J. (Joshua) Abelson.

The immanence of God in rabbinical literature online

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idea of God being moved to grant special indulgences
as the consequence of some one's prayer, which must, in
the long-run, result in injury to some one else. Success
here must involve failure there. How can this be recon-
ciled with the conception of a uniformly good God ? (2)
The idea of God interfering with the universal rules
which govern natural phenomena, on the petition of an
individual or community or nation, whereby while the
suppliant or suppliants are revelling in the enjoyment
of a specially-vouchsafed boon, others are enduring the
pangs of drought or hunger or of some other defect or
excess of nature's visitations.

The answers which seem the most plausible are
as follows : —

(a) Prayers are mostly in the plural. It is the
community of Israel that prays. When material
benefits are prayed for, they are accordingly benefits
for the whole congregation. This conclusion can be
demonstrated from many ancient passages in the Jewish
Liturgy. Hence, the praying for extra boons involves
no injury to any section or individual of the body.


But, of course, when the broader issue of the inclusion
of non-Jews as well as Jews in the prayer is faced, then
the matter wears a different aspect. Rabbinism suffers
from the shackles of a communal individualism. To
the Rabbins a non-Jew was often a rebel against God.
This particularism can largely be explained and justified
on the grounds of the political and social treatment
which the Jews endured at the hands of a non-Jewish
environment. But the Rabbins often rose superior to
their national exclusiveness. And the very fact that they
could do so in some instances, sufficiently proves that
they might have done so in all instances, had material
circumstances not introduced an element of bitterness
and repugnance into their attitude.

(b) It will be noticed that in private prayers recited
by individuals, petitioning for worldly success or triumph
over enemies, in many instances the request is not that
the enemy should be crushed in the fray, but that God
should fill his heart with a different spirit, so as to turn
his opposition into love. The suppliant realised the
goodness of God to all, and what he wanted was that
all men should, by realising what this goodness meant,
become good themselves. Thus prayer becomes aspira-
tion : to pray for triumph in life's battle is to whisper,
as it were, into God's ear, asking Him to make all men
as brothers ; and where such love abounds, there is
plenty for every one, and happiness and triumph is the
portion of every one's cup.

(c) The Divine Fatherhood occupies a great place
in Rabbinic prayer. Men are in the position of
children towards their father. The child formulates
requests of all kinds, some which are rightful and
discreet, and therefore deserve to be answered ; others,
which to the greater wisdom of the father appear
obnoxious, and if answered would be fraught with


injury either to the child or to others or to both,
must for ever remain unanswered. So it is with
prayers directed to the Divine Father. We throw
ourselves upon His wider knowledge.* We tabulate our
wants, and some of them are thoughtless and others
savour of greed. But all the while we know that God
will exercise His wisdom before granting them. We
know that He will only be moved to grant what is
expedient, and will certainly reject the supplication that
is importunate and unseemly. In fact, we believe that
God reads the wishes of our hearts even before we
express them in words.f And yet, we pray ! Why ?
Because we yearn to put ourselves en rapport with
God. We want to have conscious communion with
Him. We feel it an inestimable privilege to draw
ourselves so near Him, and to draw Him so near
us, by the cords of prayer. It is this very fact that
constitutes the quintessence, not only of the act of
prayer, but of the answer to prayer. Energies which
before were latent, now become operative. We feel that
we have transacted something ; and although we do
not know how, we are nevertheless assured that
there has been some objective response to our petition.
The final test in all these is, after all, our experience.
When the Jewish mother has uttered a prayer for
the recovery of her sick child, however deeply she
may realise the truth that God cannot be expected to
alter the laws of nature for her or her child's sake, yet
her experience is that of having effected something for

* As e.g. in T. B. Berachoth 29b: "The wants of Thy people Israel are
many, and their intelligence (cnim) is small." This is certainly a childlike
attitude. The child cannot tell his ailment to his father, cannot locate his
pain. And the father knows what is good and what is not good for the child,
far better than the child knows.

t T. B. Yebamoth 64a says, "God yearns for the prayer of the righteous."
This implies that God knows beforehand what the righteous suppliant desires
from Him, but yet He wants him to pray. God desires the communion with
man, hence man reciprocates it.


the better. And the volume of human testimony to
this experience is too considerable to be set aside as a
thin or of nought.

(c/) There is an interdependence of faith and works
in the Rabbinic theology. So in prayer, its ideal is
found in the closest possible combination with works.
Thus, we ask God for such and such a favour. To
expect it might, to the outsider, seem to expect some-
thing which is an unwarrantable interference with
the laws of nature. But what really happens is this :
the prayer is the great incentive to our endeavouring to
do our part in making possible the obtaining of that
for which we ask. We ask for fertile fields and fruitful
orchards. But, in the asking, we imply that we will do
our share of human labour in tilling the soil, watering
and manuring it, and studying the necessary climatic
conditions which govern the land. We ask for abundant
success in commercial enterprises. But the asking must
be accompanied by silent inner endeavour that we will
put forth the necessary act of will in so far as it is
incumbent upon us to do.^^^ And not only so, but it
implies that our act of will must be en rapport with
the Divine will. And thus prayer leads us on to a
self-sanctification in the conduct of life.* It encourages
us to look for results which lie quite outside the range
of ordinary expectation, provided we realise what a
power there lies in our own work.


(1) The Targum has '"^si " and prayed." The idea of judgment is
seen better in Exodus xxi. 22, d''7''?33 ;n3i.

(2) In Sifri on janriKi this passage is given, but with one or two
different expressions. Twelve names for prayer are there mentioned,

* Perhaps it is this aspect of the efficacy of i)rayer which is alluded to iu
T. B. Berachoth 32b, " Prayer is gi-eater than good deeds." For a full treat-
ment of the subject of Rabbinic prayer, the reader is referred to the able essay
by Israel Abrahams in J.Q.R. vol. xx.



not ten (see Friedmann's edition, p. 70). In Yalkut on same passage,
as many as tliirteen are enumerated. In Tanhuma (edition Buber) only
nine are given.

(3) See niizhn main in can jUB-n nj?B', chapter iii. Cp. W. G. Greg
{The Creed of Christendom, p. 122): "Communion with God, we must
ever bear in mind, is something very different from prayer for
specific blessings, and often confers the submissive strength of soul for
which we pray ; and we believe it will be found that the higher our
souls rise in their spiritual progress, the more does entreaty merge into
thanksgiving, the more does petition become absorbed in communion
with the ' Father of the spirits of all flesh.' "

(4) Cp. on fixed forms of prayer Maimonides, nSsn '"?.!, chapter i.
He says : n.tb' ni.t id it niso avn nVn • ■ • "m pnnn qin. The divisions
here are (i.) supplication, (ii.) praise, (iii.) petition for needs, (iv.)
gratitude, (v.) impromptu utterance (implied in ihd 's'? nnx hj, i.e. in
no fixed formula of prayer). It is clear that according to Maimonides,
petition only formed a comparatively small element in prayer. That
Maimonides was a great supporter of extemporaneous unfixed form of
prayer is seen from his following remarks, into which we shall not here
enter (i. 3). He gives, as the reasons for fixed prayers, the fact that
after the Exile the Jews became intermixed with many nations and thus
came to speak many languages. But the average Jew was never so
thoroughly conversant with any one language as to be able to give com-
plete utterance to his prayer in that language. And his Hebrew know-
ledge was none too great. Consequently he would intermix his Hebrew
wording with phrases belonging to other languages, and thus confusion
would arise. This gave the impetus to Ezra and his followers to fix the
Eighteen Benedictions. And after these came other prayers, so that there
was a fixed uniformity of prayer for all Israel and no one had to depend
on his own powers of extemporisation.

(5) F. W. Newman, The Soul, its Sorrows and Aspirations (6d. edition,
pp. 193-194).

(6) This idea of nm:: plays a great part in the Rabbinic maxims
and doctrines about Prayer. See e.g. Mishna Berachoth vi. about
the D'Jicxnn an^nn. Further references are given in the article
" Kavanah " in Jewish Encyclopaedia, vii. ; also at foot of the article on
Liuia in vol. viii. For n:m niDns msD cp. also T. B. Megillah 20a,
Hullin 31a, b.

(7) This interpretation of the exceedingly difficult phrase " Kingdom
of Heaven" is, of course, open to question. As a matter of fact, the
phrase seems to embrace not one or two but a number of differing
teachings. Bousset {Die Religion des Judenthums im N.T. Zeitalter, pp.
199-203) dwells on these. Thus, in the O.T. it refers at times to a
future kingship of God, and at times to a present one. Examples
of the latter are Psalm cxlv. 13, "Thy kingdom is an everlasting
kingdom, and Thy dominion endureth throughout all generations " ;
Daniel iv. 34, " Whose dominion is an everlasting dominion, and His
kingdom is from generation to generation." Examples of the former
are Obadiah 21, "And the kingdom shall be the Lord's"; Micah iv. 7,


" And the Lord shall reign over them in Mount Zion from henceforth,
even for ever " ; Zechariah xiv. 9, " And the Lord shall be King over all
the earth." These are only a selected few out of quite a number. In
Apocryphal and Apocalyptic literature, as Bousset points out, it also
bears the same double meaning. In all probability each of the O.T.
writei-s who used the phrase meant something different by it. In the
Rabbinical writings the A'ariations in meaning are greater. They may
be roughly classified as follows : (a) the acceptance of the Torah by the
Israelites at Sinai ; (6) the abandonment of idolatry ; (c) the advance
from slavery to freedom, i.e. the throwing off the yoke of man to assume
the yoke of the kingdom of God ; {d) the recognition by the Jew of God's
unity ; (e) the Jewish national hope in Roman times to be delivered
from the yoke of Rome ; (/) the Jewish longing for the universal
recognition of the Jewish God (as reflected in the " Kaddish " and
" Allenu " prayers, and New Year services). Examples of all these
could be easily culled from the domains of the Rablnnic literature.
It is however quite possible to ascribe a mystical meaning to many a
Rabbinic usage of the expression. In taking upon himself the Kingdom
of God, the Jew undoubtedly thought of the nearness of God to him
and of the Divine companionship which ever enshrouded him and
his race. Such is the view of Nahmanides in his commentary on Deut.
xxxiii. 5, " And he was king in Jeshurun." That it forms part of the
mysticism of prayer is seen from the passage in T. B. Berachoth 10b
where it is said : " Whosoever eats and drinks previous to praying, of
him it is said, And me hast thou cast behind thy back (1 Kings xiv. 9).
Do not say * thy back ' (^'ja) but ' thy pride ' (i'Kh), i.e. after priding himself
(with food and drink) this man takes upon himself the Kingdom of

(8) This subject is elaborated with great fulness throughout the
tractate T. B. Ta'anith. The whole of the second chapter deals
with the circumstances, conditions, ceremonials, etc., surrounding the
fasting which was indulged in by individuals and communities
in order to invoke the Divine gift of rain. The large miraculous
element, as in the tale of [viu p psnpj (one of three philanthropists in the
first century A.D., cVcnu vn pavVa ":, see Gittin 56a, Lam. Rabba i, 5, etc.)
in the third chapter, is another significant illustration of the point.
More noteworthy are remarks in the first chapter, like nD:-i3 Tn* S'ae'a nan
Q'aT S'^B-a (9a), or msj; 'jsa T'ln iS neny n'li'pn pnsii pns; ^ac nsSo (9b). The
Rabbins evidently drew a potent distinction between the relative efficacy
of private and public prayer. Whether their scattered remarks on this
head are merely the sporadic utterances of different teachers with no
connecting thread of a common thought, or whether they are the
expressions of different phases of some fixed theological theories on prayer,
is hard to prove. A collection of all the passages might possibly lead
one to the latter view.

(9) Significant is the remark in Aboth De R. Nathan xxi. (edit.
Schechter) that Gotl did not make His Shechinah to rest upon the
Israelites in the desert, until they had put their hands to the work of
the Tabernacle.



Rabbinic theology possesses a strongly pronounced
mystical element, because, as the preceding pages have
tried to show, it teaches the doctrine of the Immanence
of God, and the Immanence of God is the central
core of mysticism. What has always to be borne in
mind is the distinction between what one might term
official mysticism, i.e. mysticism as an occult science,
the mysticism of the Kabbalah, its theosophy, the
doctrines of the professional mystics, and a plainer
and more general teaching about the possibility of
man's communion with God, and the reality of the bond
uniting God to man at all times. It is this broad
and comprehensive aspect of mysticism which has con-
stituted the staple of the present treatise, although, as
has already been shown earlier in these pages, many of
the recondite doctrines which pervade the mediaeval
Kabbalistic literature can be clearly traced back to the
Talmud and Midrashim.

Mysticism, of whatever phase, must by its very
nature be the most individualistic type of religion. The
mystic believes in God not because he has been taught
to believe in Him, whether by books or by men, but
because he can experience God. It is his own intellect
in combination with his own feeling that makes God



a reality to him. There is a contact between human
spirit and Divine spirit. And this contact, to him, is an
immediate and self-verified conviction. It is something
that goes on in the silence of his own souL No one
else can know what it is in the way that he does. It
is a subjective fact. His neighbour may have it or
he may not have it. But what he knows and feels of
God is exclusively his. His worship of God and his
praying to Him are the result of his oivn realisation
of the Divine Presence in him and in the universe in
so far as he himself can judge. On these first-hand
perceptions — and on these alone — is his religion based.
All else is beside the mark. The religion of authority,
of tradition, of history, as embodied in books or codes,
makes no appeal to him. It is second-hand and doubtful.
Now, can such things be said of the Jew who lived
under an obedience to the religion of the Rabbis ?
The question is vital. One of the distinguishing marks
of Rabbinical Judaism, is its persistent and pervading
formalism. It is a superimposed discipline. It gives
little room for individual initiative. The individual has
to sink his own idiosyncrasies and merge himself in the
main body. The external plays a dominating part.
Authority looms large everywhere. History and
tradition lay down their prescriptions, and exact a
uniformity of homage. Experimental religion is over-
shadowed. The Jew has to believe that which his
brethren in faith believe. He has to pray the set
prayers which they pray ; he has to observe the
ceremonies, and respect the traditions, which they
observe and respect. In the face of these facts, how
can the existence of a mystical element in the Rabbinic
theology be consistently maintained ?

In the great work of Baron Von Hligel which has
already been alluded to more than once in these pages.


there is an illuminating chapter (vol. i. chap, ii.) in
which he shows how all religions, as they emerge from
their common anterior stage of fetichism, gather round
them elements which belong to tradition, history, and
the social relations of men and nations generally.
" Never has religion," says he, " been purely and entirely
individual ; always has it been as truly and necessarily
social and institutional, traditional and historical."
The growth of religion amongst the paramount races of
mankind, is analogous to the gradual development, by
stages, of the powers of thought and feeling in the
human mind. The child accepts facts because they are
told him. This, that, and the other, are true or untrue,
desirable or the reverse, just because his father or nurse
or tutor tells him so. What makes its appeal to him
and imprints itself on his memory, are external scenes.
The words spoken by some one in authority over him
impress him, and elicit an unquestioning obedience.
He has not the faculty to individualise, to sift for
himself, to challenge what he has been told or what
he has seen by ideas or truths of his own formation.
These capacities come only with the next stage. As the
child grows into a youth, another factor comes into play
— the mystery of his personality. He refuses to take
uncritically what he sees and what others tell him.
He begins to argue and form opinions of his own. He
gets to understand that these opinions are his own, and
have no necessary relation with the opinions of others.
In this way he develops an outlook upon life. He
co-ordinates and classifies facts and ideas, sifting the
true from the false, the good from the bad. He
systematises. In short, he thinks. Then comes the
third stage, when the multiplicity of sense-impressions
combined with the complex processes of cognition
and reflexion issue in volition and emotion. Thinking,


feeling, and acting, properly so called, are all brought
into existence. And then the human character is

But, although all this is a true and scientific account
of the natural history of the mind's growth, it must not
be supposed that these three stages never overlap.
They do. Some rudiments of the one are always to be
found in the other. The infant is not exclusively given
up to sense -impressions. Some germs of the higher
processes of cognition and will-power certainly invade
his mental world. And, conversely, the highest and
most elaborated volitional effort of the adult, is never at
any moment free from an admixture of the elementary
sense-impressions which characterise childhood.

Religions grow by stages analogous to these. There
is, firstly, the primitive stage, when men believed simply
because and as they were told. It was an uncritical
obedience to external authority. Tradition and legends
came to them out of the mists of an antiquity too far
back to be traced. They were shared equally by all
the members of the tribe or clan or nation. The religion
of one differed in no essential particular from that of
the other. In fact, it was just this common inheritance
that brought about a spirit of socialisation among the
members. The uniform obedience to the ancient
inherited traditional cultus, forged the link which bound
man to his neighbour in the arena of everyday life.
But, with the flow of time, a higher plane in the religious
existence was reached. Thought and literature began
to assert their sway. Men wanted to know the reason
for the things they accepted or rejected. Speakers and
writers arose to guide and educate men's thoughts, to
strengthen the consciousness of right and justice, to
allay unnecessary fears and doubtings, to eliminate
wrong and harmful conceptions. Religion, in short.


became based on intellect. But yet another ascent had
to be made before religion came to full power. The
emotional feature appeared on the scene. Religion
must be believed in, not, as in the former cases, because
it is authoritative, nor merely because it consorts with
the reasoning powers, but because it is felt to be true,
it is felt to answer men's eternal longings and aspira-
tions. Here we have the individualising element. As
each man's emotions, needs, and longings must differ, so
must each man's religion differ. Each man lives his
religion in his own way. This is the dominant character-
istic of mysticism. And, to complete the analogy, there
is the same overlapping of the stages here, as we saw in
the case of the child's mind-growth. The rudimentary
and outward were never without the complexities and
elaborations of the advanced inward. And, on the
other hand, in the most highly developed fact of inward
speculative religion, there was the unfailing presence of
the crude and early conception. Combination always.
Separation never.*

The aforegoing is a free resume of Von Hiigel's
ingenious analysis. It is as true an account of the
evolution of the religion of Israel as of the evolution of
Christianity, though always on the assumption that the
three elements are never utterly apart, but ever exist
in some degree of combination or coalescence, at each
successive stage of the nation's life.

In early Israel the authoritative, external, formal
aspect of religion was embodied mainly in the sacrificial
code. It was a cultus handed down from father to son

* M. Loisy says : " Preceding worships never cease to maintain themselves,
in spite of everything, in higher and newer religions. Polytheism has a
tendency to survive in monotheism ; while fetichism, and even magic, are
able to lodge themselves more or less in religions which profess a theoretical
monotheism and which were established on that principle" {The Bcligion of
Israel, p. 50).

Dr. Farnell, dealing with the development of prayer from lower to higher
forms, expounds a similar view {The Evolution of Religion, pp. 164-173).


throughout generations without a break. That the
sacrifices wielded a strong social influence, is seen from
numerous allusions throughout the O.T. They con-
stituted meals which had to be eaten in common,* They
brought priests and laity into the closest mutual contact.
Later Israel brings us to the religion of prophets and
psalmists. Here the intellectual side is uppermost.
Isaiah and Micah, Hosea and Amos in denouncing, as
they so unsparingly did, the sacrificial vogue of their
day, were in reality pleading for an abandonment of
formalism in favour of a religious rationalism. Instead
of thinking that God delights in thousands of rams, in
myriads of rivers of oil, they wanted the people to know
what is implied by the term " God," what ethical and
religious obligations and beliefs necessarily spring from
this knowledge. Not till the exilic period do we reach
the third and highest conception of religion. There are
unmistakable touches of mysticism in some of the exilic
Psalms as well as in the prophecies of the second Isaiah.
And later on, under Hellenistic influences, we meet with
the ideas of an immanent wisdom and an immanent
Logos ; while in Palestine not only were there the
Essenes with their rigorously contemplative and specu-
lative system of life and doctrine, but many an individual
teacher who taught the esoteric doctrines of the
n^jDNii "d and niDio "q. And flowing parallel with
all this — and continuing to flow long after the
others had ceased — was the stream of deep-seated and
widely-ramified belief in the " Shechinah " and " Holy
Spirit," and kindred teachings, to the elucidation of
which this treatise has so largely applied itself.

Here again the point to be emphasised is : that
these three elements ahvays intermingled in some

* Like the Greek iepeiof, the Hebrew nai has in the O.T. a twofold mean-
ing : (1) a sacrifice, (2) a feast (cp. Proverbs xvii. 1). See Mahaffy's Old Greek

Online LibraryJ. (Joshua) AbelsonThe immanence of God in rabbinical literature → online text (page 28 of 32)