Ultimate Reality and Divine Beings
Written by: Marc A. Krell
In these myths, either the superior god Baal or the Lord God creates the world by overtaking other cosmic forces associated with nature and unifying them. This represents the transition from primordial chaos to cosmos. Ultimately, as the biblical scholar Jon Levenson has convincingly shown, this comparison of biblical and Mesopotamian texts indicate that God has to gain control over the universe through combat with other cosmic forces of nature and is therefore not completely transcendent and omnipotent. It appears that the Priestly editor of Genesis 1 sought to suppress these vestiges of paganism and polytheism in the primary Israelite creation story in order to present a myth of primal order and harmony created by God in contrast to the disorder and disharmony of humanity.
Later, in response to the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E., the rabbis continued to see God as the transcendent God who punished them for their sins by destroying the Second Temple, while on the other hand, the rabbis began to portray God as the immanent divine presence or Shekhinah who suffers with Israel in exile.
In response to the medieval theological shift initiated by Maimonides to complete divine transcendence, medieval kabbalists tried to preserve both the unknowable image of God posited by the philosophers and the more immanent image of God as Shekhinah by constructing a theological bridge or ladder between them based on the doctrine of the ten sefirot or emanations of divinity. In this mystical framework, the kabbalists first posited the Ein Sof or "infinite" image of God that is radically transcendent and cannot be comprehended. Influenced by Neo-Platonic ideas of emanation, they then envisioned that the ten sefirot flow from Ein Sof, gradually revealing different divine attributes and effectively bridging the gap between God and humanity. By positing the sefirotic framework, the kabbalists appeared to stand on the blurred boundary between monotheism and polytheism as they attempted to portray the organic workings of the divine life.
Influenced by religious existentialism, the 20th-century American Jewish theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel responded to the essentialist philosophy of the modern period by arguing that people had become so used to perceiving God as the object of their reflection, they were unable to realize God's transcendent nature as the ineffable subject and source of ultimate reality who is in search of humanity. Following the Holocaust, Heschel argued that human beings had to recover the sense of wonder at divine transcendence in order to hear the "still small voice" (1 Kings 19:12) of God drowned out by human domination.
Yet a new group of post-Holocaust theologians emerged in the late 1960s that were unable to countenance a transcendent and omnipotent God who would allow the death of six million of God's people to perish in Nazi death camps. While some rejected the biblical God entirely, even the most radical theologians were unable to completely abandon all theological speculation after the Holocaust. Instead, they shifted the theological pendulum back to divine immanence, arguing that after the Holocaust, the biblical God had become hidden, fractured, or even powerless, providing comfort rather than protection for the Jews of the post-Holocaust period who were now called upon to take control of their destiny and reclaim their Judaism on their own terms.
1. How are different images of God held in tension? What text supports each view?
2. How did Judaism's understanding of God change with the destruction of the temple? Why?
3. Why did the image of God change as modernity developed?
4. What was the effect of the Holocaust on Jewish theology?