Commentary Magazine

Judaism Beyond Words: Part 3


Most American Jews, I would bet, know more about Christianity than about Judaism. (Not that they are big experts on Christianity.) And yet explaining Judaism is a booming industry in this country. Guidebooks keep appearing, the lecture-series and adult-education markets seem to thrive, audio tapes and CD’s and videos and websites keep popping up like dandelions in spring. Many are first-rate. Several of the guidebooks will be classics. A few already are.

Nonetheless, Judaism has not been explained. There are many guided tours on the market, but few syntheses. I have been attempting a synthesis in a series of essays in COMMENTARY, the first two installments of which have already appeared.

I believe that the essential themes of Judaism are images—images that capture deep religious and philosophical ideas. But these are mental images: to be thought, not to be painted or diagrammed. The first two that I have attempted to describe are cosmic separation—the essence of holiness—and the “veil” (a kind of bridal veil) that separates, necessarily and forever, man’s realm and God’s. The third image is the hardest of all to put in words: it is an image of spiraling inward, of man traveling into himself.

In some ways, the images seem inconsistent: the veil has to do with God’s transcendence, His above-and-beyondness. The in-traveling spiral has to do with God’s immanence, His existence inside the human mind. But it makes no sense to say that these ideas are logically inconsistent, any more than it would to say that two separate lines in a musical counterpoint are inconsistent. (If there’s a C here, how can there be an E-flat up there? Make up your mind!) Each line has its own independent integrity. To hear Judaism truly is to hear its themes simultaneously.

This approach might be called “Picture Judaism.” Each mental “theme-picture” is based on Torah; each has been refined and modified by thousands of years of Jewish thought. (An image, unlike a text, can absorb a thousand nuanced glazes and refinements and still maintain its compactness.) You could teach such images to a kindergarten class, or discuss them in a graduate seminar. Each one is vividly clear to the mind of a practicing Jew.

But each is hard to put in words—when you try to bring one to the surface, you find it as delicate as an ancient manuscript that disintegrates in air. When you try to describe one, the original is so electric with meaning that any description pales by comparison. But the effort should be made—not only because these pictures are Judaism but because they are among the culminating achievements of Western religious thought.

There are special difficulties when a theme-picture centers, as the inward-spiral does, on Jewish beliefs about God. Judaism is widely held to be a religion of action and not belief, of performance rather than doctrine or dogma. Furthermore, Jews have long been leading doubters of the religious system they created. They are associated in the modern mind with heterodoxy, skepticism, or atheism, not with faith.

It is true that, in Judaism, action takes precedence over belief. Jews will come to know God (the rabbis assume) as a consequence of leading a Jewish life; and they will lead a Jewish life because they are Jews, not because of any prior religious convictions. In the classical formulation, spoken by the people Israel at Mount Sinai, nishma (“we will hear,” or have faith) follows na’aseh (“we will act”). The prophet Micah spells out the Lord’s requirements: “Only to do justice, and love mercy, and walk humbly with your God” (6:8). To do justice, you act. If you love mercy, you act. And what does “walk humbly” mean? Judaism’s term for religious law is halakha: literally, “way of walking.” Halakha tells you how to fulfill Micah’s instruction.

Judaism is a religion of action. But it is also a religion of faith. Twice every day, Jews repeat the “fundamental theorem” of Judaism, which is a statement of belief, not a formula for action. “Listen, Israel: the Lord is our God; the Lord is one.”

The Jewish passion for doubting God must be understood for what it is, the expression of an ongoing obsession with God. A contrasting parable: anyone who studied the history of Britain in the 19th century but not the 20th would assume that, by the end of the 20th, there would be no more established church in Britain. The established church was already controversial in the 19th century; it came to be opposed by many non-Anglicans and by many super-Anglicans; and the 20th century was in general far more hostile to religion even than the 19th. Of course, there still is an established church in Britain—but not because it has become any more acceptable; because virtually no one cares any more. In Europe, religion is a dead letter.

Jews continue to care. They continue to be obsessed. Pro or anti, they keep bringing up the topic of God because they keep thinking about it; they can’t shake it out of their hair. Chances are they never will.



Look Inside

Abraham is the founder of Judaism, and his story rests on two identical, untranslatable divine commands, direct from God. This repeated command is lekh I’kha, meaning “move yourself,” “go you,” “pick yourself up.” It first occurs when God tells Abraham, “Move yourself from your land, from your birthplace, from your father’s house, to the land that I will show you” (Genesis 12:1). It appears again at the beginning of the Akedah: the celebrated story of the binding of Isaac. God “tests” Abraham by telling him, take your son Isaac and move yourself to the land of Moriah and offer him there as a sacrifice (Genesis 22:2).

It is a basic axiom of all rabbinic commentary that the Torah wastes no words. Every word tells. In the phrase “move yourself,” what does “yourself” (l’kha) tell? Why not just plain “move!”? Commenting on the first appearance of this phrase, the Zohar (the medieval foundational text of kabbalah) offers an opinion: “yourself” is a clue that God actually intends an inner journey; He actually tells Abraham, “Move into yourself.” Once again (it happens often), rabbinic interpretation has used an ancient rule of reading (which most modern readers reject) to expose a vital rushing understream of meaning (which most modern readers never see). Our job is to understand what the Zohar has just told us.

At the climax of the Akedah, an angel calls to Abraham “from the heavens” and orders him not to sacrifice his son. A literal “voice from heaven” intervenes at the crucial moment. But the Talmud takes an interesting approach to the whole question of heavenly voices. It tells us to ignore them. “We pay no attention to a bat kol” (“daughter of a voice”)—meaning a voice that seems to speak God’s words but is not accompanied by the overwhelming, unmistakable experience of direct revelation that happened at Sinai.

In fact, the Talmud goes further. Rabbi Yehoshua invokes a passage in Deuteronomy—“it is not in the heavens”—to mean that the Torah itself is no longer on high but is right here on earth, and man is responsible for interpreting it. Don’t go craning your necks, scanning the skies, or watching the cosmic newswire for meaningful portents; do not seek, expect, or even pay attention to divine or seemingly divine pronouncements from nature or beyond nature. Truth is not in the heavens. It is right here.

But exactly where? And how do you find it?



Many generations after the great communal revelation of the Ten Commandments, the prophet Elijah returns to the mountain of Horeb—another name for Sinai. He is told to “stand on the mountain before the Lord”; he watches and waits. A great wind comes up, but “the Lord was not in the wind.” Then an earthquake, but “the Lord was not in the earthquake.” Then a fire, but “the Lord was not in the fire.” And after the fire, “a still, small voice.”

A still, small voice must be something very different from one of those heavenly voices the Talmud wants us to ignore. But what is it? And where does it come from?

And still another question, from a different world of experience: what does it mean that the main façade of nearly all synagogues is not on the outside but on the inside? Even in such medieval synagogues as the Altneuschul in Prague or the reconstructed synagogue of Worms, where the ark is plain and small, it is nonetheless the building’s main façade. It is framed with emphatic dignity. It offers a door or entrance-way at the top of its own flight of steps. As the centuries passed, the stairs and frame grew larger and fancier. Often the ark had several doors side by side, just like the ceremonial entrance to a public building. Even in synagogues where the ark was freestanding, it took on the character of a grand entrance.

To find the Torah, which is God’s word, we open the ark; we enter the building’s interior façade. But this grand entryway doesn’t connect outer to inner; it connects inner to innermost.

Once Jews made pilgrimages to Jerusalem. Once, the high priest entered the Holy of Holies on the Temple Mount. After the destruction of the Temple, the physical journey to Jerusalem was replaced by a spiritual journey, and the architecture of the synagogue offers a commentary on what that journey entails. You are already inside, but when you throw open the doors of the ark and prepare to go further in, you are about to enter . . . what?

Thus the third theme-picture of Judaism: the paradoxical “move!” without motion, the voyage to the headwaters of the still, small voice (which could only be an inner voice), the grand entryway you cannot (physically) enter, the journey into yourself to find not yourself but your God.



Back to the Akedah, which ranks among the small handful of mankind’s most intensely studied stories. We know the story, and tend to take the details for granted. But if we listen as if for the first time, we can hear its strangeness.

At God’s command, Abraham and Isaac walk three days and arrive at Moriah at last. But why does Abraham have to “move himself” at all? What purpose does the three-day journey serve? If God had fixed the sacrifice of Isaac for right now, on the spot, He could have found out just as surely whether Abraham had it in him to offer up his beloved son.

And found it out in a vastly less cruel way. For if “sacrifice your son” is immeasurably cruel, “sacrifice your son three days from now,” after three days of hideous anticipation, is immeasurably more cruel. Unless this detail shocks us down to our feet, we are not reading the story at all. Plain common sense—never mind philosophy or theology—forces us to believe that Abraham’s three-day journey must somehow change the nature of the test itself.

It does—if we understand “move yourself” as the Zohar understands it. The Zohar’s reading of lekh I’kha offers a radical re-understanding of the test. It suggests that the test was not an act, “offer up your son”; such an act requires one moment’s willpower and it is done forever. The test was whether Abraham could sustain a belief over three long days. Not “will you sacrifice your son?” Rather, “will you have faith in Me and believe that I will not let you sacrifice your son?” Will Abraham really believe this? Will he go on believing it, hour by hour, mile by mile, step by step?

This is not the traditional way of reading the biblical story, but every word of the story is consistent with both the traditional and this untraditional reading. To know for sure which is right, we would have to know Abraham’s mind—is he thinking, “I am going to sacrifice my son” or “I am not going to”? But as the literary philosopher Erich Auerbach noted in a famous essay in Mimesis, the Bible deliberately gives us no shred of a direct report on Abraham’s state of mind.

So we are left with this. In one of literature’s most celebrated exchanges, Isaac says to his father: “Here are the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for the burnt-offering?” Abraham answers: “God will provide Himself with the lamb for a burnt-offering, my son” (Genesis 22:7-8). When Abraham “uttered those words,” Shalom Spiegel writes in his magisterial and definitive study of the Akedah literature, “his only purpose at the time was to put Isaac off.” That is the universal consensus. But there is a simpler interpretation: Abraham was telling Isaac the truth, exactly as he saw it.

He had just spent three days traveling into himself, testing his belief. Was it solid enough to walk on? Would it bear his weight and his son’s? And he had emerged on the far side, knowing the reality of his faith—faith not in the sense of blind obedience; faith meaning faith in God’s goodness. The three days’ walk to Moriah was a three days’ spiral into himself.



Judaism tells us that the Torah “is not in the heavens.” It tells us that God is not in Jerusalem, not in the Temple, and not in the Holy of Holies; not in nature, and not in history. God is inside.

Most members of the Judeo-Christian religious tradition conceive God to be vaguely upward or outward or heavenward, lying in the general direction in which steeples point—an unfathomably powerful force acting somehow on mankind and the universe from outside. But if synagogues had steeples, they would be inverse, anti-steeples pointing not down but inward. (Some synagogues have towers, but they work aesthetically insofar as they suggest the wooden standards of Torah scrolls, not upward-pointing arrows.)

In Judaism’s radical view of divinity, God is a still, small voice, and He acts on mankind and the universe not from outside but only from deep within, through the medium of each human mind. If the human will is a breakwater with waves beating on it from the world outside, God is not part of those waves; God is on the other side, on the inner side of the human will. If you looked in from the sea toward all those breakwaters, toward human history, you would see God’s presence not at all.

But Jews are said to worship the “God of history.” The Jew’s God is said to be a force working in history, or to manifest Himself in history. The implication is that God broods over history like a chess player and that, though His reasoning might be inscrutable, His will is somehow expressed in the moves He makes.

This view is wrong. If God (as a certain Jewish physicist once said) does not play dice with the universe, He does not play chess with it, either.

In Maimonides’ thirteen principles of faith, there is no claim that the Jews’ God is the God of history; no assertion that God directs history or manifests Himself in history. (The thirteen principles are part of the prayerbook, enumerated verbatim in the daily morning service and recast as poetry in a hymn called Yigdal.) Jewish literature, taken as a whole, says just the opposite. And with good reason: the idea is absurd. Could the world’s most savagely tormented people possibly believe that God—“gracious and compassionate, long-suffering and full of lovingkindness” (Joel 2:13, quoting Exodus 34:6)—is “manifest” in their history? They could not and do not.

God’s withdrawal from Israel’s history is a theological and historical fact. The Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed in 586 B.C.E. It was rebuilt, but the Ark of the Covenant was gone forever. At the start of the Second Temple, prophecy ended. The Talmud says: “When the last prophets—Haggai, Zachariah, and Malachi—died, the holy spirit ceased from Israel.” The Second Temple was less holy than the first; it had no ark (or ark cover or cherubim), and (according to the rabbis) no shekhinah—God’s presence was gone.

Still, the Second Temple was dazzling, especially after Herod rebuilt it in the first century B.C.E. Although the prophets and the rabbis after them taught that holiness and good deeds are more important than animal sacrifices, they were impressed with the Temple despite themselves. Life (the rabbis taught) was lived at a lower spiritual level than it had once been; yet the Temple was a formidable institution. “He who did not see Herod’s temple,” the Talmud reports, “missed seeing the most beautiful building in the world.” Some talmudic authorities even suggested that the divine presence had been part of the Second Temple after all.

When the high priest pronounced God’s holy name in the Temple, the Talmud says, his voice used to be audible all the way to the distant city of Jericho. After the Temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70 C.E., and the people were exiled and scattered, the silence was awful. What then? Another crucial talmudic statement: “From the day the Temple was destroyed, the Holy One Blessed be He has nothing in His universe but the four amot of halakha alone.” Four amot—the word (singular: amah) is usually translated “cubits”—is the space occupied by one human being. Halakha is the Jewish religious law, the embodiment of Judaism. In other words: God has nothing in His universe but the mind of the Jew. He has no power to intervene in history; no power to move human beings like chess pieces. He has the four amot of halakha, period.



Has God abandoned the Jews then? No—God follows them into exile. He suffers along with them, which is only natural; He has become literally part of them. A midrash reads: “Have I not already caused to be written [Proverbs 17:17], ‘A brother is born for troubled times?’ I am Israel’s brother in their troubled hour.” Another midrash, commenting on Psalms 91:15 (“He will call on Me and I will answer him; I will be with him in suffering”): “Now that My children are overburdened with suffering, will I remain at ease?”

The end of prophecy and the destruction of the Temple—God’s withdrawal from history—is balanced by His upwelling within man. His withdrawal, which sounds like a sad story, is no sadder than the story of a man’s growing up—for all the sad things that growing up might entail. God does not grow up but mankind does. The rabbis believed that if God had withdrawn “out of,” He had also withdrawn “into”: out of nature and history, into the four walls of the Jewish psyche. Thus a contraction or compression of sorts (or tsimtsum, a pivotal term in Jewish mysticism)—in line with the self-compression that once made it possible for God’s presence to occupy the perfect cube of the Holy of Holies in Solomon’s Temple.

God’s withdrawal from history is no sad story, but is certainly a momentous transition. We can see how momentous by looking at the transition from Ark to ark, from the Ark of the Covenant that stood in the First Temple to the holy ark that stands in every synagogue today.

At first, God’s word was “centralized” in the Holy of Holies. Later, God’s word was everywhere Jews were. This is a direct embodiment of the kabbalistic idea of a primordial, cataclysmic shattering and scattering of God’s presence. But this shattering and scattering is no cosmic catastrophe; it is salvation. It gives exile a purpose. By aggregating a large number of small contributions—four amot per Jew—it provides nothing less than a dwelling place for God.

In the teachings of the seminal 16th-century kabbalist Isaac Luria, writes Gershom Scholem, “the exile of Israel ceases to be a punishment for error or a test of faith. It becomes something greater and deeper, a symbolic mission.” But many centuries before Luria, the Babylonian Talmud had already hinted at this mission of dispersed Israel: to be God’s abode in the universe.

The Temple is gone, but henceforth any Jew can reach God—merely by walking into a synagogue and opening the holy ark. And more: the ark becomes a symbol of the Jew himself; the Torah is God’s presence within him.

If God’s power is the power to speak to man from inside, man’s power is either to hear or to ignore. Hence, prayer. Jewish prayers do sometimes lodge requests or make demands on God. But their real point is to increase a Jew’s chances of hearing and heeding the still, small voice. Jews at prayer are purposefully tuning and fiddling with a delicate spiritual circuit in hopes of picking up that voice.

It goes without saying that most people (including most Jews) do not hear, or at any rate do not heed, the still, small voice. It also goes without saying that, in the present state of the universe, God will not intervene to change this state of affairs. For God to assume (or resume) the power to rearrange the world from the outside will require a fundamental transformation. Religious Jews hope fervently for just such a transformation, which is to say that they hope for the coming of the messiah; this is an article of faith, one of Maimonides’ thirteen. But Jews also believe that it is mankind’s responsibility, not God’s, to cause this transformation and to bring the messiah. In fact, they believe it is their responsibility, the Jewish nation’s.

The Talmud tells a story. One day, Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi discovers the messiah on earth, sitting among the wretched poor at the city gate. He asks: when will you come? The answer: today—if you will only listen to His voice.

Jews are vividly aware that God has surrendered His power over history. They accept that (in consequence) only man and not God can transform the universe and bring the messiah. But they wish and sometimes pray for things to be otherwise. The prayer makes no logical sense but its emotional justification is clear. The eminent Talmud scholar and death-camp survivor Rabbi David Weiss Halivni cites one prayer in particular as “uniquely characterizing” Jewish prayer in Nazi death camps. It was the Rosh Hashanah prayer asking God to “rule over all the world in Your glory”—imploring Him, as Halivni puts it, “to take the reins of government back into His hands.”



But we are not done with the Bible, which gives us the basis for the idea of God as an internal not external phenomenon, manifest not in nature or history but within the human mind.

Picture Elijah at Horeb: he is told to come out of his cave and “stand on the mountain before the Lord.” There he watches and waits, like a spectator with his eyes on the stage. The spectacle takes place before him—wind, earthquake, fire—but God is not there, not in nature. Yet for all we know, the still, small voice might have been speaking from the very beginning; what with the noise of a “great and powerful wind,” and then an earthquake, and then a fire, you couldn’t have heard it even if you had tried. The Bible is well aware of God’s presence within man’s mind, but for Jews to hear that still, small voice required the destruction of the Temple and the onset of a catastrophic silence.

It has always been understood that Elijah models himself on Moses. The medieval commentator Rabbi David Kimchi tells us that the word “passed” in the story of Elijah at Horeb—“the Lord passed by, and a great and powerful wind split mountains”—is the same “passed” as in Moses’ experience of the divine presence on the same mountain: “The Lord passed by before him, and proclaimed: the Lord, the Lord, a compassionate and gracious God. . . .” So if we follow Horeb back, we reach Moses’ experience of divine revelation in a cave on the mountain; before that, the revelation of the Ten Commandments to all Israel at Sinai; before that, Moses and the burning bush at “the mountain of God—Horeb.” (The apocryphal Second Book of Maccabees holds that, after the destruction of the First Temple, the prophet Jeremiah hid the Ark of the Covenant in the same cave on the same mountain.)

Suppose Moses were to look in a mirror that showed him the psychic, spiritual truth about himself. Hamlet says to his mother: “You go not till I set you up a glass/ Where you may see the inmost part of you.” What would Moses have seen in Hamlet’s glass? He is a fiery, passionate man. He burns with a sense of mission. In the very first deed of Moses that the Bible ever reports, he kills with one powerful stroke an Egyptian who is beating a Jew. But someone saw him do it, and he is forced to run for his life. All alone with Jethro’s flock in the wilds of Midian, “at the back of the wilderness,” what thoughts would he be turning over? “I have seen indeed, seen the affliction of My people in Egypt, and I have heard their screams in the face of their taskmasters; I do know their sufferings” (Exodus 3:7).

Seething at Egyptian oppression, capable of great passionate deeds: it fits perfectly that Moses should take it on himself to lead his people to freedom. Naturally he would agonize over his ability to carry the thing off—“The man Moses was very humble, more so than any man on the face of the earth” (Numbers 12:3)—but knowing him as we do, we know that, in the end, he could only have screwed his courage to the sticking point and set off. And returning to Hamlet’s glass, how would the “inmost part” of Moses have appeared? A “bush burning with fire; yet the bush is not consumed” (Exodus 3:2). That would be perfect: a midrash speaks of this bush (or “thornbush”) as the humblest of trees; and on fire but “not consumed” is a perfect picture of Moses, who dies (we are told at the end of Deuteronomy) with “his eyes undimmed and his powers unabated.”

“I have seen indeed, seen the affliction of my people in Egypt.” The voice is the voice of Moses, but of course God is speaking. The burning bush is a perfect embodiment of Moses—it is a theme-picture of Moses’ inner mind, just as the inward spiral is a theme-picture of Judaism as a whole—but of course it is God’s self-revelation. For Moses, this encounter with God is an encounter with his own psyche; God reveals Moses to himself. God embodies Himself in the form not merely of a burning bush but of a man’s innermost thoughts. The Bible is obsessed with the “inner man,” with the spiritual and psychological truth.



There are Bible stories—dream stories—where God speaks explicitly from within man’s mind. For example, Jacob’s dream of the ladder to heaven. And there are Bible stories where man argues with God. The Lord occasions the Jew’s bitterest, angriest denunciations. “Will you actually,” demands Abraham, “sweep away the just with the wicked?” “The Judge of the whole earth, not to do justice?” (Genesis 18:23, 25). “Shall one man sin,” Moses and Aaron ask, “and You rage against the whole community?” (Numbers 16:22). Jeremiah wonders: “Why does the way of the wicked prosper?” (12:1). This ongoing argument with God is one of Judaism’s most important explicit themes; it occurs throughout Jewish history. And the Bible also combines these two themes, in powerful stories where man’s struggle with God is simultaneously a struggle with himself.

Back further toward the start of biblical history—to the moment at which Jacob becomes Israel, and Israel’s history begins. Jacob is on his way home—the same home from which he had (like Moses) run for his life. Years ago he had deceived Isaac, his dying father, into giving him the blessing meant for his elder brother Esau. Esau had been crushed; had resolved to kill Jacob. Now, returning home, Jacob is afraid of meeting Esau, and guilt-ridden on account of Esau and (even more) on account of his dead father. “Jacob was very frightened, and in anguish.” He prays desperately: “Please save me from my brother’s hand, from Esau’s hand.” After bedding down, he gets up again restlessly and moves half his household across the Yabbok river. And then, “Jacob was left alone.”

What should have happened that night to frightened, guilt-ridden Jacob? A good night’s sleep? More likely, struggle: with himself, his guilt and his fear. And indeed Jacob does spend the whole night struggling, “until daybreak.” Who is his opponent? The Bible tells us that Jacob wrestles with a mysterious attacker—maybe a man, maybe God; the story cannot quite bring him into focus. (“A man struggled with him until daybreak”; but later Jacob says, “I have seen God face-to-face.”) We do know that, at first (as Rabbi Naftali Tsvi Yehuda Berlin emphasizes in his commentary), Jacob is overwhelmed, but at the end he has the upper hand.

Commentators ancient and modern are at a loss. Who is this mysterious opponent, and why does he fight with Jacob? (When Jacob demands to know the attacker’s name, the frustrating answer comes: “Why this asking about my name?”) The commentators have proposed angels, aroused spirits, and local daemons (see Nahum Sarna’s Genesis, 1989), but the text mentions no angel, no spirit, no daemon, just “a man” and “God.” Robert Alter is surely right in his Genesis commentary (1996) that “Jacob’s mysterious opponent is an externalization of all that Jacob has to wrestle with within himself.” We can only understand this story in terms of Jacob’s own psyche and Hamlet’s glass.

But Alter omits the most compelling piece of evidence for his thesis, which is this: before fleeing home twenty years earlier, Jacob’s last guilty act had been—what? To extract a blessing. Ordinarily, blessings in the Bible are freely given. But this blessing had been meant for his elder brother and Jacob had deceived his blind, failing father into conferring it on him instead. Now, two decades later, on the night before his return home, a mysterious assailant asks Jacob to let him go—“release me, for the dawn rises”—and Jacob answers: “I will not release you except you bless me.”

Sleepwalking Lady Macbeth, making as if to wash her hands, reenacts the night of her sin and crime. Jacob too reenacts his sin. But this time he does it honorably, not deceitfully but openly, after long hours of combat hand to hand. And so—perhaps—he lays his guilt to rest at last.

Jacob’s is no phantom struggle; it is as real as Lady Macbeth’s. It is as real as a struggle can be. God leads man into the dark wood of his own self. “It is not in the heavens”; man encounters God inside.



That still, small voice you hear: is it the genuine voice of God, or is it merely the human stirrings of your all-too-human mind?

The Bible knows that sometimes it is hard to tell. Listen once more to the story of Elijah at Horeb. First came the wind, and “the Lord was not in the wind”; after the wind came the earthquake, and “the Lord was not in the earthquake”; and after the earthquake, fire, and “the Lord was not in the fire.” After the fire came a still, small voice. The parallel structure of the text makes us expect a phrase to follow, but it is missing. “The Lord was not in the still, small voice” would have been wrong—but the text does not say that He was in the still, small voice either.

Is it God’s voice? When “the Lord called to Samuel,” the child Samuel (eventually to become the prophet Samuel) runs to the priest Eli and says: “Here I am, since you called me.” It can be hard to tell, even for a prophet-to-be. Yet this strange Jewish people, famous for its skepticism, always reserving its right to doubt, cannot seem to get God off its mind. Jews insist on their right to condemn God’s justice vividly, violently—and to take their complaints straight to God. (“Will You actually sweep away the just with the wicked?”) In their unending conversations with Him, they insist that they are not sure He exists. They deny Him in a language whose every word implies that He lives. Ultimately they can no more deny His reality than their own, because He is part of them and they are His dwelling place.

The deepest, most moving expression of the Jewish art of affirming by denying is in the Talmud—in a famous passage (Menachot 29b) in which the rabbis imagine Moses and God in conversation. God has just shown Moses a vision of Rabbi Akiba martyred, hideously torn to death by the Romans. This is a moment of crisis at the very heart of the rabbinic enterprise, a whirlpool at the ocean’s center. Moses asks God in anguish: “Master of the Universe, this is Torah, and this the reward?” All God can answer is “Quiet; that too has occurred to Me.” Sometimes, the Talmud concedes, even God cannot believe in God.

Is it good or bad to have God inside you? “In every single generation,” the Passover Haggadah says, “they rise against us to destroy us.” Then the Haggadah adds—with bitter irony because it is false?—or plain bitterness insofar as it is true?—“and the Holy One Blessed be He saves us from their hands.” So long as Jews exist, God will be present on earth and Jews will suffer for it.


About the Author

David Gelernter is a professor of computer science at Yale.

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