Far Away, So Close

By Yosef Yitzhak Lifshitz

How the commandments bridge the unbridgeable gap between God and man.

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he Royal Crown (Keter Malchut), the famous poem composed by R. Solomon Ibn Gabirol in the eleventh century, is a moving description of the religious experience. One of the most important liturgical works written in Hebrew, it begins by glorifying God’s inestimably awesome majesty and power—attributes that man, in his limited capacity, cannot possibly hope to comprehend:
Thou existest,
But hearing of ear cannot reach thee, or vision of eye,
Nor shall the how have sway over thee, nor the wherefore and whence.
Thou existest,
But for thyself and for none other with thee.
Thou existest,
And before time began thou wast,
And without place thou didst abide.
Thou existest,
And thy secret is hidden and who shall attain to it?
So deep, so deep, who can discover it?1
In later sections, however, there is a noticeable shift in the speaker’s tone. As Israel Levin, editor of a critical edition of the poem, points out, initially the speaker’s language discloses his feeling of immeasurable isolation from the Almighty. Yet now, the speaker begins to refer to a personal divinity with whom he seems to feel a sense of intimacy.2 It is to this God that he turns in despair, and entreats:
Take me not away in the midst of my days,
Nor hide thy face from me.
Purify me from my sins,
And cast me not out from thy presence,
But quicken me with glory
And with glory receive me afterwards.
And when thou shalt bring me out of this world,
Bring me in peace to the life of the world to come,
And place me in glory among the saints,
And number me with those whose portion is appointed in the world of life
And purify me to shine in the light of thy countenance,
And restore and revive me
And bring me up again from the depths of the earth.
Then will I say:
I thank thee, O Lord,
That though wroth with me,
Thine anger is turned away and thou hast comforted me.
Thine, O Lord, is loving-kindness
In all the goodness thou hast bestowed on me,
And which thou wilt bestow till the day of my death.3
Here we have, then, a clear demonstration of the dual aspects of faith in a transcendent God. On the one hand, the object of this faith is unattainable, unfathomable, and incalculably distant from man’s lowly, finite experience. Indeed, although the Bible frequently describes God in anthropomorphic terms, traditional commentaries view these descriptions as allegorical, and insist that God has no form or appearance of the sort that characterizes descriptions of pagan gods.4 Accordingly, Jewish philosophers throughout the ages have emphasized the absolute otherness of God, and the infinite chasm that exists between him and the physical world. As Moses Maimonides (the Rambam) asserts in his classic work The Guide for the Perplexed:
Just as it behooves to bring up children in the belief, and to proclaim to the multitude, that God, may he be magnified and honored, is one and that none but he ought to be worshipped, so it behooves that they should be made to accept on traditional authority the belief that God is not a body; and that there is absolutely no likeness in any respect whatever between him and the things created by him; that his existence has no likeness to theirs; nor his life to the life of those among them who are alive; nor again his knowledge to the knowledge of those among them who are endowed with knowledge. They should be made to accept the belief that the difference between him and them is not merely a difference of more or less, but one concerning the species of existence…. Now everything that can be ascribed to God, may he be exalted, differs in every respect from our attributes, so that no definition can comprehend the one thing and the other.5
And yet, who is the man of faith that could be satisfied with such an abstract view of God? Surely the believer seeks to bridge the enormous gulf that separates him from the object of his longings; surely he wishes to bask in the warmth of his Maker, and draw comfort and strength from his nearness. For the believer, God is not merely a theoretical idea. Rather, he is an active presence in one’s life. As the American philosopher and psychologist William James once remarked, “In the distinctively religious sphere of experience, many persons (how many we cannot tell) possess the objects of their belief, not in the form of mere conceptions which their intellect accepts as true, but rather in the form of quasi-sensible realities directly apprehended. As his sense of the real presence of these objects fluctuates, so the believer alternates between warmth and coldness in his faith.”6 James understood that religious faith is first and foremost an experience, one defined largely by a yearning to overcome the terrible remoteness of the divine.
The question, then, is how can this remoteness be overcome? The world’s various religions are rich with examples of rituals designed to effect a union between man and God. This is the dominant logic, for instance, behind certain sacrificial ceremonies, as well as the Catholic Mass, in which the believer is invited to “drink” the blood and “eat” the body of Christ. In fact, Christianity is based on the belief that the heavenly and the earthly merged in the miraculous coming of Jesus, who was, in the words of Swiss theologian Karl Barth, “Not only a man like us in time and space,” but also “a figure that [embodies] the omnipotence, the grace, and the truth of God, and therefore is the authentic intermediary between God and the rest of mankind.”7 Still another means of uniting the finite with the infinite is the mystical path that strives to release human consciousness from the constraints of both physical existence and the human Ego. Again, the goal is to attain a state of purity and spiritual transcendence, and ultimately become one with the divine source of all being.
The Jewish tradition takes a different approach. Unlike those religions that assert that communion with God can be realized in the material world, or even the human body, Judaism insists that the very idea of such a merger is abominable.8 True, scholars are divided over whether ecstatic practices that aspire to a physical communion with the divine can be found in Kabbalistic texts.9 But even if such views do exist, they are decidedly out of step with the prevailing attitude of the Jewish tradition: Namely, that between Creator and created, the Holy One and mere mortals, there is always a certain ineradicable distance. In the Talmud, this distance is even given a symbolic estimation:
And it has been taught: R. Jose states, neither did the shechina (divine presence) ever descend to earth, nor did Moses or Elijah ever ascend to heaven, as it is written (Psalms 115:16), “The heavens are the heavens of the Lord, but the earth hath he given to the sons of men.” But did not the divine presence descend to earth? Is it not in fact written (Exodus 19:20), “And the Lord came down upon Mount Sinai”? That was above ten handbreadths [from the summit]. But is it not written (Zechariah 14:4), “And his feet shall stand in that day upon the Mount of Olives”?—That will be above ten handbreadths. But did not Moses and Elijah ascend to heaven? Is it not in fact written (Exodus 19:3), “And Moses went up unto God”?—[That was] to a level lower than ten [handbreadths from heaven]. But is it not written (II Kings 2:11), “And Elijah went up by a whirlwind into heaven”?—[That was] to a level lower than ten handbreadths.10
And yet, along with its insistence on the separation between the human and the divine, Judaism also calls upon man to attach himself to the Holy One. This attachment, or deveikut (“cleaving”) in Hebrew, is expressed in the passage from Deuteronomy, “You shall walk after the Lord your God, and fear him, and keep his commandments, and obey his voice, and you shall serve him and hold fast to him.”11 The meaning of this commandment—which is not, it should be noted, merely a measure of one’s devotion, but rather a requirement—is understandably a matter of some controversy among Jewish sages. Some interpret it literally, as an instruction to be in extremely close contact with the divine.12 Others, however, explain it as an obligation to “walk after the Lord your God,” and strive to obey all of his commandments—the interpretation that eventually became the accepted view in Jewish theology and halacha.13 As the renowned scholar of Kabbala Gershom Scholem explains, the concept of deveikut, as it is widely understood, “is a perpetual being-with-God, an intimate union and conformity of the human and the divine will” while preserving “a proper sense of distance, or, if you like, of incommensurateness.”14
If attachment to God is the supreme goal of religious life, then the mitzvot—God’s commandments—are the principal means of achieving it. “Man cannot approach God except by means of deeds commanded by him,” writes Rabbi Judah Halevi in his famous work The Kuzari.15 Indeed, the purpose of many of Judaism’s most notable obligations is to narrow the gap between man and the divine, while not altogether eradicating it. In the following article, I will distinguish between two types of commandments from the vast halachic array intended to realize this ideal. First, there are those intended to act as a constant reminder of divinity in the daily life of believers, and thus bring the Holy One closer to man. Second, there are those intended to reinforce the believer’s identification with God, thus bringing man closer to the Holy One. While the distinction between these two categories is admittedly not always clear, they nonetheless represent two opposite yet complementary vectors of religious observance: Inviting or “bringing down” the heavenly plane to the earthly one; and elevating and uplifting the earthly plane until it acquires a quasi-heavenly nature. I will then argue that there is one commandment—that of Tora study—that accomplishes both these goals at once, and creates, more than any other religious act, a mutual cleaving between man and God. For precisely this reason, the commandment of Tora study is considered the clearest demonstration of deveikut in Judaism, which explains the vital role it has played in traditional Jewish life throughout the generations.

Joseph Issac Lifshitz is a fellow at the Shalem Center.

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