Kenosis is a Greek word that implies emptying or giving of self, a sort of fundamental humility. The term is a crucial one for many key aspects of Jewish and Christian theology.
Sadly, the term is often neglected, overlooked, or worse, rejected.
There are many senses to Kenosis in the spiritual life and theology – God’s kenosis in creating the universe, Jesus’ kenosis on the Cross, the kenosis that is the essence of marriage, and the kenosis of most acts of genuine love and compassion.
Free persons dispose over themselves in such ways that they can, when willing, make a gift of themselves to others through the giving of time, effort, talent, resources – and on the deepest levels when giving of body and making the disposition of one’s life orientated toward the good of another or others.
In this sense, and more, kenotic love is at the heart of Jewish and Christian spirituality.
Let’s examine some of these ideas in a little more detail.
God & Kenosis
Jewish and Christian traditions are strong in their sense that everything was made by God through creative, kenotic love.
In one sense, when one engages the metaphor of a personal God, one begins to understand that any perfect, Supreme Being would be in its essence, loving, thus the Christian Scripture’s assertion that “God is love.”
Speculating on possible motives for God’s act of creation, one would also begin to understand that love is creative and life giving, and further, that it desires to be known and received – thus, the affirmation that God made the world and human beings out of love.
Various forms of Jewish mysticism and esoteric theology (Kabbalah, Hasidism, and Neo-Hasidism) speak of the Hebrew notion of tzimtzum. This term implies the intentional pulling back of God so that God then create the world and give the Divine self to it.
The Jewish mystics pondered that since God was everywhere and God’s essence occupied the fullness of the void, that if God were to create something independent from divinity, it would necessarily have to withdraw to create the space to be occupied by creation – this pulling back and giving forth is captured in the term tzimtzum.
(Granted, spatial metaphors have limits when speaking of immaterial realities, but the notion is still fertile ground for solid theological insights.)
God’s creative love doesn’t merely create the world and then back away – the Jewish mystics, and later Christian theologians, assert that God’s creative love sustains all of being in an ongoing giving of self.
For those who favor more panentheist and impersonal metaphors for the Divine, in a strong sense, the creative power of the universe not only permeates everything, but allows for freedom – it doesn’t consume that which it animates, nor fully control that which it calls forth into being.
Kenosis & Human Love
Created in God’s image and likeness as persons capable of creativity, love, and relationship, we too are called to kenotic love – the giving of self. In fact, one of the primary spiritual messages of Judaism and Christianity – as well as other major religious traditions – is the more fully we give ourselves away, turning away from selfishness and egotism, the more we become truly ourselves and find communion with God.
Jewish theological master, Abraham Joshua Heschel states:
The focus of prayer is not the self. … It is the momentary disregard of our personal concerns, the absence of self-centered thoughts, which constitute the deepest sense of the art of prayer. Feeling becomes prayer in the moment in which we forget ourselves and become aware of God. …. Thus, in even beseeching Him for bread, there is one instant, at least, in which our mind is directed neither to our hunger nor to food, but to His mercy.
Humans cannot love perfectly since we are, by nature, imperfect, flawed creatures. But when we align ourselves and our best efforts with the Divine power – grace – we can indeed transform ourselves and the world.
Kenotic Love as the Way of Life in Judaism and Christianity
In Deuteronomy, there is a Divine call associated with the offering of the Covenant to the Jewish people at Sinai – the call is this – choose life so that you and your descendants may live. Is there a threat lurking behind this beautiful call to life? Is that threat that God will punish and kill those who don’t accept his ways?
Many ancient Jews saw the world and God in this manner. Thankfully, we’ve advanced in our thinking and our theology. Today, Jewish spirituality understands that the essence of the Covenant with God resides in love and justice and mercy. (In this sense, Jesus the Jew argues clearly and to the point when asked what is required for life abundant – “love God and love your neighbor as yourself.”
Judaism at its best is a life affirming spiritual path that is realized best through the practice of kenotic love. Rabbi Hillel and many of the other sages understand this and teach it. The core of Torah is to love your neighbor as yourself.
What does it mean to love others as yourself? It means more than being “nice” and means more than holding them in positive mental regard – it means actions and attitudes – toward justice, mercy, forgiveness, kindness, generosity, inclusion, support, and respect – these things – the marks of kenotic love – mark the path of life. God’s call to life is a call to kenotic love. Failure to heed the call requires no Divine punishment, the failure to love reaps its own bitter fruits.
The essence of Judaism is this – that people who were once slaves – have bound themselves freely to a life of love and goodness in covenant with the Source of Love and Goodness.
Jews are not alone in the call to love. Christianity has the powerful symbol of kenotic love – the Cross.
It can be argued that Jesus’ death on the cross was motivated by the logic of his life and the witness of the integrity of his love. The material cause for Jesus’ execution was the perception of insurrection likely brought to a head by the “commotion” in the Temple just before Passover. The other causal aspects of his death would include love, the giving of himself totally to others. The Cross therefore affirms a key insight of Christianity – that kenotic love heals and transforms us and connects to the Divine.
And Christians are invited to pick up and carry their own cross – meaning, embrace a life of giving of self that saves.
The Primacy of Love
Love is the proper response to God and to the dignity of others. Loving relationships therefore form the foundation and essence of both Judaism and Christianity – in a strong sense, love is the crucial demand of both traditions – the rest is commentary.
For these reasons, kenotic love is an essential aspect of both Judaism and Christianity.