J. (Joshua) Abelson.

The immanence of God in rabbinical literature online

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degree or other. The sacrificial system, even in the
most primitive epoch which falls within the period
covered by the O.T., was accompanied by some rudi-
ments of inward spirituality. The Book of Deuteronomy
is, according to modern critics, a product of the pro-
phetic age, when religion became more a matter of
the inwardness of the individual mind than of the out-
ward conformity to a general norm or authority ; but
Deuteronomy could only proceed as far as to effect the
centralisation of the sacrificial cult in Jerusalem. It
could not suppress that cult altogether. The Eabbinical
epoch for the most part, embraces the time after the
cessation of sacrifices. Yet, the immense importance
of sacrifices could not be forgotten or even minimised.
It has already been shown how deep a mystical
element pervades the Rabbinic notions of Prayer. But
prayer was actually stated by the Rabbis over and
over again to be but a substitute for the defunct
sacrifice. See T. B. Berachoth 15a, 14b, Menahoth
110a, Ketuboth 105b, Yoma 71a and b. And looking
yet farther down the stream of Judaic thought,
the combination of these three currents is even more
conspicuous. It can be seen and studied in person-
alities, some of whom hold immortal place in Jewish

Can mysticism, which is the most subjective type
of religion, consist with Rabbinism, which is a body of
objective teachings, in which formalism and tradition
demand a more or less general and uniform obedience ?

* Joseph Caro (1488-1575), as the codifier, j)ar excellence, of the Jewish
ritual and of the whole body of Rabbinic legalism, takes front rank as the
exemplar of the authoritative, traditional, external aspect of religion. But he
was yet an ardent and confirmed mystic. His Maggid Mesharim, w'ith its
heavenly visions and weird admonitions on all sorts of things, clearly shows the
extreme mystical bent of his mind. It is the most unbalanced book that one
could read! Nahmauides (1194-1270) was a rigid and dogmatic advocate of
the "six hundred and thirteen precepts of the Torah." But his mystical
enthusiasms are well known to every student of his works.


But there is no known instance in the case of any of
the world's religions, where the combination has not been
known to exist — and to exist without involving even
a suspicion of self-contradiction.* A purely mystical
religion is as much an abstraction as a purely traditional
and formal one. But how is the co-existence to be
accounted for ?

It is to be accounted for in this way : As, according
to hypothesis, there must be a mystical element in all
religions, every man of religion must be something of a
mystic. The mystic relies for his knowledge of God
upon his own innate faculties. It is his innate moral
sense that makes him reverence God as righteous and
just. It is his innate sense of cause that makes him
fear God as the author of all, the omnipotent and
omniscient. There is another inborn spiritual sense
within him — call it a soul— that reveals to him the
stupendous fact, that God is a God of love. Now,
these natural endowments of man are, as it were,
the test of the truth or untruth of that other con-
stituent of religion, viz. the revealed, authoritative,
traditional, historical, etc. The latter is ever brought to
the touchstone of the former. Let us see how this arrange-
ment works in the case of the Rabbinic theology and
religion. Take the Bible. The Rabbinic Jew's belief
in its truth, his reverence for it as the word of God,
his readiness to obey its behests sprang, in reality, out

* Miss Evelyn Underliill says: "The view which regards the mystic as a
spiritual anarchist receives little support from history, which shows us, over
and over again, the great mystics as faithful sons of the great religious. Ahnost
any religious S3'stem which fosters unearthly love, is potentially a nursery ibr
mystics ; and Christianity, Islam, Brahmanism and Buddhism each receives
its most sublime interpretation at their hands. Thus, St. Teresa interprets her
ecstatic apprehension of the Godhead in strictly Catliolic terms. Thus Badime
believed to the last that his explorations of eternity were consistent with the
teachings of the Lutheran Church. Thus, the Sulis were good Mohammedans,
Philo and the Kabbalists were orthodox Jews. Thus Plotinus even adapted —
though with what difficulty ! — the relies of paganism to his doctrine of the
Real" {Mysticism, p. 115).


of a combination of two inward convictions. These were
(1) the fact that the Bible is the Torah and contained
the words of God revealed to Israel, at a certain period
of the latter's history ; (2) the fact that the teachings
of the Bible about God, morality, and duty coincided
with, and were borne out and verified by, what his
first-hand spiritual experiences told him about these
matters. The first of these, he had been born into.
It was a part of his religion, which existed long
before he came into existence. And it was shared in,
by all who professed the same faith as he. The second,
he made for himself. It was the resultant fruit of the
usage of those powers of his, with which he was innately
dowered. It was his individual view. It was this indi-
vidual view which was the unremitting judge and critic
of the other. If that which he directly apprehended of
God, whether by his intellectual or spiritual sense, did
not tally with the external authority that told him that
the Bible was a divine book, then he must reject the
divinity of the Bible. If, again, his intellectual or
spiritual sense told him that the Bible was a divine book,
but that certain sections of it belonged to a lower order
of thought than that which he was accustomed to rever-
ence, and were the work of men of inferior moral and
intellectual calibre, then he must refuse homage to those
sections on the grounds that they conflicted with his own
intuitions of what was right, true, and godly. Such seems
to be the only logical outcome of the position. Now,
how did the Rabbins look at the Bible ? The Mishna
(Sanhedrin x. or in some versions xi.) says, that among
those who have no portion in the world to come is
" he who denies the divine origin of the Torah " ; a later
anonymous Baraita (T. B. Sanhedrin 99a) explains this
pronouncement to mean : " Even if he asserted that all
the Torah is of Divine origin except such and such a verse,


which was said not by God but by Moses." Here is a
typical instance of how the Rabbinic Jew bows to the
religion of authority— the external. But we knowthat this
bowing was spontaneous, natural, not forced or artificial.
How came this about ? Because that other element of
his religion, the intuitive and subjective, exactly tallied
with it. The Rabbinic Jew who lived the life advocated
by the ToTah, felt that that life, and no other, satisfied
most truly the deepest quest of his soul. The Torah
enacted certain ordinances, and made their obedience
obligatory to him. The Jew correspondingly felt that
his only means for bringing God near to him, and for
his realising this nearness of God, was this obedience.
It was only as a son of the Torah that communion
with God was possible to him. On any other grounds
it was unthinkable. It is probably, by the way, out
of these roots that there sprang the multitude of say-
ings scattered throughout the Talmud and Midrashim
(many of which are far too exaggerated to be either
logical or true) on the incomparable worth of the Torah.
Ideas such as that of Genesis Rabba i. about God
holding counsel with the Torah before creating the
world, or that of T. B. Abodah Zara 3b about God Himself
sitting and studying the Torah, merely reflect this view
of the Torah as answering the demands of inner as well
as outer religion.

Another example is the Sabbath. The Rabbinic
Sabbath is a grand specimen of what Von Hiigel
calls institutional religion. One can well picture the
baby of the Rabbinic epoch, born into an arena where
the strict formalism of the Sabbath reigns supreme.
As he grows from babyhood to boyhood and thence to
manhood, so the numberless ordinances of the " This
thou shalt do on the Sabbath," or, "This thoushalt not
do on the Sabbath," the hdnSd mnw to"S, grow round


liim with an ever-increasing sternness. But with the
growth of the external obligations, there goes hand in
hand a corresponding quickening of his own subjective
impulses to look upon the Sabbath as the acme of
spiritual joy. In other words, the Jew felt inwardly,
that that which authority commanded answered exactly
to the promptings of his own breast. The Sabbath of
tradition was the counterpart of his own heart's Sabbath.
A good illustration of this feeling is afforded by a Baraita
in T. B. Betsa 16a : ** They said concerning Shammai the
Elder that throughout all his days whatsoever he ate
was in honour of the Sabbath. Should he alight upon
a fine beast, he would say, ' Let this be for the Sabbath.'
Should he afterwards find a finer one, he would leave
it and partake only of the first." To understand the
drift of this saying, one has to remember that the
Rabbinic precept about the honouring of the Sabbath
is based on the word imiDi, " and thou shalt honour it "
(Isaiah Iviii. 13), which was explained as meaning,
'^Di iiy:i niDDn imiD, that it was to be honoured by
our wearing better clothes, eating better food, etc. etc.
By the man of no ideals, this obligation would be
carried out mechanically. But to a Shammai, the observ-
ance of the Sabbath was the welcome opportunity
of a joyous union of the soul with God. Hence the
smallest act performed during the week, was felt to
have some bearing upon the Sabbath's sanctified joy.
Hence again the externality of the command to keep
the Sabbath became absorbed, eclipsed, lost, in the
inwardness of the response which it elicited. And the
same course of reasoning applies to the external,
authoritative, religious ordinances which depend on
signal events in the history of the nation. The Jew
commemorated the Passover because his Bible and his
Rabbinic teachers bade him do so. But this is onlv half


the truth. He commemorated the Passover because
there was a corresponding inward prompting which
told him, that the God who was with Israel in Egypt
was with him and with his race then, that there was
an immanent Shechinah in Israel.

Such is the explanation of the harmonious co-
existence of the traditional and mystical in Rabbinism.
The authoritativeness of the traditional element is of
the strongest possible. It is sacrosanct. It is of God.
Yet it would never have found the endorsement it
did, unless there w^ere hearts and souls attuned to
its apprehension as the word of God.

This interweaving of the mystic and the traditional
in Rabbinic Judaism, has proved the finest corrective
for mysticism, as well as the safest anchorage for
traditionalism. It preserved Rabbinic Judaism from
fossilisation. It saved the spiritual elements of prayer,
A Talmudic injunction like that of R. Meir that it is
the duty of every one to utter one hundred Benedictions
daily (T B. Menahoth 43b) might, by its very mechan-
ism, have dealt the death-blow to prayer among the
enlightened. But its possible evil effects w^ere counter-
balanced by the advice R. Hana b. Bizna (a Babylonian
Amora of third and fourth centuries) gave, in the name
of R. Simeon Hasida, to the effect that : "He that prays
must look upon himself as though the Shechinah were
standing over against him, as it is said, ' I have set
the Lord before me continually ' " (T B. Sanhedrin 22b).
The external command, " Pray because you are bidden,"
is softened by the internal bidding, " Pray because
God is so near. He is the ever-present Shechinah."
Prayer thus retains its validity, because it is a blend
of the formalism of tradition, wdth individual inde-
pendence of feeling. A man prays because he wants
to, as well as because a rule tells him to. The modern


critic of the Rabbinic formalism rather unfairly leaves
out of his reckoning the large place which the Rabbins
assigned to the mutual movement ever going on
between the human soul and God, which they desig-
nated as Love. Such phrases as "'i?i ni^ NDom, " God
requires the heart," or nSn ^w^^\ iS D^w^s nriNCt) no h'D
mrrNO, "Whatsoever ye do, let it be done out of love,"
taken in conjunction with the many-sided usages of the
phrases "Shechinah" and "Holy Spirit," clearly point
to an emphatic insistence upon the subjective element
in religion. The point might afford ample material for
the theme of a separate monograph.

But, on the other hand, it is just the authoritativeness
of Rabbinism that has rescued its mysticism from the
gravest intellectual and moral dangers into which all
enthusiastic mysticism is apt to run. For what does
this authoritativeness in this particular connexion
amount to ? It amounts to an assertion of the trans-
cendent personality of God. God as lawgiver, as judge,
as father, is infinitely over and above man, and cannot
be compared with him. The Rabbinic Jew was made
to feel at every step, this extreme otherness of God.
What he had was, contact with God, the constant
companionship of God, ever-present possibility of union
with God, but never identity with God — that great
snare of so many a mystic. God was immanent, yet
transcendent at the same time. The gulf between
the human and the divine was never narrowed.
Perhaps the most potent illustration of this truth, is
afforded us by the old Rabbinic homilies on the Song
of Songs. The pivot on which all these homilies
turn, is the assumption that there is a real betrothal
between God and Israel. At one time Israel is the
bride, at another, the newly-wedded wife of God. The
reader breathes the atmosphere of the wedding-feast.


A characteristic passage, and one wbicti epitomises the
subject well, occurs in Song of Songs Rabba iv. 10
(given also with some slight variations in Deut. Rabba
ii. 37) as follows: "In ten places [in the O.T.] are the
IsraeUtes designated as ' bride,' six here [i.e. in the
Song of Songs] and four in the Prophets . . . and in ten
corresponding passages, is God represented as arrayed
in garments (which display the dignity of manhood in
the ideal bridegroom). ..." It is unnecessary here to
reproduce the Scriptural allusions on w'hich these state-
ments are based. But, that they form a good specimen
of ever so many Rabbinic pictures, where the union of
Israel with God is likened to a marriage, is certain.
The mystical implications of them cannot be better
described than by quoting the w^ords of two eminent
English theologians. " But behind and after this," says
Francis William Newman in his book on The Soul, its
Sorrows and its Aspirations, " there is a mystery,
revealed to but few, which thou, Reader, must take
to heart. Namely, if thy soul is to go on into higher
spiritual blessedness, it must become a woman. ... It
must learn to love being dependent. ... It must not
have recourse to Him merely as to a Friend in need under
the strain of duty, the battering of affliction, and the
failure of human sympathy ; but it must press towards
Him when there is no need. It must love to pour out
its thoughts for the pleasure of pouring them out . . ."
(p. 190, People's 6d. edition). Again, says Newsman
(pp. 196, 197): "Spiritual persons have exhausted
human relationships in the vain attempt to express
their full sense of w^hat God (or Christ) is to them.
Father, Brother, Friend, King, Master, Shepherd, Guide
are common titles. In other figures God is their Tower,
their Glory, their Rock, their Shield, their Sun, their
Star, their Joy, their Portion, their Hope, their Trust,



their Life. But what has been said will show why
a still tenderer tie has ordinarily presented itself to the
Christian imagination as a very appropriate metaphor —
that of Marriage. The habit of breathing to God our
most secret sorrows, hopes, complaints and wishes, in
unheard whisper, with the consciousness that He is
always inseparable from our being, perhaps pressed this
comparison forward." How applicable to Rabbinic
theology are these beautiful words which Newman
would seem to confine to the theology of Christianity !
R. A. Armstrong [God and the Soul, p. 163) says :
" The union of man with God must be like a marriage.
The more perfect the union of will and feeling between
man and woman in marriage, the more perfect is the
marriage. But the very essence of marriage consists in
the separate personalities of the two thus joined together.
It is the sense of union not with self, but with another
than self, that constitutes all the beauty and solemnity
of marriage. And in like manner it is the sense of
union with Another, even with God, always other than
self, however self be penetrated by God, that constitutes
all the truth and holiness of religion."

There can be no greater truism, as far as the Jew of
Rabbinic times is concerned, than that his union with
God was, as Armstrong has said, a union " with
another than self." He never for an instant forgot
that " however self be penetrated by God " yet was
God other and transcendently greater than he, his
Master, King, Shepherd, and Guide. In fine, the
" God-within " idea coalesced with the " God-without "
idea. The external, traditional, institutional element
in his religion, went hand in hand with his conviction
of the Immanence of God.

It is on these grounds that Judaism in the centuries
covered by the Rabbinical literature had no reason to


fear the dangers so often consequent upon mysticism.
But things were different in subsequent ages. The
truce was broken. Mysticism became a menace to
Rabbinism. The danger is reflected, for all time, in
the bitter feuds that raged between the Talmudists
and the Kabbalists. The career of Shabbatai Tsevi
(1626-1676) is an immortal illustration of the perils
of an unbalanced mysticism. It is not difficult to
detect and to analyse the underlying causes of this
dangerous degeneracy. Where mysticism is liable to
run amock is, in its mistaking the contact of man with
God, for the identity of man with God. There is a
twofold outcome of this mistake. Firstly, the extreme
mystic is prone to believe that not only his good, but
also his evil, disposition is part and parcel of Deity.
Sin becomes sanctified, hence a life of vice is justifiable.
Secondly, he is liable to excite in others a feeling of
worshipful veneration for himself, as though he himself
were some sort of deity, or, anyhow, a being far nearer
the sphere of the Divine than any one else. It is easy
to see how once such an impression gets a firm footing,
it can be used as a tool for efiecting the vilest kinds
of chicanery and immorality. The inglorious career of
Shabbatai Tsevi as well as the deception which marks
the public and private life of many a "Tsaddik"
among the Hassidim, and vitiates the conduct of many
of the Hassidim themselves, can clearly be traced to
this polluted source.

Rabbinism survived the trials and assaults of time
because, while judiciously blending with itself a measure
of that mysticism without which, as has been already
said, no religion can survive, it never allowed its main
stream to lose itself in a side -current of this kind.
What Baron Von Hiigel [Mystical Element of Religion,
vol. i. pp. 72, 73) so charmingly says of religion in


general, is thoroughly true of the religion of Judaism
during the Rabbinic era : " Only full trust, only un-
conditional surrender, suffice for religion. But then
religion excites and commands this in a person towards
a Person ; a surrender to be achieved, not in some thing
but in some one, — a some one who is at all only in as
much as he is living, loving, growing ; and to be per-
formed, not towards some thing, but towards Some One,
Whose right, indeed whose very power to claim me,
consists precisely in that He is Himself absolutely,
infinitely and actually, what I am but derivatively,
finitely and potentially."



The Rabbinical literature discussed in the preceding
pages covers many centuries. It includes (a) the
Talmud, (b) the Midrashim. The earliest date associated
with the former, is that of the pre-Tannaites or
" Zekenim Ha-Reshonim," starting with Antigonus of
Socho, who flourished about the first half of the third
century B.C., and was, according to the Mishna (Aboth i.),
the disciple and successor of Simon the Just. The last
of these were Hillel and Shammai. Following on the
demise of these, there commenced the period of the
Tannaim, lasting from the commencement of the
Christian era until about the first quarter of the third
century a.d. ; Hillel and Shammai belong to the last
pre-Christian century. As the references to the pre-
Tannaites in the Talmud are rare, in all probability
their influence upon their successors was small. Hillel
and Shammai, however, stand out as real forces in
the religious development of their age. With them,
and the band of Tannaim that succeeded to their
teachings, the Talmudic age proper may be said to
have commenced. Hence, the terminus a quo of
Talmudic literature must be assigned roughly to the
opening years of the first Christian century. The
terminus ad quem. is the close of the epoch of the
Saboraim, which, according to the famous letter of R.



Sherira (edit. Neubauer in Mediceval Jewish Chronicles,
i. 180), would be toward the end of the second half
of the sixth century. Hence the Talmud, speaking
generally, covers a six hundred years' literary activity.
In the case of the Midrashim, the matter of dates is
rather more complicated. Account must be taken of
the great distance of time intervening between the
year or century when a particular Midrash assumed
final shape and redaction as a whole, and the year or
century when several independent passages inside that
Midrash were orally uttered by their particular authors.
Thus e.g. take a Midrash like the Tanhuma. The
researches of Buber have shown that three different
and independent collections are comprised in it. R.
Tanhuma (an Amora of the fourth century) was only
responsible for a small proportion of the material ; the
work was not edited till the fifth century. It used to
be thought, judging from internal evidence, that R.
Hoshiah (an Amora of the third century) was the author
of the Bereshit Rabba, Modern research, however, has
proved conclusively, that only the general outline of the
Midrash can be traced to Hoshiah ; the greater portion
belongs to the sixth century, or even later. In the case,
again, of such a work as the Tanna Debe Elijahu it is
comparatively easy to distinguish the early sections
belonging to the Amoraic period, from the later additions
which were written by an anonymous author who
redacted the whole work in the tenth century. And so
with several other works belonging to the Midrashic
literature. The researches of Zunz, Hoffmann, Bacher,
and others would lead us to stretch back the origin
of Midrash to the age of the " Soferim." These
*' Soferim " besides orally translating the Law into the
vernacular, added interpretations of their own, which
after being orally handled by successive generations


became finally written down in the earliest Midrashim,
sucli as Sifra, Mechilta, Beresliit Rabba, etc. Indeed, the
early origin of much Midrashic literature is seen from
the fact that traces of it are to be found in many of the
pre-Christian Apocalypses, as well as in the Apocrypha,
the works of Josephus and Philo, and in some of the
lesser-known specimens of Jewish-Hellenistic literature.*
As regards the written Midrash, it is impossible to
fix a precise date. One can only speak of periods
or centuries or schools. The oldest are the schools
of R. Akiba and R. Ishmael, both of whom belong
to the Tannaim of the first and second centuries
A.D. The Mechilta, part of Sifra and Sifri, belong to
this age, and that there are Tannaitic elements in
Genesis Rabba is undoubted. The terminus a quo then,
in the case of Midrashic literature is the first century a.d.
The terminus ad quern, brings us right into the Middle
Ages, as Jellinek in his Beth-Ha-Midrash has proved.
But many of these late Midrashim are of little critical

Online LibraryJ. (Joshua) AbelsonThe immanence of God in rabbinical literature → online text (page 29 of 32)