Yitzhak Lifshitz

Symposium on Transcendent and Immanent Notions of God (with Hannah Hashkes and Steven Kepnes)

One of the fundamental problems of philosophical-theological discourse is the tension between the transcendent aspect of the God of monotheism and God’s immanence in religious faith and practice. This tension manifests itself in different manners in religious texts of the Jewish tradition as well as in those of other monotheistic traditions. This tension emerges most visibly as later theologians, and especially medieval scholars challenge the biblical expressions of anthropomorphism, i.e. the depiction of God and God's actions in human terms. But even within the Hebrew bible itself we can find expressions of this tension. The fierce resistance of the biblical law to all forms of divine object-representation and the strong hold of idolatry on the biblical Israelites do not have to be interpreted merely as cultural and political phenomena. The actual psychological need for the presence of God within their midst is made very clear by Israel's turn to the Golden Calf as depicted in Exodus 32. In addition, Moses' demand for God's direct presence in the camp of Israel and his request to see God's glory in the aftermath of this idolatrous regression, and God's partial consent point to this tension. Despite the attempts to create a barrier of fear and awe between humans and God the Israelites seem to insist upon their right to the close and personal presence of divinity. Other verses from the prophets, Psalms and Job point the same claim and confirm that God’s distance from the human actors of Israelite history is problematized in the bible.

There are many instances of the idea of God's presence in rabbinic literature. As shown by Yair Lorberboim in his book: "Image of God: Halakha and Aggadah", the rabbis understood the idea that humans were created in God's image in a theurgic manner, i.e. they thought that their behavior should express the idea that human they beings carry within them the mark of God. As Loberboim and other r contemporary scholars argue, this mark is indeed a similarity of form, as the peshat of the expression God’s image suggest. Yet the rabbis are not unconscious of the problems that this mixture of human physicality and locality create in view of God’s boundless existence. Their concern with this tension emerge, for instance, in a few series of dialogs staged between sages and contesters of the biblical and rabbinic traditions such as the Roman Emperor or various heretics known as minim.

In this symposium we would like to explore texts, approaches and works that respond to the transcendent-immanent tension by suggesting a dual notion of divinity. Rather than try to explain both God’s metaphysical otherness and God’s presence in human life and discourse under one conceptual umbrella, these works and traditions choose to draw a distinction between two different portrayals of God that cannot be reduced to one another.

Rav Yirzhak Lifshitz explores a text by Hassidei Ashkenaz that elaborates on Psalms 111: 4 claiming that God leaves memories of his miracles in the world. This newly discovered text makes a distinction between God's presence in the world we inhabit and our knowledge of this presence. It claims that the biblical notion that God's imprint can be detected in reality is a matter of interpretation necessitating the use of reason. In claiming that, Hassidei Ashkenaz suggest a realist notion where God’s presence is in agreement with the world.

Hannah Hashkes presents a dual concept of God that grounds rabbinic reasoning as it appears in the Mishnah and Talmud, in both Halakha and Aggadah. This duality enables rabbinic religious discourse to be at once divinely anchored and humanly treated. It is divinely anchored in a transcendent God that commands Israel and thus prescribes and conditions religious discourse; however by being given to human beings as a command to a subordinate the receivers of God’s commandments have the tasks of its application to their world.

Steven Kepnes will discuss the ways in which the Mishkan and its rituals function to take up a place in between God’s otherness and presence in human life. The Mishkan creates a series of walls, curtains and barriers together with the rituals of bringing sacrifices, prayers and blessings so that the community can come close to God and His presence without perishing in the face of Him. We see this particularly well in the rituals connected to Yom Kippur where the Azzazel ritual and the liturgy of the utterance and blessing of the Name of God functions as the theological height of all biblical (and then even post-Biblical) Judaism.