J. (Joshua) Abelson.

The immanence of God in rabbinical literature online

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value for purposes of tracing development of ideas,
seeing that they are mere excerpts or condensed forms
or repetitions of the earlier Midrashim. None of
them have been quoted or drawn upon in the present
treatise. Its survey ends chronologically w^th the
Yalkut (i.e. Yalkut Shim'oni), which Epstein has shown
conclusively (in Ha-Hoker, i. 85-93, 129-137) to
belong to the thirteenth century. But the Yalkut is
also no criterion as to development of thought, seeing
that it is a mere compilation from very nearly the
whole mass of preceding Midrashic literature. We are
therefore thrown back to the following conclusion :

* Professor Estlin Carpenter (The First Three Gospels, their Origin and
Relations) has, on pp. 12-20 (People's 6d. edit. 1909), some interesting
paragraphs on the nature of oral traditions in the early Church as well as
among the early Rabbins. Stores of accumulated learning were retained in
the memory, and passed on in this way from one age to another, there being
an aversion to their arrangement in written form.


that the output of Midrashic literature extended from
the first century a.d. right down to the thirteenth and
fourteenth centuries ; but that after the tenth century,
which saw the compilation of the Pirke De E. Eliezer
and the Tanna Debe Elijahu, the products in this field
contained little originality, being chiefly reproductions
and condensations of preceding teachings.

My survey, then, of what the Rabbins thought
and taught about the Immanence of God, embraces
no less than ten centuries. The pronouncements I.
have quoted about the Shechinah and Holy Spirit,
are spread over that long distance of time. Can
any stages of development be pointed out in this
huge and heterogeneous mass of doctrines covering all
these centuries ? The student of history will say at
once, and categorically, " Yes, certainly ! development
there must have been, and it ought not to be difiicult to
show it. The investigator could not possibly fail to
see it in the course of his work, if he did his work in a
methodical and scientific spirit." And, after all, this
retort, on the surface, appears a correct and justifiable
one. Suppose a student of Christian thought were to
compose a treatise dealing with such a subject as the
history of Original Sin from a.d. 1 to a.d. 900, would
it not be a vital part of his business to deal with the
development of the idea from stage to stage, and from
century to century ? Certainly. It is hard to see
how his treatise could claim consideration as a work
of science without it. Similarly, a treatise on the
Immanence of God in Jewish theology, as thought of
and taught during ten centuries, must take account of
diflerences of environment, difi"erences of religious and
theological outlook, differences m the constitution of
men's minds, which are inseparable from the history of
a long stretch of time. Doctrines and dogmas are the


childreu of circumstances. They are moulded, evolved,
transformed under the stress of ever-changing forces.
And it is the duty of the historian to watch these
variations and evolutions in their successive relations to
one another, as well as to the parent idea.

But the effort to give a chronological survey of
Jewish thought on the doctrine of Immanence, is beset
with peculiar difficulties. It is questionable whether any
logically-correct analogy can be instituted, between the
history of a theological idea in Rabbinic literature, and
the history of the same idea in Christian literature.
And for the following reason : Christian theology of
any age, is dominated by some pre-eminent teacher who
both propagated his own strictly theological views, and
also reflected, in his own teachings, the theological views
cherished by his people. St. Paul was a great and original
thinker. He set a theological standard to his followers.
He is also to a large extent the reflexion of what was
thought and felt and aspired after, in the theological
world of his generation. And so with St. Augustine or
Luther, or any other paramount leader. But nothing
like this occurs in Rabbinical theology. Its great
men are great in Halacha, and not in the elucidation
and propagation of theological doctrines. This fact can
be seen in two ways.

Firstly, while the development of Halacha went
on apace, that of Haggada was practically stagnant.
Bacher has pointed out (Ag-Tan. i. 451-475 ; idem, Ag.
Pal. Amor. i. pp. viii et seq.) how there is practically no
difference between the Haggada of the Tannaitic and
that of the Amoraic age. But what a momentous
evolution took place during that time in the Halacha !
The final redaction of the Mishna is the great product
of this transition. The significance of the Mishna for
the Halacha is everything ; for the Haggada it is


almost nothing. Again, the activity of the Talmudic
authorities, as has been said previously, came to an
end in the sixth century with the cessation of the
Saboraim. This does not, however, imply that the
development of Halacha ceased, or even received a
set-back. On the contrary, the epoch of the Geonim
followed that of the Saboraim ; and the influence of
the Geonim in the field of the development of Halacha
was enormous. In vol. v. of his Geschichte, Graetz
shows how their Halachic expositions set the standard
for all the Jewish communities not only in the Moham-
medan countries of those days, but also in Christian
Europe ; their Responsa, which dealt with ritual and
legal questions, swayed the Judaism of the Diaspora.
But of the evolution or advancement of the Haggadah
during those centuries (i.e. down to the eleventh
century, the last Gaon of Pumbeditha, Hai, having died
in 1038) we know nothing. Moreover, real originality in
Midrashic output, ceased even before the tenth century.
The high-water mark of Midrashic exegesis was reached
in the sixth century ; from the sixth to the tenth
century such originality as there was, consisted in
revising or collecting, condensing or editing the materials
to hand ; no new schools of interpretation were estab-
lished, no new exegetical methods were devised ; there
was nothing that drew the attention, or answered in any
way to the changed religious demands, of the Diaspora.
Even the Pirke De R. Eliezer or the Tanna Debe
Elijahu, although they undoubtedly present features
which are absent from their early predecessors, never-
theless do not exhibit any of that richness of develop-
ment such as we notice in the contemporary Halacha.
And their significance for the Judaism of their epoch
or succeeding epochs w^as, in comparison, small.

But secondly, as has already been hinted, the men


who left their mark on the Rabbinic period were
primarily Halachists. The immortal debt which the
Talmud owes to a man like Akiba, rests on his con-
tributions to Halacha, his genius in the sjstematisation
of the floating body of oral laws, his originality in
devising new hermeneutical principles for the deduction
of certain truths from the words of Scripture, by means
of which he gave to the Halacha the possibility of
continuous development. Akiba shines too in the
sphere of Haggada. But his teachings here are
spasmodic and fragmentary. They do not form a
system, a philosophy. They were never taken up as
a body, and worked upon or developed by succeeding
thinkers. The same thing is true of a famous Amora like
Rab (Abba Arika, third century a.d.). His disputes
with Samuel, his distinguished contemporary, are
perhaps the most forcible illustrations we can find, of the
Rabbinical dialectic method ; they are most intricate
and puzzling ; they are to be found in all quarters
of the Talmud. But they are all focussed round the
Halacha. Rab was fertile in Haggada too ; but it was
only a subsidiary subject with him. Every student
of Rabbinics knows of the Hawayot de-Ahaye tve-
Raha, i.e. the debates of Abaye (Amora, fourth
century a.d.) and Raba (ditto). For the Halacha
these knotty disquisitions are of the highest import.
They do not touch the Haggada. The philosophical
Hagojadist, the Amora who first endeavoured to reduce
the Rabbinical sayings on ethics and theology to ordered
and reasoned system, which would have lent itself to
considerable development and ramification at future
hands, was Simlai (third century a.d.). His resolution
(see T B. Makkot 23b, 24a) of the 613 precepts into
the one all-embracing fundamental principle of Faith
as stated by the prophet Habakkuk, "And the just


shall live by his faith," offered a useful starting-point
for a logical and definite study of theology. But it
was never taken up, Simlai is only one among the
crowd of Amoraim. He is quite eclipsed by the

How true this point of view is, can be seen again
from the following consideration. The Incorporeality
and the Omniscience of God, His Spirituality, His
Providence, the Immortality of the Soul, the Freedom
of the Will, Divine Retribution, — all these fundamental
principles of Judaism have their fount and origin, after
the O.T., in the Rabbinical literature. The Jew who
denies e.g. the immortality of the soul, is surely con-
travening Rabbinism as much as the Jew who would
eat leavened bread on the eighth day of Passover or sound
the Shofar on the New Year's Day which fell on the
Sabbath. Yet, while we have a massive literature of
Halacha, Responsa, and Codifications dealing with, and
developing, these ritual institutions — a literature belong-
ing to both Talmudic and post-Talmudic centuries — the
development, elucidation, and attempted systematisation
of theological themes had to wait until the rise of
the Arabic- Jewish philosophy with Sa'adiah in the tenth
century. And even after Sa'adiah, there was no con-
tinuous and homogeneous stream of development.
Sa'adiah's successors worked out matters independently
of him and of one another. Each thinker gave his own
individual views. Bahya Ibn Pakuda, Jehuda Ha-Levi,
Abraham Ibn David, Maimonides, Gersonides and
Hisdai Crescas — all have one, and one only, point of
affinity, viz. that they model themselves on their common
teacher Aristotle (Ibn Gabriol is throughout a Platonist).
In all other respects each man speaks only for himself,
decides the theological problem entirely according to
his own individual opinion. And so it came about,


that whereas in the early Christian Church we meet
with the three authoritative formulse of faith — the
Apostles' Creed, the Nicene, and the Athanasian — the
creeds and dogmas which were drawn up by the mediaeval
Jewish philosophers had no canonical validity. No
ecclesiastical sanctity attached to them which would
make them binding upon every Jew. They were only
drawn up in the systematic form of Articles of Belief,
because of the necessity felt by their authors, of com-
bating the theological attacks made on the citadel of
Judaism by the Karaites on the one hand, and by the
theories of faith current among the Mohammedans and
Christians on the other. The respect shown to them
arose out of the religious importance and the intellectual
brilliance of their authors. This, of course, meant a
great deal ; but it did not mean enough to enable the
formulation and j&xture of these Articles of Faith to
stand on the same level of a binding importance as the
contemporaneously-developed principles of the Halacha.
These, then, are the reasons which make the task of
showing development of theological ideas during the
many centuries covered by the Rabbinic period, not only
one of difficulty, but also of dubious worth. For the most
potent test of the inmost meaning and truest drift of the
literature of any age, is to be found in the interpretation
of the life of that age — literature being but the expres-
sion of life. No matter what view of things theoretical
investigation may afford, if we have reason to think on
other grounds that the life of an epoch was different, we
must not put too much trust in the investigation of the
written word. For our main object after all, is to get at
the life not the literature, and in the degree that we
ofttimes deduce literature from life, in that degree are
we often called upon to deduce life from literature.
Now, what do we know about life under the Rabbinic


religion during those far-away centuries? We know,
that the life of the orthodox Jew was so ordered
by him as to accord with his ingrained belief that
" wherever Israel was there the Shechinah was." It
was not doubted. It was never controverted (except
from outside, as has been previously said). All the
Haggadic notions about the Immanence of God were
accepted on their face-value. The life of the home, of
the synagogue, of the community, was grounded and
fashioned on this assumption. To examine too inquisi-
tively into the Divine Nature was, as a matter of fact,
sternly reprobated as showing a dangerous want of
faith. No one really wanted to know what God was,
or what the Shechinah or Holy Spirit were, in their
absolute or essential nature. The reality of their
existence was experienced in the practical life. This
was all, and this was enough. The questioner was
the sceptic who refused to toe the line with his brethren
and was branded as a heretic. A statement in the
opening Mishna of T. B. Haggigah ii. says: "A man
who speculates on the four following things, it were
better for him had he never entered the world, viz.
that which is above and that which is below, that which
was formerly and that which is to be." If this remark
proves anything at all, it proves that in the Mishnaic
epoch religion was a simple affair which brooked no
abstract speculations on the mysteries of the Godhead.
The few who did pursue these abstractions were the
exceptions, in some cases the literary elect. But from
our general knowledge of the life during the whole of
the Rabbinic period succeeding the Mishna, we may
take it that this Mishnaic statement is exactly typical
of the popular feeling.

Enough has now been said about the reservations
which must be made in any attempt at setting up any


theory of development in the immanental ideas of God
during the centuries covered by the present sketch.
There are, nevertheless, some apparent instances of
development — development which at the time may
have escaped consciousness, but which we, reviewing
the literature en masse at this distance of time, can
readily detect.

Firstly, there comes the primitive substratum of
immanental teaching in which the Shechinah is material-
ised. It is material light, fire, cloud, a bird with wings.
Quotations have been given showing how the light or
fire inflicted real physical injuries. As a material
body its movements necessarily create a noise, the locus
classiciis illustrating this being that of T. B. Megillah
29a, where the father of Samuel and Levi (Babylonian
Amoraim of the third century) sitting in the synagogue
of Shef-Ve-Yatib in Nehardea, hear the noise of the
coming of the Shechinah and immediately leave the
synagogue, probably out of fright, whereas R. Shesheth
(Babylonian Amora of third century) having had the
same experience on another occasion is undisturbed by
it. These material embodiments of Shechinah are to
be found in the later, as well as in the earlier, sections
of the literature. But with this difference, viz. whereas
in the earlier epochs they were the realised mystical
experiences of men, or, as in many instances, the
traditions about such experiences which took place in
the past, but were afterwards interpreted in a tangible
sense, in the later epochs of Rabbinical literature
these material terms became rather the symbols for
higher spiritualised teachings about Divine Imman-
ence. They were the poetical expression for the
spiritual idea rather than the believed-in materiahsation
of the idea. The Holy Spirit was also materialised
in the earlier conceptions, but not to anything like


tlie same extent as the Shechinali — although on account
of the rather frequent loose interchange of the two terms
it is difficult to tell the exact amount of materialisation
which belongs to each.

Secondly, a development and refinement of the idea
is noticeable in the multitudinous statements about
God's Shechinah or God's Holy Spirit. The Rabbinic
mystic has here reached that stage when he can dissociate,
disentangle, the idea of the Deity as the Immanent
Power and Love embodied in material phenomena,
from the material phenomena themselves. He can e.g.
conceive of the Divine immanent justice meting out
punishment where necessary, without actually beholding
the material agent, such as fire, etc., for the execution
of that punishment. And the danger of a degeneration
into Pantheism through an identification of the Deity
with the world, is avoided by making the Shechinah
or Holy Spirit a possession, a kind of emanation of
God. It is always "God's Shechinah" or "God's
Holy Spirit." It is, in reality, the combination of the
transcendent and immanent aspects. The God, active
throughout the universe, whose traces are everywhere,
and who is so near to man that His answering love can
be evoked at all times, is also, at the same time, the God
who transcends the world and whose thoughts are not
our thoughts, nor His ways our ways.

Thirdly, there is the stage of Personification. It is a
passing on from such expressions as in^^DCJ rrnpri ma^n
h^ . . . " God caused His Shechinah to dwell . . ." to
those numerous passages where the Shechinah or Holy
Spirit speaks, walks, weeps, rejoices, etc. This denotes a
decided advance in the Immanent idea. What with all
the uncompromising repugnance of the Rabbins to any
idea which might in the remotest degree suggest a
plurality of persons in the Godhead, the cosmic phase of


the Immanent Deity is nevertheless regarded fearlessly
and outspokenly as a person. But let it not be implied
that this personification ousted or superseded chrono-
logically the less-developed and earlier usage. The
student of Rabbinics knows full well that expressions
about Shechinah and Holy Spirit as personifications,
are found side by side with expressions, belonging to
the very same period of time, which refer to God's
Shechinah or God's Holy Spirit. But, anyhow, the idea
had developed, even if the mode of speaking about it,
had not.

Fourthly, there is, particularly in the case of
Holy Spirit, a broadening out of the idea that only
certain supremely gifted individuals, such as prophets,
possessed in themselves the touch of the Immanent
Deity. Instances have been adduced in this treatise to
show how the Rabbins occasionally assigned the Holy
Spirit to a wider sphere of persons (even to some women),
and long after canonical prophecy had come to an end.
The prophet was the possessor of the Holy Spirit as well
as of the mental and spiritual endowments. Neither of
these qualifications by themselves, would have made him
a prophet. It was the combination of the two. But
many men did make themselves possessors of the Holy
Spirit, provided they aimed at that spiritual perfection
which* is its indispensable preliminary. And all men can
do so. The same truth is enunciated in another way
— and in reference to the Shechinah as well. How can
such statements as these, telling us that the Shechinah
encompasses every Israelite, be made to tally with the
many pronouncements which declare that the Shechinah
(or Holy Spirit) only rests upon certain persons who are
equipped in certain mental and spiritual and even
physical respects ? The reply is, that there is a ground-
assumption to start with, that the Shechinah or Holy



Spirit is there with every man, but it does not come to
realisation unless certain requirements are fulfilled. In
the one case it is dormant. In the other it is vitally
assertive. To possess this vitally-assertive degree of
Divine Immanence is within the power of every one who
orders his life in pursuit of it. It is an ideal, but
always realisable. With such a doctrine to its credit,
Rabbinic theology reveals itself as being possessed of a
living message. To be Shechinah-possessed is to be no
idle dreamer. The nearness of God is realised only
in active obedience. Rabbinic mysticism does not
merely imply a temperament or a certain attitude
towards the speculative problems of religion. It implies
a life rich in outward service to all things that constitute
the practical demands of religion.

Fifthly, this broadening of the basis of the imma-
nent doctrine has another and even more important
phase. I have alluded to numerous passages where
the Shechinah is not made to extend outside the Temple
or the Synagogue or Palestine, and where both Shechinah
and Holy Spirit are only applicable to the Jew, the non-
Jew not being thought of as worthy of inclusion in the
privilege. On the other hand, I have quoted instances
not a few, where the Shechinah is regarded as the common
property of the whole world, and where the Holy Spirit
may be won by men of all nations. These quotations,
it is quite true, are comparatively rare. But the fact
that they exist, no matter in how small a measure,
shows that to the Rabbinic sages, theology was not merely
a matter of nationalism and particularism and nothing
else. They too, had very real ghmpses of that higher life
of direct relationship wdth G-od which it is possible for men
of all sects and at all times to acquire. The germ of uni-
versalist teaching is found in Rabbinic literature, and a
germ always develops. The logic of the first centuries,


whether of Judaism or Christianity, was not the same as
our logic of to-day — or rather we ought not to judge
that logic by the standards we adopt to-day. No one,
for argument's sake, would deny that a progressive
development took place in the ideas of Christian tolera-
tion from the first to the tenth century. And yet what
an amount of bloodthirsty intolerance characterised
many events within that epoch. Would it then be
right to reverse the verdict and say that there could
have been no progressive development ? By no means.
The idea of progi'essiveness was tliei^e. It was
thought of and taught and emphasised. It was there
in germ. But the idea oft received a rude set-back
until it blossomed out into its full perfection. Our
position is exactly analogous. The claim of Rabbinic
theology, that in human fellowship with God " there
is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor
free, there is neither male nor female " but all can
be at one with Him, that claim does not depend for
its ultimate justification on the mere arithmetical
number of passages which can be adduced in its
support. It rests on the fact that there are such
passages. For once an idea gets a footing, growth and
development must inevitably and assuredly follow.

One reason why this development of the universalist
doctrine was comparatively stunted, was because the
Rabbinic era is the period of history when the Jews were
under the Roman rule. A state of tutelage in which the
superior power was often the oppressor, could not be
expected to generate the highest religious attitude
towards that governing power. Moreover, it made the
Jew ascribe to the world outside him, a too exaggerated
depravity. The many unkindly sentiments against
the non-Jew to be found in Talmud and Midrashim,
must be assigned to this cause. It must here again


be remembered, tbat the logic of those early times
differed so materially in this respect from ours. And
yet, in spite of these adverse conditions, the overflowing
of Divine Immanence beyond the national borders of
Israel is implied in many Kabbinic sayings, which, though
not directly alluding to the subject of immanence,
have a strong kinship with it. How othermse could we
account for such a statement as that of T. B. Sukkah
55a ? " With what object are these seventy bullocks
sacrificed [on the Feast of Tabernacles] ? With the
object of atoning for the sins of the seventy nations." The
altar and the sacrifice were, in ancient Israel, the visible
symbol of the "nearness" of God to Israel. Yet here
the nations participate in this " nearness," The poetry
of this teaching is nowhere better given than in
T. B. Megillah 10b where an imaginative legend

Online LibraryJ. (Joshua) AbelsonThe immanence of God in rabbinical literature → online text (page 30 of 32)