February 26, 2020

A Spark of Impenetrable Darkness: Haftarat Va-yishlach, Hosea 11:7-12:12

“>I attempted to answer the question of how dealing with such a God should affect our spiritual life. This week we cannot avoid the larger question: what does it even mean to have such a God?

It is hard not to see this God as powerless in some profound way, for sorrow cannot be divorced from impotence. When we are sad about something, part of the feeling is that we cannot change it. After all, if we could change it, we would, and then the cause of our sorrow would disappear. This applies even in the most intimate circumstances: if our lover disappoints or hurts us, we are sad because we cannot change them.

Oh yes: at the end of the prophecy, Hosea states that all shall be well, for God “will roar like a lion, and they shall march behind Him.” (11:10). Why wait, though? Because God wants his beloved people to return on their own accord, and they will not do so. God could just appear in some spectacular revelation, but that says nothing about Israel’s commitment to the divine. This all anguishes the Lord.

But if this is true, it follows that God is impotent to accomplish something. Such a conclusion destroys God’s omnipotence, and it might even cause more devastating harm for a religious Jew: it might destroy God’s unity. If, after all, there are forces outside of God’s control, then that means that God must share dominion with these forces. Such a multiplicity of forces really reflects what polytheism is about.

What a revolting development that turned out to be! Now that we’ve boxed ourselves into a corner, what do we do now? The answer begins to appear with a word not usually associated with Judaism: Gnosticism. 

Gnosticism, which derives from the Greek word for “knowledge,” refers to a collection of religions and sects positing the existence of a remote supreme single divine Source. This Source emanates out into the physical world and takes on different forms. Some religions see these forms as gods or demigods; others see this emanation as a God-like figure called a demiurge, which we think of as “God” but is actually “merely” an extremely powerful semi-divine creature. Gnostics often see the worldly emanation as something flawed and imperfect, a sort of representation of the actual heaven, which can improve as much as possible within its nature.

If this sounds familiar, it should. Judaism has its own version of Gnosticism: Kabbalah. Some scholars, such as Hebrew University’s Moshe Idel, believe that Judaism played a major role in the creation of Christian and other Gnosticisms (even though these belief systems were often profoundly anti-Jewish). Kabbalah posits the existence of the Ein Sof, literally “The Endless,” as the core of the Godhead. From the Ein Sof emanate the Sefirot, the divine attributes, including the Shechinah, the presence of God in the world.

If this seem strangely non-monotheistic to you, you are not alone. There are ten sefirot, and critics of Kabbalah, in a 13th-century equivalent of snark, remarked that the Kabbalists had rejected Christianity’s Trinity in favor of ten gods!

But the Kabbalists were onto something important; they recognized that the complexity of the universe – physical, moral, and spiritual – meant that God was complex as well. They thus endeavored to develop a unity-within-complexity, and arrived at a sort of monism, i.e. a belief that everything is God, but God manifests in radically different ways. In the 18th century, the early Hasidic masters would take this sacred insight and take it to new metaphysical heights.

This is not as odd as it might at first appear. You believe, for example, that you are a single person. Yet you have a myriad of attributes, moods, facets, and aspects. You change from time to time, sometimes minute to minute, often depending upon the context or situation. You are different than you were 20, or 10, or 5 years ago. But you are only one person: a complex and multifaceted person, but one person nonetheless.

The Kabbalists and the Hasidim did more than simply recognize that God is complex: they felt it. They could sense the universe pulsating and the world changing, God appearing and filling them and departing from them, in different ways and at different times. Yet instead of concluding – as pagans did – that this pluralistic universe had no order, and was simply the plaything of contending supernal forces, they comprehended the fundamental moral, spiritual, and physical order underlying the seeming chaos. Even in the tohu va-vohu, the chaotic and empty desolation when God began to create heaven and earth, a blinding “spark of impenetrable darkness” (Zohar 1:1) represented an underlying unity.

When we worship the “one God,” then, we are actually worshipping this fundamental moral, spiritual, and physical order. We are declaring our committed belief that the universe has meaning, and that this is meaning “is good.” Some personalize it as Hosea did; some, like Maimonides, insist that we can say nothing about it except about what it is not; others, such as “>picture of a Texas church marquee read:

“Governor Perry. God here. That voice in your head is not Me. Take your meds.”

But we have no other choice. The rabbis recognized as much, finding that when God spoke to them, it was not in a dramatic revelation, but rather as a Bat Kol – literally, the daughter of a voice, ephemeral, non-obvious, divine, but welling up from within us, creating a firm conviction of concrete reality, of universal order and meaning.

What, then, does it mean to have an anguished God? It means not a powerless creature, but rather that we feel that anguish moving through us. It comes from the outside; it is real. It is not a temporary emotion but rather our deepest, innermost way of relating to the universe. Nothing else needs to be worshipped; nothing else needs to be encountered.