J. (Joshua) Abelson.

The immanence of God in rabbinical literature online

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biography which tell us of his mental aberration at
certain points of his career when the "hand of God"
was strong upon him. Now, are these statements of
his pathological experiences to be taken literally ?
Certainly they are. Only we must judge them from
Ezekiel's own standpoint and not from ours. To us


they appear as painful inflictions, dismal states of ill-
health, the very thought of which makes us shudder.
But they need not have been so to Ezekiel. They may
have accorded well with his own version of the meaning
of his environment. They may have been, and probably
were, ecstasies not of sorrow but of joy, not of pain but
of health. It was merely his own particular way of
realising the happiness of communion with God.

It is a deeper recognition of these possible points of
view from which mysticism may be looked at that is
nowadays leading people more to appreciate than to
depreciate it, as was hitherto the almost unbroken
custom in the case of even cultured folk. And it is
this same fact that is also urging a steadily increasing
contingent of students to study the lives and w'orks
of the great mystics of the past — Jewish, Christian,
and others.

But, to come now to my point. The apologists for
Christianity to-day attempt to bring it into line with
modern empirical science by showing how the wonderful
power and irresistible fascination which Christ wielded
over primitive Christianity were due primarily and
essentially to His direct experience of God ; and how
this experience of God gradually found its way into the
hearts of His followers, binding them together in a
fellowship with the Divine, raising them to the level of
feeling themselves the objects of a constant incoming of
the Divine Life, partakers of the Holy Spirit, which filled
them within and enveloped them without, and in which
they lived and moved and had their being. Well,
assuming that this is a correct deduction from the
written records, what has Rabbinical Judaism to say
for itself? Must it confess its exclusion from such an
inheritance ? Is it shorn of the prerogative of having
enjoyed the mystical experience of union with God such


as is claimed by the first stages of Christian history ?
Truly enough, it has no commanding, immortalised,
semi-divine personality at its head such as Christianity
has ! But this does not vitally afi"ect the question.
Can Judaism show that at an epoch more or less con-
temporaneous with Christ and the Apostolic age, its
adherents also had experiences of a Divine Presence
fillino; them and encirclinoj them and folio winoj them

o o o

whithersoever they went? If it can, then it, too,
can lay claim to being a mystical religion. And it,
too, can bring itself into line with the findings of
modern empirical science. The object of the present
essay is to push forward this claim for Judaism by
illustration and argument from the Eabbinic writings ;
and thus to found an established place for it in the
company of the scientific faiths of the world.

Secondly. There is a widespread impression that the
Jewish theological thinkers and teachers of O.T. as
well as N.T times confined their horizon wholly to the
transcendence of God. It was left, say they, for Pauline
and Johannine Christianity, with their mystical teachings
on the Holy Spirit which dwells in man and unites him
with God, to complement and correct this one-sided view
of religion ; and thus, by bridging the gulf between God
and man, to give the world the first complete understand-
ing of the truest and worthiest relationship between man
and his heavenly Maker. One of the pivots on which
this contention rests is the Rabbinic view of angels. In
post-prophetic times angelological speculation reached a
very high degree of luxuTiance among the Jews. The
Jewish theories of the nature and function of angels,
it is argued, were devised as a mechanical means for
bridging the chasm between man and God, because from
the O.T standpoint God was not regarded as being in
immediate contact with man, and Rabbinic Judaism


found itself forced by the necessities of its own thought
to make good this deficiency, but without success. But
a study of the O.T. and the Rabbinic writings has con-
vinced me of the two following facts : (l) That the view
of God taught by the O.T. is certainly not so exclu-
sively transcendental as is generally imagined. There
are a great many strong and unmistakable glimpses of
the immanent view. These shall be detailed and dwelt
upon in their proper place. Passages of a deistic
tendency like that of Isa. xl. 22 are indeed common : " It
is He that sitteth upon the circle of the earth, and the
inhabitants thereof are as grasshoppers ; that stretcheth
out the heavens as a curtain, and spreadeth them out as
a tent to dwell in." But why ignore the doctrine of the
spirit, w^hich although rather inchoate and indistinct,
is nevertheless asserted in more than one verse of the
Psalms or the Proverbs or Job ? * And one is not quite
so sure that the O.T. angels are merely the intervening
media between man and God, and that they cannot be
made to subsist wdth a high conception of Deity. We
must not forget, in this connection, the sacredness which
to the Jewish mind, from earliest recorded times down
to the present day, hedges round the Divine name. A
variety of devices, circumlocutions of many sorts are
invented to prevent its usage whenever possible, because
usage is synonymous with irreverence. Now, some such
idea as this, permeates the employment of angels in the
O.T. as it undoubtedly enters into the Rabbinic usages
of Shechinah and Holy Spirit, as I shall show later on.
The Jew became loath to describe God as mixing too
freely and frequently with men — and in describing
anything the name must inevitably be used — but it
does not follow, as a consequence, that he did not

* And in several other books of the O.T., as is fully shown in Volz's
work, Der Geist Gottcs (1910).


continue to harbour the idea and cherish the helief of
God's close contact with men. But as lie thought
it sacrilege to put the belief into words, he was
forced to fall back upon a substitute. This substitute
was the angel. The train of servitors and ministrants
which the O.T. designates as angels, ought rather to be
looked upon as emanations of God, traces of His work-
ings in the world of nature and of man rather than as
indications of His aloofness and inaccessibility. The
subject is by no means an easy one, but I feel sure there
is much plausibility in this latter view. (2) Investiga-
tion has made clear to me that the O.T. doctrines of
angels, its frequent references to the spirit of God, its
occasional references to the Holy Spirit, and its few
other stray and spasmodic hints on the Immanence
of God, are the immediate forerunners, one might
say, the parents of the Eabbinic doctrines of Shechinah
and Holy Spirit, terms which, as will be shown in this
essay, connote the Rabbinic teachings on the Immanence
of God. It is for this reason that in my treatment of the
Holy Spirit I have given such a large preliminary space
to the O.T. teachings on the spirit. The former is a
direct development of the latter and cannot be under-
stood without reference to it. The two taken in con-
junction form one complete whole. The conclusion has
accordingly forced itself upon me that on the subject of
Divine Immanence, Judaism has had nothing to learn
from Christianity. The Rabbins evolved their own
doctrines of Immanence by their studies of the O.T.
and more so by their interpretations of their own life-
experiences in the light of O.T. teaching. Even had
Paul never lived, the Jew would still have been the
heir to the belief in a Father that indwells him
and indwells the universe. There is a mysticism in
Rabbinical literature which is a source of perennial


streno^th to the relio-ion of the Jew and a oruarantee of
its continuity.

The practical outcome of the current denial of the
Immanent idea to Rabbinic Judaism is seen in the
comparison usually drawn between the " inwardness "
of the Christian faith and the " outwardness " of
traditional Judaism. Even an acute thinker like
Professor Henry Sidgwick, on p. 114 of his History
of Ethics, contrasts the "righteousness of the Scribes
and Pharisees" with the "inwardness" which, says
he, " is the distinctive feature of the Christian code."
The implication is, that the " righteousness of the
Scribes and Pharisees " was merely an external punc-
tiliousness in ceremonial observances of all kinds which
left the heart untouched, and implied no underlying
spiritual content. That this is an inaccurate account
of Pharisaic Judaism has been demonstrated to the hilt
by Mr. C. G-. Montefiore, in the Ninth Lecture of his
Hihhert Lectures (1892), as well as by Dr. Shechter in
his Aspects of Rahhinic TJieology, and others. Rabbinic
Judaism certainly has a good deal of the outward yoke
about it. But it lays quite as much emphasis upon,
and ascribes quite as much beauty to, the necessity of
the inward call. That which we of to-day regard as
a yoke need not necessarily have been a yoke to the
Jew of Talmudic days. We have to let the past speak
for itself and not import our own sentiments into it.
If it be a fact that, as Dr. Shechter laconically puts it,
" To the Jew, God was at one and the same time above,
beyond and within the world, its soul and its life,"
then who will arise and deny the virtue of inward-
ness to Rabbinic Judaism ? A theology which posits
a far-off God, separated from man by an unfathomable
distance, could never give that large scope to the
doctrine of Repentance which we find in the pages of


the Rabbins. This doctrine is of itself sufficient to
stamp Judaism as a religion of the heart. And if
mysticism is " religion in its most acute, intense, and
living stage " (Jones's Studies in Mystical Religion,
1909, p. xv), then must Rabbinic Judaism hold a fore-
most place in the category of mystical religions. For
few could have realised the Presence of God more
acutely, more intensely than the Rabbinic Jew, who
aimed at sanctifying even the smallest details of the
physical life, because he regarded nothing as being too
humble to come within the purview of Him, whose
glory fills the universe, and whose word is the main-
stay of all.

In the present essay I have treated mainly of
the aspect of Divine Immanence which the Talmudic
sages envisaged under the names " Shechinah " and
" Ruah-ha-Kodesh " (Holy Spirit). And in the case
of the former 1 have been attracted to compare
and contrast many a point in Jewish Hellenistic
literature — particularly in Philo and the Wisdom
of Solomon — with what I considered to be a parallel
idea expressed by the Rabbinic Shechinah. But I have
all along felt this one very great difference between
the two sets of thought — a difficulty which makes
me exceedingly pessimistic as to the ultimate literary
value of that portion of the essay — viz. that whereas
in the Hellenistic writings, the ideas relative to Im-
manence are couched in more or less philosophical lan-
guage and conceived in a distinctively speculative vein,
the Shechinah ideas (and the same applies to the Holy
Spirit ideas) are of a naive and untechnical character.
They are practical sayings, with nothing of the
speculative, nothing in the nature of abstraction about
them. I had, accordingly, to meet the difficulty of
comparing and contrasting a host of unphilosophical


expressions, with statements which are part and parcel
of a set philosophy. In fact, this has been one of
the trying features of my subject all along. The Rabbis
were not metaphysicians, and Hebrew is a language of
concrete not abstract terms. Immanence is a philo-
sophical idea. To demonstrate therefore how, from
the artless and ofttimes childlike lanojuao-e of the
Haggadah, it is possible to infer that the Rabbins had
real glimmerings of a theology known only to the
trained philosophic thinker, is no light task. And yet,
on further reflexion, the difiiculty need not be so great
after all. For, firstly, one must not forget that an
element of the childlike pervades the mysticism of all
lands and every age. It is discernible even in the most
highly-developed and deeply-philosophical branches of
mysticism. From a psychological standpoint it is only
what one would expect. A phenomenon of mind in
which the emotions play so predominant a part as they
do in mysticism, must of necessity lead one back to
the primitive springs of human thought and conduct.
All other intellectuality cannot but be an after-
growth and expansion of these. As Dr. Rufus Jones
points out in his book to which I have previously
alluded, the characteristic mystic of the Middle Ages,
Meister Eckhart, is himself a remarkable example of
the union of a profoundly speculative mind and a
simple childlike spirit (p. 217). What the Rabbinic
literature gives us is the simple childlike spirit divorced
from profound speculation. And then, secondly, the
basic thouofht of Immanence is that of the Omni-
presence of God. The old-world Rabbi did not trouble
himself about the problems which may arise when the
doctrine is applied all round to the things of the
ordinary life. But this did not make him one jot less
of a believer in the validity of the doctrine ; neither



does it detract aught from the value and significance
of his expressed thought about it. The Immanence of
God may have been to him quite as much of a reality
as it was to a Plotiuus although he did not, because he
could not, express himself so deeply on the matter.
When R Simeon Ben Yohai in the Baraita (Megillah
29a) said, " Come and see how beloved are Israelites
before God, for whithersoever they journeyed in their
captivity the Shechinah journeyed with them," or when
R. Judah, in Deut. Rabba ii. 10, declaims on the
"nearness" of God because, as he says, "although
the distance from earth to heaven is a 500 years'
journey, yet when man whispers or even meditates a
prayer, God is at hand to hear it," they were but giving
expression, equally with the mystics of other ages and
nations, to an instinctive conviction that there is a
Divine Goodness and Power and Love active and
efficient everywhere throughout the universe, and that
man is at all times in union with, and in the presence
of, an Infinite Spirit and Personality. There is a
passage in the first chapter (Tirr^rr ii?m) of the n^T^^J
mm^n " Heart Duties " where Bahya (a Spanish-
Jewish philosopher of the eleventh century) remarks
as follows :

1N2DN TON •'hSn inS'Dni 101N n^nw D^DDnn p n!jp hs nDMi
.iSi2 iDo h'Dr^^ riNin n^i mnoD inj^qn nS ton in

"It is related of a certain sage that, in the course
of his prayer, he used to say as follows : ' Oh ! my God,
where shall I find Thee, but verily where shall I find
Thee not ? Thou art hidden and canst not be seen,
but, forsooth, all things are filled with Thee.' " All this
is simplicity itself, but it holds the core of the mystical
idea. It is the quintessence of the doctrine of the
Divine Immanence.


The idea of Immanence involves the relation
between matter and spirit, body and soul. The dis-
tinction between body and soul was a fact known to
the earliest ages of mankind. Even the savage had
a crude conception of it. But it remained for a later
and more philosophical age to recognise the true
import of the antithesis between the two. As far as
Jewish literature is concerned, there are to be found
in the Midrash two rather crude but, nevertheless,
telling attempts at portraying this antithesis. These
are (1) a passage in Tanhuma Vayikra vi. as follows :^^^
In the time to come the Holy One, blessed be He,
will bring the soul and ask, " Why hast thou trans-
gressed the precepts ? " It answers, " It is the body
that is the transgressor, not I. Since I left the body
am I not perfectly spotless ? " Then God goes to the
body and says, " Why hast thou sinned ? " It answers,
" It is the soul that is the sinner, not I. Since the
soul has left me, canst Thou find any iniquity in me ? "
What does the Holy One do ? He brings them both
together, joins them together and judges them as one.
This is illustrated by the parable of the blind gardener
and the lame. The latter says to the former, " I see
some nice fruit in this garden. Take me on your
shoulders as I cannot walk, and we shall then get
the fruit and divide it between us." This was done.
After a time the royal owner of the garden misses the
fruit. He accuses the lame man of having eaten it.
But the latter replies, "Have I legs to carry me thither? "
Then he accuses the blind man. But the latter answers,
" Have I eyes to see ? " How does the king solve the
dilemma ? He places the lame upon the shoulders
of the blind, and judges them as one. And so God
brings the soul and deposits it in the body as it is
said, '* He shall call unto the heavens from above, and


to tlie earth that He may judge His people." "He
calleth unto the heavens," this refers to the soul.
" And to the earth that He may judge His people,"
this refers to the body. What we have here is an
elementary representation from the ethical standpoint
of the relation between the ideas of body and soul,
matter and spirit, heaven and earth.^^*^ (2) A passage
in Tanhuma Bereshith v., as follows : Hadrian asks
Aquila upon what the universe rests. Aquila replies
that it rests upon spirit, and as a proof he has a camel
brought to him. He places a load upon its back and
orders it to rise. It rises. He then orders it to sit,
and it sits. Next he places on the camel a burden
more than it is accustomed to carry, and also has a
rope twined round its neck. Hadrian pulls one way
and Aquila another, and the camel is strangled.
Then Aquila says to Hadrian, " Bid the animal rise."
Hadrian replied, " What ! You have killed him and
you ask me to bid the carcase rise ! " " Yes," replies
Aquila, "but what have I done? Have I really killed
the beast? Do not his body and all his parts appear
to be sound and in the same condition as before ? "
" Ah ! " replies Hadrian, " but you have taken the
breath out of its body." " Very well," answers Aquila,
" now you see what I mean. The camel and the
burden on its back were sustained simply and solely by
the breath of its body. You can easily understand that
what sustains the whole universe and holds together
the infinite number of the elements composing it, is
the breath of God." ^^^ Here what we really have, is
an illustration of the mystery which the ancient world
attached to the idea of the soul's identity with the
breath of the body. It is the view of the earlier
books of the Bible. In Genesis ii. 7 God is repre-
sented as breathing into man's nostrils the breath of


life/^^ Here the " Neshamah," although it has a spiritual
basis as being man's endowment from the Creator,
nevertheless possesses the physical significance of breath.
And in Genesis ix. 4, as well as in Leviticus xvii. 11,
the " Nefesh " is actually conceived of as inseparably
connected, if not wholly identified with, the life-blood.
The Midrash quoted above, reproduces this crude
conception. And this is particularly strange, seeing
that already, in some of the later books of the
Bible, the higher idea of a disembodied soul having
its own individuality had already taken root. For
example in Proverbs xx. 27, "The spirit of man is a
candle of the Lord." In Job xxxii. 8, " Verily there
is a spirit in man." In Ecclesiastes xii. 7, " The spirit
shall return unto God who gave it."

From the modern standpoint the relation between
matter and spirit may be viewed in different ways.
These are (1) as ever-coexistent facts in experience.
At first thought, the sights and sounds of the universe
are entirely independent of us. Nature seems to assert
her laws without waiting for our bidding. The sun
rises and sets, the tides ebb and flow, the flowers bloom
and fade, day and night alternate in unbroken regu-
larity quite regardless of our wishes or prejudices.
But yet this is only seemingly so, for, after all, we only
know these things as facts when we bring them into
relation with our consciousness. The mind has to
assimilate the sense-experience given it by the outside
world, and for this purpose it has to exert the forces
of attention and discrimination, analysis and synthesis,
comparison and analogy. The external world is worked
upon and coloured by our mind or spirit, so that when
we say we know or feel a thing, this is only true
relatively to the mind. From this point of view, then,
to speak of mind and matter or spirit and matter


as separate entities is an abstraction. They are a
compact indivisible whole, issuing in what we familiarly
term experience. (2) Although matter seems to be so
largely the passive object of mind or spirit, subserving
it and being taken up by it at every turn, and moulded
and fashioned in all ways, yet mind or spirit is de-
pendent upon matter for ever so many of its complex
and subtle processes. At the bottom of spirit lies
consciousness, and how would this be possible were it
not for the blood which nourishes the brain, and for
the food taken into the body which forms and enriches
the blood ? — in other words, matter. Art with all its
spiritual associations, with all its sublime powers to
elevate and purify the human soul, would never have
been possible were it not given to the mind to portray
upon the material canvas the moving panorama of the
facts and the thoughts, the foibles and the virtues, the
joys and the tragedies of material existence. Such an
idea as Love — how is this brought about but by the
instrumentality of matter ? If there were no material
world of sorrow and suffering, of sin and of pain, there
would be no arena for the exercise of Love's invincible
charms. What is character but the effect on man's
spirit of his material environment ? The common task,
the daily round, the particular vocation of the man,
the type of friend he consorts with, the books or
newspaper he reads, the locality or street in which
he dwells, — all these material things are the fashioning
instruments from beneath whose weight character
emerges. Man in this sense is a machine-made animal.
The machine is matter. (3) Every discussion of the
relations between spirit and matter involves a double
usage of the word spirit. Firstly, the spirit of man.
Secondly, the Supreme Spirit of the universe, i.e. God.
The relations between this Supreme Spirit and the


world of nature and mankind have been the theme of
poets and philosophers of all ages ; the material world
was to them the visible expression of God's handiwork.
The Divine footprints were discernible everywhere.
Matter was instinct with a religious message. As
Mrs. Browning said : —

Earth's crammed with Heaven,
And every common bush afire with God.

Aurora Leigh.

Or take AVordsworth's remark about

A motion and a spirit, that impels

All thinking things, all objects of all thought,

And rolls through all things.

Lines im-itten above Tintern Abbey.

Or, better still, take that classic passage from Words-
worth's Excursion where the poet describes how even
as a boy, the wanderer was prepared to receive from
Nature the lesson of the existence of a loving God : —

He looked —
Ocean and earth, the solid frame of earth
And ocean's liquid mass, in gladness lay
Beneath him : — Far and wide the clouds were touched,
And in their silent faces could he read
Unutterable love. Sound needed none,
Nor any voice of joy ; his spirit drank
The spectacle : sensation, soul, and form,
All melted into him ; they swallowed up
His animal being ; in them did he live.
And by them did he live ; they were his life.
In such access of mind, in such high hour
Of visitation from the living God,
Thought was not ; in enjoyment it expired.

The literature of Assyria and Babylonia, the ancient
Egyptian Book of the Dead, the Vedas of India, the Neo-
Platonic philosophy, all breathe these ideas of God being
expressed and mirrored in the world of matter ; and the


Old Testament writers harp on the same theme con-
stantly. " The heavens declare the glory of God ; and
the firmament showeth His handiwork." ^*^ " Thou com-
passest my path, and my lying down, and art acquainted

Online LibraryJ. (Joshua) AbelsonThe immanence of God in rabbinical literature → online text (page 2 of 32)