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Transcendence and Immanence (Shavuot)

Updated: May 30, 2023

Judaism’s conception of the universe is extraordinary; it presents God as completely outside nature. God is transcendent, not immanent. God creates the heavens, creates the earth, but is not in them. The rising and setting of the sun, the orderly motion of the stars, all of this is not the product of active and competing divine wills, it does not reflect a cosmic dance or battle, but rather the product of God’s creating the natural world with order. Nature functions according to laws, to a single will, not competing wills.

We testify to this when in the first blessing before the Shema, morning and evening. God reliably brings light to the earth in the morning and darkness at night. The orderliness of the universe testifies to God’s mastery of it.

The problem with a completely transcendent God, though, is that it is devoid of feeling. The concept of a God completely above nature is awe-inspiring, but it leaves something missing. The pagan religions of the ancient world did not have this problem; they could truly feel the divine in the blow of the wind, the fall of rain, the motion of the heavens. To them, these phenomena were not products of a universe ordered by a transcendent divine, but rather manifestations of divinity. They could feel close with the divine, could commune with the divine, through the physical world, through the cycles of nature and the pleasure of sex and the pain of death. We see God as above this all, and it leaves us feeling devoid of a relationship with God, of “contact” with God, so to speak.

The second blessing before the Shema comes to fill that void. The second blessing, morning and evening, has the common themes of love and Torah. The giving of the Torah represents heaven coming down to earth, God reaching out to us. The Torah is our contact point with God; through it, we know all that we know about God. It was given as a particular gift to a particular people, and thus its giving was an act of love. The Torah is a manifestation of God’s love. Its laws are given in love to the people of Israel. Through study of those laws, through engagement with Torah, we build a relationship with God.

In Judaism, we cannot point to God and we cannot grasp God. God is beyond all that. We can point to the Torah and cling to it, and through it, know and love God. No, the Torah is not a deity, but it implies the Deity, and the Deity’s love for Israel. Through study and observance of its laws, we reciprocate that love and create a relationship.

God is encountered in the Jewish tradition, then, not by the senses but by the mind. While it is true that reading or hearing are prerequisites to receiving the Torah, they are not the essence of it. A baby who stares at an open sefer Torah is not encountering the divine, nor a bored child sitting in shul during leyning, not understanding a word. And of course, we wouldn’t expect an adult, no matter how many hours he has spent staring at the Hebrew words of the Torah or listening to leyning, to be any closer to understanding it than a baby, if that adult has never been taught. Thus, we see that the Torah is not encountered in isolation; we don’t each receive our own revelation. Only Moses learned Torah directly from God. Everybody else learned it from somebody else. The implication of this is that we encounter God through our teachers, and there is no such thing as pure Torah, existing in isolation and devoid of human transmitters.

An example: you understand the Torah in translation (or are working on it). You read the Hebrew and think of the English word that somebody told you that Hebrew word means. That somebody may have been a teacher, a parent, a website, a printed book, but regardless, somebody told you that that is what that word means. They could be totally wrong, but you expect that they got that translation from somebody else who got it from somebody else who got it from somebody else, all the way back to the Torah’s beginnings. We trust that at no point in history was there zero access to a translation tradition, and that there wasn’t a point in which a bunch of scholars got together and guessed at the meanings of the Torah’s words. It is thus impossible to escape the tradition, impossible to access the Torah without the tradition. And, as we’ve established that we encounter God through the Torah, it is impossible to encounter God outside of the tradition.

You can try to sit down in a quiet room and achieve knowledge of God starting from square zero, without any basis from anything you have ever been taught. You can try, but you cannot succeed, because your entire quest is necessarily framed by your conception of what this God is that you are searching for. There is a teaching that Abraham of the Torah came to a conception of God using only his reason. This is importantly different than having a relationship with God. He may have rationally come to understand what God was not, i.e. not idols and not natural phenomena, and he may have come to understand that God must transcend nature. He couldn’t have come to have a relationship with God, though, without revelation. No human has the tools to know God in a particular sense. If we did, we would be on par with God. No inferior conscience can completely comprehend a superior conscience, a Being operating on a different plane, by their own devices. This is no different than the fact that no person could divine the meaning of the Torah by staring at its words long enough. It is only revelation that allows us to know God in a particular sense. And revelation is nothing more than being taught by the only Being with the knowledge, God. And then those who are taught in that revelation teach their children or students, and the chain of tradition, of Torah, is passed on this way. In other words, the Torah and what the Torah means are inseparable.

In still other words, the written and Oral Torah are inseparable. A translation of the Torah is a manifestation of the Oral Torah. The Oral Torah is what we encounter, the Torah is the abstract concept that we believe is the basis of the Oral Torah. Abstract because there is no way to encounter pure Torah; Torah is only taught. The Gemara’s explanation of a verse from the Torah as having a certain halachic implication is not fundamentally different than Sefaria telling you it has a certain meaning. The separation of p’shat and drash is artificial.

There is one important detail that needs to be mentioned. In order to be taught, one needs to be open to teaching. A student must show up to class and listen in order to learn. It is no different with revelation, which, as we have established, is nothing but a lesson in which God is teacher and prophet is student. The lesson will fall on deaf ears if the prophet is not listening. Before revelation can occur, humanity must be willing to hear the voice of God in the world. This does not mean we must be open to finding the word of God in random, arbitrary phenomena like the arrangements of tea leaves. Rather, it means that we must see, behind the order of the universe, a divinity which might speak to us. That is why yotzer ohr and ma’ariv aravim precede ahavah rabbah and ahavat olam. When we view the natural world as being imbued with creative powers itself, we believe that tea leaves and black cats have meaning. When we view the natural world as reflecting the work of a transcendent Creator, we can hear that Creator’s voice. With the same voice that God used to create the universe, God calls out to us. When we see the universe as being a product of the voice of God, we can hear that voice.

If Torah, and through Torah, God, can only be accessed through tradition, is any one tradition more valid than another? Every student processes the lessons of their parents and teachers through the lens of their own life experience. As a result, the tradition changes over time, as the world that its bearers perceive changes. The way some students interpret and live the teachings they received is more different than the way their teachers did. Imagine one teacher and three students, where one student ends up thinking and practicing in much the same way his teacher did, the second student’s practice looking a little more different from the teacher’s than the first student, and the third student’s practice looking even more different. This is similar to the situation in Judaism today, in which, in America, there are three major traditions: Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform. There are sub-traditions and overlap within and between these, but that’s the general situation. The question is: is the Orthodox community’s interpretation and practice of Torah legitimate, while the others aren’t, as the Orthodox claim? For simplicity’s sake, let’s consider only Reform and Orthodox (Conservative Judaism is, theoretically, fully committed to halacha, so it could be considered Orthodox).

It is silly to claim that the Orthodox Judaism of today is the same Judaism of the 1800s and the 1500s and the 1100s and so on, all the way back. That’s simply not true. The theology and practices have changed. So it’s not a matter of interpreting and practicing exactly the way the previous generation did that makes an iteration of the tradition legitimate. As we’ve established, change is inevitable; it’s impossible not to interpret and practice Judaism differently than your teachers. Is Reform Judaism any different? It’s just another iteration of the tradition, a group of people who interpret and practice their teachers’ teachings in a different way than the Orthodox, no? No, and here’s why: questioning and rejection of the legitimacy of the tradition itself is not faithful to the tradition. A student who does not interpret his teacher’s words in light of his own lived experience, but rather rejects them based on his lived experience, places himself outside the tradition. To be legitimate, change must happen within the system.

Still, one could argue that Reform Judaism is an interpretation of tradition informed by the realities of the Enlightenment and de-ghettoization. The innovators of it might argue that it is the only viable Judaism in a post-Enlightenment world, the only Judaism they could live in good faith. Who am I to say that their radical interpretation of the tradition is a rejection? The question is legitimate; I’m nobody. The actions of Reform Jews speak for themselves, though. In 1883, the first graduating class of the Hebrew Union College held a banquet in which shellfish and amphibians were served. This was not meant to highlight an alternative reading of the Torah or halachic interpretation. No, it represented a distinction Reform Jews had drawn between ritual and interpersonal law, and a rejection of what they considered ritual law. This distinction is artificial, informed by Christian concepts. The implication of this distinction is that God is restricted to one sphere of life only: interpersonal relationships. Restricting God’s authority to any one domain, ritual, interpersonal, or other, is paganism, in my opinion. In drawing the distinction they did and making the implication they did about God, they rejected the idea that God has authority over all aspects of our lives. Any restricted God is not the Jewish God at all. This is thus not a reinterpretation of God but a rejection.

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