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Far Away, So Close

By Yosef Yitzhak Lifshitz

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


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. 
 
Among the commandments discussed in this article, those that seek to bring God closer to man will likely be more recognizable to most readers. The reason for this is twofold: First, these commandments are ritual in nature. Second, their primary goal is to testify to the active involvement of the divine in the physical world, and to the gratitude man feels for that involvement. Indeed, Judaism teaches that God is not indifferent to what occurs in his cosmos. His interest in his creations did not cease after he brought them into being. God reveals himself throughout history precisely by demonstrating his awesome power and by meting out justice. So far as the Jewish people are concerned, God enacted a covenant with the Israelites, took them under his wing, and gave them the Tora so that they might become a holy nation and a kingdom of priests. According to tradition, the divine presence then dwelt in the land of Israel—first in the Tabernacle, and later in the First Temple—and accompanied the Jewish people when they were forced into exile.16 It was then that these commandments took on a more urgent nature: At a time when God’s face is hidden, and signs of his stewardship on the wane, the believing Jew yearns more than ever to be graced with his presence. Accordingly, certain mitzvot enable him to summon this presence into his thoughts and deeds, making God an integral part of his daily life.
The “presence” to which we are referring here is not, obviously, divine revelation in the full sense of the word, an exceedingly rare event that few have been privileged to witness. It is, rather, a more modest, human phenomenon, one we might call “openness to the transcendent”: A state characterized by the impression that accompanies it, or the unique state of being experienced by a person who directs his consciousness toward that which lies beyond his sensory perceptions. The eminent German scholar Rudolf Otto coined the term “numinous” to describe exactly this state in his classic work The Idea of the Holy. There, Otto explains that the “numinous feeling” is one of intense excitement and triumphal elation marked by “sudden, strong ebullitions of personal piety and the frames of mind such ebullitions evince, in the fixed and ordered solemnities of rites and liturgies, and again in the atmosphere that clings to old religious monuments and buildings, to temples and to churches.”17 He adds that “the feeling of it may at times come sweeping like a gentle tide, pervading the mind with a tranquil mood of deepest worship. It may pass over into a more set and lasting attitude of the soul, continuing, as it were, thrillingly vibrant and resonant, until at last it dies away and the soul resumes its ‘profane,’ non-religious mood of everyday experience.”18 It will, perhaps, come as no surprise that the inspiration for Otto’s book came from the Jewish liturgy: During a visit to a synagogue in Morocco in 1911, Otto was deeply moved by the congregation’s recitation of the Kedusha Desidra during the Sabbath prayers, which, he wrote in one his letters, made him shudder with awe, testifying as it did to “the mystery of the other world.”19
Otto provides us with a glimpse into the intense spiritual experience that can accompany the act of prayer, an experience the sages saw as the primary component of the commandment to pray. As the Talmud explains, “It is written (Deuteronomy 11:13), ‘To love the Lord your God, and to serve him with all your heart, and with all your soul.’ And what service can be performed with the heart? The service of prayer.”20 Moreover, if the person praying does so with the proper devotion, he may derive great joy from the knowledge that he is not only addressing the Holy One with his words, but standing at the very feet of his Creator: “R. Chanah Bar Bizna said in the name of R. Shimon Chasida: One who prays must see himself as though the divine presence is opposite him, as it is stated (Psalms 16:8), ‘I have set God before me always.’”21 Similarly, Rabbi Joseph Karo maintained that
The person praying must concentrate in his heart on the words that he utters; and he must think that he has the divine presence before him; and he must remove all thoughts that occupy him until his thinking and his intention remain pure in his prayer; and he must imagine how if he was speaking before a flesh and blood king he would organize his words and prepare them well lest he should fail, all the more so before the King of Kings, the Holy One blessed be he, who examines all thoughts. And this is what the pious ones and men of deeds would do; they were solitary and intent on their prayers until they attained consummation and augmentation of mental power, and approached the level of prophecy.22
Prayer opens the worshipper’s soul to God, inviting him to enter and fill it. The sages emphasized that this feeling of divine affinity is not illusory: “Ravin Bar R. Adda said in the name of R. Yitzhak, From where [is it derived] that the Holy One, blessed be he, is in a synagogue? For it is stated (Psalms 82:1), ‘God stands in the divine assembly’; and from where [is it derived] that when ten men pray [together] the divine presence is with them? For it is stated, ‘God stands in the divine assembly.’”23


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