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The Theory of Divine Attributes (2)

Prof. Shalom Rosenberg


"The World Is Not His Place"


            Now let us return to the philosophical question.  When we refer to God as "Ha-makom," or the Place, we express a central idea in Jewish philosophy: the rules which apply to us do not apply to God; the strictures of time and place do not apply to Him.


            As we shall see, this is the meaning of what the philosophers called "negative attributes."  However, here too, the philosophers used their particular language to express a basic Scriptural principle.


            The Scriptures oppose the human model of Divinity.  This objection was the origin of the traditional opposition of what would later be termed anthropomorphism.  The Scriptures impress this upon us in various ways.  For example, the Scriptures teach us that sexual identity, one of mankind's central and defining characteristics, does not apply to God; God is neither male nor female.  Idolatry projected human experience onto the Divine, and created gods in human form.  The mythological system is based upon the concept of gods and goddesses who have sexual relations.  Judaism completely eradicated this concept from its creed.


            This fact is of paramount importance, particularly since we attribute a grammatical sex to God; we call God "He."  However, God is not a he or a she, for He is beyond this distinction.  We pray in masculine form, because Hebrew grammar has no neutral sex, and therefore even sexless objects are attributed a grammatical sex.


            Thus, the fact that God is grammatically a male is a "historical accident."  The use of the masculine form ought not to affect us.  However, the Kabbala does not believe in historical accidents.  The Kabbala sees meaning in language, and perceives it as a vehicle for the expression of mystical wisdom.  Certainly, Judaism possesses a tradition of referring to God in the feminine gender, as the "Shekhina" (Divine Presence).  We must be wary of the dangers of referring to God in the masculine form.  This is an injustice to the text, for God is neither one nor the other.


            The Kabbala ascribes both "masculine" and "feminine" attributes to God.  These attributes are symbolically represented by Hebrew letters.  In the Tetragrammaton, the letter Yud is masculine and the letter Heh is feminine.  Similarly, in the structure of the Sefirot, Chokhma (wisdom) is masculine, while Bina (understanding) is feminine.  Tif'eret and Yesod describe Gods masculine attributes, and Malkhut describes God's feminine side.


            I do not want to enter into the symbolic world of the Kabbala as of yet.  R. Kook wrote that entrance into the world of Kabbala must be preceded by spiritual and intellectual cleansing, just as all of a surgeon's instruments must be sterilized before an operation in order to avoid infection.  If this spiritual cleansing were lacking, the entry into the world of kabbalistic mystical images could be dangerous indeed.  If our concept of God is not maximally dematerialized, we are in danger of reaching absurdities through a simplistic understanding of the kabbalistic texts.  Therefore, religious philosophy teaches us that God is utterly beyond sexual identification.  The kabbalists agree with this assumption; however, they claim that if we must speak of God, the language we use must incorporate both sexes.  Just as we present the attributes of Chesed [lovingkindness] and Gevura [restraint] as being on the right and the left, thus we must present the divine attributes in general in masculine and feminine form.  Thus, the Zohar writes that man was created "in God's image, and in His form" - "His image" being masculine, and His form feminine.  The kabbalistic solution to the problem of an accurate expression of the divine attributes is to view religious symbols as both masculine and feminine.  Interestingly, the transcendent and immanent experiences of divinity are represented in the Kabbala in terms of sexual identification.  The Shekhina, represented by the Sefira of  "Malkhut," describes God's immanence, while the Sefira of Tif'eret describes the Transcendent God.  Mankind is composed of two sexes.  God forbid that we see only one of them as created in the divine image.  Only in unity between the two sexes can humans achieve the image of God; therefore, the Bible states, "and He called THEIR name Adam."




            Some people have an intuitive sense of holiness.  They perceive it as though it were a sort of electric current present in defined places, things or situations.  Is this an accurate description of holiness?  What is the meaning of holiness in Jewish thought?  What do we mean when we speak of the holiness of the Land of Israel?


Holiness and The Commandments


            I would like to open this discussion with an approach which was represented in our times by the late professor Yeshayahu Leibovitz.  This approach maintains that the Jews are holy by virtue of the fact that they are obligated to perform the commandments.  This view strips holiness of its independent character and makes the concept of holiness dependent upon the concept of the commandments.  The commandments constitute the fundamental concept in this approach.  Holiness means to be sanctified through the commandments.


            However, it is important to note that Jewish law distinguishes between the implements used to fulfill commandments, and holy articles.  Jewish law does not see them as identical.  A lulav is an article utilized for the performance of a commandment, while a Torah scroll and tefillin are holy articles.  After we have used the Four Species and we no longer need them, we can discard them.  We may not dishonor them; however, they no longer have any independent value.  This is not the case with holy articles.  If we apply this distinction to our case, we can say that the commandments are instruments which serve other goals, while holiness characterizes the values which have their own independent worth.  The concept of human holiness teaches us that we may not use people as raw material for industry.  Or, for example, when we speak of the Land of Israel as a holy land, we mean that the Land of Israel is not merely an instrument, a neutral base for a Jewish state, but that it has its own value.  According to this explanation, holiness means that the holy entity has its own independent value and purpose.


Holiness And The Encounter With Divinity


            What is the meaning of the term "Holy Land?"  In the previous section we spoke of the meaning of the Land of Israel.  We will now return to this issue from the perspective of the concept of holiness.


            R. Nachman Krochmal [known by his acronym Ranak], discusses this problem when he tries to understand the meaning of holiness.  If indeed, "the whole world is filled with His glory,"  what is the difference between one place and another, one thing and another?  This paradox was well expressed by R. Nachman of Breslov.  As his student. R. Nosson put it, this is the difference between tzitzit and tefillin.  A person can enter filthy places wearing tzitzit, but not wearing tefillin.  God's presence is everywhere, yet holiness exists.  There are differences between one place and another.  The Ranak tried to explain this using an important model.  He explains that God's presence is pervasive; however, at particular times, or in particular places or situations it becomes more apparent.  Man's vision of the Divine Presence in the world is clouded.  This is what our Sages called "aspaklaria she-eina me'ira" (the opaque glass).  When we perceive reality more clearly, we experience holiness.  We differentiate between days in which the encounter with God is less and more apparent.  This idea was nicely expressed by Rihal [4:16, 172].  Rihal explains the difference between the holy names, a difference which to we will return later, through a parable.  He illustrates this idea through the various appearances of light to the human eye.  Under certain circumstances the light is refracted, in others it is reflected, while in still other situations it is neither totally refracted nor totally reflected.  We perceive the light from above in a similar way.  When we see this divine light, we experience holiness.


Holiness And Religious Sentiment


            Imagine that you are walking in a dark place and suddenly experience an intense fear of something you cannot see and cannot exactly define.  We have all experienced this emotion at some time or another.  A similar emotional response exists, in which one is conscious of being in the presence of something not threatening but holy.  One feels that he is in the presence of a Being which is beyond all that is ordinary, everyday and human.


            Imagine a man walking with a compass.  The compass will always show him which way is north.  However, in close proximity to a strong magnetic field, the compass will begin to behave in strange ways.  The theory of holiness assumes that man is sensitive to the encounter with that which is beyond nature.  This reality explains the surprising fact that religions appeared all over the world.  If we investigate and study all the religions we will discover that they all bear the marks of this same basic feeling.  All religions contain the joy of apprehending immanent divinity on the one hand, and the religious awe of transcendent divinity on the other.


Holiness As The Ultimate End


            We each perform many actions during the course of our lives.  We must ask ourselves why we do these things.  The Rambam reminds us that many of our actions are actions of folly, meaning that they have no real goal.  One of the traps in which a person is often caught is the race to act without asking himself what his ultimate goals really are.  He is so busy with the intermediate goals and the problems of making a living, that he never reaches the question of "what is it all for?"  This is similar to a person who spends his whole life repairing and  preparing a car, without ever driving it.


            Holiness, in essence, means the focus of our ultimate goals.  If a person's goal in life is making money, then he worships money.  That is his holiness, because everything else serves this end.  He makes money holy, and by doing this profanes holiness.


Holiness As Moral Perfection


            Yet another concept of holiness exists.  This term can be used to describe a person who has transcended a "war of passions."  This inner battle is waged in each and every one of us; however, a person may achieve a state of perfection which places him above and beyond the battle.  This, according to Lubavitch Chasidism, is the difference between a "Beinoni" (literally, "in the middle") and a Tzaddik.  A Beinoni is someone who wins the inner battle.  A Tzaddik is someone who is already above and beyond the scene of the war.


Holiness As A Progression Toward The Realm Beyond Human Experience


            One might say that the Rambam was the originator of this level of holiness.  All the relations between man and his fellow man are based on Jewish law.  Beyond this we have commandments which are based on the principle "and you shall do what is honest and good."  Just as there is permissible and forbidden behavior between Man and God, permissible and forbidden behaviors direct our personal lives.  However, beyond this legal reality lies the realm of holiness.  The prohibition of drug abuse, like that of alcohol abuse, stems from the category of commandments founded on the verse, "you shall be holy" (Vayikra 19:1)  When using drugs, man loses his humanity and his freedom.  Thus, drug abuse is a desecration of holiness.  The concept of holiness allows us to broaden the concept of commandments, and it serves as a new category which expands the sphere of our religious behavior.


(This lecture was translated by Gila Weinberg.)



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