Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Little Less then Divine: Wisdom, Torah, Shekhinah, Knesset Israel

In an earlier comment on my entry on the angelus interpres, a reader asked, "What or who is the 'word of God?'" It is a perceptively phrased question. I think this person has detected that in Judaism, there is a tendency to hypostatize certain central concepts and metaphysics.

[Die Natur und die Mensch by E.M. Lilien - "Nature" personified as a man, and "Man" as a woman]

'Hypostasis' is a cool word, but what does it mean?

Hypostasis: a conceptual entity considered as a real existent; An intermediary being or quasi-personification of attributes associated with the Divine; midway between a personality and an abstract being; that which is of one substance with God.

There are those realities that are both a "what" and a "who." Examples of hypostatic entities we know from our modern modes of thought are "Mother Nature" and "Mother Earth."

The most notable hypostatic entities in Judaism include:

Hokhmah / "Wisdom" - the elevation of Wisdom as a semi-divine personality is already evident in the Bible:

Proverbs 1:20: Wisdom cries aloud in the street, in the open squares she raises her voice; 21 Down the crowded ways she calls out, at the city gates she utters her words: 22 "How long, you simple ones, will you love inanity, 23 how long will you turn away at my reproof? Lo! I will pour out to you my spirit, I will acquaint you with my words. 24 "Because I called and you refused, I extended my hand and no one took notice; 25 Because you disdained all my counsel, and my reproof you ignored-- 26 I, in my turn, will laugh at your doom; I will mock when terror overtakes you; 27 When terror comes upon you like a storm, and your doom approaches like a whirlwind; when distress and anguish befall you. 28 Then they call me, but I answer not; they seek me, but find me not; 29 Because they hated knowledge, and chose not the fear of the LORD; 30 They ignored my counsel, they spurned all my reproof; And in their arrogance they preferred arrogance, and like fools they hated knowledge….33 But he who obeys me dwells in security, in peace, without fear of harm.

Torah / "[Divine] Instruction" - Early on in Jewish thought, Torah [the word of God] becomes equated with Hokhmah...

"God by wisdom founded this earth (Prob. 3:19). Wisdom is nothing else but Torah" (Isaac the Blind, as translated in Early Kabbalah)

....and treated as a supernal entity in its own right:

R. Oshaya began [his interpretation]: "Then I was by Him, as an 'amon'; and I was daily His delight" (Prov. 8:30). 'Amon' means tutor...Another interpretation: Amon is a workman (uman). The Torah (= Wisdom) declares: "I was the working tool of the Blessed Holy One" In the ways of humanity, when a mortal king builds a palace, he builds it not with his own skill but with the skill of an architect. The architect moreover does not build it out of his head, but employs plans and diagrams to know how to arrange the chambers and the wicket doors. Thus God consulted the Torah and created the world, while the Torah declares, "In/by/with the Beginning (be-reshit) God created" (Gen 1:1), "Beginning" (reshit) referring to the Torah, as in the verse, "The Lord made me as the beginning (reshit) of His way" (Prov. 8:22).

later Rabbinic and Kabbalistic thought describe Torah as a princess, or a lover, that Israel must court and win over, as in the Zoharic parable of the "Beautiful Maiden without Eyes."

Logos /Memra/"Word [of God]” – Already in the Hebrew Scriptures there are passages where God's word takes on a life of it's own: "The Eternal sent a word into Jacob, and it rested upon Israel" (Isa. 9:7); "He sent His word, and healed them" (Ps. 107:20); and "His word runs very swiftly" (Ps. 147:15).

The Egyptian-Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria described God’s “word” as a kind of intermediate being between God and creation. The Logos, not God, is the proximate agent of creation (Op. 22). It is God’s “idea of ideas” (Op. 25); it is the manifest part of an otherwise hidden God (Conf. 147). Philo also describes the Logos as “God’s image” and “man of God” (Conf. 41; 148). It only the Logos we relate to when we experience communion with God. Perhaps it is not surprising that Philo lived roughly a half century before the start of the Jesus movement. Many have commented on how Philo’s idea of Logos was adapted by early Christians to describe their founder. Perhaps because he wrote in Greek, Philo's influence on actual Jewish thinking was less direct and less dramatic.

Yet it is not completely absent. In Aramaic targumim (paraphrastic translations of the Hebrew Bible), the translators often take incidents in the Hebrew Bible that involve a direct encounter between God and people and insert the term memra (that's a rough Aramaic cognate for logos). Thus it becomes the "Word of God" that interfaces with creation. So, where Moses says, "I stood between the Eternal and you" inthe Hebrew text (Deut. 5:5), the Targum has, "...between the Memra of the Eternal and you".

Shekhinah / "[Divine] Presence" - The notion of "God's presence" as an entity in some sense distinguishable from God is another example of how a concept becomes personalized (B.B. 25a; Mekhilta de Rabi Ishmael on Ex. 24:10).

"...wherever Israel wandered in exile, the Shekhinah wandered with them" ( Megillah 29a).

In Kabbalistic thought, the Shekhinah becomes envisioned as more "estranged" from God and it becomes the human project to help restore and maintain divine unity in this world and the higher worlds:

'At the time when Israel is proclaiming the unity - the mystery contained in the Shema - with a perfect intention, a light comes forth from the hidden supernal world, which divides into seventy lights, and those seventy lights into the seventy luminous branches of the Tree of Life. Then the Tree and all the other trees of the Garden of Eden emit sweet odors and praise their Lord, for at that time the Matrona [Shekinah] prepares Herself to enter under the canopy, there to unite Herself with Her spouse[The Holy Blessed One]....to unite Himself with the Matrona' (Zohar II, 133b, Soncino trans., Vol. 3, pp. 380-381)

Again, the Shekhina seems to share certain attributes with the Christian notion of the "Holy Spirit." Since the 4th Century, the Holy Spirit has been considered by Christians as of "one essence" with God, but in the Gospels and the early church writings, this is not self-evident. Likely the early church regarded the Holy Spirit as a kind of "projection" of God, like the logos, rather than God-in-itself.

Bak to Judaism proper. The perceived cosmic role of Israel in mystical theology means that Shekhinah increasingly becomes linked to:

K'nesset Yisraeil / "The Assembly of Israel" - Like Shekhinah, the collectivity of the Jewish people, Knesset Israel, is elevated by the Sages to be a feminine counterpart to God:

"Whoever does not bless after the meal is described as looting his father and mother; The former is the Blessed Holy One, the latter is Knesset Israel" (Ber. 35b). [Also see Eruv. 21b and Shir ha-Shirim Rabbah 3:15-19]

This particular hypostasis can take on a decidedly erotic tone - "Israel is beloved! ...This can be compared to a king who said to his wife: adorn yourself in jewelry so that you may be desirable to me...So the Blessed Holy One said to Israel, 'my children, adorn yourself with mitzvot so that you will be desirable to Me'" (Sifre Deut. 36)

Shabbat / "The Sabbath" - The Sabbath is often conceived of as a supernal bride, usually wedded to personified Israel. The Zohar waxes poetic about the obligation of the Jewish people to prepare for, greet, host, and join with its "bride," the Sabbath. This sentiment was put to poetry by Solomon Alkebetz:

Come, my friend, let us go to greet the Bride; let us receive the presence of Shabbat.
Come in peace, Soul Mate, sweet gift of Adonai; greeted with joy, in song so adored.
Amidst God's people, in faith and accord; Come Shabbat Bride, Crown of Days (Siddur Sim Shalom)

You will no doubt notice, as many have, that that almost all these hypostatic entities are cast as somehow "feminine." Actually, there is a linguistic basis for this. In Hebrew all nouns have gender and Hokhmah, Torah, K'nesset, Shekhinah, and Torah are all feminine nouns. But even more so imaginatively, these "feminine" forces are coupled with corresponding "masculine" entities (usually God, but sometimes Israel) to highlight certain metaphysical polarities, symmetries, bonds or syzygies. Through hypostasis, metaphysical concepts and dynamics can be explained via a medium of a parabolic narrative (as in the example of the "King and his wife" or "God and his architect, the Torah").

To learn more, read the entries Sabbath; Sabbath Queen; Shekhinah; Torah; and Wisdom in the Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic, and Mysticism.

The EJMMM is available at amazon.com. Click here - http://www.amazon.com/Encyclopedia-Jewish-Myth-Magic-Mysticism/dp/0738709050/sr=1-1/qid=1159997117/ref=sr_1_1/002-7116669-7231211?ie=UTF8&s=books


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