Where is God?

Parshat Terumah

And let them make Me a sanctuary, that I may dwell among them.  (Exodus 25, 8)

וְעָשׂוּ לִי, מִקְדָּשׁ; וְשָׁכַנְתִּי, בְּתוֹכָם

As the commentary in Etz Hayim notes: “The text does not tell of God dwelling “in it,” i.e. in the sanctuary, but “among them,” i.e., among the people of Israel.

The word Mishkan comes, afterall,  from the same root as Shochen “to rest or dwell” and is the source of the name of God which characterizes his presence Shechina.  You’d expect God to dwell in His dwelling place.. the Mishkan, but according to this verse, He dwells amongst the people.

This resonates with us moderns:  God does not inhabit an edifice of bricks and mortar; he dwells in the hearts and minds of his faithful.  For a humanist this translates into God lives inside of man.

If you’re a nutritionist like my 102 old grandmother was… this translates into:

“Your body is a temple… take care of it.”

But the challenge of God’s abode on earth has plagued theologians throughout the ages. For Jewish thinkers the question has always been. ..is God actually in the house? Is the shekina actually dwelling in our temple?

With regard to the tabernacle (mishkan) and the first temple there seemed to be a consensus that God was in the house… that the Shechina rested there.  The same cannot be said of the Second Temple.

According to modern scholars, the sects who wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls lived in the desert of Qumran because they rejected the holiness of the Second Temple and they were not alone.. according to the Book of Ezra the old men who had seen the First Temple in its glory cried at the dedication of the second (Ezra 3:12) The priests were corrupt, and even after the Maccabee re-dedication there was no prophet to approve their work and no miracle to assure that the temple was the abode of God.  To add insult to injury, the Maccabees installed themselves as high priests even though they were not of the priestly line.  [1]

With regard to the propriety let alone political correctness of a Third Temple…. No need to go there…

But for classical theologians and mystics the question posed by a temple was not related to politics or signs from God… it was more basic… how can it be that God can be confined to one place?

As the Midrash says with regard to the place of Jacob’s dream of the ladder which occurred on the future location of the First and Second Temple:  “God is the place (makom) of the world, but the world is not His place” [2]

שהוא מקומו של עולם ואין עולמו מקומו

The problem is actually larger than justifying a temple or a holy place… for the mystics the problem is how to explain a finite physical world when God is infinite.  If God is the Eyn Sof … an existence that suffers no beginning and no end, how is a created world with beginnings, ends and finite dimensions, let alone “evil” permitted to exist.

The standard answer in the kabbalah .. the Jewish mystical tradition, is that of the 10 sefirot.  Everything is contained in God, but there are different emanations that shine and are reflected, in various degrees of physicality, which ultimately create a perception of a created world.

The same holds true for the temple.  There is an eternal and entirely spiritual temple which God inhabits and which inhabits God… our material tabernacle or temple is simply a reflection of that celestial temple.

When Moses is commanded to build the tabernacle in Exodus 25:9, God instructs Moses:

And see that thou make them after their pattern, which is being shown thee in the mount. (Exodus 25: 40)

וּרְאֵה, וַעֲשֵׂה:  בְּתַבְנִיתָם–אֲשֶׁר-אַתָּה מָרְאֶה, בָּהָר

As the in Etz Hayim notes:  “Exactly as I show you The tabernacle and its furnishings are conceived of as earthly replicas of heavenly archetypes…  notions found earlier in the Ancient Near East and elsewhere in the bible.

According to this approach, the earthly temple is a reflection or emanation of a Celestial Temple. [3]

This concept of our Temple and prayer services mirroring the Celestrial Temple and prayer services of the Angels is institutionalized in our prayers especially the Kedusha where:

“We proclaim Your Holiness on earth as it is proclaimed in heaven above.”

נְקַדֵּשׁ אֶת שִׁמְךָ בָּעוֹלָם
כְּשֵׁם שֶׁמַּקְדִּישִׁים אוֹתוֹ בִּשְׁמֵי מָרוֹם

In the Pesikta D’Rav Kehana, [4] which was probably published first in the 8th century but contains material that dates back to (1) the times of the Midrash we find an interesting rendering of this theology.

The Holy One, blessed by He, said to Moses: If you pattern the tabernacle here below after the one in heaven above, I will leave My heavenly counselors, come down, and so shrink My presence as to fit into your midst below. (Pesikta de-Rav Kahana 1:3 see also note 43 to lecture VII Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism Gershom Scholem )

כך אמר הקב”ה למשה, משה אם אתה עשה מה של מעלה למטה אני מניח סנקליטין שלי של מעלן ויורד ומצמצם שכינתי ביניכם למטן

For anyone who has heard of Lurianic Kabbalah and the system of Tzimzum this is a truly revolutionary midrash which is the only Midrashic/Talmudic reference to Tzimzum in Rabbinic literature.

Let me explain…  According to Gershom Scholem, the preeminent authority on the development of the Kabbalah, the de facto solution to the infinite God creating a finite world and dwelling in a worldly temple was the theory of emanation, where God’s totally spiritual and infinite presence is reflected through a series of increasingly physical illuminations and reflections until the physical is possible.  This solution is not particularly philosophically satisfying since it literally kicks the can down the road… but it was the best that the mystics could do and it survived from the earliest days of the Kabbalah and Zohar until the expulsion from Spain in 1492.. close to 1,000 years after our Tzimzum midrash was written.

The expulsion from Spain disrupted Jewish thought and sensitized the mystics who went to Safed to the dialectic between Exile and Return and suffering and redemption.

Isaac Luria who lived only to the age of 38 turned the theory of emanation on its head.  According to Luria God didn’t so much as create the world and contract Himself into himself in order to permit the existence of a physical world, including matter, evil and a temple, but rather according to Scholem, Tzimtsum (contraction) as redefined by Lurianinc Kabalah “is one of the most amazing and far-reaching conceptions ever put forward in the whole history of Kabbalism.  Tsimtsum originally means “concentration” or “contraction” but if used in the Kabbalistic parlance it is best translated by “withdrawal” or “retreat”…

“Instead of emanation we have the opposite, contraction. The God who revealed himself in firm contours was superseded by one who descended deeper into the recesses of his own Being, who concentrated Himself into Himself, and had done so from the very beginning of creation.

צמצם עצמו מעצמו אל עצמו

To be sure, this view was often felt, even by those who gave it a theoretical formulation, to verge on the blasphemous.  Yet it cropped up again and again, modified only ostensibly by a feeble ‘as it were’ or ‘so to speak.’ (p 260-261)

Another way of phrasing contraction would be dimunition.  In a very real and radical way, tsimsum implies that God commits the ultimate blasphemy.. he diminished Himself.. the Godhead.

Tsimsum is a variation on the old conundrum… If all powerful God can make anything… can he make a weight that is too heavy for Him to lift?  In the case of tzimzum the answer is Yes.  God can diminish himself to a point that He alone cannot repair the damage…. As it were.

It is clear to me that tsimzum is a dialectical process.  Just as in our original midrash, God withdraws from the celestial temple to concentrate into the temporal temple. And when God withdraws he leaves traces of his holiness called Reshimu or residue.  Luria provides a metaphor of the residue of oil or wine in a bottle the contents of which have been poured out.  And this process is not smooth it is disruptive to the point that Luria coined a term “Breaking of the vessels” Shevirat haKelim.

When God contracts the vessel, so to speak, that holds him is ruptured into pieces.  Both the residue (Rashimu) and broken pieces contain remnants of the infinite, but God is removed, exiled and separated from these remnants and only man can unite God with these broken pieces and this….  is Tikun.

This is the mysitical concept of Tikkun Olam, fixing the world. What it has in common with the social action concept of Tikku Olam is that both are dependent on Man.

Getting back to our Temple… we now come full circle and have a radically humanistic conception of God’s presence in our world.

God’s dwelling in the Mishkan is exclusively dependent on man.  The Tabernacle and Temple are a poetic dance between God and man, exile and return, suffering and redemption… of both man and God.  The vision of Jews praying outside of the temple, willingly withdrawing from the temple looks less absurd.

The Kotzke Rebbe’s answer to the question of “Where is God?” makes more sense and is empowering at the same time.

“Where is God?  Wherever we let Him in.”

—————————–

[1] See Cohen, Cohen, Shaye J. D., From the Maccabees to the Mishnah, Westminster John Knox Press, 1988. pp 98 and 131

“The second temple… although authorized by the prophets Haggai and Zechariah, was built by a gentile king and was never authenticated by an overt sign of divine favor.  ….

But many of the priests and Levites and heads of fathers’ houses, the old men that had seen the first house standing on its foundation, wept with a loud voice, when this house was before their eyes; and many shouted aloud for joy.

וְרַבִּים מֵהַכֹּהֲנִים וְהַלְוִיִּם וְרָאשֵׁי הָאָבוֹת הַזְּקֵנִים, אֲשֶׁר רָאוּ אֶת-הַבַּיִת הָרִאשׁוֹן בְּיָסְדוֹ–זֶה הַבַּיִת בְּעֵינֵיהֶם, בֹּכִים בְּקוֹל גָּדוֹל; וְרַבִּים בִּתְרוּעָה בְשִׂמְחָה, לְהָרִים קוֹל

[2]

 “ר’ הונא בשם ר’ אמי אמר: מפני מה מכנין שמו של הקב”ה וקורין אותו “מקום”? שהוא מקומו של עולם ואין עולמו מקומו” – בראשית רבה, ס”ח, י’

[3] See Chronicles 28:11 and for a comprehensive review of this literature see:

The Celestial Temple as viewed in the Aggadah by Victor Aptowitzer found in Studies in Jewish Thought ed Joseph Dan  – January 1, 1989 Greenwood Publishing Group – Publisher

[4] Undoubtedly the core content of the Pesikta is very old, and must be classed together with Genesis Rabbah and Lamentations Rabbah. But the proems in the Pesikta, developed from short introductions to the exposition of the Scripture text into more independent homiletic structures, as well as the mastery of form apparent in the final formulas of the proems, indicate that the Pesikta belongs to a higher stage of midrashic development. According to Strack & Stemberger (1991), the text of the current Pesikta was probably not finally fixed until its first printing, presumably in S. Buber’s edition. Zunz gives a date of composition of 700 CE, but other factors argue for a date of composition in 5th or early 6th century (Strack & Stemberger 1991).

This post was originally presented as a “Kavanah” class at TCS of Westport Connecticut in 2015.  For a variation on this theme and treatment of the materials, see The Heart of Torah, Volume 1: Essays on the Weekly Torah Portion, Genesis and Exodus Paperback – September 1, 2017 by Rabbi Shai Held , see: Being Present While Making Space Or, Two Meanings of Tzimtzum

1 Comment

Filed under Bible, Hebrew, Judaism, kabbalah, prayer, Religion, Torah, tzimtzum

One response to “Where is God?

  1. Matt Landau

    Great post. If G-d is where man is he’s in Oxford with us. But will soon reside at 40 w 67th street!

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