Nachmanides: The Presence

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			Nachmanides lived in a kind of crossroads of Judaism. He came from Gerona, now in the ‎northeastern corner of Spain that borders the Provence region of what is now the south of ‎France. The roads of communication between these two areas opened up some time in the ‎‎12th century. The Provence Jews were the creators/revealers of the esoteric system of Jewish ‎mysticism that eventually coalesced into what is called Kabbalah. That knowledge and that ‎insight made its way to Gerona during the 13th century and into the mind of its leading ‎scholar, Nachmanides. ‎
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In addition, the philosophical world of Maimonides had already infiltrated this area. Add to ‎this a tradition steeped in Biblical and Talmudic learning, and you have a crossroads of ‎Judaism in a remote town of Catalan. Perhaps more than anyone else in the history of ‎Judaism, Nachmanides managed to combine all these disciplines into a single system. It was ‎not the strictly rational system of Maimonides. Nor was it the open-ended system that the ‎Kabbalists were developing that would reach a crescendo with the Zohar a few decades ‎after Nachmanides. Neither was it a literalist interpretation of the Bible or the Talmud, which ‎was still the system of choice in many Jewish circles. It was his own combination of all of ‎them, and nowhere did it show it show its inclusivity as much as in the way God is ‎manifested in creation. ‎
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He firmly believed in creation over emanation, being the clearest to describe the creation ‎process as yesh m’ayin, ‘something from nothing’. God created the initial ‘stuff’ of creation ‎and proceeded to shape it into the world as we know it. But God continued to be present in ‎creation, not in the form of a mere created ‘Glory’, but in a more palpable form. Probably ‎more than any other image, this form remained in the minds of Jews throughout the centuries ‎as the authentic image, faithful to the Bible, the Talmud, the Midrash, and the ‎intellectual/spiritual worlds of philosophy and mysticism. ‎
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In his commentary on Genesis 46:1 he enters into a long disagreement with Maimonides on ‎the reason Onkelos used intermediary terms for God in his translation of the Torah. ‎Maimonides’ position is that Onkelos was trying to avoid any indication of physicality to ‎God. Nachmanides shows how there are many places in Onkelos that don’t fit this compact ‎explanation. Towards the end of this section he launches into a theological snag in ‎Maimonides system. If God’s glory is a created entity, why should we find rabbinic ‎statements describing how blessed it is? If Judaism is truly monotheistic, shouldn’t blessing ‎created things be anathema? ‎
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Nachmanides, not even attempting to answer this question on behalf of Maimonides, then ‎presents his alternative: ‘In the words of our Rabbis there are many statements indicating that ‎the name Shechina means God.’ This is Nachmanides system in a nutshell. The Shechina – ‎God’s dwelling presence – is God. How could it then be visible to people and be located in ‎one place as opposed to the other? This is a core question not only on Nachmanides, but on ‎Judaism in general. If the Shechina is once and for all defined as nothing but God, it would ‎seem that God indeed has a palpable presence. What happened to the infinite and ‎unknowable image of God? For that matter, how does monotheism fit in with this image? ‎How is Judaism not guilty of the very same heresy as Christianity? ‎
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Analysis ‎
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Before attempting to answer these questions it is worth pointing out that this idea is found ‎in several places in Nachmanides' commentary. For instance, his commentary to Exodus ‎‎(23:20-21): ‘Behold I am sending an angel before you to protect you on the way and to bring ‎you to the place that I prepared. Take heed before him and listen to his voice and do not ‎refuse him, for he will not overlook your rebellion, for My name is in him.’ Nachmanides, ‎after a few initial interpretations, settles on a ‘path of truth’ (a common expression of his to ‎indicate a mystical understanding): ‘This angel that they were promised here, is ‎the Malach Hagoel (Redeeming Angel) who has the great name in him…and Scripture calls it ‎an angel because all the guiding of the world is done through it. The Rabbis say this is ‎Metatron.’ ‎
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This angel, Metatron, is the earthly presence of God. It is also called the Redeeming Angel, – ‎a title that originates in the Chumash itself. The angel seems to be distinct from God, being as ‎God tells Moshe that He is ‘sending an angel to protect you on the way’. But then the ‎tantalizing hint is given that ‘he will not overlook your rebellion, for My name is in him.’ ‎What is that supposed to mean? ‎
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We have seen indications of this duality the changing appearance of God at the Burning ‎Bush. First an angel of Hashem called to Moshe from the middle of the bush. Then Hashem ‎appeared to him. Then Elohim called to him from the middle of the bush. A few verses later it ‎is Hashem speaking to him. It then switches back to Elohim. The most straightforward ‎explanation, and the one Nachmanides himself uses in these verses, is that the angel is this ‎very same manifestation of God, referred to as an angel because of the way it guides the ‎world. ‎
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It seems that there are different degrees of God’s presence. God’s presence can be bottled up ‎in the form of an angel. The ‘name of God’ is in this form, perhaps indicating its function as ‎the manifestation of God that guides the world. But there is a higher form of God’s presence ‎that suggests a more personal relationship between God and the individuals involved. Such a ‎presence is not called an angel but either Elohim or Hashem. They are two different ‎presences, but they are both God. The first could be ‘sent’ by the second to accomplish some ‎divine mission in angelic guise. The term Shechina could apply equally to either one of them. ‎
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How does this square with the unknowable essence of God? While such an essence may very ‎well exist, or it may encompass existence itself, it is not what the Torah is talking about and it ‎is not the image that prophets spoke with or envisioned. They saw a presence, something that ‎was real in a non-metaphorical sense. It may not have had measurable hands or fingers, but it ‎was a presence that could be understood and felt. It could be detectable to only a select few ‎individuals at any given time or place. It could leave a certain place never to return, or dwell ‎in one place always. It could be in more than one place at the same time. ‎
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How could all this be true of this presence? It could be true if the presence of God was ‎somehow dependent on the spiritual condition of the created world. This relationship, one of ‎mutual dependence, is integral to Nachmanides system. God could only be present in the ‎world if the world provided an environment in which God could be sensed. Otherwise God ‎may be there in some hidden manner, but could not be sensed. The Shechina may always be ‎around, everywhere at all times. But it can only be felt in those situations that provide a ‎setting for it to be felt. This is crucial to understanding the Nachmanides system, for it clues ‎us in on what is really meant by God’s presence. God is ‘there’ when we enable God to be ‎‎‘there’; otherwise, God isn’t ‘there’. ‎
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Is this still monotheistic? Is it different from Christianity? The answer to the first question is ‎an unqualified ‘yes’. There are not two Gods here – an unknown God and a Presence. Only ‎the Presence can be either known or unknown depending on the spiritual condition on the ‎receiving end. That spiritual condition determines how strongly God’s presence will be felt at ‎any given time and place, or even if it will be felt at all.  The phenomenon of God’s presence ‎being sensed is known in scholarly circles as a ‘theophany’, a term that translates as ‎‎‘appearance of God’. While not physical, there must be something that is detected by those ‎who are privileged to sense it. It may be nothing more than a feeling that something is there, ‎but that something is everything. ‎
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Is this all that different from Christianity? The answer to this question is probably ‘yes’ and ‎‎‘no’. It is ‘yes’ since Christianity has a very physical presence while Judaism does not. In ‎Christianity, God took the form of a human being; in Judaism it was never more than a ‎presence. However, once God can assume a knowable or detectable manifestation, it is not ‎the least bit clear where the line should be drawn as to what form that manifestation could ‎take. If it could take a non-physical form, why can’t it take a physical form? There is no clear ‎answer to this question. ‎
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God’s presence, Nachmanides might say, is everywhere. It is all over the world at all times. It ‎is there in all people also. It is simply a matter of degree. But perhaps he would say that if ‎God was uniquely incarnated in one individual it would exclude everywhere and everyone ‎else. This, he might say, is where Judaism differs. The Jewish answer may very well be that ‎bottling God’s presence up into one person is just going too far. ‎
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Perceiving the Image ‎
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This image, for better or worse, is probably the one that best fits mainstream Judaism. It fits ‎into the Biblical picture and into the picture portrayed in rabbinic teachings. It allows God to ‎be both knowable and unknowable, depending on the spiritual environment at hand. It is fully ‎monotheistic in spite of allowing for multiple presences, and yet differs considerably from ‎Christianity in not restricting the presence to one unique individual. It fits into the very ‎personal relationship that the Hashem image is supposed to convey, while maintaining the ‎option of the very impersonal image of a Guide of the world. This image has it all. Is there ‎any need to look elsewhere? ‎
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To the average Jew, the answer is no. All we really need is to know is that God’s presence is ‎there, waiting for us to make it detectable. This is enough. The average Jew, the average ‎person, is not the least bit interested in a God that is utterly unknowable, as compelling the ‎intellectual argument for such a God may be. To the average person, if God is unknowable, ‎God really does not exist. They want their God to exist in some sense that makes common ‎sense. If God’s presence is indeed detectable, but to detect it one must wade through a ‎complex maze of emanations within emanations, each different from the other in some subtle ‎manner, perhaps a genuine mystic will find this appealing, but for the average person it is just ‎too much. God must be perceivable, and the perceiving of God must be straightforward and ‎within the grasp of everyone. This is the beauty of the system of Nachmanides. ‎
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God’s presence is everywhere, waiting for us to bring it out. It may take the form of an angel, ‎but it may take the form of a feeling in the air or a sensation in the mind. It is the subtlest of ‎feelings but also the strongest. It comes in the form of awe and power, but also amidst the ‎emotions of joy and love. It is there for all of us to sense. All we have to do is use our latent ‎spiritual powers to waken it from dormancy. ‎
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Reflections ‎
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This presence is all very nice, but what is to distinguish it from some genuine creation?  Is ‎there any difference between the angel who assumes God’s presence and a garden variety ‎angel? For that matter, why can’t the presence take the form of a person? ‎



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