Sacred Texts  Judaism  Index  Previous  Next 
Buy this Book at

p. 79



THE Old Testament, which alone is, and ever was, the Bible of the Jew, contains two oft-recurring ideas which rank among the principal elements of its theological teaching. These ideas are: (a) God as Father; (b) God as King. To give illustrations from the Old Testament is unnecessary, as the present work is not concerned with the theology of the Bible. It is our business to see in what ways they were developed by the Rabbis of the Talmud and Midrash, and adapted to their systems of thought about the relations between the Divine and the human. The fatherhood of God necessarily involves the sonship of man. The Rabbis living under the rule of foreign masters--the yoke of Rome and the memories of other yokes all equally galling--were loth to think that the oppressors of Israel could possibly enjoy so incomparably sublime a privilege as the Divine Fatherhood. It seemed a glaring contradiction that

p. 80

nations who did not hold themselves bound by the Mosaic code, should fall into the category of 'sonship' in relation to the Father. Hence Fatherhood and Sonship became limited to the Jew--although it should be said, for the sake of historical accuracy, that gleams of a far more comprehensive outlook occasionally peep through the pages of Rabbinic literature.

God's Fatherhood to the Jew is evidenced by the outflow of His love towards him. This love, which is ceaseless and rapturous, is described by the Rabbis in numberless ways--in parables, proverbs and similes of a highly picturesque kind. The Jew is possessed by the power of a Spirit of Love which encircles him, holds him in its grip, assures him that forgiveness, protection from enemies, safety from mischief, every coveted thing in heaven and earth, are his.

"Beloved are the Israelites," said R. ‘Akiba (50-130 A.D.), "inasmuch as they are called sons of God; especially did that love manifest itself in making known to them that they are sons of God" (Aboth, iii. 15). The same Rabbi declared the Book of Canticles to be 'the holiest of all holy books' inasmuch as it symbolises the bond of loving union in which Israel is joined to God (Canticles Rabba, Introduction).

In a comment on Deuteronomy, xiv. i. ("Ye are children unto the Lord your God")

p. 81

the Sifri states the conflicting opinions of two Rabbis. One of them asserts that the verse implies that the Israelites are only called children of God when they conduct themselves as children should, i.e. in the right way. The other maintains that the high privilege belongs to them even when they are wayward and sinful. The Father's love is with them no matter how little deserving they may be of it.

Strikingly poetical is the view given in the Mechilta (p. 30, Friedmann's ed.). Commenting on Exodus, xiv. 19 ("And the angel of the Lord which went before the camp of Israel, removed and went behind them"), it says: "Unto what may it be likened? It may be likened unto a man who was walking by the way and leading his son before him. Robbers came to snatch the son away from him. Seeing this, the father removed the son from before him and placed him behind him. Then came a wolf behind him to steal the son away. So the father removed him from before him and placed him once again behind him. Then came the robbers from before him and the wolf from behind him in order to take the son away. What did the father do? He took the son and placed him upon his arms. But the son thereupon began to feel the pain of the sun's heat upon him. So the father spread his mantle over him; and when he felt hungry

p. 82

he gave him food to eat, and when he felt thirsty he gave him water. Likewise did the Holy One (blessed be He) for Israel, as it is said, 'And I taught Ephraim to go, I took them on my arms; but they knew not that I healed them' (Hosea, xi. 3). When the son [Israel] felt the pain of the sun's heat, He [the Father] spread his mantle over him, as it is said, 'He spread a cloud for a covering; and fire to give light in the night' (Psalm, cv. 39). When he began to feel hunger, He gave him food, as it is said, 'Behold, I will rain bread from heaven for you' (Exodus, xvi. 4). When he began to feel thirst, He gave him to drink, as it is said, 'And he brought forth streams out of the rock' (Psalm, lxxviii. 16)."

The truth enshrined in this parable--a parable which has its counterparts in all branches of the Rabbinic literature--is that the closest and most loving of relationships subsists between Israel and God. The love of the Father forms an environment for Israel. The atmosphere the latter breathes is saturated with that love. His whole life is, as it were, a response to it, infected with it, absorbed in it. It gives him the sense of a companionship with a greater and far more real Life than himself. He is ever-lastingly conscious of an intimate union with a Power who can work all things for him, because the governing motive of that

p. 83

[paragraph continues] Power is Love. Israel and the Father are one.

The Rabbis summarised all the far-reaching implications of this deeply mystical thought of Fatherhood by the usage of the term 'Shechinah.'

But the roots of the teaching about the Shechinah lie in something more than this Fatherhood idea. The Kingdom idea must be reckoned with--the Kingdom of Heaven, as it is familiarly designated both in the Rabbinic literature and in the Prayer-book of the Synagogue. As in the case of the Fatherhood, so here, too, we must seek the origin of the Kingdom in the compass of the Old Testament. In the latter, the kingship of God is sometimes pictured as an event consummated in the present and sometimes as some 'far-off divine event' in the remote future. Thus Psalm, cxlv. 13, says: "Thy kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, and thy dominion endureth throughout all generations." This is clearly a present kingship. Zechariah, xiv. 9, says: "And the Lord shall be king over the whole earth, on that day shall he be one and his name one." This is obviously a future kingship.

The student of Apocryphal and Apocalyptic literature will find it bearing the same duality of meaning there too. In the Rabbinic literature it is further amplified. The favourite expression there is 'the taking

p. 84

upon one's self [or the receiving] of the yoke of the Kingdom of Heaven.' An examination of several of the contexts in which the phrase is embedded, proves that it stands for a conglomeration of doctrines, such as that: (a) The Jew must abandon idolatry (i.e. servitude to man or the work of man's hands). (b) He must desire and work for the universal recognition of the Jewish God. (c) He must acknowledge and feel the 'nearness' of God to him, the Divine companionship ever en-shrouding him and his race, the direct revelation of a living and loving God in all fields of his activity and hope. (d) The Jew must acknowledge himself as one of a band, and not as an isolated unit--a band held and welded together by the feeling that it is a kingdom within a Kingdom--a greater Kingdom, the Kingdom of Heaven. The so-called 'clannishness' of the Jews, their tendency for herding together, a fault for which they are continuously scolded, abused or, at best, derided, is thus seen to be based upon a motive which is by no means as undesirable as it is generally pictured to be. The Jewish flock must be one because the 'kingdom' of the Jews must be one--and the latter 'kingdom' must be one because the 'Kingdom of Heaven' in which it is comprised and which thrills it through and informs it, is one. "God is king in Jeshurun," say the sages (in allusion to their particular interpretation of

p. 85

[paragraph continues] Deuteronomy, xxxiii. 5), only when "the heads of the people are assembled, and the tribes of Israel are together." In other words, the earthly kingdom is the fons et origo of the Heavenly. Remove the earthly kingdom and you remove the Divine Revelation of God in the midst of Israel. The Heavenly Kingdom is broken up and vanishes. Its raison d'être is completely gone.

For the individual Jew there are two avenues along which the Kingdom of Heaven can be brought in and consolidated. These are: (a) as already said, by his harbouring an intense sense of the solidarity of his race; (b) by prayer. A remarkable passage, in T.B. Berachoth, 10b, runs thus: "Whosoever eats and drinks previous to praying, of him it is said, 'And me hast thou cast behind thy back' (1 Kings, xiv. 9). Do not read 'thy back' (gey-vě-kāh) but read 'thy pride' (gey-ě-kāh), i.e. after priding himself (with food and drink) this man thinks to take upon himself the Kingdom of Heaven."

These two conceptions already described, viz. (a) the abounding, manifested love involved in Fatherhood, combined with (b) the incorporation of a Heavenly Kingdom within the folds of an Israel welded in strictest fellowship, these two conceptions lie at the root of the mysticism of the Shechinah.

'Shechinah' comes from shachan = to dwell. The whole edifice of thought about

p. 86

the Shechinah is based upon such passages in the Old Testament as "And let them make me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them" (Exodus, xxv. 8). "Defile ye not therefore the land which ye shall inhabit, wherein I dwell: for I the Lord dwell among the children of Israel" (Numbers, xxxv. 34). "And I will set my tabernacle among you and my soul shall not abhor you. And I will walk among you and will be your God, and ye shall be my people" (Leviticus, xxvi. 11, 12).

The Israelites were one compact fellowship, an indivisible organism, and not a series of separate units. God's dwelling among them, or placing His Tabernacle among them in Old Testament times, was interpreted by the Rabbis of the Talmud and Midrashim as implying that there is a permanent presence of the Divine Spirit in the midst of the people of Israel; and that this Divine Spirit not only accompanies them without ceasing, but that it also imparts itself, communicates itself, to every member of Israel whenever he orders his life in such a way as to be capable of realising it. It is a perpetual incoming of the Divine Life into the human life of the Jew. It is a "Divine-human fellowship which only fails when the human partner [the people of Israel] is in sin." Israel is bathed in a Divine environment. As the great mystic theologian

p. 87

among the Jews of the middle ages (Moses Naḥmanides, born in Spain 1194, died in Palestine about 1270) says, in commenting on Leviticus, xxvi. 11: "The Divine soul, of which His dwelling among us is a part, will not thrust us forth [when we work and live aright] as a vessel when heated by hot water thrusts forth its impurities."

All this is meant by the Shechinah. Writers on mysticism, no matter to what school of religious thought they may happen to belong, familiarise us with the great fact that the mystic, by reason of the high levels of spiritual intensity on which his life is lived, experiences certain physical sensations which enable him to see or to hear something of the mystery of the Divine Presence. Christian mysticism invariably quotes the experiences of Paul in this connection--Paul who was so deeply struck by the brilliant light about him that he "was three days without sight and neither did eat nor drink" (Acts, ix. 9). Evelyn Underhill says of a certain mediæval German mystic, Rulman Merswin, that "a brilliant light shone around him; he heard in his ears a Divine voice of adorable sweetness; he felt as if he were lifted from the ground, and carried several times round the garden" (The Mystic Way, p. 162).

Phenomena of a similar type cluster round the Shechinah mysticism. Thus, a passage

p. 88

in Leviticus Rabba, xx. 10, commenting on Exodus, xxiv. ("And upon the nobles of the children of Israel he laid not his hand; also they saw God, and did eat and drink"), runs thus: "R. Tanḥuma said that this verse teaches us that they [i.e. the nobles of Israel] uncovered their heads and made their hearts swell with pride and feasted their eyes on the Shechinah. . . . But Moses did not feast his eyes on the Shechinah, and yet he gained a benefit from the Shechinah [viz. that 'the skin of his face shone' (Exodus, xxxiv. 35)1."

Three points are noteworthy here. Firstly, the strongly materialised characterisation of the Shechinah. It was actually a physical food to the onlookers. Secondly, the physical impressions created by the sight of it. The uncovering of the head was no trivial bodily movement. Involving as it did a distinct breach of the oriental mode of showing veneration to a superior, it must have been a highly purposeful act. Thirdly, the contrast between the experience of Moses and that of the nobles is intended to bring out what is a cardinal feature of the Shechinah mysticism, viz. that in spite of the fact that the Shechinah is the Presence inseparable from Israel, accompanying him whithersoever he goes, yet the realisation of this Presence by the individual Israelite can only come after a series of

p. 89

spiritual and moral disciplinary acts of the highest order have been gone through by him.

Thus said the Rabbis, the Shechinah says of the proud man: "There is no room for this man and myself in the world." Again: "Whosoever commits a sin in secret acts as though he were pressing against the feet of the Shechinah, as it is said (Isaiah, lxvi. 1), 'Thus saith the Lord, the heavens are my throne and the earth is my foot-stool'" (T.B. Kiddūshin, 31a). "Whosoever shows anger regards the Shechinah as though it were a thing of nought" (T.B. Nedarim, 22b). "The Shechinah only resides with him who is at once wise, strong and wealthy" (T.B. Sabbath, 92a)--'wise' denoting the perfection of spirituality; 'strong' denoting the perfection of the physical faculties; 1 'wealthy' standing for the perfection of the moral qualities, because, as the Rabbis explained, the man of wealth being independent of the smiles and favours of his fellow-men, will not readily fall a prey to that great perverter of morals--the sin of accepting bribes.

Other instances of the way in which the Shechinah was objectivised and experienced through the channels of the visual or auditory

p. 90

senses are the following: "The Shechinah used to beat before Samson like a bell" (T.B. Soṭah, 9b). This is a commentary on Judges, xiii. 25, "And the Spirit of the Lord began to move him" (the Hebrew word for 'to move' is here from the same root as the Hebrew word for a 'bell'). In Canticles Rabba, ii., the Shechinah is visible from between the shoulders and fingers of the priests at the time they pronounce upon Israel the priestly benediction of Numbers, vi. 24-26: "The Lord bless thee and keep thee; the Lord make his face shine upon thee, and be gracious unto thee; the Lord lift up his countenance upon thee and give thee peace." 1

In the Midrash Tanḥuma on chapter xvi. of Leviticus, the Shechinah is associated with the sense of smell--another phenomenon of the mystic life much dwelt upon by modern writers on the subject. Aaron's rod is stated

p. 91

to have 'smelt the Shechinah.' Similarly in the Yalḳut on Canticles, i., a mystical inference is drawn from the usage of the metaphor of 'a bundle of myrrh' applied to 'my well-beloved,' i.e. God.

In T.B. Megillah, 29a, it is stated as follows: "The father of Samuel and Levi [Babylonian Rabbis of the 3rd century A.D.] were once sitting in the synagogue of Shef-Ve-Yatib in Nehardea [Babylon]. They suddenly heard a sound of movement. It was the Shechinah coming. They at once rose and went out. A fellow-Rabbi by name Shesheth (who was blind) was once sitting in the same synagogue, and when the Shechinah came, he did not go out. Then the ministering angels came and struck terror into him." In the end Shesheth addresses the Shechinah, who advises the angels to cease from vexing him.

It must be borne in mind, in this connection, how intimately conjoined, in the minds of the Rabbis, was the idea 'synagogue' with the idea 'Shechinah.' The blending of the two even went so far as to prompt the Rabbis to say--what is sometimes falsely and foolishly described as 'grotesque'--that God prays and the synagogue is His house of prayer. Hence if it is true, as Evelyn Underhill maintains, that the visionary experience of mystics is 'a picture which the mind constructs . . . from raw materials already at its disposal' (Mysticism, p. 325), one can

p. 92

quite see how the consciousness of being inside the synagogue should bring home to the Rabbi, in so particularly drastic a fashion, the reality of the Shechinah's intercourse with men.

Noteworthy also--and this is, as well, one of the distinguishing features of the mystical temperament--is the contrast in the effects which this sudden invasion of a Divine Presence had upon the objects of the visitation. The two Rabbis who left the synagogue did so, most probably, as the result of the fearful weakening and depressing effect of the vision. The Rabbi, however, who stayed on and succeeded in eliciting from the Shechinah a promise that the ministering angels should henceforth cease from troubling him, is the type of the mystic who feels the mental and physical elation, the joy, the rapture, the triumph consequent upon the conviction of his having, at last, reached the goal of his quest--the sight, sound and touch of the Ultimate Reality.

A feature of the Shechinah mysticism which deserves a deeper appreciation than is usually accorded it, is to be found in the reiterated Rabbinic belief that goodness and piety radiate an atmosphere of divinity which infects all who breathe it, with a new impulse towards the good, the beautiful and the true. The good man can bring the Shechinah to his fellows. He can invest

p. 93

earth with the quality which belongs to Heaven. Sight of, or contact with, a saint, is equivalent to an inflowing of the Shechinah. Thus, a striking passage in Canticles Rabba, vi., says:

"The original abode of the Shechinah was among the 'taḥtonim,' i.e. the lower ones, i.e. human beings, earth. When Adam sinned, it ascended away to the first heaven. With Cain's sin, it ascended to the second; with Enoch's, to the third; with the generation of the Flood, to the fourth; with the generation of the Tower of Babel, to the fifth; with the Sodomites, to the sixth. With the sin of the Egyptians in the days of Abraham, it ascended to the seventh. Corresponding to these there arose seven righteous men who brought the Shechinah down back to earth again. These were Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Kehath, Amram, and Moses."

There is, of course, a strong sprinkling of the 'fellowship' idea which, as was said on a previous page, is a basic factor in Jewish spirituality. The greater the bond of union between the members of the Jewish brotherhood, the greater the realisation of the Divine Presence in their midst. Add to this the existence of men of conspicuous piety within the bosom of the fellowship, and you have all the essentials for a deeper and stronger infiltration of the Divine stream. The

p. 94

[paragraph continues] Shechinah is brought back to men by the aid of the better men.

The same train of thought is expressed more pointedly by the following aphorisms:

T.B. Berachoth, 64, says: "Whosoever partakes of a meal at which a 'disciple of the wise' is present, it is as though he enjoyed of the splendour of the Shechinah." Clearly, the presence of the 'disciple of the wise' makes the life of the company about him to be lived on higher levels. He gives it an access to the Divine which it would not otherwise have had. T.B. Ketuboth, 105a, says: "Whosoever brings a gift to a 'disciple of the wise' it is as though he brought the first-fruits (bikkurim) to the Temple." The 'disciple of the wise' is here a Temple in human form. To approach him is to approach a Holy of Holies. Contact with him is a sanctifying influence. He radiates divinity.

T.B. Ketuboth, 111b, says: "Is it possible for any man to cling to the Shechinah? For is it not said, in Deuteronomy, iv. 24, 'For the Lord thy God is a consuming fire'? But the meaning is this: Whosoever marries his daughter to a 'disciple of the wise' or engages in any enterprise with him, or who lets a 'disciple of the wise' enjoy of his worldly possessions, it is counted unto him, by Holy Writ, as though he clung to the Shechinah."

p. 95

Companionship with the good must be acquired at all costs. It is the dynamic power for opening the door to the spiritual world. The man of virtue is Shechinah-possessed; and to touch only the hem of his garment is to become Shechinah-possessed too.

When Ruth the Moabitess forsakes her ancestral gods in favour of the God of Israel, when Abram, according to the Rabbinic interpretation of Genesis, xii. 5 ('And the souls that they had gotten in Harran'), brings the weary and footsore into his home and initiates them into the belief in the God in whom he himself believes, the Rabbis say that the act performed in both cases is 'the entering of the non-Israelite under the wings of the Shechinah.'

The narrow, exclusive nationalist view of the Deity is very apparent in these and many other similar utterances. The Shechinah is for Israel only. The Shechinah is primarily for Israel. God is near to the Jew, far from the non-Jew. These are seemingly natural and correct deductions from the Rabbinic records. If so, is not the term 'mysticism' as applied to the Shechinah a misnomer, seeing that the primal assumption of mysticism is the truth that every soul, notwithstanding race or religion, can have intimate intercourse with the Divine? The answer is this:

The title 'Jew' or 'Israelite' is frequently

p. 96

used by the Rabbis in a more comprehensive sense than they are usually given credit for. Thus T.B. Ḳiddushin, 40a, says: "Whosoever denies the truth of idolatry becomes a believer in the whole Torah." T.B. Megillah, 13a, says: "Whosoever denies idolatry is called a Jew." In the Midrash Sifra on Leviticus, xvi. there is a comment on Psalm, cxxv. 4, "Do good, O Lord, unto those that be good, and to them that are upright in their heart." "The Psalmist," says the Sifra, "does not say 'Do good to the Priests or to the Levites or to the Israelites.' But he says 'Do good unto those that be good.'" More instances could be quoted did space not forbid.

From the first of the quotations just given, it follows that 'Jew' is a term of the widest scope. From the second one infers that the Jew fills no higher a place in the Divine favour than do the good and worthy of all men and races.

"Yea, He loveth the people," says the Deuteronomist (xxxiii. 3). "Yes," says Rabbi Samuel b. Meir, the great Rabbinic commentator of the 12th century, "God loveth also the nations of the world." Of King Solomon's chariot it is said (Canticles, iii. 10) that "the midst thereof is paved with love." "This love in the midst thereof," say the Rabbis, "is the Shechinah." It is certainly not meant in any sectarian sense.

p. 97

[paragraph continues] The Divine Chariot in Jewish mysticism is, broadly, the idealised universe. And all degrees of creation from amoeba to man hold and reveal the traces of the Divine love which is ever born anew in our hearts and which guarantees the ultimate goodness of the world.


89:1 The Rabbis (in T.B. Nedarim, 38a) give some curious illustrations of Moses' wealth, strength and wisdom--all deduced from Old Testament verses.

90:1 Philo says: "For what life can be better than that which is devoted to speculation, or what can be more closely connected with rational existence? For which reason it is that though the voices of mortal beings are judged of by the faculty of hearing, nevertheless the Scriptures present to us the words of God to be actually visible to us like light; for in them it is said that, 'All the people saw the voice of God' (Exodus, xx. 18); they do not say 'heard' it, since what took place was not a beating of the air by means of the organs of the mouth and tongue, but a most exceedingly brilliant ray of virtue not different in any respect from the source of reason, which also in another passage is spoken of in the following manner, 'Ye have seen that I spake unto you from out of heaven' (ibid. 22), not 'Ye have heard' for the same reason" (On the Migration of Abraham, ix.).

Next: Chapter V. The Book 'Yetsirah'