J. (Joshua) Abelson.

The immanence of God in rabbinical literature online

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himself to God. As for the Incarnation, it can be
seen from the chapters on the Holy Spirit, how the
Rabbins, by their delineation of the Holy Spirit as an
ideal which every one has it in his power to reach,
provided he orders his life aright, recognised the
divinity of humanity. But they sternly repudiated
the converse side of the proposition — the humanity
of divinity. One of the chief motives underlying the
zealous insistence on the Divine Unity and the pains
and penalties attaching to the infringement thereof,
is just this safe -guarding against the dangers of
clothing the Divine in the garb of the human.
Side by side with the words " Shechinah " or
" Memra," we get " God's Shechinah," " God's Memra."
Why is this ? Because the Rabbins never desired
that the personification of God intended in these
terms — and which had as its object to express
the immanent workings of the all-directing, omnipresent,
and all-pervading Divine Principle — might be woefully
misconstrued into a false identity between man and
God. After all, it is only the trained philosopher who
can understand what is and what is not included in the
connotation of the word " person " as applied to the


Deity. It is not easy to satisfy the man in the street
that God can be a person, with all the attributes of
personality, and yet be a spirit.

Rabbinical theology presents the truth of the self-
communicating love of God to man by quite other, and
less highly technical, means. In fact, it is, in this
respect, singularly free from elaborate dogmas. It
makes many simple, naive statements which it believes
to be true, because they were realised in both the racial
and individual consciousness. Thus, the Rabbinic Jew
said that God was his ever-constant and never-failing
Redeemer — and he said it because he felt it : he felt that
there was a Presence about him which overflowed with
unmeasured love for him and his people. It was some
such rooted conviction as this, which made him declare
that the Shechinah accompanied his people in all their
pilgrimages, that the Shechinah sustains the sick, that
an injury done to a fellow-Israelite is an injury done to
the Shechinah, that the Shechinah abides in Israel even
in the latter's impurity. And it was a similar axiom of
experience that produced the Rabbinic pronouncements
on man as a creature formed in the imao;e and likeness
of God. A child is formed in the image and likeness
of its father. Hence the great Rabbinic doctrine of the
Fatherhood of God. A child inherits the father's
disposition, the spirit of the one is part of, and corre-
sponds to, the spirit of the other. Hence the doctrine
of the Holy Spirit showing that man is related by a
real, though mystic, bond to the Divine Father, and
showing further that this spark of Divinity, which man
can make his own if only he will, is his ceaseless
admonisher and stay, his stimulus to what is highest and
best, an endowment from on high which makes him akin
with the prophets of old. But of this more anon.

Thirdly, the Rabbinic conception of God is not that


of a rigid and narrow legalism. Were it so, there
would be no room in it for a spiritual life. It would
certainly be bereft of that mystical element which this
treatise has shown to preponderate so largely in it. In
his article on Mysticism in the Encyclopcedia Britannica,
Prof. Pringle-Pattison says, " The Jewish mind did not
lend itself to mysticism because of its rigid monotheism
and its turn towards worldly realism and statutory
observance " ; and again : " Mysticism instinctively
recedes from formulas, that have become stereotyped
and mechanical, into the perennially fresh experience of
the individual." But the professor is here obsessed
with the usual errors of the critics of Rabbinism. The
" rigid monotheism " of which he complains, is not
synonymous with a rigid transcendence of Deity. The
Rabbinic God had contact with the world : He ruled it
from within, as well as from without ; man's relations
to God were not external and accidental ; a mystic inner
bond existed between them ; God was not only viewed
as the creator of the cosmos, but as the Shechinah, and
the traces of Himself which were embedded in the
heart were the workings of the Holy Spirit. There is
of course, at first thought, a clashing between the ideas
of a religion of " statutory observances," or of " formulas
that have become stereotyped and mechanical," and the
ideas of a mystical religion. The religion of observances
seems to mean mere conformity to outward routine,
whereas the mystical religion seems based on the
perennially fresh experiences of the inner life of the
individual. But it is just the unique character of
the Rabbinical religion, that both these sides of re-
ligion are emphasised, and to the detriment of neither.
Rabbinism is a Religion of Law. It is honeycombed
with ceremonial formalism. The Jew who lives under
it, can only do his duty to it by fulfilling a great number


of outward ordinances and commands. Obedience to
them must be unquestioning. They are the decrees
of the King, and only in loyalty to them can the
Rabbinic Jew satisfy the demands of his religious
consciousness. All this is very true, but it is only a
section of Rabbinism ; it is not the whole of it. There
is a complementary chapter ; the movement of man to
God and of God to man is conceived as somethinor more
than a series of outward acts ; there is mysticism as
well as ceremonialism ; and that the two went hand in
hand and never at any point conflicted, is amply proved
by the fact, that the abundant crop of teaching about
the Shechinah and the Holy Spirit is just as vital a
constituent of Rabbinic theology as is the more
abundant crop of its legalistic doctrine. There was
never any cleavage between the two, to the mind of
the Rabbinic Jew. They were warp and woof of one
texture. The term " legalism " is really a misnomer.
Every act of obedience to the Law had a mystical
basis. It was not mere obedience out of fear of
consequences. Neither did the obedience spring out
of utilitarian motives. " Be ye not like servants,"
said Antio;onos of Socho, "who minister to their master
upon the condition of receiving a reward ; but be
like servants who minister to their master without
the condition of receiving a reward," Here lies the
gist of Rabbinic mysticism ; and although it met with
ever so many perversions when put to the touchstone
of practice, it is not fair to accept these perversions as
the norm and standard. The beauty of any piece of
doctrine lies in the highest, not in the lowest, uses to
which it can be put. " Peradventure thou mayest say,"
says the Sifri, " Verily I will learn the Torah in order
that I may become rich, or that I may be called ' Rabbi,'
or that I may receive a recompense in the future world.


Therefore doth Holy Writ say 'to love the Lord thy
God.' Let everything that thou doest, be done out of
pure love for Him."

These quotations demonstrate quite sufficiently for
our purpose, that what lay at the background of life
under the Law, was disinterested love for God, Keligion
is Law. Religion is Love. Both propositions were
true and simultaneously tenable to the Rabbins. By
his consciousness of the ever - present and ever - near
Shechinah, by his conviction that he carried within his
breast an immanent Holy Spirit which, if he proved
himself worthy, might raise him even to the status of
the prophets, the Rabbinic Jew realised his fellowship
with God. And he realised that God reciprocated this
fellowship. His human love echoed back the Divine love.
So that every outward ceremonial observance w^hich
his religion bade him perform was merely the index or
symbol of an inward mystical communion with Him in
whom " he lived and moved and had his being."

I turn now to the positive side of the matter. What
are the various strata of thought which go to make
up the Rabbinical conception of God ?

Firstly, the Rabbinic God is both transcendent and
immanent. I must here point out the difference between
the religion which the Rabbinic Jew derived from his
Book (the O.T.), and that which he learnt from his own
soul's experiences. In the former he was preponder-
atingly taught the truth of the Divine Transcendence.
But his individual and national experiences brought him
round to the truth of the Divine Immanence. The God
who sits upon the circle of the earth and views its
inhabitants as grasshoppers, underwent a great trans-
formation in the crucible of his mind and heart. He
was drawn nearer. Instead of the monarch wrapped in
impenetrable isolation, he became the Shechinah. No


longer the great Unapproachable, the great Unknowable,
He became the Father, with a Father's love for His
children. And His worship sprang not from a feeling of
external obligation, but from the impulse of the Holy
Spirit, that emanation of Himself which He had deposited
in the finite heart. Yet, although the Shechinah was
brought down to earth, its permanent residence was in the
heavens. The monotheistic idea was never for a moment
imperilled. ^^^ The possibility of the offence of recognis-
ingr more than one " Reshut " was never lost from view.
Although God was the " place of the world " and His
Presence filled the earth — ideas abounding in the
Synagogue ritual and borrowed from Rabbinical litera-
ture — yet was He differentiated by a superlative
sublimity from all human or terrestrial likenesses. Here
we have the transcendent and immanent ideas in
combination. And the vital importance of this com-
bination to the Rabbinic or any other religion, is seen
on very little consideration. For it is only through
experiencing the fact of Grod's Immanence that we
can gain the assurance of His Transcendence. The
Jew's fidelity to the God of his fathers all through
the medley of his historic vicissitudes is traceable to
this very cause. His belief in the God of the heavens
remained unshaken, only because he felt that there was
a God in his earth. If it is true of all men, it is doubly
true of the Jew, that

The God withoiit he findeth not,
Who finds Him not within.

Or as Goethe has more philosophically put it :

Was war' ein Gott, der nur von aussen stiesse,
Im Kreis das All am Finger laufen liesse !
Ihm ziemt's die Welt im Inner n zu bewegen,
Natur in sich, sich in Natur zu hegen.


The Jew sought God only because he knew that God
had already sought him and found him. Thus the
Divine Immanence was to him, as it must be to all
religionists, the starting-point of the spiritual life. But
it could only become the whole of the spiritual life by
combining with the Divine Transcendence.

Secondly, the Rabbinical God is intensely personal.
That a transcendent God — the God of the eighteenth-
century Deists — should be a person, presents no difficulty
to the understanding or imagination. It is just what
we expect of a God whose functions have ceased with the
creation of the universe, and who for all coming time
merely presides over it in an exalted and isolated un-
concern. But it is not so easy to appreciate personality
in a Deity who, though transcendent, is also at the same
time immanent. We have already, in earlier pages,
discussed what is, and what is not, implied in the attribute
of personality as ascribed to God, how it differs from
materiality, and how it saves religion from the pit-
falls of Pantheism. The Rabbinic God was personal
though not material. That the Rabbins looked at
personality as something quite independent of cor-
poreality, can be proved from a variety of passages.
One noteworthy passage is that of Yalkut on Psalm
xc. 1, "0 Lord, a dwelling-place hast Thou been unto
us in all generations." R. Isaac said, " ' We do not
know whether God is the dwelling-place of the world,
or whether the world is the dwelling-place of God.'
Moses, however, came [Moses being according to the
Rabbins the author of Psalm xc] and told us, '
Lord, Thou art our dwelling-place' (i.e. that God is the
dwelling-place of the world — the world has its being in
God). R. Jos4 b. Halafta said, ' We do not know whether
the world is secondary (rrSsiD) to God, or whether God
is secondary to the world.' Moses, however, came and


declared, ' Behold there is a place with me.' This
proves that the world is secondary to God. R. Yudan
said, ' It may be likened to a strong man that rides on
horseback ; his armour is suspended on both sides of
the horse. The horse is secondary to the rider, the
rider is not secondary to the horse.' " There are
several constituent ideas in this remarkable passage.
They are (1) That while God is regarded as a Personality,
the object of adoration, He is yet spoken of in terms which
are anything but corporeal. He is the great indefinable
something in which the world lives and moves and
has its being. (2) That God is an immanent Force
behind all phenomena, as well as a Personality. This
is the underlying sense of the metaphor about the rider
and the horse : the rider is the all-directing, all-control-
ling power, and that power is invisible because it is
from within and not from without : it is not the outer
man that directs the horse, but the inward will, the
spirit of the man. (3) The combination of Trans-
cendence and Immanence in the Deity is clearly implied
in the similes.

That the Rabbins resolutely set their faces against
the ascription to God of any limitations of space —
in spite of their assiduous attempts to demonstrate
His personality, His fatherhood, etc., is seen in many
other ways. Thus in Song of Songs Rabba ii. 9 it
is said, " God resides between every act of praise
which emanates from the mouths of Israelites, as it is
said, Thou that dwellest amidst the praises of Israel."
And further on we read, " God dwells behind the walls
of synagogues and study-houses." And again, " God
looks from between the shoulders of the priests " ;
and again, " God is visible from between the fingers of
the priests." In all these instances we get a strong
portrayal of Immanence combined with personality.



In the Mecliilta nhw:! (edit. Friedmann, page 38),
following upon a host of varying comments on the
universal appearances of the Shechinah, comes the
remark that God's many-sided work for Israel is done
"1DQJ1, i.e. not bodily, but by His Name. Here we
have the mystical usage of the Name, upon w^iich
I have said something in the earlier portion of this
work. It shows clearly, how emphatic the Rabbins
were in their aversion to any corporeal interpretation
of the personal Deity ; and how fully their minds had
grasped the idea, that personality is quite independent
of a tangible bodily framework. The same thing is shown
in such questions as, " How could God walk in the garden
of Eden ? How could God walk before the Israelites in
a pillar of cloud ? " and several more of a like character.
The answer invariably given, always aims at dissociating
Divine Personality from locality, and at the same time
reconciling Divine Immanence with Transcendence.

But again, if corporeality or confinement to space
is not necessary to the constitution of a Divine Per-
sonality, there are certain factors which undoubtedly
are necessary, nay indispensable. These are (1)
consciousness, (2) intelligence, (3) purpose. Does the
Rabbinic God possess these ? It is not sufficient to
retort that the passages just quoted, if they show
anything at all, show the very things which are now
demanded. They do show them, but only in part ;
they deal with only one fragmentary aspect of the
question ; they are satisfactory, only as far as Israel
is concerned. Does Rabbinic literature reveal a Personal
God who is conscious, intelligent, and purposive in the
universe ? This question, too, may be answered in the
affirmative. The repeated references found to the Deity
as the ]nrT mn clearly point in this direction. In Genesis
Rabba xlii. 2 the phrase Josmo pi? is interpreted by R.


Aha as being ahvj hw iD-'i? hihi, " the ball of the world's
eye," i.e. as he further says, Dh'^s1 ;nrr mo rrntDi?© pi?,
"the eye which performs the judgment in the uni-
verse." God, as the eye of the universe, is an idea
of telling import. The eye is the symbol for mind
in all its highest and deepest manifestations. In Genesis
Rabba xi. 9 God ceased from all His work (on the
Sabbath), but not " from the work of the righteous
and the unrighteous " ; He is i^n □i?i i^n di? Si?id,
" working both with these and with these." Certainly
an enigmatic utterance as it stands. But its drift is
not hard to discover. The Rabbins here touch the
profound philosophical question of evil versus Divine
goodness. If God is immanent in man, how is sin to be
accounted for ? But God works " with these and with
these," i.e. He is immanent in the sinner as well as in
the saint ; only the sinner is he who is waging a
constant warfare with the God within (as I have
before sought to prove from such remarks as, " He
that sins is pressing against the feet of the Shechinah,"
i.e. trying to oust the immanent Divinity), whereas
the saint is he, who is amenable to the voices of
the ever-working Divinity that he carries within
him. And this Midrashic passage is quite unsectarian.
Or take again the idea in Numbers Rabba xiii. 6 :
" From the first day that God created His world,
He desired to dwell with His creatures in the nether
world." This desire was afterward realised, continues
this Midrash. Here we have all the attributes of
Divine Personality, consciousness, intelligence, purpose,
combined, and their arena is not Israel, but the world.

But for the most striking exemplification of all
the ideas here discussed, viz. the Divine Personality,
Transcendence and Immanence, purpose, consciousness,
etc., all in combination, recourse must be had to the


Yalkut on Psalm cii. It is as follows : "As God fills
the world, so the soul fills the body. . . . God resides in
the innermost recesses, so does the soul. . . . God judges
the world, so the soul judges the body. . . . The soul
bears the body, so God bears the world. . . . The soul
is set on high in the body, so God is on high in the
world. The soul does not know its place, but God does,
as it is said. Blessed be the glory of the Lord from His
place. A certain man once asked R. Gamliel where
God was. The Rabbi replied, ' I do not know.' ' Is this
a specimen of your wisdom ? ' replied the questioner.
' You pray to God every day and do not know where
His place is!' 'Ah!' replied Gamliel, ' you are asking me
of something which is a journey of three thousand five
hundred years' distance from here. Let me see if
you could tell me the location of a certain something
which you have with you by day and by night. Tell
me where is your soul V ' I do not know,' replied he.
' Well,' answered the Rabbi, ' if you do not know of
that which you carry about with you at all times, how
can you expect me to know of that which is a journey
of three thousand five hundred years' distance hence ? '

* If this be so, then,' retorted the interrogator, 'we idolaters
do the right thing in worshipping the work of our
hands, our idols whom we see at all moments rather
than the distant God of yours.' ' No ! ' replied Gamliel,

* the work of your hands cannot see you ; but God sees
the work of His hands. . . .'" It is unnecessary, after
all that has already been said, to enter into an analysis
of this pregnant saying. It demonstrates the truth of
the point of view for which I am here contending.

TJm'dly, the Rabbinical conception of God as
Shechinah and Holy Spirit, brings out an aspect of
Immanence which is laden with the weightiest of lessons
for the leading of the moral life generally. In the


technical analysis which has here been made, of the
Shechinah and the Holy Spirit, it will be seen, on further
thought, that there are two distinct lines of teaching.
These are (l) Shechinah and Holy Spirit as an accom-
plished fact ; (2) the Shechinah and Holy Spirit as an
ideal, i.e. as a potentiality rather than an actuality. A
truth of a most far-reaching import underlies these two
separate aspects. For the critic of Immanence will
inevitably ask the question, If God's presence tills all
men and all things, then why seek God ? Why
pray ? And how is sin to be accounted for ? And
again, conversely. Does it not seem from the very fact
that prayer is so congenital an instinct of the human
soul, and from the fact that even the best of men so
often feel themselves forsaken of God, and continue the
quest of Him by a more and more intense career of
self-discipline and self-sanctification, — does it not seem
as if it were untrue to say that God is

Closer to us than breathing, and nearer than hands and feet 1

Now, here is a problem which, unless solved, brings
down the whole structure of our arguments with a crash.
But the theological treatment of the Rabbins does answer
it, God is the life of all life ; the world expresses His
impress ; He has set His Divinity, a portion of His
very self, in man. But this divine endowment is, if
the term may be used reverently, only the raw material.
Man has to work it up, has to bring it out to perfection.
If he does not do so, it remains mute, dormant, in-
effective, lifeless. The seed is there, but if the soil is
uncongenial and the atmosphere foetid, there can be no
flower. The man of evil possesses the Divine germ,
but it never reaches fruition. The worthy man is he
who aims at, and succeeds in, producing the finished
product. And to effect this latter, means an arduous


and persevering struggle, a ceaseless round of all-
absorbing and all-embracing aspiration, an uninterrupted
series of endeavours to fulfil the unfulfilled, a con-
tinuous pursuit after an ideal. That the Rabbins
recognised and solved * the problem from this standpoint,
is seen from the chapter on Holy Spirit as Ideal, as
well as from scattered allusions in the chapters on
Shechinah. It is seen from such remarks as " He that
acts in such a way is worthy to behold the face of
the Shechinah, or " worthy of receiving the Holy Spirit."
Is this contradictory to the host of expressions emphasis-
ing the existence of the Shechinah or Holy Spirit in the
midst of Israel whether individually or collectively ? By
no means. These sayings merely assure us of the Divine
spirit which we carry about within us. But though we
possess the Spirit, we may not realise the possession ; it
is there, but we may be unconscious of it ; w^e thwart it,
wage w^arfare with it, quell it, unless we make the
struggle and the effort to bring ourselves to terms with
it. And the struggle and the effort mean the leading of
the religious and moral life, the right ordering of all our
faculties and powers to the end that we may be holy
even as God is holy. Thus, this twofold view of the
functions and nature of Holy Spirit and Shechinah
renders two distinct services. (1) It emphasises the
reality of sin, making its offensiveness all the greater
by showing it to be a wilful quenching of the light
which all men congenitally carry within them. (2) It
is a welcome admonisher to men, making them at all
points in life feel their unworthiness, realise their failure,
and urging them to raise themselves to a loftier and purer
condition of being. There is a celebrated saying in T.

* One of my learned critics here remarks : "The Rabbis solved the problem
practically as all men of i)iety do in all religions : they did not, for they could
not, solve it theoretically. The only practical solution is to live as if the
problem did not exist." Very weight}' words, these !


B. Yoma 39a which, somewhat enigmatically, seems to
sum up the situation tlius : " If man sanctifies himself a
little, God sanctifies him much ; if man sanctifies him-
self here below, God sanctifies him above." Man carries
a share of Divinity within him, but in order to realise
that Divinity he must put forward his own effort.
And every such efibrt avails. God does His part,
provided man does his. The fact of God's Immanence
in man raises him to ever higher stages of sanctity.
It has been already shown in preceding remarks, how
in the Rabbinic theology every one is a potential
possessor of just that quality which marked out the

Online LibraryJ. (Joshua) AbelsonThe immanence of God in rabbinical literature → online text (page 24 of 32)