no treatment of any aspect
of Talmudic mysticism — and the Immanence of God is
certainly an aspect of it — can in the last resort be said
to be complete which does not take within its purview
that luxuriant crop of sublime lore about God and the
universe which, intermixed with much that is not so
worthy, is the fascinating hall-mark of the mediaeval
Kabbalah. For the latter is really an integral portion
of Talmudism. It is part of its flesh and blood. How
these mystical doctrines became incorporated in the
Talmud, whether and how far they are the result of
Jewish contact with non-Jewish systems of thought and
belief, it is not needful here to consider. M. Franck in
his book La Kahhale has made thorough-going investi-
gations on this very head. Anyhow, we know that these
mystical allusions are embedded in the texture of the
Talmud, and it is therefore totally wrong to follow
Graetz in regarding the mediaeval Kabbalah as a thing
per se, as something quite apart from its Talmudic
antecedents, as an unnatural child of the darkened
intellects of the Jewish middle ages. Neither is it right
to judge of its merits or demerits by the rationalistic
standards which Graetz and his school adopt towards it.
The mediaeval Kabbalah is a direct descendant of the


Talmudic Kabbalah, and by the Talmudic Kabbalah one
means all those mysticpronouncementswhich lie scattered
and dispersed throughout the extensive realms of the
Talmudic literature. These mystic pronouncements,
no matter to which age they belong, are but various
presentations of Jewish feeling and Jewish thinking
about one and the same subject — God. The Jewish heart
has in all ages panted for union with the living God
even as the hart panteth after the water-streams. The
Jewish soul has never ceased to find a solace, such as the
mere world cannot give, in the realised joys of the near-
ness of God, in that mystic elation which the Psalmist
doubtless experienced when he exclaimed, " My soul
followeth hard after Thee : Thy right hand upholdeth
me" (Ps. Ixiii. 8). The Jewish mind has at all seasons
and in all ages meditated upon the meaning of all this
mystery ; and the Kabbalistic literature of each of
these successive ages is the delineation of these
problems and attempts at their solution in ways
which accorded best with their notions of Judaism
and religion generally. But it is one and the same
flowing stream emanating from one common source,
although certain new elements must have been gathered
up, and assimilated, in the course of its flow down
the acres. You cannot cut the stream of Kabbalah
into parts and say, "Here ends one part; here
commences another." Kabbalah is really the literature
of Jewish mysticism from about the first pre-Christian
century until almost recent times. In this scope there
would be included all the mysticism dotted about the
Talmudic and Gaooic literature, the French, German,
and Polish Kabbalah of the Middle Ages, and the
mysticism of the Hassidim.

But what is Mysticism ? I have just said that the
Immanence of God is an aspect or branch of Talmudic


mysticism. But before a writer can attempt to enlarge
upon Immanence, he must make clear to himself and to
others what he means by mysticism. And when the im-
plications of mysticism have been laid bare, it is then,
and only then, possible to realise the contents and bear-
ings of Talmudic mysticism. Mysticism, then, might be
roughly defined as that phase of thought or feeling which
urges that God is a supreme, all-pervading, and all-
indwelling power in which all things are one. To the
mystic, God is not an external being or object merely to
be worshipped or thought about or spoken to in prayer.
God is an experience. The mystic embraces, experi-
ences God, as a living presence within his own soul.
Professor Edward C^ird in his book The Evolution of
Theology in the Greek Philosophers (1904), says :
" Mysticism is religion in its most concentrated and ex-
clusive form ; it is that attitude of mind in which all other
relations are swallowed up in the relation of the soul to
God." The mystic is conscious of God as an indwelling
Father in his own soul, as an indwelling spirit of good-
ness in the world. His aim and purpose is to know
this indwelling Father, to realise this spirit of goodness,
and by these means to unite himself to God in as close
a bond as it is possible for any human being to effect.
Professor Rufus Jones in his recent book, Studies in
Mystical Religion, gives the following excellent defini-
tion : " Mysticism is the type of religion which puts
the emphasis on immediate awareness of relation with
God, on direct and intimate consciousness of the Divine
Presence. It is religion in its most acute, intense, and
living stage." In fine, the mystic is he who lives
religion, not merely feels it or professes it.

Covering such a wide area as it does, the name
of mysticism is given to a great many diff'ering
tendencies of religious thought. Besides, mysticism on


account of its dealing with abstractions, is a branch
of philosophy as well as religion. But what is of the
highest importance to emphasise here is the fact that
all forms of religion possess a mystical element.
Speaking in the Quarterly Revieiv for July 1909, the
late Father Tyrrell says : " If the tone of life is to be
deep and rich and not harsh and metallic it needs
a strong infusion of mysticism." Now there is no
known instrument that can make the tone of life deep
and rich, other than the instrument of religion. For
what is the acme of all religious teaching, but the fact
that man is face to face with God, that he hears His
voice and feels His presence, that he can only find his
truest sanctification, his being's highest and holiest joy
in drawing^ as near as he can to the love that radiates
from the Presence of God. There is no religion in
which the word " love," and the idea it stands for, does
not occupy a commanding place. And it is mysticism
that pushes love to the forefront. The mystic's ideal is
communion wath God. His soul reaches out in loving
yearning to embrace God. And he know^s that he has
found God, because he has felt the thrill of His answer-
ing love. Indeed it is hard to see how any religion
can resist the wear and tear of time, unless it
emphasises the emotional element far and away above
the intellectual. The reli2;ious man feels rather than
knows. To quote Father Tyrrell again : " Every one
is something of a mystic; no one is nothing but a
mystic."* By "every one" he probably means every
adherent to any religion, excluding the atheist. This
over-towering predominance of feeling in faith is the
burden of the well-known mystical lines of Tennyson : —

* This idea is echoed by Miss Evelyn Underhill in her recent book on
Mysticism (Methuen & Co., 1911), where she says (p. 84) : "No deeply religious
luau is without a touch of mysticism ; and no mystic can be other than religious,
in the psychological if not in the theological sense of the word."


If e'er when faith had fall'n asleep,

I heard a voice " believe no more "
And heard an ever-breaking shore

That tumbled in the godless deep ;

A warmth within the breast would melt
The freezing reason's colder part,
And like a man in wrath the heart

Stood up and answer'd " I have felt."

Moreover, no religion can dispense with the mystical
element, because no religion can disregard the great
fact of the soul. Religion tells us that the soul is
a spark of the Divine flame. Mysticism puts more
substance into the idea, complements it, by telling us
that the soul partakes of the Divine nature and finds
its final consummation in merging its identity in a com-
plete union with it. The soul, says the mystic, is ever
seeking God as the complement of its life and the per-
fection of its form ; and man, in as far as he has a soul,
partakes of the one central Divine Life. Furthermore,
a strong feature of religion's teaching is the fact that in
its conjunction with the body the soul is the superior
partner of the two. The soul is the seat of love ; the
body is the abode and instrument of sin. The soul
must be stronger than the body, because, in the sight
of God, love must vanquish sin. Mysticism elaborates
this teaching by declaring that man's love calls out the
Divine essence in response. God desires on His own
part to have communion with us. He wishes to mingle
His spirit with ours as a friend with a friend, or a father
with a child. In fact, our communion with Him is only
possible because He has, so to speak, taken the initiative,
and implanted in our hearts the germs of that over-
flowing love which He bears to us. But in order that
this communion should be complete, the bar of our lower
self must be removed. There must be a total self-
surrender to God on man's part, otherwise he cannot


possibly be united to God. In this way, mysticism is
really reinforcing religion's universal preaching on the
necessity of the suppression of sin before man can claim
the title of a child of God.

Yet one further point. Mysticism may be said to
express the inmost core of religion because in its in-
sistence upon the Fatherhood of God it ipso facto con-
veys the sterling truth of the brotherhood of men. It
is thus the great incentive to works of altruism, to self-
sacrifice on the noblest scale. The true mystic can
never be a self-centred individual. The man who is
conscious of his mystic union with the spirit of God,
must recognise the image of God in every fallen brother.
Sympathy, love, benevolence, mutual helpfulness and
encouragement must be the practical outcome whether
of the individual mystic or of the community in whose
fundamental beliefs and hopes mysticism is enshrined.
Jews claim this prerogative for Judaism ; Christians
claim it for Christianity. Both sects adduce instances
from their theologies as well as from their histories to
prove their contentions. And the fact that of all the
world's faiths, it is just these two that are the con- o
cornitants "oT TEe highest grades of~civilisation and '^
enlightenment, goes~'a long way"to w'ar"ds~sl3iowmg the
indispensableness of mysticism to religion. lFls~^he
former that makes the latteFa living^power.

To demonstrate, as I am attempting to do in this
essay, that the theology of Talmud and Midrashim is
coloured with a considerable tinge of mysticism is to
vindicate for Eabbinic Judaism two claims which are
made by present-day Christian thinkers for Christianity
exclusively.* As a result of the investigations I have
made in my own special province I feel that Judaism

* It should be said, by the way, that Buddhism is usually credited
with possessing some mysticism.


may just as strongly and justifiably urge these claims
as do the followers of Christ. Let us see what these
claims are.

Firstly. It is maintained that a religion can only
hold its ground to-day, provided its fundamental
doctrines and demands are in keeping with the findings
of modern empirical science. One of the most obvious
tendencies of the religious thinking and writing of
to-day, is that of shifting the centre of gravity of
religion away from the idea of " authority " to the
idea of " experience." Traditional rules and dogmatic
formulae do not extract the homage of men or hold
sway over their minds and bodies in the manner or
degree that they did in a former age. Obedience to
tradition and dogma is becomings mingled with a
conscious and unlovely scepticism. Religious facts are
getting to be treated more and more after the fashion of
the phenomena of science, of Astronomy and Geology, of
human Physiology and Psychology. We seek empirical
evidence of God : what we crave for is first - hand
experience of the Divine Presence. We want to weigh
and examine things which we ourselves know and see
and feel, while accepting little which comes from any
other channel, no matter how hoary it may be with the
veneration of past ages. What then, on this under-
standing, is the final test of the rightness or wrongness,
the credibility or falsity of a religious fact ? It is the
ability of the individual to experience this fact. In
other words, right religion is an experience — an ex-
perience which embraces the entire personality of man
and transcends all the limits of definition and explana-
tion. We live religion, and not merely think it or feel
it, or express it in words. And it is by taking the
noblest types of men and women who have lived
religion, and noting the records of their first-hand


experiences in this domain, that we can lay down for
ourselves the surest lines on which to base our own
religious conduct. In short, we derive our religious
ideals not from books or formulae, but from persons.
It is just this profound tendency of modern thought
that is leading people not only to lay more stress on
the importance of studying the mysticism which belongs
to all forms of religion, but to radically modify the
estimate hitherto held of the value and nature of
mysticism. To the average cultured mind, mysticism
used always to be associated with something abnormal ;
to be a mystic was to be a sufferer from some peculiar
disease not easily understood, and hysteria was an in-
evitable accompaniment. That there is some amount of
truth in this view can be seen from a recent work like
that of Baron Von Hiigel on The Mystical Element of
Religion. His treatment of the subject is a piece of
abstruse metaphysical speculation. And yet whom
does he select as the person in whose life he studies all
these far-reaching and profound doctrines ? It is Saint
Catherine of Genoa, a woman " in whom we have to do
with a highly nervous, delicately- poised, immensely-
sensitive and impressionable psycho-physical organism
and temperament" . . . (vol. i. p. 220). "And this
temperament involved an unusually large subconscious
life. All souls have some amount of this life, but many
have it but slight and shallow ; she had it of a quite
extraordinary degree and depth" (ibid. p. 221). Von
Hiigel's study is an able presentation of one side of the
truth. That there is another side is proved in the recently
published book, by Dr. Rufus Jones, Studies in Mystical
Religion. The author shows in a scientific spirit, to
which no one can hesitate to give his acquiescence, how
there are in reality two types of mystical experience.
The first is that which is within the line of normal


healthy life. The second falls into the category of
pathological phenomena. " It is true," says he, " that
great mystics have often possessed peculiar psychical
constitutions. They have sometimes exhibited the
phenomena of hysteria and sometimes they have beyond
question been pathological and have experienced ab-
normal states due to an unstable nervous system."
But yet the author finds a healthy explanation of even
these abnormalities. These mystics, says he in effect,
peculiar people though they unquestionably were, built
up an environment for themselves, an environment
which had no meaning and no value for any one else, but
which had a striking life-value for themselves. The
" correspondence " between them and their environing
reality meant health to them, although to the outsider
it appeared topsy-turvydom. We have an illustration
in Biblical literature of this phenomenon. Ezekiel is
the great mystic among the prophets. It is probably
for this reason that he is one of the most original figures
in the sacred literature of Israel ; and it is probably also
on account of the under-valuation and neglect of the
importance of the mystical element, that Ezekiel has
never been appreciated as much as he deserves, with the
result that the text of the book has been transmitted in
so poor and neglected a form.

Now, the distinguishing characteristic of Ezekiel
is his ecstasy. Chap. iii. 26 attributes a kind of
paralysis of the tongue to him. This was a physical
abnormality. Other chapters abound in bits of auto-

Online LibraryJ. (Joshua) AbelsonThe immanence of God in rabbinical literature → online text (page 1 of 32)