Saadia Gaon: The Shechina – Created Glory ‎

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			Many people are puzzled by the apparent disconnect between the very real and almost human ‎God of the Bible and the unreachable and almost unreal God of the last several centuries of ‎Judaism. The transitional phase between these two extremes was the Shechina, a Talmudic ‎term that is left rather vague in primary rabbinic sources, but generally understood as the ‎‎‘dwelling presence’ of God. ‎
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The exact nature of this ‘dwelling presence’ is left almost totally unclear in the Talmud and ‎Midrash. The Shechina comes up all over the place in the early rabbinic teachings. At times it ‎seems as visible as a cloud and at others it can only be sensed by those who are attuned to it. ‎It speaks, it makes things happen, it inspires, and it comes and goes with the spiritual ‎condition of the Jews. It went into exile with the Jews but came back when they returned. It ‎vanished when selfishness or physical desires dominated the minds of those who should have ‎remained above such mundane drives. But wherever the Jews were, it hovered about in some ‎way. ‎
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But what was the Shechina? Was it God or was it some ‘thing’ that God made in order to ‎facilitate the presence of the divine in the created world? In the Talmud and the Midrash, ‎with a few exceptions, it could go either way. But each side tread on dangerous turf. If it was ‎God, it lent an almost palpable physicality to God – a precarious position in all but the most ‎mystical of mystical Judaism. If it was a created presence, then it wasn’t God at all. How ‎then, was it different from an angel? ‎
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The first real attempt at clarifying what the Shechina was appeared in the early 10th century in ‎a book that was to change the entire theological foundation of Judaism. This was the ‎famous Emunot v’Deot, or ‘Beliefs and Opinions’ by the illustrious Saadia Gaon of Egypt, ‎Israel and Bavel. The book was completed around 930 and represents a radical departure ‎from the classic genre of rabbinic writings. Prior to Saadia, nobody had attempted to ‎systematically explain Jewish belief. All previous teachings were bits and pieces of what ‎appeared to be a somewhat contradictory and deliberately vague dogma. Saadia’s ‘Beliefs ‎and Opinions’ was the first universally acknowledged philosophical overview of Judaism. ‎Saadia rightfully deserves to be called the father of Jewish philosophy. ‎
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Much of the second section of ‘Beliefs and Opinions’ deals with the question of how God ‎interacts with the created world. Saadia goes to great lengths to reject the simplistic ‎understanding of the Torah that God actually interacts with the world in the manner ‎described in the text. This would include speaking to people, ascending and descending to ‎and from the world, taking up space, fitting squarely into the flow of time, and doing all sorts ‎of other physical activities that resemble the way any physical being interacts with the ‎physical world. To Saadia, such a literal understanding is the epitome of foolishness. God is ‎totally non-physical, so it is senseless to imagine God interacting physically with creation. But ‎what about all those physical interactions described in the Torah. To this, Saadia, perhaps on ‎his own and without backup from tradition, asserts his thesis concerning the Shechina: ‎
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‎‘Our answer is that this image (or form), was a creation. Similarly, the throne and the ‎firmament and the angels that carry it are all creations that the Creator produced from light to ‎verify to His prophets that God was sending a message to them. It (the image of God) is a ‎form which is even more elevated than the angels, magnificent in its creation, containing ‎splendor and light, which is called the ‘Glory of Hashem’… The sages spoke of it as ‎the Shechina. Sometimes this light appears not in the form of a person…And if Scripture ‎mentions the name of Hashem but does not associate it with the word ‘Glory’ or with any ‎angel, but it does associate it with a vision or the form of a person, there is no doubt that there ‎is something missing in this statement, and it is (really) the Glory of Hashem or an angel of ‎Hashem.’ ‎
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Analysis ‎
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Saadia was a firm believer in creation as opposed to emanation. Creation implied that God ‎exists outside of the created world. Emanation, a product of the neo-Platonic schools of the ‎late Roman empire, understood the created world to be manifestation of God and not an ‎outside creation. This would become a central point of disagreement between the Jewish ‎philosophical and mystical outlooks. ‎
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The core question on how the world comes to be, however, is the same for both. An ‎unknowable infinite being has to create a finite and physical world. In emanation, God ‎becomes the world through the transforming process of emanation. In creation, God creates ‎the world from nothing. The two are similar in that they both start with an infinite and ‎unknowable God. The difference is in the nature of the created world – is it an emanation ‎from God’s essence or a creation out of nothing. In favoring the second position, Saadia was ‎faced with two parallel questions: how the creation happened to begin with and how God ‎continues to interact with the created world. The first has no answer that we can understand. ‎Creation is ultimately a divine act that must be accepted on principle since it is revealed in the ‎Torah. The second question, how God continues to interact with the world, is something that ‎we experience in our daily lives and is widely described in the Torah. It seems that this ‎question should have a concrete answer. ‎
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It is easy to miss the radical nature of Saadia’s approach. What he is essentially saying is that ‎with the exception of the direct communication between God and Moshe, God never directly ‎interacts with human beings. All those images of God that the prophets describe so vividly ‎are really visions of beings that were created for the purpose of enabling those prophets to ‎gain a clear perspective of lofty spiritual matters. Those created beings may have been angels ‎or some other spiritual entity. Alternatively, the vision may have been of a created being ‎called the ‘Glory of Hashem’, or ‘Shechina’. These interchangeable terms (the first Biblical ‎and the second rabbinic) do not refer to God at all, but to a creation that is the appropriate ‎image for the human mind to associate with God. This image could take the form of a person, ‎or it could take some other form, depending on what was needed for that situation. ‎The Shechina, in its many appearances throughout the Talmud and the Midrash, is the ‎rabbinic name for this created image. ‎
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The radical departure from tradition that this idea represents cannot be overstated. The Glory ‎of God, or its rabbinic equivalent, the Shechina, is not God at all. It is a created image. Saadia ‎occasionally refers to it by the expression kavod nivra or ‘created glory’, seemingly to stress ‎its status as a mere creation. God Himself (perhaps ‘Itself’ is more appropriate according to ‎the philosophers) is totally unknowable by any creation, to say nothing of being invisible and ‎even unimaginable. Any description of God found in Scripture or in rabbinic teachings is ‎nothing other than this created reflection of God called ‘Glory’ or Shechina. Any attempt to ‎take those images literally as a description of what God actually is, would be tantamount to ‎either foolishness or idolatry. ‎
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What drove Saadia and his followers to take this radical position? There was certainly nothing ‎in the Bible or the Talmud to back it up. On the contrary, the Bible, the Talmud, and the ‎Midrash, appear to state the very opposite. Saadia’s reasons for his view, and the reasons of ‎his opponents for rejecting it, became a core issue that split Jewish theology into at least three ‎camps. On the one hand, we have the fundamentalists, who take the Biblical verses and ‎Midrashic statements literally. If it talks about God’s eyes, it means that God has eyes. If it ‎says that God got angry, it means that God gets angry. On the opposite extreme lie the ‎philosophers, who insisted that these descriptions, if they indeed describe God, cannot be ‎taken literally. They are only flowery images to enable the limited minds of human being to ‎grasp what is otherwise unfathomable. If they actually state that somebody experienced God ‎in some palpable way, it does not refer to God but to this creation called Glory or Shechina. ‎The emanation idea of the mystics stood somewhere in between these two views. It would ‎become the dominant view in Judaism. ‎
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The position of Saadia, which was adopted lock, stock, and barrel by such illustrious ‎philosophers as Maimonides, contained vast implications. On the one hand, it elevated God to ‎a stature of being utterly unknowable. The only thing we could definitely and positively say ‎about God is that God ‘is’. Anything else, no matter how the Torah describes it, is only words ‎that are useful for the human mind in its attempt to get a handle on ultimate truth and ‎ultimate purpose. On the other hand, it takes all those Biblical and rabbinic images of God’s ‎actual presence or appearance, and relegates them to the status of very useful props. ‎Obviously, those props should not be worshiped as God, since they are not God. ‎
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Perhaps the primary motivation for this position was the absolute distinction it attributed to ‎God. There could be no mistaking God for any angel or anything else. Everything else, no ‎matter how holy or unfathomable, is only a creation. God alone is not in this category. ‎Judaism, to Saadia and his philosophical successors, was a religion with an absolute theology. ‎Either one believed in God or one didn’t. There may be plenty of opportunities within ‎Judaism for spiritual or intellectual fulfillment, and a lifetime’s worth of commandments and ‎rules to keep Jews within a solid ethical and moral framework, but on a theological level, it ‎was all or nothing. ‎
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Perceiving the Image ‎
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Concerning the image of God that Saadia presents us, there are two aspects that must be ‎emphasized. First is the recognition that God is not the image. God is imageless. True worship ‎of God is a highly refined process that requires great thought and understanding. It is not the ‎simple matter of picturing God sitting on his throne surrounded by angels. It is the experience ‎of concentrating one’s mental and spiritual powers on the utterly imageless and unknowable ‎nature of God. God is by definition what cannot be known. It is not worshiping the ‎unknown, but the unknowable. This alone is challenging and worthy of a lifetime’s efforts. ‎
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Second is the image itself. What good does this image do if it is not really God? It teaches us ‎of the human need for images in gaining some understanding of God. These images would ‎never have been put into the Torah if they weren’t necessary. The human mind has limitations. ‎We need whatever help we can get in grasping the infinite and inscrutable reality of God. The ‎Torah provided us with clues – images that we can use to make the ultimate mystery a little ‎more accessible to us. God created these images so that we would have at least something to ‎point to and recognize as a guide. To not use the images is to consider them unnecessary. It ‎may be heretical to worship the image, but it is the height of arrogance to disregard it. ‎
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Reflections ‎
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Saadia’s theology forever altered Judaism, but it came at a price. How are we to pretend that ‎all the graphic images of the Bible and the Talmud/Midrash are nothing more than props? On ‎the flip side, how are we supposed to love and revere God if we cannot ever hope to know ‎God to begin with? ‎



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