For some time it has been the fashion in liberal theology to emphasize the sameness of the basic teachings of the major religions. The qualifiers may make the claim tautologous: deviant teachings might be dismissed as not basic or the religion as not a major one. Differences are also important; the essence of soup is only water.
The polar view, that the true faith is unique, is equally groundless if the claim is extended to every element of the faith. It is hard to find any belief or practice in any religion which does not have its counterpart in some other religion. The elements of any religion taken singly are not distinctive, only the entire set in just the combination and with just the emphasis that the religion in question gives them.
Among Jewish teachings is one which is, however, virtually unique among world religions. It is not a tenet accepted by all Jews past and present, or even by all the members of any identifiable movement within Judaism. It is, rather, a recognizable stream of Jewish thought; it is not confined to any period or school but is to be found in biblical, talmudic, kabbalistic, hasidic, and modern sources.
Robert Browning’s poem “The Glove” tells of a lady in the age of chivalry who, to test her lover, threw her glove into the pit where a lion was being exhibited. The knight promptly jumped in after the glove, and having retrieved it, flung it in his lady’s face, leaving her remorsefully aware what a true lover she had lost.
According to Jewish tradition this episode is recurrently reenacted in the relations between God and man, with significant variations on the theme. God tested Abraham, says Scripture explictly and abruptly, by commanding the sacrifice of Isaac. After Abraham demonstrated willingness to slay his son, God concludes, “Now I know that you are a God-fearing man,” as though Abraham’s faithfulness were previously in doubt. The faithfulness of Job is similarly tested: “Have you considered my servant Job. . . ?” God asks Satan; “All that he has is in your power. . . .”
The tribulations of Israel, from the time of Moses to the present, are repeatedly seen as a test of faith. In a testament written during the last hours of the Warsaw Ghetto, Yossel Rackover says: “I believe in You, God of Israel, even though You have done everything to stop me from believing in You. . . . I should like to say something more: do not put the rope under too much strain, lest, alas, it may snap. The test to which You have put us is so severe, so unbearably severe. . . .”
Because the test is so severe, “You should—You must—forgive those members of Your people who, in their misery, have turned from You.” The Jew does not hesitate to give advice, even to the deity. In pointing out to God His moral duty and exhorting Him to virtue, Rackover is following the precedent set by Abraham: “I have taken it upon myself to speak to God. . . . Shall not the Judge of all the earth do justly?” Levi Isaac of Berdichev is noted for his readiness to negotiate with God: “If Your time has not yet come to redeem Your people Israel, at least redeem the goyim!”
Advising and exhorting God is extraordinary enough. The Jew has gone further, accusing God of injustice. According to the Midrash, Moses, denied entry to the Promised Land, reproaches God: “Why do You act thus toward me? It was You who first approached me. . . . Having made me great, will You now degrade me?” God replies, “I have sworn it.” Moses says: “Master of the Universe, did You not break Your own oath when You wanted to?” The Psalmist is equally outspoken: “Surely in vain have I cleansed my heart and washed my hands in innocence, for the whole day I have been plagued, and chastised every morning.” “You sell Your people for a small price,” he charges. In a memorable hasidic anecdote, a congregant declares on Yom Kippur; “True, I have sinned; but what about You, O God? What about the suffering of innocents, unjust persecutions, the triumph of evil? Let’s call it quits—You forgive me, O God, and I will forgive You!” To which Levi Isaac is said to have responded, “No, no! You let Him off too easy!”
At the very least, God is charged with indifference: if He Himself does not act unjustly, at any rate He allows injustice to flourish. “Why do You stand far off, O God?” asks the Psalmist. “Why do You hide Yourself in times of trouble?” “My God, my God, why have You forsaken me, and are far from my help at my cry? O my God, I call by day but You do not answer, at night and there is no rest for me.” The prophet Habakkuk voices the same complaint: “How long shall I cry for help, and You will not hear? . . . Why are You silent when the wicked swallows up the man more righteous than he?”
The idea that God has something to answer for, not only a prayer to respond to, is more than an aberration of the Jewish religious spirit, though it is scarcely known in other theisms.
The demand for an acceptable answer is most notably the theme of the book of Job. “I desire to reason with God,” Job says outright. God acknowledges at the outset the injustice of His treatment of Job, saying to Satan: “He still holds fast his integrity, though you moved me to destroy him without cause.” Such an admission is so extraordinary that the Talmud comments: “Were it not expressly stated in Scripture, we would not dare to say it.”
The teaching is not unequivocal: Job was also condemned for his presumptuousness. Said one of the talmudic sages: “Job sought to turn the dish upside down”; and another: “Dust should be put in the mouth of Job, because he makes himself an equal of Heaven; is there a servant who argues with his master?” In the case of Jewish servants, the answer, plainly, is yes. In another context, the Talmud is explicit in prohibiting such complaints: “If a man says that the Holy One, blessed be He, is lax in the execution of justice, his life shall be outlawed.” Yet the tradition is deeply rooted. Though the outcome of the complaint must not be prejudged, God Himself invites the argument: “Come now and let us reason together,” He says to Isaiah. The logic of the argument as well as its premises call for examination.
In bringing God’s actions before the bar of reason, as Immanuel Kant might have said, the Jew is expressing a Kantian moral autonomy. Though the moral law derives from God, it governs action only as it accords with man’s own moral sense. The dictates of conscience take priority over a divine imperative construed by human authority. Job says to his “comforters”: “Far be it from me that I should justify you [and admit that I deserve my fate]; till I die I will not put away my integrity from me.” Justice will be served only if integrity is maintained: “This will even be my salvation, that a hypocrite shall not come before Him.” The false confession made in the hope of more lenient treatment is an act of moral cowardice on the part of the victim, and does not cancel out the injustice of what is being done to him.
Without moral autonomy Judaism could not have survived. From Abraham to Joshua, and from Bar Kochba to Ben-Gurion, Jews have faced crushingly superior power, surviving only as a nonconformist minority. It is not wholly accidental that the Jews have produced such revolutionary thinkers as Marx, Einstein, and Freud. Jewish culture since biblical times has fostered the readiness to go one’s own way regardless of social pressures to conform.
King, priest, and prophet saw the Hebrews as an obstinate and stubborn people. God described them as “stiff-necked”; in pleading for them, Moses himself reveals the same trait. “God said to Moses: ‘I have seen this people, and behold it is a stiff-necked people. Now let Me alone, that My wrath may wax hot against them. . . .’ And Moses besought the Lord his God and said, ‘Lord, why does Your wrath wax hot against Your people? . . . Why should the Egyptians say He brought them forth only to slay them in the mountains . . .?’” Moses refuses to acquiesce in silence, even in the face of God’s explicit reproach, as though he knows God’s will better than it is conveyed in God’s own words.
After the sin of the Golden Calf, Moses still does not let God alone, ending his plea for forgiveness of the people with the declaration, “. . . if not, blot my name out of Your book. . . .” In the literal sense, no doubt the Book of Life is intended; the context suggests another latent meaning: if You repudiate Your people, I, for my part, will stand with them, and repudiate in turn the mission You have charged me to carry out.
The argument with God must be viewed against the background of the development of the religious consciousness. A central strand in this development is the movement from a cosmological deity to an ethical deity. The Creator, Ruler, Lord of Hosts is the locus of power; the Heavenly Father, Providence, the God of revelation and prophecy is the locus of goodness. The one invites fear, the other love; with the first it is possible to enter into a contract specifying a quid pro quo, while the second establishes a covenant, in which giving is unconditional and without limit.
Judaism begins with the moralization of the cosmological god. The story of the Flood is anticipated in the epic of Gilgamesh. There, however, both the destruction of the world and the saving of Gilgamesh are acts of arbitrary displeasure and favor. In contrast, Noah’s Flood came about because “God saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth,” while “Noah was a righteous man, blameless in his generation.” The cosmological and the ethical are united in God’s holiness, which combines power and virtue, justice and mercy.
Morality, abstracted from the divine, constitutes the Torah, and as such is endowed with independent existence. The moral law has a primacy paralleled by the Greek Fate to which even the gods were subject. When Satan accused God’s people of turning away from Him, God replied; “Let them forget Me altogether, if only they live by My Torah!” Buddha similarly reassured his disciples: “What I have taught will be your teacher after my departure; if you adhere to the teaching and discipline, is it not the same as if I remained with you forever?” Morality makes God ever-present to man. Morality is the link between man and God, having its seat in what is divine in man, and being intrinsic to divinity itself.
In the argument with God, Judaism is invoking God against Himself, justice against power, the ethical deity against the cosmological deity. The conflict within man between his divine and animal natures is projected onto the deity. God can be an advocate against Himself. According to the Talmud, He even engages in prayer: “May it be My will that My mercy may overcome My anger . . . so that I may deal with My children in kindness.” The words of the hasidic folk song are both profound and innocent: “Gott zoll Dir helfen, Gottenyu!” (“God help You, dear God!”). It is He Who helps, and He Who is in need of help.
Submissiveness is appropriate to the cosmological god; the ethical God invites not submission, but service in a labor of love. While fear generates humility, love engenders pride. Neither modesty nor vanity is in question; these reflect what is seen in the eyes of others, not how we see ourselves in relation to the transcendent otherness of the divine. Only God is worthy of devotion or submission, not images or other human beings.
The Jew’s awe of God is counterbalanced by self-respect. Abasement of the self denigrates the only thing man has to offer God—himself. Asked for the significance of the ritual bow, the Baal Shem Tov replied: “I do not know—only, we go down and down and down, and then we bow. But,” he added, “if we bow too low too often, we forget how to lift our heads to Heaven.”
Man is worthy of respect because he was created in the image of God. This doctrine has been singled out as the most important in the whole Torah. Says a Midrash: “Wherever you see the footprint of man, God stands before you. Whenever man walks abroad, he is preceded by a company of angels calling out, ‘Make way for the image of God!’” Philo of Alexandria and Maimonides saw the image of the divine in man’s rational nature. Scripture points instead to a resemblance in the capacity for moral discrimination: “Behold, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil. . . .” It is this knowledge on which man rests his claims against the deity, calling on God’s own moral nature as a witness for the plaintiff.
The cosmological deity is assigned an ancillary role. The world was created in fulfillment of divine purpose; this purpose can be specified only in ethical terms. Because man is the only moral agent in the whole of creation, he is central to the purpose of creation. God has plenty of angels, said Mendel of Kotsk, but few good men. An angel has a thousand mouths, each with a thousand tongues, and all sing the praises of God; but he has not one pocket with coins in it for the poor.
Man is, in the words of Saadya Gaon, “the axle of the world and its foundation.” God usually identifies Himself to His people, not as the Creator of heaven and earth, but as the One Who brought them forth from slavery in Egypt. The identification is made in this way, explains the hasidic master known as the Yehudi, so that no man might suppose that God is too preoccupied with cosmic concerns to bother about him. God unquestionably cares about man, the Jew argues; it is in His own interest.
There is thus a stream of Jewish thought which holds that God needs man. It is not an easy doctrine to maintain. “Can a man be profitable to God?” Eliphaz asks of Job. “Is it any advantage to the Almighty that you are righteous?” Elihu echoes: “If you are righteous, what do you give Him? Or what does He receive from your hand?” For Spinoza, the notion that God lacks anything at all is self-contradictory, since God, by definition, contains all within Himself.
Yet man’s obedience to God’s command, his fulfillment of God’s will, is not assured a priori: “Everything is in the hands of Heaven save the fear of Heaven.” Judaism maintains that, insofar as the language of human feeling and action can apply to God at all, God is angered by iniquity, pacified by repentance, and moved by prayer. In a word, man’s doings matter to Him. Both Ibn Ezra and Nachmanides note the anthropomorphism in the Scriptural statement that in the days of Noah God regretted having created man, but His saving of Noah, His subsequent covenant with Abraham, and the final injunctions of Moses to the people are all unmistakable expressions of a divine purpose which man is to fulfill.
The fulfillment of this purpose is a blessing for man. It is more: it also has a cosmic significance. In acting morally man shares with God a creative role. Like God Himself, the moral man creates what God can look at and pronounce to be good. The Talmud says: “A judge who, even for one hour, passes judgment with complete fairness, is credited by Scripture as if he had become a partner of God in the creation of the world.”
“As if” he were a partner: man’s creative power is not in its own nature human; it is an endowment of the divine. The power lies in man’s soul, the seat of moral sense. In kabbalistic doctrine, the soul is an emanation from God. Moral action, bodying forth the soul, brings to bear divine power. The man of faith, by his every deed, says with David confronting Goliath: “You come to me with a sword and with a spear and with a javelin, but I come to you in the name of God. . . . This day God will deliver you into my hand.” By man’s actions, spirit triumphs over matter. The force is God’s, but it accomplishes its effect through human mediation.
Here lies man’s cosmic duty and—since “ought” implies “can”—the cosmic power with which the duty can be fulfilled. “Where you stand,” said Moses Cordovero, “there stand all the worlds.” When man acts in the name of God he calls whole worlds into existence, just as, by withdrawing the divine power to which they owe their being, when he sins he destroys whole worlds. In the union of the ethical deity and the cosmological deity morality becomes ontology.
Faith expressed in action brings about the union. This is the basis of the hasidic doctrine, emphasized by Jacob Joseph of Polonnoye, that the righteous man plays a cosmic role—his performance of the mitzvot is an indispensable step in the process by which the divine scheme of things is maintained. “Why was man created?” asks Mendel of Kotsk. “To perfect his soul? No. To lift up the heavens!”
The cosmic process is intimately interwoven with the fate of the whole people of Israel. There is a Divine Exile parallel to the exile of the people. “Come and see how beloved are Israel in the sight of God,” says Simeon bar Yochai, “in that to every place to which they were exiled, the Shekhinah [the Divine Presence] went with them.”
True, the Shekhinah is to be found everywhere. In the dawn of the Hebrew religious consciousness God was a regional deity; primitive religions commonly assign to each deity a local habitation. Israeli humor explains why the Western Wall is a particularly suitable place for prayer: “From here, it’s only a local call.” The God of the ancient Hebrews was detached from His place only in order to accompany His people on their wanderings. With the universalization of the national God, omnipresence became a recognized attribute of the divine.
Just as the exile of the people has a spiritual sense rather than a merely geographical dimension, so also with the Divine Exile. The Shekhinah “left Her home” in order to accompany the people, says the Kabbalah (in kabbalistic literature, the Shekhinah represents the feminine aspect of the Godhead). This occurred when the Sanctuary was destroyed and the Temple was burned. In Her own place, the Shekhinah is united with the En Sof, the Infinite Source of the emanations which make up the divine. As the people turn away from the spiritual component in their makeup, there is a corresponding dissociation within divinity. God never abandons His people; the way back is always open—tshuvah, repentance, means the return. When the lost and wandering people find their way again, something of the divine returns with them.
In the teaching of Isaac Luria the process is generalized to provide a cosmogony. God contracts into Himself; what remains when God has withdrawn is the material universe. Something of the divine must still be present, not merely as sign—“the heavens declare the glory of God”—but also as substance, the ontological basis of all being. The metaphysics is like Vedanta: the world is maya, not wholly real, but not altogether illusory. It is Brahman, the divine beyond attributes, seen through the eyes of metaphysical ignorance. The conquest of ignorance—Judaism would say, of evil—restores divine unity, reveals God as always and forever One.
Hindus worship Brahma the Creator, Siva the Destroyer, or Vishnu the Preserver—all male deities, with female consorts; Brahman, the transcendent Reality, is neuter. Judaism personifies not only the female Shekhinah but also the En Sof from whom She has been separated. God suffers from Her departure as does a lover separated from his beloved. Philo of Alexandria, noting that God is one and alone, says that “solitude is precious to Him.” Yet God longs for His people to return to him: “How sad for God,” exclaimed the Hasid, Uri of Strelsk, when he was a child, “not to have His children near Him!” In kabbalistic teaching, how much more does He long to be reunited with the Shekhinah.
A work of redemption is to be done. In human perspective, evil is to be overcome, transformed into good. In cosmic terms, the task has another meaning. It is to restore God’s unity with Himself. According to Lurianic Kabbalah, what is attained is the union of the Creator with His creation. In the process of creation, the vessels into which the divine emanations have been poured are shattered; sparks of the divine fire are hurled into the void. The cooling embers in which they are embedded make up material existence. All matter encases a fragment of spirit; in every sin is a core of holiness. The shells are to be broken, the inner spirit released. The sparks, by their own nature, will then fly upward, to be reabsorbed in the light whence they came.
The work of redemption is to be accomplished by the people of Israel as a people. The covenant with Abraham becomes a covenant with all the children of Israel: “I will take you for My people, and I will be your God.” God’s purpose is fulfilled when He becomes the God of Israel as He had been the God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Jacob. The spiritual leader points the way. Isaac Luria identified the Sabbath, personified as a bride, with the Shekhinah; on the eve of the Sabbath, therefore, he customarily took a walk, so as to share the Divine Exile. In turn, the Shekhinah, present at the Sabbath table, shares in the link with the divine constituted by the Sabbath ritual.
The Kabbalah expounds a parallelism between the Upper World and the Lower World. Whatever is done in the one sphere is reflected by corresponding events in the other. The doctrine is a kind of shadow mysticism, akin to what is conveyed by Plato’s myth of the cave. The uninstructed see only the shadows in the Lower World of the true substances in the Upper World. Unlike Plato’s metaphysics however, the Kabbalah holds that the dependence between the two worlds is reciprocal. The Lower World, rather than being only a shadow of the Upper World, symbolizes it; like other symbols, it evokes the reality it names.
Events on the plane of human action are necessary and sufficient for corresponding events to take place on the plane of the divine. “From an activity below there is stimulated a corresponding activity on high,” says the Zohar. “If there is no impulse from below, there is no stirring above.” Jews pray, “May He Who makes peace in His high places make peace for us and for all Israel.” The Kabbalah also reverses the process: “Whoever establishes peace on earth is accounted as though he had made it on high.”
Herein lies the significance of the mitzvot, especially those of distinctively religious rather than ethical content. The performance of the mitzvot is meritorious not merely as unquestioning fulfillment of God’s command. It is even more meritorious because of its effect in the Upper World. Action carried out for our own benefit may be prudent but it is not virtuous. Virtue lies in what is done for the sake of Heaven, purely as a service to the divine. God’s command is not a Kantian imperative to do our duty for no other reason than that it is our duty. It has another reason, but a spiritual rather than a utilitarian one. The reason is found in Jewish liturgy as late as the 19th century, in the formula, “For the sake of the reunion of God and His Shekhinah.” To bring about this reunion, customs, like many of those instituted by Luria and later hasidic masters, may be as efficacious as the canonical precepts.
When the doctrine is carried to its logical extreme, it leads to the paradoxical conclusion that it is man who creates God. This is not the absurdity that God’s existence depends on man; but His being the God of worship does depend on there being worshippers. “God” is a relational term, like “wife”; a woman can exist whether or not there are men, but she could not be a wife if there were no man to marry her. (In “Lord,” “Father,” “King,” the relational element is explicit.)
“If My people decline to proclaim Me as King upon earth,” God says, “My kingdom ceases also in Heaven.” God Himself is everlasting, but His kingship, by the principle of parallelism, comes to an end when man refuses to acknowledge Him. Similarly, God is without beginning, but He cannot be the God of Israel before there is a people of Israel. In the Jerusalem Talmud, “I have brought you forth from Egypt” by a change of vowels is transformed into, “I was brought forth with you from Egypt.” One and the same event makes Israel a nation and God a God.
Man is worthy of faith for he, too, is a locus of moral worth and cosmological power. Morality provides the end; power provides the means for its attainment. The end is nothing less than bringing the Messiah, ushering in the age of cosmic redemption.
The so-called “practical” Kabbalah, in contrast to the speculative (like Hatha Yoga in contrast to Raja Yoga), consisted in the recitation of certain texts and the performance of certain rites—for instance, carrying out particular mitzvot at precisely specified times and in particular holy places so as to hasten the messianic era. Even the wordless melody sung by the rebbe and his Hasidim might serve this end. “The whole world is a melody,” said Pinchas of Koretz; “if I were a musician I could force You to come.”
Here religion touches upon magic: God’s own power is invoked to compel Him—man redeems the Redeemer from Himself. The conception rises above magic when it makes central the element of faith which relates God and man to each other. Man can accomplish nothing save by his devotion to God, or all his doings are empty. In turn, God’s purposes remain unfulfilled save by His caring for His people, or His work of creation is a pointless exercise in omnipotence. Faith links God and man in a closed circle with neither beginning nor end.
This linkage Martin Buber called dialogue, in contrast to alternating monologues of revelation and prayer. Man expresses his faith in God by responding “Here I am!” to God’s call. God expresses His faith in man by offering him the Torah, though it has so often been rejected, and knowing well how demanding is the life of the spirit. God’s faith is shown by His calling us even when we do not hear. God might well ask in the words of the Psalmist, “Why do you stand far off, O man? My people, why have you forsaken Me?”
“Thou shalt love the Lord thy God,” and God loves His people; the love affair is as tempestuous as it is passionate. The relationship between God and Israel is a history of faithlessness and jealousy, anger and despair, forgiveness and reconciliation, ecstasy and rededication. The Jew, in a word, is intimate with his God. Truly, “what great nation is there that has a god so near to it as our God is to us, whenever we call upon Him?”
To be near to Him when we call, we must identify who it is that is calling; we must identify ourselves—that is, give ourselves an identity. Only then does He have an identity. Each becomes who he is in the encounter. The Jew does not worship the god who is not yet, but his God is always in the making.
Heinrich Heine, on his death-bed, was asked whether he thought God would forgive him. “Of course God will forgive me,” he replied, “from this He makes a living.” There is more irony than impiety in the remark. In Jewish perspective, it is hard even for God to make a living. The Jew can see the evil in the world as the sanctions being imposed in the demand for a living wage; as usual with such sanctions, both sides suffer. But as between God and man, who is the employer and who is the employed is, for the Jew, also subject to negotiation.