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Jewish Mysticism and Creation
by Yechezkel Gold
The Torah starts at the beginning. "In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth." This certainly seems the proper place to start. Surprisingly, Rashi's commentary immediately challenges this idea. He cites a Midrash. "Rabbi Isaac said: The Torah only should have begun with 'this month (the month of exodus from Egypt) shall be for you ... ', which is the first commandment given to Israel."
Beginning with the creation of the universe seems the most reasonable place to start the Torah because, as Rashi's commentary goes on to indicate, once we know that God created the world, we understand that He has the right to do with it as He sees fit. We might add that God's creating us and everything else seems to render His commandments much more binding. Without the premise that God created the universe, we are likely to question the authority of His commandments. Moreover, the notion of creation seems central to our conception of God. Without the idea of creation, we might think of a pantheistic God, God equated with nature. The Torah's conception is entirely different; as Maimonides states, God is entirely independent of the creation and would exist even if the universe did not.
Since starting the Torah at the beginning of time and existence is so important as well as reasonable, Rashi and the Midrash who challenge this notion, even if only to find it necessary to explain why the Torah did start with the creation, is truly puzzling.
We are forced to conclude that the Midrash conceived of the Torah and its ground rules differently from our analysis above. The conception that the Midrash is proposing is that the Commandments would be the proper introduction to the realm of the Torah. The Torah's first priority is to tell us how God wants us to live our lives, and that only by complying with the Torah can we know what it is about. Complying entails trusting God and His Torah and foregoing - perhaps forever - our second line of free choice.
We employed the term "second line of free choice" because as is well known, free choice is one of the cardinal concepts of Judaism. Torah life is intimately bound with exercising free choice. In fact, entrance into the world of The Torah begins with a free choice: to trust God and his Torah and comply with His will, thereby foregoing the second line of free choice , the right to dictate the ground rules of one's life.
Our modern Western notions concerning our right to know may object to this formulation. Even if we can not predict the future, why should we place blind faith in a system whose veracity we cannot confirm in advance and whose goals and focus seem different from our own? Why should the information that God created the world, seemingly so crucial for making an intelligent choice, be considered unnecessary if not for the somewhat extraneous considerations mentioned by the Midrash as an answer? The Midrash's tacit assumption even seems to offend our human dignity.
Let us respect the wisdom of the Midrash enough to take its proposition seriously. Apparently, there is more than one way to view this matter. In the Midrash's perspective, we would have to commence with the Commandments, and not with the intriguing ideas about God creating the universe. In other words, knowing that God created the universe is not the main way we can know about God, nor the main way He is revealed. He is revealed far more in Torah and the Commandments.
To understand this idea, let us examine the first benediction of the Amida (also know as the silent standing prayer that is central to all prayer services). After an introductory sentence, "God, open my lips and my mouth will utter your praises", the benediction translates as: "Blessed are You, Hashem, our God and the God of our fathers, the God of Abraham the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob, the great, powerful, and awesome Divinity, most high Divinity who bestows loving kindness and possesses all, and remembers the generosity of the patriarchs, and who will bring a redeemer to their children's children for His Name's sake , lovingly." This sequence departs from that of virtually every other benediction. Other benedictions begin with the words "Blessed are You, Hashem our God, King of the world ...." The first Amida benediction replaces God being King of the world with His being "our God and the God of our fathers, the God of Abraham the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob, the great, powerful, and awesome Divinity ...."
The Amida is the high point of prayer, the most spiritual, inward and private among the prayers. We stand respectfully before Hashem with our feet together in imitation of the angels, making our requests silently. While subsequent Amida benedictions ask God's blessings for our private, worldly affairs, the first three address and extol Him directly (Talmud, Berachot), a higher level. Presumably, the very beginning of our turning to God, the first benediction, is the highest and most intimate moment. At this poignant moment, we address God Himself, and extrinsic considerations such as His being also King of the world become insignificant. Therefore, in this special benediction, we do not address Him as King of the world.
In other words, this most intimate, poignant, and powerful encounter with the Divine overwhelms not only our sense of the world, but even our sense of God as being King and Creator of the world. Indeed, the holy books state that God is not intrinsically a creator, that He did not need to create the world. He chose to do so, to assume the role of Creator.
In the first benediction of the Amida prayer we address God more as He is Himself, independent of creation. We can address God that way because our souls too transcend mundane reality and are eternal. When we address God as Himself, He appears to us differently than when we regard him as King of the world.
Less us hasten to point out that we can never know God as He really is. As the Torah points out regarding even the revelation at Mount Sinai, "you did not behold any form." Nevertheless, we can have a certain perception of God independent of the world. This is the how Maimonides treats this point (Yesodai HaTorah 1,10):
What did Moses ask to attain when he said "show me your Honor"? He asked to know the truth of God's existence so that it would be known to his heart analogously to knowing a person whose face he saw and whose visage was carved into his heart. In this way, this person exists in his mind distinct and independent of other men. Thus, Moses our Rabbi asked to have God's existence distinct and independent in his heart from the existence of other beings to the extent that he will know the truth of His existence the way It is in Its own right. And God answered him that it is not within the ability of a living man's mind, which is a compound of body and soul, to attain the truth of this matter clearly. And God informed him what no man knew before him nor will know after him, to the degree that he attained something of the truth of His existence in the manner of God being separate in his mind from other beings in the way that a person is individually recognized whom he had seen from behind and grasped his entire body and attire in his mind, distinguished from the body of (other) people. The Torah text alluded to this matter, saying "You will see Me from behind, and my face will not be seen."
While we can not attain the same level of clarity as Moses did, each of us comes to address this aspect of God, God not merely as Creator but as He is distinct and independent from the universe, in the first benediction of the Amida prayer. The term blessed with which the first benediction starts means that we are drawing this level into awareness to the extent that He becomes "our God and the God of our fathers." We become aware not only of God's transcendent, independent existence, but also connect that existence to ourselves.
The soul's own separate, transcendent character enables us to recognize and address "by analogy" God's transcendent, independent existence. This is a very private, individual, intimate matter. Given the very private, individual character of this encounter, we may be surprised that we say "our God" and not "my God." However, somewhat paradoxically, a self-centered, egotistical orientation interferes with proper expression of the soul's separate, transcendent character. Ability to distance egoism and view ourselves objectively is much more conducive to true (to the extent humanly possible) perception of God's transcendent, independent existence. When we are relatively selfless and view ourselves within the whole, God's distinct, eternal, transcendent character emerges. Therefore, it is more appropriate to say "our God."
This selfless objectivity brings us from "our God" to "God of our fathers." We view our connection to God within its historical context. We connect to and serve the same God is our forefathers, with the same dedication to enhance and elevate God's creation. The plan how to do this is the Torah and its Commandments. Torah manifests God's transcendent, separate, eternal "character" in the world, preserving that transcendent, individual character even while revealing it in the mundane creation. Each of the Commandments in its own manner engages the world not so much in terms of what the world is as in terms of what the world is for, a transcendent perspective.
When we think of the notion of the transcendent, eternal God, much more important than thinking of God as Creator are a set of ideal attributes. We think of God as:
1. great, magnanimous and good,
2. as powerful, just and evoking great respect and fear, and
3. as magnificent , truthful, and compassionate.
In Cabala, these are the three clusters of Divine attributes emanating from God's transcendent character. (The connection among attributes numbers one and two is fairly straightforward. The connection among those of number three is somewhat more complicated and beyond the scope of the present essay.)
Cabala associates each of the forefathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, with one of these three attributes, in the order mentioned. Indeed, these three original founders of the religion of Israel each focused on - perhaps we could say discovered - one of these attributes which form the basis and inner essence of Torah, our religion's program for elevating and enhancing the world. Our people continue to work on this program throughout history. Hence, to elaborate on the foundation and inner essence of the phrase "God of our fathers", we detail "God of Abraham and God of Isaac and God of Jacob."
In evoking the God of the patriarchs, we become aware of the manner in which the eternal, transcendent God is revealed: as "great, powerful and awesome." These attributes, integral to the direct , mystical encounter with transcendent God, constitute the inner character of Torah. This is what we really mean when we think of God. Otherwise, we might think of God as synonymous with nature. While this later perspective has some validity and is reflected in the notion of God as Creator, it is a very incomplete understanding of the notion of God. Looking at the created world tends to obscure this truer, inner perception of God. We must cultivate a proper awareness of God as He exists independent of the creation before being able to see Him manifested in the world. This is accomplished through Torah and the Commandments. Only then can we see how these three transcendent attributes are revealed in God's direction of the world.
These three transcendent attributes are the inner content of the Torah. In order to manifest these transcendent emanations even in physical reality requires a still higher level, capable of linking and integrating two opposites, transcendence and creation. The Amida prayer calls this still higher level "most high Divinity." This supernal level expresses the three transcendent attributes more practically in the created world, as we say: "who bestows loving kindness and possesses all, and remembers the generosity of the patriarchs, and who will bring a redeemer to their children's children for His Name's sake, lovingly."
Besides His direct direction and intervention in the universe (which the Amida refers to as "who bestows loving kindness and possesses all, and remembers the generosity of the patriarchs, and who will bring a redeemer to their children's children for His Name's sake, lovingly"), God gave the Torah to the People of Israel in order to manifest His three transcendent attributes within the creation through Israel's Divine service. Torah too, then, came from this still more exalted level called "most high Divinity." In this vein, in Ohr Yakar, his commentary on Zohar, Rabbi Moshe Cordovero describes how Moses attained a higher mystical level, subsuming that of the patriarchs, through giving the five books of the Torah. By studying Torah and performing its Commandments we too elevate the mundane creation as well as ourselves, extricating reality from the clasp of banality and physical determinism and merging it with God's transcendent attributes revealed in the supernal worlds.
When God offered the Torah to the Children of Israel, they immediately realized that to attain this transcendent state entailed full entrance into the world of Torah. Beginning from their mundane mindset, they could not connect with transcendence. Therefore, they responded "we will do and we will hear." First we will enter unconditionally into the world of Torah and its commandments and only through this will we come to appreciate its inner essence. It is a realm quite above the dictates of mundane logic and causality.
Now we can understand Rabbi Isaac's assertion that the Torah should have commenced with the first commandment rather than with an account of the creation. The description of the process of creation seems necessary only to address our worldly perspective. While this may be a necessary, initial preparation for entering the Torah's realm addressed to our mundane mindset, true access is achieved only through extricating our minds from the clasp of a physically centered world view. Only through the Commandments do we connect to what we really mean when we think of God, the sublime, transcendent eternity expressed by the words, "the great, powerful, and awesome Divinity." Physical reality - even God's creating it - is not the standard of truth. The real beginning of Torah is in accepting the Commandments.
from the May 2002 Edition of the Jewish Magazine