J. (Joshua) Abelson.

The immanence of God in rabbinical literature online

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extravagant perversions of the doctrine of deification in which the mystic holds
his transfigured self to be identical with the Indwelling God " (Evelyn Under-
bill, Mysticism, p. 119).


to obtain simplicity by suppressing either aspect of
the only analogy that we possess" (p. 40). In other
and simpler words, we only do justice to the Deity
when we view His existence from the immanent and
transcendent aspect combined. It is worthy of note,
by the way, that Father Tyrrell strongly maintained
this standpoint when, in describing Christianity (see
Quarterly Review for July 1909), he said it was "a
religion that is institutional, mystical, and rational . . .
optimistic, yet pessimistic, transcendent yet imma-
nent. . . ." Tyrrell might just as well have been
describing Judaism here. There are two truths from
which there is no escaping. These are (1) God is in
man ; (2) God is greater than man. Unite these two
propositions in a mutually fair proportion, and you
get a faith redeemed from the mists and shadows of
Pantheism and materialism, you get a doctrine of
Immanence which is compatible with the essence of
religion. To my mind, it was just this way of re-
garding the Immanent doctrine, viz. as existing side
by side with the transcendent conception of God —
it was just this view that was given expression to by
the Psalmist when he declared, " Thou hast beset me
behind and before, and laid Thine hand upon me " *
(cxxxix. 5). The first half of the verse expresses the
truth of the all-encompassing nature of God, but yet
with the intermingled idea of His aloofness. His distance.
God is behind and before, but He is not necessarily near
or accessible. The second half, " and laid Thine hand

* So the Revised Version. In this sense of besetting or besieging a town,
the verb is used in Dent. xx. 12, 19 ; 1 Kings xx. 1 ; Isaiah xxix. 3. The
LXX, Peshitto, and the Vulgate, however, interpret it a.5 formasti vie, making
the root -ii:i = ns'. But as Baethgen {Die Psalmen, 1897) points out, the
statements about the creation of man in this Psalm do not commence until
verse 14. Besides, as he says, this ides, <"->rms part and parcel of the teaching
of Divine Omnipresence which comn.ences at verse 7, "Whither shall I go
from Thy Spirit, etc." God besets man on all sides, so that he cannot escape
from His gaze.


upon me," alludes to man as a product from the hand
of God, pervaded with His energy. His Spirit and
His power operating within him, possessing and reveal-
ing, — ^just as any piece of work by the craftsman or
artist must possess and reveal, — the mind, spirit, and
power of the maker. It is the Immanent view.

And that just this view of Immanence, as an ever-
present fact in everlasting combination with Transcen-
dence, is the only one which consists with Eabbinic
theology, can be seen from the three following con-
siderations. Firstly, it is axiomatic in the Judaism
of the Rabbins that God is the Creator of the universe.
Now creation, view it from whatever standpoint you
like, must of necessity imply a far-reaching difference
between Creator and creature. It stands to reason that
the Creator of the universe must transcend the universe.
And yet, as it is the object of these pages to show, God's
Shechinah walks and fills the world, it fills Synagogue,
Temple, and Holy Land. It is an ever-constant protector,
counsellor, and friend. God's Holy Spirit is resident in
the heart of the Torah student and of the man of saintly
works and pure thoughts. It speaks from beneath the
pages of Holy Writ and is man's unseen inspirer to
the worthiest and the best. Thus Immanence and
Transcendence coalesce into one another, component
parts of the same whole. Secondly, the variegated host
of expressions which I have attempted to piece together
as denotinof Rabbinical views on the Immanence of God
all have one common feature, viz. that they characterise
the complete aversion to creating an identity between
man and God. There is a phrase in Rabbinical theology
which speaks of msvS mis no~TD, " comparing the form
to the Former." This may be described as the terminus
ad quern to which the Rabbins went in this province
— comparing but not identifying. The Shechinah


abides with. Israel. The Holy Spirit inspires the saints
and prophets. But it is always God's spirit, God's
Shechinah. Investigation has convinced me that ever
so many passages speaking of Shechinah and Holy
Spirit in a highly personified sense, can be paralleled in
different parts of the Talmud and Midrash, by passages
of exactly the same import, but which speak of God's
"Shechinah," "God's Holy Spirit." What does this
prove, but that to the old Rabbinic mind there was
always a, very real glimmering that however all-pervad-
ing and all-embracing God may be in an immanental
sense, He is yet marked off from the world by some not
easily discernible line of separation ? He is after all
God, not Man ; He transcends man and is immeasurably
greater than man's little world. And likewise with the
Rabbinical views of God's fatherhood and God's nearness.
There is an obtruding element of the transcendent idea
in them all. To say that the bond which links man to
God is analogous to that subsisting between parent and
child, is to create the closest possible tie between the
Deity and the world. And yet it is nothing more than
a case of resemblance. A child resembles its parent
but is not identical with it. A long chain of events
separates the one from the other. And yet again, on
the other hand, it is just the realised sense of the
Fatherhood of God which is one of the basic factors
that constitute man's experience and conviction of the
Immanence of God. The Jew believed that God was
at one and the same time, above, beyond, and within
the world :

Closer to him than breathing, nearer than hands and feet,

simply because he believed in God as a father. In
this way, again, do immanence and transcendence
complement one another. Apart, they supply no


working creed. Thirdly, Prayer occupies a place of
unique importance in the Rabbinic theology. As if
to emphasise this importance to the highest pitch
imaginable, the Rabbins picturesquely say that God
Himself actually prays. But prayer is only possible
when the Deity is comprehended under the double
aspect of the transcendent and the immanent. It is
futile to pray to a merely transcendent God because
He is too far removed to hear or interfere. To the
Pantheist, prayer is an absurdity. You must, perforce,
pray to a person, you cannot pray to the universe or
the totality of being. Besides, from the Rabbinic stand-
point, praying to the Deity and praising the Deity are
on a par. They are warp and woof of one texture.
A glance at the traditional liturgy of the synagogue
confirms this assertion. As much space is taken up
with the laudation and glorification of the Deity, as
with supplication and petition to Him. And it is
almost as illogical to praise and exalt an impersonality
as it is to pray to it. That the portrait of an im-
manent God never appeared complete to the minds of
the old Talmudic masters unless it contained a sensible
admixture of the element of transcendence, is seen from
the remark in Deut. Rabba ii. 10, to which I have
previously alluded, viz. that although the distance from
earth to heaven is immeasurable, yet so marvellous is
the efficacy of prayer, that even when it is whispered,
even when it is inwardly meditated without outward ex-
pression whatsoever, God is at hand to hear it. Here
we have the doctrine of Immanence, God's proximity to
man, nay, God's indwelling in man, because how other-
wise could He know of the prayer before it is on the
suppliant's lips ? And yet a touch of extreme transcen-
dence is imported by the statement that God is in
the heavens, which are separated from the earth by an


unfathomable span. But all this was an honest, outspoken
summing up of the truth as they perceived and felt it.

In fine, a course of clear thinking on the problem
makes it evident, that the only safe way for the mystic
to prevent himself falling into Pantheism, lies in a
linking-up of these two inseparable phases of the God-
head. There is a most strange resemblance on this very
head between a Midrashic passage and a passage from one
of the sermons of Eckhart. The former is in Genesis
Rabba iv. 4, and commences, '^Di t^no "i n« hi^m "rnx TnD,
"A certain Cuthsean once asked K Meir." He asked
him if it were possible that God, of whom it is said that
He fills heaven and earth (Jer. xxiii. 24), could speak to
Moses from such a narrow compass as that between the
two staves of the ark (Numbers vii. 89)? "Take a
large mirror," says the Rabbi — " when you look at your-
self in it you appear large. But take a small one and
then you appear small. If a human being can change
himself like this at his own bidding, how much more so
can God ! When He wills it, He can fill heaven and
earth ; and when He wills it. He can compress Himself
into the smallest conceivable space." Here we have a
picture of Transcendence and Immanence in a working
unison. God transcending heaven and earth ; but God
at the same time localising Himself into the tiniest spot.
Eckhart builds likewise on the simile of a mirror. He
says : "I take a vessel of water, put a mirror in it and
place it in the sunlight. The sun sends out its light
without losing any of its substance, and the reflexion of
the mirror sends back sunlight. Sun and reflexion are
the same thing. So it is with God. God with His
own nature, His essence. His Godhead is in the soul,
and yet He is not the soul (i.e. He is infinitely more
than the soul. The soul sends back a divine reflexion
to God so that they both are the same light)." This is


quoted from Eckhart in Dr. Rufus Jones's Studies in
Mystical Religion, p. 231. What these two extracts
have in common is the idea of the greater and the less,
such as Immanence and Transcendence can be seen to
imply, when put, as here, into pictorial representation.
Imagine a large sphere and somewhere within it a
smaller sphere. The smaller is not inseparable from
the larger ; the larger includes the smaller and a great
deal besides. The smaller is what it is by reason of its
being an integral portion of the larger. " God is the
place of the world, but the world is not His place," is
the Rabbinic paradox which closely matches the senti-
ment of Eckhart. To gain the correct perspective of
the Deity, one has no alternative but to view Him from
this combined dual standpoint.

When therefore, in the following pages, I make the
attempt at showing that the Immanence of God was
an element in the Rabbinic conception of Him, it is
on the assumption that Transcendence is always a co-
factor with Immanence. Rabbinic Judaism is often
flouted for its weakness and insubstantiality, because
of its insistence upon Transcendence to the utter neglect
of Immanence. It is to demonstrate that Immanence
has not been neglected by those teachers, but that it
is a considerable feature of their doctrines, that this
book has been written.


(1) There is a longer and more elaborate form of this jmrable in
Leviticus Rabba iv. 5 : tacked on to it, is another parable of a priest who
has two wives, one a jhd na and the other a "jKntt" na. Trouble arises
over the eating of some " Terumah," which, of course, would be per-
mitted the former, but forbidden to the latter. The ensuing quarrel
between the two women illustrates, says this Midrash, the feud between
soul and body at the time of the Judgment. But eventually it is the
soul that is arraigned before the bar of justice, and the body is let off


scot-free. This shows a higher grade of Rabbinic thought than the
passage from the Tanhuma. In T. B. Sanhedrin 91a there is a shorter
form again, which belongs to the memorable debates between Antoninus
and Rabbi Judah, the Prince. The former seems to challenge the
Rabbinic conception of punishment after death, by alleging that it
is very easy for both body and soul to exculpate themselves. Rabbi
Judah's answer gives the right relationship between the two, by the
parable of the blind man and the lame.

(la) Baron Von Hugel in his great treatise, The Mystical Element of
Religion, vol. ii. pp. 122-123, points out, how in the New Testament
theology about body and soul, whereas the Synoptists nowhere declare
the body to be an evil, "an inevitable prison-house or a natural
antagonist to the spirit," St. Paul does draw a strong line of demarca-
tion between body and soul to the great depreciation of the former,
as when he declares, " Unhappy man that I am ! who can liberate me
from this body of death?" (Rom. vii. 24) ; or, "In my flesh dwelleth no
good thing" (Rom. vii. 18). That St. Paul drew the idea, as Von
Hligel says, from the Wisdom of Solomon ix. 15, "For a corruptible
body weigheth down the soul, and the earthly frame lieth heavy on a
mind that is full of cares," is quite probable ; but can it not also be
taken as an indication of St. Paul's indebtedness to Rabbinism ? Besides,
as the writer whom we are quoting says further, " This attitude . . .
represents only a passing feeling ; for if we pressed it home we could
hardly reconcile it with his doctrine as to the reality and nature of the
body's resurrection." The preponderating Rabbinical view is that of the
body's resurrection, i.e. body and soul conjoined in one organism. See
T. B. Sanhedrin 90b, " If a grain of wheat put into the groimd just as
it is, spring up in manifold vesture, how much more may we expect the
pious, who were buried in their garments, to return again clothed as they
were ? " Later Jewish thinkers realised the incongruities and crudities
involved in this teaching, and made attempts to spiritualise the idea of
Resurrection. Thus, Maimonides identified it with the immortality of
the soul (see his Introduction to Sanhedrin x.), and although he com-
posed his famous treatise on the Resurrection, this was merely done in
order to silence the venom of the then champions of extreme orthodoxy,
who complained that he had practically ignored this great subject in
his Moreh. He obviously regarded the old Rabbinic views of bodily
resurrection as of minor importance.

(2) The relations between Aquila and the Emperor Hadrian are a
pet theme of the Haggadic narratives. Until recently it was only
possible to get an idea of Aquila's Greek translation of Scripture from
the scattered fragments of Origen's Hexaplar. But in 1897, F. T.
Burkitt in examining the mass of Dr. Schechter's Geniza treasures, came
across some fragmentary MSS. of Aquila's original translation (and
published them entitled, Fragments of the Books of Kings, according to the
Translation of Aquila, Cambridge, 1897). Legend has busied itself with
accounts of Aquila's conversion to Judaism. See Tanhuma on d'ciscd v. ;
Genesis Rabba xxx. 12 ; T. B. Abodah Zarah 11a. In T. B. Gittin 56b
allusion is made to a certain Onkelos, apparently Onkelos of Targum


fame, who was oib'dt .tdhk 12, the son of Titus's sister. Aquila is always
alluded to as the son of Hadrian's sister. Seeing the looseness with
which the Rabbinical literature often handles the names of Roman and
Greek monarchs and places, some authorities are inclined to regard the
name Onkelos as another form of Akilas or Aquila, and Titus as a
mistake for Hadrian. Others, however, maintain that Onkelos and
Aquila were two different persons who lived at different times. (See
especially Friedmann's Onkelos and Akilas, passim,)

(3) The distinction in Biblical, as well as Rabbinical, literature
between Ruah, Nefesh, and Neshamah is exceedingly difficult to fathom.
Of course, an equal degree of difficulty surrounds the vernacular usage
of such ideas as "Soul," "Body," and "Spirit." As an illustration of
the difficidty let me quote from The New Theology, by Rev. R. J.
Campbell. On p. 34 he thus defines the terms : " The body is the
thought-form through which the individuality finds expression on our
present limited plane. The soul is a man's consciousness of himself as
apart from all the rest of existence, and even from God ; it is the bay
seeing itself as the bay and not as the ocean. The spirit is the true
being thus limited and expressed ; it is the deathless Divine within us."
The distinctions here drawn are certainly ingenious and smack of
modernity. But they are merely Mr. Campbell's own arbitrary assump-
tions, and those who will reject them may possibly outnumber those
who will accept them. What is there to prevent another preacher from
manufacturing another set of definitions and distinctions ? As for the
Hebrew terms, a distinction is sometimes drawn by saying that Ruah
denotes the more elementary primitive idea of " breath," whereas the
other two refer to the more advanced conception of spirit or soul, as
active in the body and intimately associated with it. But this is upset
by the Ruah in Ecclesiastes xii. 7 (cp. Job xxxii. 8), where the usage
is anything but primitive. And similarly in Ezra i. 5, where God
" raises up the Ruah of Ezra " to build the Temple. It has here a
developed religious and ethical import (cp. also Psalm li. 12 ; Ezekiel
xviii. 31, xxxvi. 26, etc.). Again, in Proverbs xx. 27, Neshamah has a
spiritual significance (as also in Isaiah Ivii. 16), whereas in Isaiah ii. 22,
xlii. 5, and ever so many more passages throughout Holy Writ, it has
the primitive meaning of physical breath. Again, the word Nefesh,
although commonly translated " Soul," and regarded by the average
reader of the Bible unacquainted with Hebrew, as alluding to the
spiritual side of man's nature, is very often a mere synonym for life
or body. In Talmudic literature there is also, as I have said, no clear-
cut distinction between these terms ; but noteworthy is the preferential
iisage of Neshamah to signify the soul in its truly spiritual sense. Prof.
Marti in his commentary on Isaiah liii. 12 shows from the phrase nnn
ivsi mo"? myrt icn (where myn lit. = pouring out) the close connexion of
Nefesh with the blood, i.e. the physical, bodily side of man ; in Isaiah
xlii. 5, where Neshamah and Ruah occur in one and the same verse,
Marti says that they both mean "breath," "den Lebens-odem der den
Menschen bei der Erschaffung von Gott eingehaucht wurde." Ibn Ezra
connects Neshamah with Shamaim, " Heaven," and regards Nefesh and


Euah as the outward manifestations of tlie purely spiritual and invisible
Neshamah. There is an interesting quotation of Ibn Ezra's view in the
0"n nam of Manasseh ben Israel (part ii. chap. iv.).

(4) Psalm xix. 1.

(5) Psalm cxxxix. 3.

(6) Psalm cxxxix. 7-12.

(7) Psalm Ixxvii. 19.

(8) Job xxvi. 7.

(9) Job xxvi. 11.

(10) Job xxvi. 14.

(11) Judges V. 4-5.

(12) Isaiah xxxv. 2.

(13) Exodus Rabba ii. 5. ... It is the answer given by R. Joshua,
son of Korlia, to a heathen, who had asked him why God chose such a
place as a bush out of which to speak to Moses. In Numbers Rabba
xii. 4 it is Rabban Gamliel who is asked the question.

(14) Sifri to Deuteronomy 38. T. B. Kiddushin 32b. See also
Mechilta nn'"3.

(15) Yalkut on Psalm civ.

(16) Genesis Rabba vii. 1. Tanhuma on ymn. Yalkut on Psalm

(17) J. Allanson Picton on Pantheism: its Story and Significance
(1905), p. 10. But see pp. 309-340 in vol. ii. of Von Hugel's Mystical
Element of Religion.

(18) Inge, Personal Idealism and Mysticism (Paddock Lectures, 1906),
in the chapter on " Sources and Growth of the Logos-Chris tology."

(19) Momerie, Belief in God, in chapter on "The Infinite Personality."

(20) J. Warschauer in The New Evangel, pp. 49-55.

(21) Illingworth, Personality Hiiman and Divine, Lecture IV.

(22) Psalm Ixxxix. 15.

(23) Lamentations of Jeremiah iii. 33.

(24) Jeremiah iii. 22.

(25) Proverbs iii. 12.

(26) A favourite Rabbinic saying showing that pain and suffering
are the disciplinary aspects of a God of Love is that which runs : " God
never smites Israel until He has created the remedy for the wound before-
hand." In other words, healing is one of the preordained remedies of
God. It is from this point of view that Rabbinical literature views two
other important teachings of Judaism, viz. Repentance and Prayer.
Thus it is said in T. B. Pesahini 54a that " Repentance was called into
existence even before the world was created." Suffering and misfortune
are the inevitable results of man's sins, but man is not necessarily pinned
down for ever to the cruelties of a harsh retribution. The possibility of
a brighter lot was decreed for him by the Creator even before the crea-
tion of the heavens and the earth. If man exercises " Teshubah," i c.
Repentance, which implies that he betters his attitude towards God, then
God's attitude towards man becomes changed for the better. This is the
preordained plan of God, and is a clear illustration of what not only the
old teachers in Israel, but some of the best modern Jewish theologians,


understand by a God of Love. And the same train of tliought applies
to Prayer. T. B. Rosh Hasliana 1 6a remarks "i3i mn'? npv^ nB\ " Prayer
avails a man both before and after the signing of the Divine decree."
It is one of God's preordained plans, that the genuine prayer of even the
most hardened sinner should restore him to the Divine Grace. This
is only possible, under the conception of God as the highest embodiment
of what we mean by Love.

(26a) The difficulties clustering round the problem of personality,
whether from the psychological, or theological standpoint, are many and
great. As Dr. Frank Ballard says in his dissertation on The True
God (R. Culley, 1907): "It is frankly acknowledged by psychology
that no satisfactory definition, no adequate concejition of human
personality is forthcoming. What constitutes individuality in all its
fulness, no man living can say. ... It would then be sheer irrationality
to attempt for the divine that which is not possible for the human. To
confess bewilderment as to the apprehension of the finite, and then
demand comprehension of the infinite, is the very extreme of self

(27) In his little volume entitled The Substance of Faith, on p. 89,
Sir Oliver Lodge remarks : " The Christian idea of God is not that of a
being outside the universe, above its struggles and advances, looking on
and taking no part in the process. ... It is also that of a God who
loves, who fears, who suffers, who keenly laments the rebellious and
misguided activity of the free agents brought into being by Himself as
part of Himself, who enters into the storm and conflict and is subject to
conditions as the Soid of it all." Had Sir Oliver Lodge ventured to give
this as the Jewish view of God, he could not have stated it more correctly.
The idea of God keenly lamenting " the rebellious and misguided activity of
the free agents brought into being by Himself as part of Himself," gave
rise to the poetic imagery which is scattered throughout the Talmud and
Midrash in the form of parables about a king and his only son (or only
daughter). Prosaically, the subject is treated from various standpoints
in the several Midrashim which deal with the cosmogony of Genesis or
the ethics of the old Jewish sacrificial system of Leviticus.



Rabbinic literature is more than an appendage to the
Hebrew Bible. It is a commentary on it. Hence the
investigator into any department of Rabbinic thought
must, perforce, have recourse to the original, viz. the
Hebrew Bible. It wants little knowledge of Old Testa-
ment lore to know that the view of God which was
uppermost in the minds of its inspired writers was
Transcendent, not Immanent. God's dwelling is far
removed from the haunts of man, high above in the
highest heavens, unapproachable, shrouded in a secrecy
that no mortal gaze can penetrate. One very early
instance of this is perhaps to be found in Genesis xxxii.
30, where Jacob asks the name of the mysterious " man "
who wrestled with him until the breaking of the day ;
and the pregnant reply given is, " Wherefore is it that
thou dost ask after my name ? " A mysterious secrecy
hedged round the names of angels as well as the Divine
Name in the Bible. This is frankly admitted in Judges
xiii. 18, where the angel replies to the inquiring Manoah,
" Why askest thou thus after my name, seeing it is

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