HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal

A Speaking God

by Yehuda Rapoport Issue: The God Issue
TOPICS : Jewish Studies

The texts of our sacred tradition have one basic assumption: that God speaks. Though basic, it has never been treated as simple. Both modern and medieval thinkers have addressed this issue in ways that educators should find highly illuminating.

This article will focus on a small selection of these thinkers with the goal of opening up these issues for further discussion. Maimonides’ remark about another difficult topic could easily be applied here: “Its measure is longer than the earth and wider than the sea, and many fundamental principles and lofty ideas are dependent on it” (Hilkhot Teshuva, chapter 5). Of course, the only way to span even the longest of distances is one step at a time—let this stand as one step in that direction.

In Yehuda HaLevi’s Kuzari, a dialogue between a representative of Judaism (the Chaver) and the king of the Khazars, the question of God speaking is presented as the very doubt Bnei Yisrael had after the exodus from Egypt, and the revelation at Sinai is framed as the answer. After the Chaver retells the story of the exodus the king responds (starting with Part I, Section 80):

No one could imagine for a moment that [the events of the exodus were] the result of necromancy, calculation, or phantasy. For had it been possible to procure belief in any imaginary dividing of the waters, and the crossing of the same, it would also have been possible to gain credence for a similar imposition concerning their delivery from bondage, the death of their tormentors, and the capture of their goods and chattels. This would be even worse than denying the existence of God.

The king sees these events as being beyond doubt. The Chaver, of course, does not disagree. However, he does believe that one very significant doubt remained for the Jewish people even after all the wonders and miracles of the exodus, specifically: does God truly speak with flesh and blood? Here is the Chaver’s formulation of the people’s doubt:

Although the people believed in the message of Moses, they retained, even after the performance of the miracles, some doubt as to how God could speak to humans, and whether the Law was not of human origin, and only later on supported by divine inspiration. For they found it exceedingly difficult to associate speech with anything other than humans, since speech is something physical.

This formulation of the people’s doubt is highly intriguing. Why was it so difficult to associate speech with God? Why would they not experience the same perplexity in regard to the miracles wrought by God in Egypt and the desert? Were those events any less physical than speech? Weren’t they in fact more so?

It is one thing to say that God interacts with His creation. It is quite another to say that He speaks. In speech, God’s separateness is obliterated—He enters into a personal encounter which brings Him closer to what is perceived as being uniquely human. The difficulty of scriptural anthropomorphism (from the Greek anthropos, meaning human and morphe, meaning form) is not just that God is being described as physical, but that He is being described as human.

According to Yehuda HaLevi, the revelation at Sinai was designed to establish that God does communicate with human beings. The God that gave man the capacity for speech is not beyond speech—this too can be a medium for expressing His will. God can manifest Himself as Speaker. The word is not man’s alone.

Maimonides’ approach in the Mishneh Torah is reminiscent of the Kuzari. Though categorical in his denial of any physical characteristics to God—famously invoking the principle “the Torah speaks in the language of men” to explain Scripture’s copious use of anthropomorphisms—he is surprisingly reserved when it comes to speech (and wisdom), negating only speech of the human variety (Hilkhot Yesodei HaTorah, chapter 1):

There cannot be attributed to Him, neither death nor life; neither ignorance nor wisdom, like the wisdom of a wise person; neither sleep nor wakefulness; neither anger nor levity; neither joy nor melancholy; neither silence nor speech, like the speech of man.

To completely negate the speech of God would contradict another fundamental principle of the Torah (ibid. chapter 7), that God communicates with the prophets. To put it simply, in the Jewish tradition it would be too ludicrous to say that God does not speak (or communicate, to use a word that carries less of the anthropomorphic) at least in some sense, no matter how much that might bristle up against our notion of God’s immateriality.

Moving from the medieval to the modern, the resistance to a Speaking God goes to the heart of an essential tension described by the 20th century philosopher Emmanuel Levinas. In an essay titled “Revelation in the Jewish Tradition” (in Beyond the Verse: Talmudic Readings and Lectures), he distinguishes between two worlds—two worldviews—that stand side by side, contradicting and complementing each the other: the West and the East; the Greek tradition and the Jewish tradition; Athens and Jerusalem; the philosophical contemplative and the biblical tradition of Revelation. In the Greek tradition, as described by Levinas,

Reason is solid and positive; it begins with all meaning to which all meaning must return in order to be assimilated to the Same [the “Same” being Levinas’s evocative term for the self or the ego], in spite of the whole appearance it may give of having come from outside. Nothing in this reason can cause the fission in the nuclear solidity of a thought which thinks in correlation with the world’s positivity, which thinks from its starting point of the vast repose of the cosmos; a thought which freezes its object in the theme, which always thinks to its measure, which thinks knowingly.

In contrast, the tradition of Revelation, according to Levinas, is “a relation with exteriority which, unlike the exteriority with which man surrounds himself whenever he seeks knowledge, does not become simply the content of interiority, but remains ‘uncontainable,’ infinite and yet still maintaining a relation.”

In the Greek tradition everything must be contained as a concept—the goal is to fully grasp, mentally and, if possible physically, the object of knowledge. There is little room for the infinite, uncontainable and ungraspable word that comes from beyond. Language must point to definite meanings; it serves to organize and make our world comprehensible. The ultimate objective is that the world become “assimilated to the Same.” Language is man’s possession and tool.

But in the tradition of Revelation, language has a very different cast. Language is that which seeks to overcome an infinite gap—it seeks a relation from beyond. It is in language that this infinite separation seeks to be bridged—in which the Most High, God, maintains His absolute separation while simultaneously—and from a Greek perspective, paradoxically—being revealed. These very different views of language are not meant to supplant each other; they each have their place. However, in the Greek tradition there can be no word that emanates from the Infinite. Greek ears cannot hear the voice of Sinai.

Now to turn to what might be the most profound challenge to viewing God as a Speaking God. The systematic genocide of the Jewish people from 1933-1945 and the subsequent founding of a Jewish state in 1948, followed by numerous wars to defend its existence, had no small impact on the development of Jewish philosophy. The tormented questions of Job that pierced our hearts during and after the Shoah, turned, in the blink of an eye, to the triumphant hallelujahs of the psalmist with the establishment of the State of Israel. The face of God that was wrapped in mystery and hidden from view now shined so radiantly that few could doubt God’s providential hand.

In his beautiful essay Kol Dodi Dofek, The Voice of my Beloved Knocks, Rav Soloveitchik uses the stirring allegory of the fifth chapter of the Song of Songs to frame a response to the events of the 1940s. There, the lovely woman, representing the Jewish people, lies sleeping with wakeful heart when she hears the voice of her beloved, representing God. He knocks at the door, waiting in anticipation for her to open. But she has already taken off her robe, she has already washed her feet—she delays. Not until her beloved releases the latch does her innermost being stir with longing. But it’s too late. By the time she has opened the door, he has gone; she calls for him, but there is no reply.

Using this imagery, Rav Soloveitchik recounts six “knocks,” six ways the Beloved has called upon His people in recent history. The following is what he describes as the fourth knock:

The Beloved is knocking in the hearts of the perplexed and assimilated youths. The era of self-concealment (hastarat panim) at the beginning of the 1940s resulted in great confusion among the Jewish masses and, in particular, among the Jewish youth. … Buried, hidden thoughts and paradoxical reflections emerge from the depths of the souls of even the most avowed assimilationists. And once a Jew begins to think and contemplate, once his sleep is disturbed—who knows where his thoughts will take him, what form of expression his doubts and queries will assume? (Translated by Lawrence Kaplan in his Theological and Halakhic Reflections on the Holocaust)

So where do these thoughts lead? Is the knock loud enough? It is one thing to acknowledge God’s providence, but after the deafening silence of the Shoah can we shift back to a scripture that testifies to His eternal word? Are the miracles of 1948 enough to answer the questions “of the perplexed and assimilated”? Finally, can the new Jew of Medinat Yisrael, who with her own hands drained the swamps, made the desert bloom and sacrificed her sons and daughters to defend her land—for whom, after millennia of debasement at the hands of her oppressors, self-reliance, self-confidence, self-sacrifice are emblems worn with pride—find a place in her heart for the word of God? Can she break the shackles of her past without also severing her connection to God’s eternal word? There is, of course, no simple answer to these questions. It is, above all, the role of educators to make the texts of our tradition speak once again—to make God speak once again.

I conclude with the words of Menachem Begin who, defending his decision not to allow El Al to fly on Shabbat, made the following statement (emphasis added): “The Shabbat, the day of rest, is one of the loftiest ideals in all of human civilization. … Just one nation, a nation who searched for God and found Him, one small nation heard the voice, saw the voices: ‘Guard the Shabbat to make it holy’” (quoted in Daniel Gordis, Menachem Begin: The Battle for Israel’s Soul). The same could—and should—be said for the rest of the Torah. Let us embrace the voice of our heritage. Ultimately, Jewish education must go beyond a mere exposure to tradition. It must enable students to fashion ears that are attuned to revelation, echoing the words of the Psalmist, “You have fashioned ears for me…To do Your will, My God, is my desire; and Your Torah is deep within me” (Psalms 40:7-9).

Rabbi Yehuda Rapoport is Judaic studies curriculum director at the Seattle Hebrew Academy. yehuda1977@gmail.com

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The God Issue

In Jewish tradition, God alone is the Creator of all and the ultimate embodiment of unity, Oneness. In the 21st century Jewish community, however, God can often be a source of contention and divisiveness. Our community is far from united around questions of God's existence, nature and way of acting, the ways that we can understand God and relate to God. The authors in this issue approach the Big Questions from a wide variety of perspectives and thinkers, but they are united in their concern to bring the God Issue within the classrooms and halls of Jewish day schools.

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