Nachmanides: The Presence
What is God?
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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.
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.
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.
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?
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?
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.’
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?
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.
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.
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.
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’.
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.
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.
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.
Perceiving the Image
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?
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.
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.
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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