Commentary Magazine


Cedars of Lebanon: “God, the Torah, and Israel”

The founder of Hasidism, Israel Baal Shem Tov (1700-1760), taught only by word of mouth, but his sayings have been preserved for us in the writings of his disciples, and in abstracts of these writings made by later followers. One such abstract is the work Kether Shem Tov (The Crown of the Good Name), which cites as an authentic teaching of the master the saying, “God, the Torah, and Israel are one.” This famous saying has been invoked by modern writers to support a variety of theological positions; but from its complete context, as given in the Kether, it seems evident that “Israel” is used in the sense of the individual Jew who cleaves to God, and not in the meaning of “Israel the people.” In fact, the Baal Shem was merely paraphrasing a statement of the Zohar, the central work of Jewish mysticism. This particular passage has been omitted from the standard English translation of the Zohar (Soncino Press); below I present my own translation of it, from the Aramaic original, together with a translation of the Kether excerpt.—Jakob J. Petuchowski.

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The Two Levels

Rabbi Eleazar asked his father, Rabbi Simeon: “Behold, we have learned, ‘It is forbidden to teach the Torah to a heathen’; and the scholars of Babylonia have fittingly drawn our attention to the verse, ‘He hath not dealt so with any nation’ [Ps. 147:20]. But why, seeing that this Psalm says, ‘He declareth His word unto Jacob,’ does it also have to say, ‘His statutes and His ordinances unto Israel’?”

His father said to him: “Come and see, Eleazar. Israel are fortunate in that God hath implanted in them this supreme and holy portion; as it is written: ‘For I give you good doctrine’ [Proverbs 4:2]. That is to say, I give it to you, but not to the peoples that worship idols.”

And because this is the highest and most precious secret, the very Name of God, it follows that the whole Torah is both secret and revealed on account of the mystery of His Name. And, because of this, Israel exists on two levels, the secret and the revealed one. This is what we have learned: “Three levels are connected one with the other: the Holy One, blessed be He, the Torah, and Israel.” And each one of them exists on two levels, the secret and the revealed. And thus does Israel exist on two levels. This is the meaning of the verse, “He declareth His word unto Jacob, His statutes and His ordinances unto Israel” [Ps. 147:19]. These are two different levels, “Jacob” and “Israel.” One is revealed, ‘the other is secret.

What does this mean? It means that to him who is circumcised and marked with the Holy Name we impart the revealed matters of the Torah. That is to say, we make known to him the general outlines, and we caution him about the strict observance of the commandments of the Torah. But no more, unless he rises to another level. This is the meaning of the verse: “He declareth His word unto Jacob.” For the [subsequent] words, “His statutes and His ordinances unto Israel,” have reference to a higher level. And it is written: “Thy name shall not be called any more Jacob, but Israel shall be thy name.”

“His statutes and His ordinances unto Israel”—these are the mysteries of the Torah, the ordinances of the Torah, and the secrets of the Torah, which one need not reveal except to him who has reached a suitably higher level. [Zohar, Acharé Moth, p. 73a]

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Communion with God

The letters of the Torah are the chambers of God through which He channels the emanation of His light—as it is said in the Zohar: “The Holy One, blessed be He, and the Torah are all one.” And into these letters man must bring all of his devotional intent (kavvanah), which is his very soul. For kavvanah is the soul. And this is the meaning of the “cleaving”—to God—(devekuth) : “The Holy One, blessed be He, the Torah, and Israel are all one.” And this is the meaning of “disembodiment,” that is to say, a man must strip his soul from his body, so that his soul may be clothed in those thoughts by means of which he is able to speak of, and to perceive, several of the upper worlds. [Kether Shem. Tov, Part II, p. 2a]

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