J. (Joshua) Abelson.

The immanence of God in rabbinical literature online

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the Yetser Ha-Ra is unquestioned, seeing that Rab
(Abba Arika) in his prayer puts it on the same footing

xxm SIN AND EVIL 309

with "the evil man, the evil companion, and Satan."
In all those passages where the Rabbins attributed
personality to the Yetser Ha-Ra (and of course there are
several where they did not personify, and where it
is merely another word for sin), it was done with the
motive of ascribing the authorship of sin and impurity
to some principle or power, which, although delegated
by God, was yet other than He.*

But these Rabbinic attempts at the solution of
the problem fall quite as flat as Philo's. Argue as
strongly as you like, that sin is the handiwork of some
evil angel or rebellious semi-divine Principle, you do
not yet succeed in exonerating the Deity from partici-
pation in its cause. God is the creator of the angel,
and as such He must have willed that the angel should
behave in this particular way, and He must have
known the results that would supervene. The Rabbins
themselves could not have imagined that they had, by
any theory of delegation, discovered the solution of the
problem, because in spite of their reiterated attribution
of Personality to the Yetser Ha-Ra, they yet regarded
the latter as merely a passive tool in the power of the
Deity. One of the most emphatic examples of their
subordination of the Yetser to God is found in T.
B. Sukkah 52a, where God is spoken of as one day
exterminating (lit. = slaughtering "itomojl) the Yetser
Ha-Ra in the presence of saints and sinners.

We are, then, constrained to turn to quite another
method of reasoning for the reconciliation of the
facts of sin, with the theory of an immanent God.
A recent writer has presented the case very forcibly
thus : " What I have to say, leads back, through

* All these points are ably discussed from the Rabbinic standpoint in F. C.
Porter's essay on "The Ye^er Ha-Ra" {Vale Biblical and Semitic Studies, New
York, 1901). I regret that in writing on this subject, I did not have the
opportunity of consulting this lucid and accurate piece of work.


Hegelianism, to the old Greek thinkers, and beyond them
again, to the wise men who lived and taught in the
East, ages before Jesus was born. It is that this
finite universe of ours, is one means to the self-realisa-
tion of the infinite. Supposing God to be the infinite
consciousness, there are still possibilities to that con-
sciousness which it can only know as it becomes
limited. ... To all eternity, God is what He is, and
never can be other ; but it will take Him to all eternity
to live out all that He is. In order to manifest even to
Himself the possibilities of His being, God must limit
that being. There is no other way in which the fullest
self-realisation can be attained. Thus we get two
modes of God — the infinite, perfect, inconditioned,
primordial being ; and the finite, imperfect, conditioned
and limited being of which we are ourselves expressions.
And yet these two are one, and the former is the
guarantee that the latter shall not fail in the purpose
for which it became limited. Thus to the question,
Why a finite universe ? I should answer. Because God
wants to express what He is. His achievement here is
only one of an infinite number of possibilities.

God is the perfect poet,

Who in creation acts His own conceptions.

This is an end worthy alike of God and man."'^'

To put the argument in simpler phraseology, What
the writer really means is this — God is only infinite and
omnipotent when considered in the abstract, i.e. as a
kind of absolute apart from the world. But when
considered in His relations to the universe and man. He
is limited and is not omnipotent. His omnipotence,
paradoxical as it may sound, is limited. The creation
of man involves a necessary limitation of Divine Power,
because in creating man, God has delegated to him a
certain fragment of Himself, a certain portion of His


omnipotence. In this way man " expresses " God.
But he is not identical with God. That part of God,
with which as the result of the Divine self-limitation
he is endowed, may be used by him either for, or against,
God. Man's will is the Divine element in man, but it
may set itself in opposition to its Divine source !
Out of the " infinite number of possibilities " which may
arise through this Divine self-implanting in man, that
which frequently happens is the wilful and wicked
rebellion of man against God. Man grieves and vexes
the Holy Spirit within him. But the question may
pertinently be asked, If God in order to express Him-
self took such an extreme step, as it were, of limit-
ing His omnipotence, why did He not prearrange it in
such a way that there should be no possibility of man
opposing Him, why did He not withhold the evil element
entirely, and make man a pattern of all-goodness, even
as He Himself is all-good ? The answer seems to be
that man is given by God, the choice between alterna-
tives of action. The good and the evil are set before
him, and he has the unfettered freedom to accept either.
It is only this freedom of choice that makes virtue
possible. It is only this power of individual initiative
that makes man a moral agent. As a recent writer
expresses it : " Moral good consists in right choosing. It
is right choosing that makes what we call character.
. . . Right choosirig : but if there is to be choosing
there must be two courses to choose between. If God
had made me so that I could not tell a lie, I could
not choose to tell the truth. I should tell the truth
automatically, as I breathe and sneeze and cough. But
that would not make character. It would not be
moral good. . . . And as, if His object with men is
to get moral good out of them, to make character,
God is obliged to leave the lie open to me as well as


the truth, so also, throughout all the range of morals,
He is in like manner compelled, omnipotent though He
be, if He would have moral good evolved ... to leave
open to them the wrong as well as the right, the dis-
obedience as well as the obedience, the sin as well as the
virtue. And so, if moral good, character, righteousness,
be the supreme purpose of God with man, then even
omnipotence had to leave open the door to sin, the
greatest of the evils." ^^^

And the outcome of this freedom of choice, of this
Divine evolution of man as a moral agent, is the great
fact of responsibility. If man has before him the two
paths, and he wilfully exercises his choice in favour of the
wrong path, then the responsibility is his, not God's ; the
blame for the sin rests upon his shoulders, not upon
the shoulders of God. Had God not given us the freedom
to choose between the two alternatives of righteousness
and sin, then morality would have been impossible.
But He wants us to be moral. He wants us to struggle
with and finally conquer our baser yearnings. He wants
us to raise ourselves on the " stepping-stones of our dead
selves to higher things," He wants us to draw near to
His service and be holy even as He is holy.^^^ He has
endowed us with the power to act this high part. He
has handed us the key for opening our hearts to this
noble choice, by having breathed into us a portion of
His Holy Spirit, and by having encompassed us with
the halo of His never- absent Shechinah. When we sin,
we are traitors to all these immanent Divine promptings.
We are kicking against these implanted Divine traces,
trying to obliterate them, oust them ; and the respon-
sibility for the sin is ours, not God's.

It is in some such way as this, that the current
theology of to-day attempts the reconciliation between
sin and the Immanence of God. And, coming now to



my main point — it is the way of Rabbinic theology.
Let me attempt to explain the matter more clearly.
In T. B. Berachoth 33b it is remarked : " R. Hanina
said everything is in the power of Heaven save the
fear of Heaven." God's omnipotence is limited by man's
piety and impiety. These are outside the purview of the
Divine omnipotence and dependent solely upon the will
of man. In T. B. Sabbath 104a it is said : " R. Simeon
b. Lakish asked what is the meaning of the verse ' Surely
He scorneth the scorners ; but He giveth grace unto the
lowly ' (Proverbs iii. 34) ? " " It means that he who
wishes to lead an unclean life has the door open to him,
i.e. he is not opposed nor is he helped (see Rashi on
passage irri^DD-' nSi ^h^^^d^ nS p'?^ iD!ii'D p^"' Nin) ; but he
who wishes to lead a pure life is helped Divinely (Rashi
D^DQ?rr p Mi^^sD-")." Sin is here portrayed as entirely
in man's hand, outside the reach of omnipotence.
Man has the freedom of choice, and there is no
Divine interference. ^^^ The locus classicus for this
*' freedom-of-choice " teaching is the well-known Mishna
Aboth iii. 15, " Everything has been foreseen by God, yet
freedom of will has been given." The Rabbins firmly
believed that there would have been no meaning and no
virtue in morality, without this freedom of choice. The
Talmud contains the striking saying "ni:;^ inino h^iyn ^D
^2^y^^ SiTi, " the greater the man is, the stronger is his
impulse to sin." ^"^ Not alone is sin here regarded as the
dragging-down tendency in all men, but it is actually
one of the marks by which a greater man is distinguished
from a lesser, and it is a feature of the constitution of
even the greatest among men. There are two different
strains of thought in Rabbinic literature which go
to prove their theory that morality is only made
possible through the possibility of man exercising
freedom of choice, in a conflict between good and


evil motives. They are (1) statements on the Yetser
Tob and Yetser Ha-Ra, of which the following are
representative. Genesis Rabba ix. 7 : " R. Nahman,
son of Samuel son of Nahman, in the name of R.
Samuel son of Nahman, said, The words t^nd i*iio rran,
' Behold it was very good ' {i.e. were it so written in
Genesis i. 31) would refer to the good impulse, but
the words tind ni£o rnrn, ' And behold it was very good '
(as it is actually in Genesis i. 31) refer to the evil
impulse. Can then the evil impulse be truly said to be
very good ? This is a question ! The answer is Yes ! for
were it not for the evil impulse, man would not build a
house, neither would he get married, nor would he beget
children, nor would he follow any vocation in life. . . .*
R. Huna said, The words ' Behold it was very
good' {i.e. as before — were it written so in Genesis i.
31) refer to God's attribute of goodness, but the words
' And behold it was very good,' refer to God's attribute
of punishment. Can then the attribute of punishment
be designated good ? The answer is Yes ! it is only
through it that men come to merit eternal life." The
implication of this paradoxical Midrash is this : Man
has an innate freedom of choice between the good and
the bad ; it is this fact that makes him a moral being.
But so necessary and indispensable is it for man's
morality, that he should ^ut forth the effort involved
in making this choice between the alternatives, that
even if, in some respects, he chooses the wrong alterna-
tive, the net result is not necessarily sin, for even an
occasional giving way to the Yetser Ha-Ra subserves a
high moral and religious purpose. But it is the struggle

* Yalkut on Psalm xxxvii. elaborates this idea. It is not the "Yetser Ha-
Ra" but " Kinnah " {nttip) that plays these parts. " Kinnah "= jealousy.
"Were it not for the existence of the sin of jealousy, the world would be
defunct. No man would plant a vineyard, nor would he build a house, nor
would he marry." It was Abram's jealousy of Melchizedec's philanthropy that
caused Abram's greatness.

xxm SIN AND EVIL 315

involved in the choice that is the criterion.* Of course,
it must be remembered, in this connexion, that according
to the theology of the Rabbins, such acts as " building
a house," getting married, and begetting children are
not merely, as we nowadays regard them, part and
parcel of everyday morality, but facts of religion,
aspects of the religiously-led life answering the demands
of Heaven because they are ordained by Heaven.
The second part of the Midrash, justifying the doctrine
about a punitive God by reason of its being the
only means of causing man " to merit eternal life,"
is a pictorial way of stating the great theological
truth, that pain is not a sign of Divine vindictiveness,
but a discipline at the hands of a merciful God. The
sufFerinffs of man are no contradiction to the Divine all-


goodness. They are portion of the larger plan of a God,
who, out of the very fact of His all-goodness, wants that
man may be the better induced to see wherein his own
soul's welfare resides, and thus ascend higher and higher
in the scale of religious and moral worth.^^^

A more paradoxical form of this teaching is found
in a passage in Mishna Berachoth ix. (see also Sifri
on pnnN"), edit. Friedmann, p. 73), " And thou shalt love
the Lord thy God with all thy heart, i.e. T"!^"* ""^tiJi,
with thy two impulses, viz. the Yetser Tob and the
Yetser Ra."t The serving of God can only come to
man, as the outcome of the Yetser Tob's victory over
the Yetser Ra. It is in man's power to efifect this
victory, by means of his making the correct choice
between the alternatives. But while under the dominion

* This subject is admirably treated in a sermon by Mr. Israel Abrahams, on
pp. 102 et scq. oi Aspects of Judaism (M.a,Q,mi\\a,n, 1895). Mr. Abrahams quotes,
with telling effect, the passage in T. B. Berachoth 5a, " Ever let a man excite
(iut) his good yetser against his bad yetser."

t The reading here is not "Ha-Ra" but merely "Ra." Curiously enough,
the definite article ("Ha") is usually affixed to the "Ra," and usually omitted
from the "Tob."


of his bad impulse, man is not necessarily cut off
from exercising his choice to serve God. Even the
Yetser Ra need not necessarily extinguish what ought
to be man's aspiring struggle to the possession of the
highest virtue. The evil is there, only that man may
mount, by means of it, to higher and better things.

(2) The Rabbinic teachings on Repentance delineate
the highest morality and religion as the fruits of a
rightful choice between two conflicting alternatives.
" Great," said one Rabbi, " is the efficacy of repentance,
for not even the most perfectly pious saint can stand
in the place where the repentant sinner stands." ^^^
The basic thought underlying such a maxim is this :
The perfect saint is the man who has never experienced
the temptations of sin. He has never had to battle
within himself, as to which of the two conflicting
courses to take. Piety, rectitude, morality, religion
have all come to him naturally, as it were. They
are not the result of his soul's warfare with the
baser elements in his constitution, leading to a choice of
the better alternative. But the repentant sinner has
been in the thick of the battle and has emerged
victorious. He has exercised his God-given faculty
of freedom of choice. He has chosen virtue. He has
repented. The crux of repentance lies in this exercise
of choice.

But on further reflexion is not the perfect saint
who has never known sin a mere abstraction ? Do
we ever, except in the figments of our imagination,
meet with any one who has never experienced the
conflict between the motives of good and evil, and
who has never had occasion to hear the strains of that
indefinable inner voice which says Choose ? The
Rabbins were fully alive to the fact, that such a person
was an abstraction, an ideal figure. No man can be


sinless. Therefore every man needs repentance. Hence
repentance is one of the corner-stones of Kabbinic
theology. It is the starting-point of all the virtues,
as the Rabbins understood them. It is the seed
out of which religious worth and moral goodness
grow. Without it, righteousness would be unthinkable,
and the barrier between man and God insuperable.
This teaching is illustrated over and over again in
the realms of Talmud and Midrashim. Repentance is a
feature in the work of all the world's best men ; it is
repentance, more than anything else, that has been the
prime fashioning and controlling influence. In T. B.
Pesahim 54a (cp. T. B. Nedarim 39b), it is one of seven
things created by God previous to the world's creation.
" Repentance reaches to the throne of God." " Repent-
ance brings healing to the world." " Repentance brings
nigh the redemption." These and many other similar
sayings in T. B. Yoma 86a, all point to the fundamental
efiicacy of repentance in the religious and moral
life of men. Perhaps the most remarkable is the
saying in Song of Songs Rabba vii. 5, " The King
Messiah is called Hadrach^^"^ {I'^iTi pNi in Zechariah
ix. 1) because he will lead all men in repentance
before God" (n'Vprr ^:dS ni^mni . . . T~i"rnS -i^ni?m).
The realisation of the Messianic coming was the acme
of spiritual hope to the Rabbis and their people.
I have already mentioned in a former portion of this
treatise, the potent mysticism which, in Rabbinical
literature, frequently attaches to names, particularly
the Divine name and the name of the Messiah. That
a Rabbi should actually derive the name of the Messiah
from his appointed mission as the great leader of men to
repentance, is a convincing demonstration of the Rabbinic
belief in the basic power of repentance in the religious
and moral life of mankind.^^'^


To sum up the argument in a few words. In
granting us freedom God has placed a fateful power
in our hands. He has opened the door to sin and
all the other evils that flesh is heir to. But God had
inevitably to act thus. It is the only means by
which man could take his true place as a moral and
spiritual being. It is the supreme testimony to the
benevolence of God, whose purpose it is that man
should, by his striving, by his failures, and his pains,
find out for himself the correct path which leads to
his physical, as well as spiritual, contentment.

And there is no contradiction between these facts
as they are, and the fact of an indwelling, immanent
God ! God abides among men. The technical term
by which this abiding is expressed, is Shechinah or Holy
Spirit. When men sin, they are ipso facto refusing to
listen to the inner voice of the abiding Shechinah
which urges them to choose the right and not the wrong
alternative. Sin is the stubborn resistance to that voice.
In the graphic language of the Midrash, the Shechinah
(and the same might be said of Holy Spirit) is ousted by
sin. Good men, however, are they who act in consonance
with the voice of the immanent God. Their characters
have been formed, refined, by the very fact of their
having been set down in a world where sin abounds, and
by the fact that they have chosen the right alterna-
tive. They bring the Shechinah back to earth again,
in the sense that they exactly express the Godhead
within them, and their example is the incitement to
an ever-increasing endeavour to make mankind the
focus, the receptacle of divinity. They are, to use the
technical expression, T\''i"'pn hm p|mm "i2?I'D, " Co-partners
with God."




(1) Philo, De Gigantibus," II.

(2) Another important aspect of angels in Philo is, of course, their
intercessory powers between man and God. In this respect, also, their
functions seem largely to coincide with that of the Logos. This is a
by no means easy branch of Philonic thought to understand.

(3) Rev. R. J. Campbell, The New Theology, pp. 22-23.

(4) R. A. Armstrong, God and the Soul^ ])p. 129, 130.

(5) Cp. lines of Browning : —

I can believe this dread niacliinery

Of Sin and sorrow (would confound me else)

Devised ... to evolve

By new machinery in counterpart,

The moral qualities in man — how else ?

To make him love and be beloved,

Creative and self-sacrificing too,

And this eventually god-like.

Quoted in R. E. Welsh. In Relief 0/ Doubf, p. 107.

(6) The Rabbins never really entered into the difficult problem
of reconciling their repeated statements on the Divine prescience with
their doctrines of the Freedom of the Will. They stated both em-
phatically but only spasmodically. They never faced the perplexities that
must arise from the double assumption. That Rabbinic theology is, on
the whole, a strong foe of Determinism is seen more particularly from
its teachings on Repentance. "Even before the world was created,
Repentance was called into being " (T. B. Pesahim 54a). This implies
that the very first act of creation was that of enabling man to change
his attitude towards God, for the better, i.e. freedom to use his will for
the better cause, with the implication of course that he had equal
freedom to refuse the call. Some of the modern determinist ethicists
make a great fuss about heredity as being the great bugbear to the
acceptance of freewill. There is much to be said for their view. The
Rabbins never touched this difficulty. God, said they, visits the
iniquities of the fathers upon the children only "when the children
follow the bad example of their parents." It did not seem to occur to
them that the children might possibly be dragged to do so involuntarily
as an effect of physical heredity.

The mediseval Jewish philosophers, however, like Saadiah, Jehuda
Ha-Levi, Maimonides, Hisdai Crescas, Joseph Albo and others faced
these metaphysical problems thoroughly, each one in his own way.
Maimonides deals with it in the Moreh, iii. 20, as well as in the con-
cluding chapter of his Eight Chapters. His conclusion is merely the
confession of human ignorance in face of the Divine secrets. Thus he
says : " To him therefore who foimds his argument in favour of pre-
destination on the omniscience and prescience of the Deity, we reply,
These His attributes and the manner in which they are exercised, are as
incomprehensible to thee as they are to us or to any other human bein» ;
and Holy Writ checks our impertinent inquisitiveness on these subjects


by admonisliing us, ' Can tliy researches define God ? Canst tliou
penetrate tlie purpose of the Ahnighty ?' (Job xi. 7)." (Translation from
Hebretv Review, vol. i. jj. 369. A free and none too acciu'ate translation,
but it expresses the ideas of the original.)

(7) In T. B. Sukkah 52a.

(8) Cp. T. B. Berachoth 5a the remark : " Pains purge the iniquities
of man."

(9) Cp. T. B. Berachoth 34b the remark : " What the prophets
prophesied referred only to the repentant sinners, but no eye hath yet
seen the perfect saint." The latter is a fiction.

(10) The connexion between imn and T"n.T is explained by saying
that the guttural letters "lynnx interchange. The student of Rabbinics
often comes across such methods of interpretations. The Commentary
njina nunc has a long disquisition on this passage in Song of Songs Rabba.

(11) For further references see the remarkably lucid monograph
on Repentance by Mr. C. G. Montefiore in J.Q.R. xvi. 209-257. There
are also several noteworthy quotations in Weber's Jiidische Theologie,
but one has to take them with caution by reason of Weber's dominant
desire to strip Rabbinism of spirituality and make it a religion of the
outward only.



I HAVE had occasion many times to point out, that in
the Rabbinic religion, Transcendence and Immanence
form one combined aspect of the Deity. Deism is
repugnant to Rabbinism because it lays all its emphasis
upon the transcendent factor. Pantheism errs in the
other extreme. Resting itself as it does, upon the
exclusive doctrine of Immanence, it leaves no room
for a personal God, and it maintains (or runs close to
maintaining) an identity between God and the world,
which, for all practical purposes, amounts to a total
annihilation of religion. Is such an idea as prayer
possible to a Deist ? In giving the answer one would
have to distinguish between the fact of praying, and the
expectation of an answer to the prayer. As for the
latter, it is hard to see how it could fall within the
programme of the Deist. God has finished His work
in the world, and views its happenings with a far-off
concern. How can He intervene in the interests of His
suppliants, seeing that these interests hold no longer a
place in His mind ? But, yet, the fact of 'prayer to
the Deist is quite logically possible. An overwhelming

Online LibraryJ. (Joshua) AbelsonThe immanence of God in rabbinical literature → online text (page 26 of 32)