Saadia Gaon: The Shechina – Created Glory
What is God?
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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.
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.
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?
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.
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:
‘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.’
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Perceiving the Image
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.
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.
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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