Sunday, 5 July 2020


The Alhambra Decree expelling the Jews from Spain in 1492.



The Expulsion of the practising Jews from Spain was initiated by the Alhambra Decree which was issued on 31 March 1492 by the joint Catholic Monarchs of Castile and Aragon. The Jews were to have left Spanish soil by 31 July of that year.

The Expulsion from Spain had a tremendous bearing on a number of aspects of Jewish history. In this article, we will explore how it triggered an emphasis on redemptive and messianic fervour which was to become a theological mainstay of future Judaism. Of course, earlier Jewish literature had dealt with such matters, but after the Expulsion, it took on a new and elevated urgency.

I have drawn extensively from the research[1] of Professor Elisheva Carlebach of Columbia University who specializes in the cultural, intellectual, and religious history of the Jews in Early Modern Europe.


As an immediate spiritual reaction to the Expulsion, many intensely mystical and messianic schools, or yeshivot, were established in attempts at theurgically (through magical or supernatural means) bringing about a state of immediate redemption.

Professor Carlebach writes:

“Some of the most intense messianic spirituality was centered in the many yeshivot and study circles established in the period after the Expulsion for the express purpose of hastening the redemption.”

Besides both general Torah learning, and the redemptive study circles in particular, taking on an urgent and overt messianic accentuation, other aspects of Jewish life - including even the mundane politics within the expelled community - became spiritualized.[2] Everything was imbued with omnisignificance and messianic overtones.


It is important to remember that these redemptive study circles were not just unique to the Spanish Jews of the post-Expulsion era, but they continued in one form or another to dominate the religious study landscape well into the future and their influence was later felt deep within Ashkenazic circles as well.

Carlebach shows how the influence of these Sephardic redemptive study circles spread to the Ashkenazic world and transformed their study ethos to also include a redemptive component. Torah study was no longer just about acquiring knowledge but it took on a pressing theurgic dimension as well. Fascinatingly, for some reason, this important development has been largely ignored by students of history.

According to Carlebach:

 “Of all the messianic pathways taken by Iberian [Spanish and Portuguese][3] Jews as a consequence of the persecutions and expulsions of the fifteenth century, this one has been least explored, although it lasted for centuries and spread beyond the Sephardic community...”

 “[T]he significance of messianism as a central and fundamental response to the Expulsion [from Spain][4] remains unremarked.”


The Sephardic yeshiva was often called a hesger which was a closed circle of not more than ten elite scholars. In a large community there would be many such study circles. While Ashkenazic rabbis usually sought positions of rabbinic leadership and authority, the Sephardic rabbis were more interested in the prestige that came with heading a redemptive study circle.

It is possible that this difference in the way each group asserted its authority was evidenced by the Ashkenazic rabbis sometimes being Halachically stricter than their Sephardic counterparts.


Interestingly, Carlebach writes:

“Similar schools, circles, and voluntary societies, whose structure and function parallel those we have described, flourished in medieval Islam and may have contributed to the genesis or continuity of this form among the Sephardim.”[5]


The funding for these study circles was from the wealthy within the communities who were happy to be able to contribute and thereby, they believed, vicariously gain a share in bringing about the anticipated messianic state of redemption.


These messianic study circles did not just study Torah but they developed specialized mystical curricula which would bring the redemption closer.

As mentioned, these circles were elitist and in the words of R. Raphael Treves:

“Our redemption...cannot be attained by the masses, only by the elite.”

The spread of Lurianic Kabbala (from the Ari Zal) also contributed to the messianic urgency as it imbued the study and practice of Torah with theurgical significance. And many practitioners within the study circles maintained that Kabbalah study should be elevated over traditional Talmudic study.[6]

Bear in mind that the Zohar, a foundation work of Jewish mysticism, had been published in Spain in around 1290, which in relative terms was not that long before the Expulsion, and by its nature would certainly have lent itself to messianic enterprises.


While many believed that the Holy land was the ultimate geographical location to host messianic study circles, some maintained that centres within the Diaspora were crucial to prepare the world for the imminent messianic manifestation.[7] 

There was much debate over which particular region of the Holy Land was best suited for these messianic circles. Besides the obvious choice of Jerusalem, some preferred Safed (particularly during the 16th –century), Tiberius, Chevron and even Gaza. Actually, Safed was dominant as long as it held its strong economic position but, as soon as it lost that dominance, Jerusalem took over.


In the 18th-century, the great mystic R. Chaim ben Moshe Abulafia (1660-1744) founded a yeshiva in Tiberius called Mashmia Yeshua (Harbinger of Redemption). He told the Jews of Tiberius that:

“[T]he messiah would soon arrive and come from the Sea of Galilee.”  


R. Chaim Benattar (1696-1743), known as the Ohr haChaim, was attracted to Abulafia in Tiberius. He specifically wanted to establish a redemptive yeshiva to hasten the arrival of Messiah and he moved his Kabbalistic circle to Jerusalem. Some believe he was the inspirational model for the up-and-coming Chassidic movement.[8]


The Diaspora communities often supported the messianic yeshivot of the Holy Land. Only selected candidates qualified to be sent to the Holy Land. It was also very expensive to travel during the 18th-century, as the fare was twice the annual income needed to live in the Land of Israel.


Carlebach writes:

“The attempts to establish redemptive centres of rabbinic scholarship [in the Holy Land] began with the first exiles [from Spain][9], and continued for centuries. They tended to cluster around certain redemptive dates, such as 1575, 1700-1706, and 1740...
Rabbinic circles were similarly established all over the Sephardic Diaspora, in Italy, North Africa, and the Ottoman Empire. While some were simply traditional centers of study, many had esoteric agendas which transformed their activities into intense theurgic dramas.“


The post-Expulsion messianic study circles continued to flourish for centuries into the future. Initially, they maintained their elitist nature but gradually, after being adopted to some degree by the Sabbateans - the followers of the false messiah Shabbatai Tzvi (1626-1676) - and later by the Chassidic movement, they opened up to the masses who were encouraged to participate in the enterprise of study for redemptive purposes. Thereafter, this messianic ethos slowly wound its way into the general mainstream.


Bear in mind that the Sabbateans were not just a fringe movement. Their numbers included up to half - if not more - of the Jewish population at that time. Many of their leaders were prominent rabbis and, after Shabbatai Tzvi was shown to be a false messiah and the movement went underground, it was very difficult to distinguish a secret Sabbatean from a mainstream religious Jew. The secret Sabbateans were known to have established secret cells. 

Carlebach writes:

“Many prominent Sabbateans, some with messianic pretensions of their own, planned to build redemptive yeshivot.” 


During the time of the secret Sabbateans similar redemptive study circles were established in Jerusalem by R. Avraham Rovigo in 1702[10], and by R. Isaiah Hasid who established a ten-scholar Sabbatean yeshiva in Mannheim, Germany.[11]


Another example of this is the secret or crypto-Sabbatean, R. Raphael Mordechai Malkhi. Malkhi intended to make Jerusalem the centre of Sabbaten ideology and his primary tool for so doing was to establish a redemptive yeshiva.

Raphael Mordechai Malkhi wrote:

“At the end of days...they [the Jews of the Diaspora][12]  will establish a midrash [yeshiva] in Jerusalem of seventy scholars over them. The Lord will bring many settlers out of oppression who will cultivate the land...The era of this the time of the approach of the redemption...The King Messiah will emerge from them.”[13]


In 1703, another Sabbatean - R. Avraham Cardosa - who competed for authority with Malkhi, arrived in the Holy Land and also wanted to establish a redemptive yeshiva in Jerusalem. He was an interesting personality because he had lived as a Marrano in Spain until his twentieth year and then became a crypto-Sabbatean. He hired copyists to disseminate his writings in Jerusalem in order to counter the other Sabbatean literature which was popular there.

Cardosa wrote in no uncertain terms:

“In the Academy on High there are two yeshivot, one for Elijah and one for R. Simon bar Yohai. And I will establish a third one...for I possess a veritable treasury of esoteric lore.”[14]

The anti-Sabbatean Rabbinate of Jerusalem, however, blocked him from opening up his yeshiva in Jerusalem. In 1708, his student, Nechemya Hayon collected funds from Smyrna to establish a redemptive yeshiva in Israel but it was also blocked by the Rabbinate.


During the 18th-century, another crypto-Sabbatean, R. Mordechai Ashkenazi wrote a work entitled Eshel Avraham (Terebinth of Abraham). He named the work after his teacher, R. Avraham Rovigo and writes that most of the ideas in the book were from Rovigo.

What is significant about Eshel Avraham is that it offers a window into the nature of these redemptive study circles. It quotes Rovigo as saying:

“The signs have now been revealed that this is the generation of King Messiah.”[15]

Carlebach writes:

“The curriculum proposed by the Sabbatians did not differ from that of many of their predecessors – they championed an almost exclusive reliance on kabbalistic texts, beginning with the Zohar, and particularly the study of Lurianic Kabbalah.”

However, what set them apart from the other redemptive yeshivot was their insistence that the study of Talmudic literature actually impeded the redemption.

Eshel Avraham explains that Moshe’s Torah from Sinai was not powerful enough to affect a full and permanent redemption, and it was only the Torah of R. Shimon bar Yochai - the alleged author of the Zohar - that could lead to a complete messianic redemption.[16]

Eshel Avraham continues to explain that there are three types of individuals who study Torah: 1) Those who just read it as a story. They are regarded as “the fools of the world.” 2) Then there are those on a slightly higher level who study “the principles of Torah.” 3) And then there are those on the highest level, who:

“penetrate the soul...Because Israel did not engage itself in Kabbalistic lore, but only in peshat [the simple or literal meaning of the words of the Torah][17], there can be no redemption unless the matter is rectified.”[18]

The Talmudic or Halachic study of Torah is compared to the bark of as tree, while the Kabbalah is the sap. Eshel Avraham issues a warning:

“Woe to those rabbis who eat of the husk of the Torah but don’t know its secrets.”[19]


As Carlebach has pointed out, history has overlooked the fundamental and powerful influence of the messianic study circles that sprung up in the aftermath of the Expulsion.

These redemptive attempts at turning mystical study into theurgical catalysts for the dawning of the Messianic Era were the springboard from which many of the more modern messianic movements sprung.

What the redemptive study circles did after the Expulsion from Spain in the 15th-century, was to transform the traditional view of Torah study into an urgent and powerful tool to bring about the ‘immediate redemption’. It was a mystical attempt to ‘rectify’ the evils of the Expulsion.

This messianic ethos, almost like a manifesto, was then capitalized upon by the mystics of the 16th-century. They too had study circles and signed pledges of allegiance. [See Appendix to Sefer haTzoref link below.]

A similar mystical character and temper was then adopted and reworked by the followers of Shabbatai Tzvi in the 17th-century.

The same thread found its way into the Chassidic Movement of the 18th-century which also had closed messianic study circles such as the Chevraya Kadisha of the Baal Shem Tov.

All of this was later appropriated to a large degree by the mainstream Jewish world during the 19th- century which similarly ascribed redemptive and messianic value to Torah Study.

This accounts, in no insignificant manner, for the popular messianism which dominated much of 20th century Judaism and continues to this day where - not just Torah study - but every event is somehow linked to the immediate redemption.

In a remarkable article published, surprisingly, in the Chareidi Mishpacha Magazine, Rabbi Aaron Lopiansky[20] wrote:

“We need to teach our children history. And that history needs to include much more than dry names and dates and stories of gedolim...

My first concern is our deep ignorance of Jewish history — or any history for that matter. It is simply mind-boggling to hear people state that ‘Never has anything like this happened before. This [Corona][21] virus must be heralding the coming of Mashiach!’...

The second source of distress is the current Mashiach fervor. Klal Yisrael has had many “Mashiach is here” moments. Read the excellent ‘Mashichei Hasheker U’misnagdeihem’ (all 700 pages) of Rabbi Binyomin Hamburger, and you will get a feel for how numerous and how destructive these movements were...”


[Sefer haTzoref – Were these the ‘Secret Writings’ Which Had to be Hidden?] See Appendix for a ‘Pledge of Allegiance’ to ‘form a single company’, as found in the Stolin Geniza.

[1] Elisheva Carelbach, Rabbinic Circles as Messianic Pathways in the Post-Expulsion Era.
[2] Rachel Elior, Messianic Expectations and Spiritualization of Religious Life in the Sixteenth Century, 145:35-49. And; H.H. Ben-Sasson, Exile and Redemption in the Eyes of Spanish Exiles, pp. 216-227.
[3] Parenthesis mine.
[4] Parenthesis mine.
[5] See Joel L. Kraemer, Humanism in the Renaissance of Islam (Leiden 1986), p. 103.
[6] See Moshe Idel, Infinities of Torah in Kabbalah (New Haven 1986), pp. 141-157.
[7] See Elisheva Carlebach, Pursuit pp. 62-63. And: Elisheva Carlebach, “Redemption and Persecution”, pp. 19-20.
[8] Marc D. Angel, Voices in Exile: A Study of Sephardic Intellectual History (Hoboken 1991), pp. 89-94.
[9] Parentheses mine.
[10] Some accounts have it in 1701.
[11] Jacob Mann, The Settlement of the Kabbalist Abraham Rovigo and his Circle in Jerusalem in 1702, 6:10.
[12] Parenthesis mine.
[13] Y. Rivlin, The Proposal of Rabbi Raphael Mordekhai Malkhi to Establish a Yeshiva in Jerusalem as a Center for Jewry [Heb.], p. 46.
[14] Elijah Kohen, Sefer Meribat Kadesh, in Inyanei Shabtai Zevi (Berlin 1912). Pp. 18-19.
[15] Eshel Avraham 5b.
[16] Eshel Avraham 3a.
[17] Parenthesis mine.
[18] Eshel Avraham 3a-3b.
[19] Eshel Avraham 5a.
[20] Rabbi Lopiansky is the Rosh HaYeshiva of the Yeshiva of Greater Washington.
[21] Parenthesis mine.

Sunday, 28 June 2020


For a CAD -Tour of the Second Temple by Rabbi Boruch Clinton, see here.


A common thread in many of the articles on KotzkBlog is the multiplicity of rabbinical views on ideas which are today often presented from one side only. 

In this article, drawn from the research of Professor David Stern[1] of Harvard University, we will examine two early rabbinical texts which portray two very different perspectives of G-d.

Professor Stern translated two texts from Eicha Rabba, which is a Midrashic commentary on Eicha (Lamentations) originating around the Talmudic or Amoraic period (somewhere between 400-700 CE). 

This book is one of the oldest Midrashic works and although it is sometimes ascribed to Rav Kahana, Stern is not certain about the authorship and simply refers to an ‘anonymous’ writer.
This Midrashic work was apparently part of a Petichta or Introduction to the synagogue service on the Ninth of Av, the fast day commemorating the destruction of both First and Second Temples.


Our two texts deal with G-d’s alleged reaction to the destruction of the Temples – and they differ dramatically from each other.  The first text has G-d emotionally devastated in the aftermath of the destruction, while the second text depicts G-d as aloof and distant.

Essentially the texts put forth two diverse worldviews on G-d and His interaction with, and intervention in the affairs of humankind.

Stern writes:

“[T]he portraits of God in the two narratives are so entirely different as to be almost incompatible. In the first narrative, God identifies Himself so totally with the Jew’s catastrophe that, by the narrative’s conclusion, He virtually claims to be its sole victim as well as chief mourner.

In the second narrative, by contrast, He is portrayed as a distant, even indifferent, judge, who is moved to show compassion to the Jews only when the matriarch Rachel persuades Him that His motives are petty ones, unworthy of God...

Their characterizations of God are at once extreme and compelling, and highly problematic for any normative conception of divinity.”

What is significant and noteworthy about our two narratives is the very generous use of anthropomorphisms (describing G-d in detailed emotional, mundane and human terms).
In order not to fatigue the Reader with constant technical references to prophetic biblical verses, I have summarized the salient points of the narratives as follows:


In this narrative, G-d is portrayed as empathic, emotional and intertwined within the destiny of the people:

When the Holy One...sought to destroy the Temple, He said, “All the time that I am inside it, the nations of the world cannot harm the Temple. But now I will turn my eyes aside and take a vow not to live in it until the end time. Let the enemies come and destroy the Temple!”...
It was at that time that the enemy entered the sanctuary and burned it...

Once it burned down, the Holy One...said, “I no longer have a residence on earth. I will remove My Presence...and ascend to my original habitation...”

Note how G-d is now depicted as changing his mind:

At that time, the Holy One...broke into weeping. He said, “Woe to Me! What have I done? I caused My Shekhina to dwell below for Israel’s sake, and now that they have sinned, I have returned to My original place.

Banish the thought!
I would have become a laughing stock for the gentiles, a thing of ridicule to human beings!”

Now the angel Metatron, (who features often, particularly in early mystical literature) enters the narrative:

At that moment, Metatron came and fell on his face, and said, “Master of the Universe! Allow me to weep! But You – do not weep!”

The Holy One said to him, “If you do not leave Me alone to weep now, I will take Myself to a place that you have no permission to enter, and there I will weep...”

G-d is now described as summoning the angels to visit the place of destruction:

The Holy One...said to the ministering angels, “Come! Let us go, you and I, and see what the enemies have done in My house.”

Immediately the angelic host and the Holy One...went, and Jeremiah went in front of Him.
As soon as the Holy One...saw the Temple, He said, “Yes indeed! This is My house...The enemy came and did to it as it wished.”

At that time, the Holy One...began to weep, saying, “Woe to Me for My house. My children, where are you? My priests, where are you? My lovers, where are you?... I warned you but you did not repent.

Then G-d asks Jeremiah to call the Forefathers:

“The Holy One addressed Jeremiah, “I am like a man who had a single son for whom he built a wedding chamber, and the son died inside it. And yet you [Jeremiah] feel no hurt for Me, and none for my son!?

Go! Summon Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and Moses from their graves – they know how to weep!”

Jeremiah said, “Master of the universe! I do not know where Moses is buried.”
The Holy One...replied, “Go stand on the banks of the Jordan, raise your voice, and shout, Ben Amram...Arise! And behold your flock whom the enemy has consumed.”

Jeremiah immediately went to the Cave of Machpelah and said to the patriarchs. “Arise! The time has come when your presence is required before the Holy One...”
“Why? They asked.
“ I don’t know,” he replied – because he was afraid that they would say, It was in your days that this happened to our children!

Jeremiah left them, and stood on the banks of the Jordan, and called out: “Ben Amram...Arise! The time has come when your presence is requested before the Holy One...”
Moses asked, “Why today is my presence requested before the Holy One...?”
“I don’t know, ”Jeremiah answered.

Moses left Jeremiah and went off to the ministering angels, for he knew them from the time of the giving of the Torah. “Heavenly attendants!” he said to them, “Do you have any idea why my presence is requested before the Holy One...?”

“Ben Amram!” they said, “Don’t you know that the Temple has been destroyed and the Israelites exiled?”

Moses cried out aloud, and he wept until he reached the patriarchs, and they too ripped their garments in mourning. They placed their hands upon their heads, and they cried out and wept all the way to the gates of the Temple.

As soon as the Holy One...saw them, then immediately “the Lord God of hosts summoned on that day to weeping and lamenting...”(Isaiah 22:12) If it [the idea that G-d cried][2] were not explicitly written in Scripture it would be impossible to say it.

They went weeping from one gate to the next, like a man whose deceased kin lies before him [Onen[3]] and the Holy One lamented saying, “Woe to that king who triumphed in his youth, and who failed in his own age.”

According to this narrative, G-d, the angels, the patriarchs and Moshe are all crying over the destruction of the Temple, with the apparent exception of Jeremiah.


In the second narrative, however, G-d is portrayed as somewhat aloof, distant and to an extent unmoved by the vicissitudes of the people:

Rabbi Samuel bar Nahman said: When the Temple was destroyed, Abraham came before the Holy One...weeping, tearing at his beard, pulling out the hair on his head, beating his face, ripping his garments, ash upon his head.

He paced about the Temple, lamenting and crying out, and said to the Holy One...”Why am I different from every other nation...that I have come to such shame and disgrace!?”
When the ministering angels saw Abraham, they too joined in lament...

The ministering angels said to the Holy One...”You did not even give the people of Israel the same consideration You gave the generation of Enosh, who were the first to worship idols!”
It was then that the Holy One...turned to the ministering angels and asked them, “What are you doing, composing laments on this matter and standing in rows?”

This is the point where the second narrative changes dramatically from the first. G-d is no longer trying to get an emotional response from man and He cannot understand why man is making such a fuss and adopting such severe mourning practices.

“They replied, “Master of the universe! It is on account of Abraham, your loving friend, who has come to Your House and lamented and wept! Why have You paid no attention to him?
The Holy One replied, “Since the time my friend left Me to go to his eternal resting-place, he has not visited My house. And now, ‘why should my beloved be in My house?” (Jeremiah 11:15).”

Abraham addressed the Holy One...”Master of the universe! Why have you exiled my children and handed them over to the nations who murdered them in all kinds of horrible deaths?

G-d’s response here is depicted as completely unemotional and, simply, matter-of-fact:

“Your children sinned by transgressing against the entire Torah, against all twenty-two letters of the alphabet, of which the Torah is composed...”

Abraham said to the Holy One...”Who will offer testimony against Israel that they transgressed against Your Torah?”

[God] replied. “Let the Torah come and testify against Israel.”
The Torah immediately came to be a witness against them. Abraham said to the Torah, “My daughter, are you really going to testify against Israel that they transgressed your commandments? Have you no shame in my presence? 

Remember the day that the Holy One...took you around to every nation and people, but no one wished to accept you – until my people came to Mount Sinai and accepted you and honoured you. And now, you are about to testify against them on the day of your misfortune!?”
When the Torah heard this, she stepped to the side and did not testify against them.

A few other ‘witnesses’ are brought (such as the twenty-two letters of the alphabet, the letters bet and gimmel) and Avraham reminds G-d that he was prepared to offer his son “And will You not remember this for my sake and have mercy on my children?

But G-d remains unmoved.

Yitzchak, Yaakov and Moshe also come pleading for G-d’s compassion and bewildered as to why G-d allowed such destruction. And G-d remains unmoved.

Eventually, Moshe says to Jeremiah:

“Lead me! I will go and gather them [the exiles][4] back.”

G-d was so aloof that Moshe wanted to act for G-d and show some interest and compassion.

 Jeremiah replied, “It is impossible to walk on the road because of the dead.” Moses said, “Let us go nonetheless.”

Immediately Moses went, with Jeremiah before him, until they reached the rivers of Babylon. When the Jews saw Moses, they said to each other, “Moses has risen from his grave to redeem us from the hands of our enemies.”

Note again that it is Moshe and not G-d, who is taking the initiative, until:

A heavenly voice called out, saying, “This exile has been decreed by Me!”  Moses immediately said to the Israelites, “It is impossible to restore you...” And then he left them.
Moses returned to the patriarchs...Immediately they all began to weep and lament...

Contrast this with the emotional and caring G-d of the first narrative who couldn’t get Jeremiah to cry with Him. In this narrative, they cry, but G-d remains unmoved. In fact, Moshe has to assume the role of a caring G-d:

“And again, Moses opened and said, “O captors! By your lives! If you come to kill, do not murder cruelly. Do not annihilate them entirely. Do not slay a son in his father’s presence, or a daughter in her mother’s...” 

But the wicked Chaldeans [the Neo-Babylonians who destroyed the First Temple in 586 BCE] did not act as he requested. They set a child before its mother and then told the father, “Arise! Slay him.”

The mother wept. Her tears fell upon the child, and the father hung his head.
Again, Moses said before Him, “Master of the universe!...they have killed countless mothers with their children, and You have remained silent!

The narrative concludes with Rachel arriving on the scene and convincing G-d to promise a future redemption. Rachel pleads:

“Jacob your servant loved me exceptionally, and on my behalf he slaved seven years for my father. When those seven years were father plotted to switch me with someone else for my sister’s sake...Feeling compassion for my sister, that she not be disgraced, I suppressed my desires.   That night they substituted my sister for me and presented her to my husband in my place...

What’s more, I hid beneath the bed where he lay with my sister, and when he spoke to her, she was silent and I replied to his every word, so that he never recognized my sister’s voice...and I did not permit her to be disgraced or shamed.

But You!... Why are You jealous of idols that are without substance? Why have you exiled my children, to be slain by the sword and to be abused as the enemy has wished?”

It was only when Rachel called G-d out on the issue of Him standing back and being indifferent and unemotional, that suddenly we see a turnabout in G-d’s reaction:

“Immediately, the compassion of the Holy One...was aroused. He said, “For your sake Rachel, I will restore Israel to its place [in the time of the future redemption].”

And even this ‘turn-about’ was not a ‘real’ change in nature of G-d, but a concession only for Rachel. Thus, according to this second narrative, G-d essentially remains aloof, distant, transcendent and not easily persuaded even by Moshe and the Forefathers to take an active role in worldly affairs. 


This particular style of older rabbinic writing does not sit easily on the modern ear. The idea of G-d possessing emotions and conversing like a human was common during the Talmudic period but later rabbis like Maimonides (1135-1204) were critical of it.

Howard Kreisel writes:

 “Maimonides explicitly rejects the notion that God possesses character traits, together with any other attribute characterizing corporeal entities, a notion which in all probability does not underlie his rabbinic sources.”[5]

But, putting aside the ancient style and anthropomorphic nature of both our narratives, the interesting notion emerges that there may have been two very different approaches to the understanding, and the definition, of G-d.

The first narrative describes G-d as personal, caring and even emotional. The second describes G-d as unknowable, distant, and transcendent of the affairs of this world.

The fist view does not come as a surprise. That view has been adopted by the mainstream and continues to be the dominant position today. The second view does come as a surprise especially for such early rabbinic writing.

The idea of a transcendent, unmovable and unknowable G-d, is something we have come to expect from the writings of Maimonides[6] (who is even wary of the effectiveness of human prayer and intervention in matters relating to G-d[7]) – but not from earlier rabbinic sources.

From our narratives, it seems that these rabbinic debates on the nature of G-d may have been going on much earlier - and may have been more fundamental than we would have imagined. 

Could Maimonides have based himself on such early rabbinical thought? If so, his bold ideology in this regard may not have been such a philosophical ‘chiddush’ or novelty.


[1] David Stern and Mark J. Mirsky, Rabbinic Fantasies: Imaginative Narratives from Classical Hebrew Literature. 2. Two Narratives About God. (Petichta 24.)
[2] Parenthesis mine.
[3] An Onen is one whose family member has passed away but not yet buried. This is the most intense period of grief.
[4] Parenthesis mine.
[5] Howard Kreisel, Imitatio Dei in Maimonides’ “Guide of the Perplexed.”
[6] According to Maimonides “one must believe in a timeless, changeless, immaterial deity who is one in every respect and unlike anything in the created order. A person who fails to recognize such a deity is accorded the status of an idolater no matter how many other commandments [s]he may fulfil or how fervently [s]he may fulfil them. Simply put, to worship God under a false description is not to worship God at all. 
And According to Maimonides, all of Jewish law aims at two things: the improvement of the body and the improvement of the soul. The former is in every case a means to the latter. The soul is improved by acquiring correct opinions and eventually knowledge on everything humans are capable of knowing. The more knowledge the soul acquires, the more it is able to fulfill the commandment (Deuteronomy 6:5) to love God. The biggest stumbling block to love of God is the belief that the only way to remain true to the Bible is to interpret it literally. The result of literal interpretation is a material conception of God, which, in Maimonides’ opinion, amounts to idolatry.” (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)   Square parentheses mine.
[7] In Maimonides’ view, G-d is sometimes is more interested in Hashgacha Kelalit (where the species is kept in balance but not necessarily the individual entities within the whole) rather than Hashgacha Peratit (where each and every entity and being is individually sustained).