J. (Joshua) Abelson.

The immanence of God in rabbinical literature online

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So far I have shown how, in the theology of the
Rabbins, the possession of the Holy Spirit was the
highest spiritual equipment of certain distinguished
Biblical characters, of the authors of the Books of the
O.T., of prophet, prophetess, king, and sage. But, as
I have already hinted, the Rabbins did not relegate
the possibilities of the Holy Spirit to any one particular
section of time. Although strongly particularist in
many respects, there were others in which they were
emphatically universalist. This is one of them. The
possession of the Holy Spirit was not, for them,
limited to the past ; neither was it the exclusive property
of their own time. It was a gift from God for all
time, which every one could attain to, provided he
used the right means. And they expressed this as
a doctrine in the " imperative mood " as the gram-
marians would say. They laid it down as an axiom
that it is the religious obligation of every Israelite
to so sanctify his life that he should be worthy of
becoming possessed of God's Holy Spirit. It is the
supreme religious ideal which every Jew must strive to
realise. His first aim must, therefore, be to make his
physical life holy. Man must think of his body as well
as of his soul. In the opinion of the Rabbins, every
physical imperfection or derangement of the organism,



as e.g. sorrow, pain, etc., acted as a bar against the
accession of the Holy Spirit.

This last idea brings us face to face with one
distinguishing characteristic of Rabbinical ethics, viz.
the importance of the body in the leading of a holy
life. The body is God's, say the Rabbins, as well as
the soul. Hence, to be perfect as they understood
perfection, means to be sound both physically and
spiritually. And hence, any action which inflicts pain
or deprivation upon the body, is stigmatised as sinful.
Thus T. B. Ta'anith 11a, 22b declares, " He who subjects
himself to needless fasting and self-castigations, or even
denies himself the enjoyment of wine, is a sinner." The
Jerusalem Talmud Kiddushin iv. Halacha ii. says,
" Account will be taken from man for every lawful
enjoyment he refuses." Leviticus Rabba xxxiv. 3 gives
this teaching in anecdote form. Hillel takes a bath and
declares that he is performing a religious act. " How
is this?" ask his disciples. "Well," answers Hillel,
" at all theatres you will see the statues of kings. These
are regularly and industriously washed and cleansed by
men who receive a great reward for so doing. Now,
my body is created in the image and after the pattern
of God. If the image of a mere human king claims
such assiduous devotion, how much more so ought the
image of the Almighty King of Kings ? "

Such then being the ethical outlook of the authors
of the Rabbinical literature, it is easy to see why they
should have denied the Holy Spirit to man or nation
when they are in a state of physical imperfection.
Genesis Rabba xci. 6 says, " From the day Joseph
was stolen, the Holy Spirit departed from Jacob."
Sorrow is a bodily imperfection. The highest ethic
demands a bodily perfection as its first condition.
Hence the grief-stricken man cannot conform to the


highest ethic. He is thus repugnant to the Holy Spirit.
When, however, Jacob receives the happy tidings that
his son is still alive, then "his spirit revives" (Genesis
xlv. 27), i.e. says Aboth De R. Nathan xxx., "the
Holy Spirit returns to him."

Yalkut on 2 Samuel xxii. quotes the following from
the Tanna Debe Elijahu Rabba ii. : " During the twenty-
two years that the Holy Spirit left David, King of
Israel, David used to shed tears every day, etc. etc. . . .
until at last he showed true repentance, when the Holy
Spirit came back again to him." The cause of this
departure of the Holy Spirit, was his sin with Bathsheba.
Sin is here looked upon, as a physical, as well as a spiritual,
defect. The man who has sinned, has rendered himself
organically imperfect, as it were. There is a passage in
T. B. Yoma 22b which speaks of David being afflicted,
on account of his offence with Bathsheba, with leprosy,
for a space of half a year, during which time he was
abandoned by his own court (p"nrrDD 13C)Q im-is), and
also by the Holy Spirit. David's sin is followed by a
bodily affliction — to the Rabbins suffering was the
consequence of previous sin — and his bodily organism
being thus tainted with an imperfection, he was ipso
facto rendered incapable of receiving the Holy Spirit.

Genesis Rabba Ix. 3 (quoted also in Tanhuma on
Tnpni) speaks of the Holy Spirit as departing from
Phinehas as a consequence of his sin in connexion with
the daughter of Jephthah. What the sin was, is given
in these Midrashic passages, as well as in T. B. Ta'anith
4b. There is the same idea here, of sin as physical

Yalkut Esther v. 2 says of Esther : " When she
approached the abode of idolatry [i.e. in the palace of
Ahasuerus] the Holy Spirit departed from her, and she
exclaimed. My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken


me ? Why art Thou so far from helping me, and from
the words of my roaring ? (Psalm xxii. 1)." Here again
the taint caused by an approacli to an abode of sin
constitutes not only a spiritual, but also a bodily,
infirmity. Hence the Holy Spirit departs from Esther.
The verse from Psalm xxii. is interesting to the student
of the Gospels.

Such, then, are the physical or moral imperfections
which impede the Holy Spirit. A pure uncorrupted soul
in a pure uncorrupted body — such is the only soil con-
genial to it. The best and worthiest in Lsrael's past did
realise this exalted pitch of spiritual perfection. The
best and worthiest in the Israel of all time have the
possibility of realising it ; and the Holy Spirit will rest
upon them too. It must be the ideal striven after.

Many of the Rabbinical passages treat Holy Spirit
from this standpoint.

First place must be given to the celebrated dictum
of R. Phinehas b. Jair (second century a.d.). It is in
T. B. Abodah Zarah 20b ; and with some slight variants
in Mishna Sotah ix. 15. Phinehas is a firm believer in
man's perfectibility ; step by step he can ascend the
ladder of purity, until he reaches the highest consumma-
tion, viz. Holy Spirit (which leads to Resurrection of
Dead). His laconic utterance is as follows : " The
Torah leads to carefulness (nii^rn), carefulness to dili-
gence (mnt), diligence to cleanliness (nvpD), cleanliness
to abstemiousness (n^QJ^o), abstemiousness to purity
(mnta), purity to piety (niTon), piety to humility
(niDi?), humility to fear of sin (njoh hn'T'), fear of sin to
holiness (nmi-rp), holiness to the Holy Spirit {r^"'^\), Holy
Spirit to the Resurrection of the Dead."

The programme of R. Phinehas is ingenious. The
terms he uses require more than a little elucidation.


A whole volume has been written on them, viz. the
Mesillat Yesharhn of Moses Hayyim Luzzatto. There
are three points particularly germane to our special
subject. They are : —

(1) It is noteworthy what a large part the physical
element plays here — the point previously alluded to.
The first condition of spirituality is bodily purity.

(2) The scale of discipline is such, that it is given
to every man to go through the stages successfully, if only
he wills it. Every man may become possessed of the
Holy Spirit. It is the culmination of what the religious
life should mean in the case of each individual living it.
It is the goal to be held ever in view. It is withheld
from no one who wins it.

(3) The statement that Holy Spirit leads to the
resurrection of the dead, is not easily intelligible. The
opinion of Luzzatto throws light upon it, however.
The possession of Holy Spirit, says he, leads man to
the state of spiritual exaltedness of men like Elijah and
Elisha who, according to the Scriptural narrative, were
able to resurrect the dead. These men were sharers in
the Divine nature to such an extent that they, as it
were, took on one of the great prerogatives of God, viz.
to impart life. God places His Holy Spirit in every
man worthy of it, and the man thus dowered reaches a
height of spirituality which, while at no point lifting
him out of the sphere of mortality, yet raises him to
that exalted level where the close kinship between the
human and the divine is most clearly manifested.

Leviticus Rabba xxxv. 7 has the following saying :
" He who learns with the intention of practically
carrying out his learning, will merit the receiving of
the Holy Spirit." " Learning," of course, refers to the
Torah. If any saying illustrates the widest possible


dissemination of Holy Spirit, it is this one here quoted.
It is in the power of every one to study Torah. Nay
more, it is every one's paramount duty to do so, based
on the phrase, " And thou shalt meditate therein day
and night" (Josh. i. 8). But no right-minded man will
fail to put theory into practice ; his study w^ill aid him
to a more acceptable execution of his religious and
moral obligations. This is the aim of all culture. The
man possessed of Torah-culture in this sense, will receive
the Holy Spirit. And its attainment lies in every one's

Tanhuma on inSi?ni places the acquisition of Holy
Spirit on other grounds : " From here thou mayest
learn that whoever sacrifices himself for Israel's sake
will, in the future, receive the merit of honour, greatness,
and the Holy Spirit." The incentive to this remark is
worth noting. The Rabbinic comment on Numbers xi.
16-17 is as follows : Moses is bidden to gather seventy
men who are to bear with him " the burden of the
people." He does not know whom to choose and whom
not. God tells him, thereupon, to choose those " whom
thou knowest to be the elders of the people, and officers
over them." These officers (n^i£o"im), say the Rabbins,
were they of whom it was said, " And the officers
of the children of Israel, which Pharaoh's taskmasters
had set over them, were beaten" (Exod. v. 14). They
were the officers who showed such exemplary self-
sacrifice, at that dark period of Israel's history, by per-
mitting themselves to be flogged rather than let their
subordinates suffer. For when the Egyptian task-
master found the tale of the bricks defective, the
Hebrew officer took the blame on himself rather than
betray any of his people — so the Tanhuma legend.
Moses selects these elders and officers, and God places
some of the spirit which is upon Moses, upon them.



This was the reward, for their altruism. And this is
the reward, say the sages in our passage, which is
sure to come at all times and in every age to him
who shows the same self-sacrificing zeal for his people's
welfare. The patriotic ideal could not be placed on
a nobler basis than this.

The word "faith" (hdion) or "belief" is not found
with any frequency in Rabbinical literature. But of the
few sayings concerning faith which are found in Rabbinic
literature, those of Mechilta on the words " And they
believed in the Lord and in Moses His servant " (p. 33
of Friedmann's edition) are most striking. A saying
which concerns our present subject is : " R. Nehemiah
says, Whosoever taketh upon himself one precept in faith
is worthy that the Holy Spirit should rest upon him." ^^^
Faith is here set down as one of the main avenues
leading to the Holy Spirit, R. Nehemiah's utterance
need not necessarily be confined to Jews alone. Let
only all men of any nation whatsoever, take upon
themselves the doing of one precept in faith — and this
potentiality is in accord with many an O.T. ideal — and
we shall then have that universal outpouring of the
Spirit upon all flesh which is prophesied by Joel (iii. 1-2).
This is certainly a realisable ideal.


(1) It is an interesting study to compare this Mechilta passage on
Faith with that of Hebrews xi.



Though there is a strong particularist tendency in the
Eabbinic doctrines of the Holy Spirit, there are not
wanting indications of a universahstic treatment of the
question. The Rabbins did at times, under certain con-
ditions, enunciate the broad idea of God out-reaching the
bounds of the Jew and consenting to find His sanctuary
among men generally. Illustrations are : —

A remarkable passage in Numbers Rabba xx. 1
where the Midrash actually places the non-Israelite
prophet on an equality with the Israelite prophet in
respect of the possession of the Holy Spirit. Commenting
on the verse in Deuteronomy xxxii., "He is the Rock,
His work is perfect ; for all His ways are judgment,"
it remarks, " God did not place in the mouths of the
nations what would serve them as a plea for the future,
enabling them to say, Why hast Thou kept us far away ?
But what did He do ? Just as He raised up kings,
sages, and prophets from the Israelites, so He raised up
these from the nations generally." As we have seen
from previous remarks, Holy Spirit always went hand
in hand with prophecy, in Rabbinic theology. It is
quite true that the Midrash here, as in several other
places, contrasts the defects of the heathen prophets
with the virtues of the Israelite prophet, but the very
fact that the Rabbins thought the former worthy of the



name of prophet, is important. They even place Moses
and Balaam on one and the same pedestal I Thus, " God
raised up Moses for Israel and Balaam for the idolaters. "^^^
But Balaam proved himself unworthy of the Holy Spirit:
he misapplied it to the attempted detriment of Israel.
It was for the latter reason, says this extraordinary
Midrash, that God finally withdrew His Holy Spirit
from non-Israelites, pho noS i^n^nS di?Si ''b hitod idS
ntDi? no HN-ii DHD 1D^ mw mD"i>D n'^ nipn. The peculiarity
of this Midrash is that it attributes the Holy Spirit to
the Gentiles, as well as to the Gentile prophets. But
the former had it only temporarily. At what time they
lost it, it is impossible to tell.

Balaam's extraordinary career is thus described
(Numbers Rabba xx. 7) : "At first he was an interpreter
of dreams ; from this, he turned to become a diviner ;
from the latter, again, he turned to become a participator
in the Holy Spirit." Thus, the most distinguished of
the prophets of heathendom, stood as near God as did
the most distinguished among the ancient prophets of

There is, however, one little modification in the
Rabbinic teaching on this head — viz. that Balaam
and all pagan prophets {i.e. non-Israelite) were only
in possession of the Holy Spirit at night. Thus, in
Leviticus Rabba i. 13, R. Jose says that God only
revealed Himself to the heathens at night. This is an
allusion to the possession of the Holy Spirit by Eliphaz
— a non- Israelite. Also, pagan prophets only enjoyed
"iin "^sn, " half the Divine Word," whereas Israelite
prophets were the recipients of " the complete word."
But, anyhow, the great fact remains, that non-Jews were,
in certain senses, considered by the Rabbins as sharers
in the act of closest Divine communion which is con-
noted by the phrase " Holy Spirit." ^"^


Yalkut on Judges iv. 4, quoting from the Tanna
Debe Elijahu Rabba, says : "I bring heaven and earth
to witness that the Holy Spirit dwells on a n on -Jew as
well as upon a Jew, upon a woman as well as upon a
man, upon maid-servant as well as man-servant. All
depends upon the works of the particular individual."
Of course, account must be taken of the fact that the
Tanna Debe Elijahu (both the Rabba and the Zuta) are
among the latest of the Midrashim, their date of re-
daction being about the end of the tenth century /^^

Needless to say, in any consideration of this subject,
regard must be had for the historical background of the
Rabbinical literature. It is necessary to think of the
Maccabean revolution, the struggle against Hellenism,
the rise against Rome in the days of both Titus and
Hadrian. Times fraught with so much trouble and
suffering to the Jews, can hardly be expected to en-
shrine the broadest-minded literary expressions about
the " nearness " of God to the non-Jew.


(1) Cp. a far greater statement by R. Meir in T. B. Aboda Zara
26a, viz. ; "A non-Jew who is learned in the Torab is as great as the
High Priest."

(2) Cp. Sifri on Deut. xxxiv. 10, "There arose no prophet in Israel
like Moses, but there arose such an one among the nations. He was

(3) See Lector Friedmann's scholarly editions of Seder Eliahu Rabha
and Seder Eliahu Zuta, with annotations referring to all branches of
Rabbinical literature, and an exhaustive introduction dealing with the
relations of these Midrashim to preceding works. Vienna, 1900 and



It has now, I hope, sufficiently been proved that
Rabbinic theology is deeply ingrained with a mystical
element. The quintessential feature of all mysticism —
the belief in the Immanence of God — is a characteristic
of the Rabbinic Judaism. The incoming of God
into human life, the implanting of the Divine life
within the human soul, the permanent presence of the
Divine Spirit accompanying, or acting in fellowship
with, a whole body of men or a whole race, — I have
quoted sufficient illustrations from the vast domains of
Talmudic and Midrashic literature to demonstrate the
tenacity with which the authors of the latter held
these truths, and their unshakable belief in the fact
that the people on whose behalf they spoke experienced
them. The Shechinah in all its different representations,
whether as fire or as cloud or as the wings of a bird,
really points to an inward and first-hand experience
of religion. It denotes the idea that the individual
Israelite, or the whole race of Israel, is actually en-
circled by the mystical presence of God, and lives
in a sort of organic union with God. The Jew
believed that the Shechinah floated about, as it were,
in his environment ; in other words, he believed that
his God was conjunct with all those of his race and
faith who did His will, and thus found refuge in Him ;



there was a Divine life circulating through them and
expressing itself through them. I have also made it
clear, in my long excursus into the various significations
of spirit and Holy Spirit, how clearly the Rabbins
realised the seed of Divinity which we carry in
our breasts. The Holy Spirit is a Divine endow-
ment to man, an emanation of God, which is the
originator of the prophetic faculty, and which in the
case of all men makes known the will of God, and leads
man on to ever higher and higher flights of worthy
thought and noble action. It is the medium by which
men become aware of the nearness of God, of His Father-
hood, and of His ever -constant accessibility to their
desire to hold communion with Him. The numerous
illustrations I have adduced, of the graphic manner in
which the Holy Spirit is personified by the Rabbins
and plays a part in the variegated experiences of life,
all go to demonstrate irresistibly, how the idea of the
Divine Immanence is woven into the very structure of
their fundamental teachings.

Putting aside all the technicalities of the subject
which constitute the groundwork on which the arguments
have been built, let me now, in the pages that remain,
address myself to the broader and more comprehensive
aspect of the question. To what general results have
these investigations led ? On the evidence before us,
what are the right findings with reference to the
question of the Rabbinic conception of God ?

I shall first take the negative side of the answer
to the query.

Firstly, the Rabbinic God is not, as Weber and
others have insisted, a kind of Absolute, dwelling in
impenetrable aloofness from man and the world, merely
self-contained and bearing no relation to anything else,
a supramundane and therefore extramundane Being, a


transcendent God who made man and the world ages
ago, and has long retired from the scene like a super-
annuated workman, a far-off monarch whom no man
has ever seen, and whom none can know because of His
unfathomable distance. Assertions like these appear
totally groundless, when taken in conjunction with
the fruitful crop of the Shechinah and Holy Spirit
and Memra teachings which are set forth in this book.
Let it suffice to give two quotations which bear
directly upon this particular point. In the Mechilta
on n^tDi (edit. Friedmann, page 41) we read as follows :
. . . '^Di D"n -i2?i mo nnpn moD n^jd hnii n'ii. " Come,
see ! Not as the quality of man is the quality of God.
If two persons in distress cry for help at one and the
same time to man he cannot hear them (because their
combined voices confuse him). But with God, even if
all creatures in the universe were to come and pour out
their plaints altogether before Him, He would hear all."
How can it be said, after reading a passage of this sort,
that the Rabbinic God is a fcir-off Absolute, unrelated
to, and having no connexion with, the world ? What
more explicit pronouncement could one have as to the
accessibility, the nearness, the yearning love, of God the
Father, His answering sympathy with the woes of
suffering humanity, the everlasting arms capable of
supporting the limitless burdens of those who walk in
darkness and have no light ? Notice, too, the univer-
salistic spirit of the passage. The Divine love is not
for Jews only ; it is for the world. The other reference
is T. B. Sabbath 127a as follows : " Come, see ! Not as
the quality of man is the quality of God. With man
it is impossible for a mean man to say to a great
man, ' Wait for me.' But concerning God it is written,
' Pass not away, I pray Thee, from Thy servant.' " There
are three elements in the thought here which bring


out our point. These are (1) God's ever-existent acces-
sibility. (2) The nearness of His love and grace to all.
It is only a bosom friend whom you love and of
whose responsive love you are assured, that you can
familiarly ask not to go away from you. (3) God is
more coudescendinsj to man than even man himself.
Eank, age, wealth create barriers between man and
man. But man's road to God is so open because so
near, and so near because so open. With sentiments like
these to its credit, it is clearly a libel to paint the
Rabbinical God as an unrelated Absolute or as a distant
and unheeding king.

Secondly, the Rabbinic conception of God is not to
be rejected as untenable, and as failing to meet the higher
demands of the religious consciousness, because it has no
dogmas expressing the intercommunication between God
and man in the senses conveyed by the Christian doctrines
of the Incarnation and the Atonement. With reference
to the Atonement, the Rabbins recognise no historic
breach between God and man which had such serious con-
sequences for succeeding ages, that man could only grope
his way back to the love and forgiveness of God by means
of the atoning self-sacrifice of some divine or semi-divine
man, at one particular epoch of the w^orld's history. In
T. B, Abodah Zarah 22b it is said that " the germ of
the [serpent's] poison left the Israelites from the time
they stood at the foot of Mount Sinai." This contrasts
with the very exceptional references in 4 Esdras iii.
21 and Wisdom ii. 24 which speak of the serpent's
poison, or the devil, as being transmitted from Adam
to all generations. On the contrary, the Rabbins
emphasise untiringly the spotless purity of the new-
born babe. " The good inclination," say they, " is thirteen
years older than the evil inclination " {because the
latter only begins to assert itself at thirteen, the age of


puberty). In fact, the long category of ablutions in
connexion with the sacrificial code in the O.T. clearly
points not to a continuous state of man's impurity
before God, but merely to a temporary impurity, which
can be set right at man's will, because it is God's will
that it should be so set right. What can be more
conclusive on this head than the famous utterance of
Akiba : "Happy are ye, Israelites, in that He
before whom ye purify yourselves, and He who cleanses
you, is your Father in Heaven " ? Here we have the
clearest statement of a never-ceasing inflowing of God's
grace to man, provided man does his part in yielding

Online LibraryJ. (Joshua) AbelsonThe immanence of God in rabbinical literature → online text (page 23 of 32)