Onkelos: Manifestations of God ‎

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			Translation is interpretation. Anybody who has translated anything knows this simple rule. ‎There is always some nuance in the wording that could go one way or the other and a choice ‎has to be made. There is always a word that might mean this and it might mean that, and ‎deciding one way or the other can make all the difference in the world. This is just the way ‎things are. It’s an irrevocable result of the nature of human language. ‎
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This is particularly true about the various names of God in the Bible. If they are all translated ‎as ‘God’, the translation misses the whole point of the different names. If they are translated ‎as something other than God, for instance as just a name, the true meaning may be lost. ‎Translating the Bible also has theological issues to contend with. Over time, theological ‎changes may have set in that necessitate translating certain words, names, or phrases ‎differently than they would have been translated under different cultural conditions. A ‎perfect example of this is the physicality of God. ‎
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In the Bible, God is quite physical. As we have seen, God has hands, feet, arms, nostrils, ‎eyes, etc. God displays very human traits like anger, joy, sadness, regret, and several others. ‎God does very physical things like walk, talk, listen, strike, ascend, and descend. All of these ‎things may have meant one thing deep in Biblical times but something quite different in ‎rabbinic times. This was the situation confronted by Onkelos the convert. ‎
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Before Onkelos, the standard translation of the Bible, for those who needed it, was the ‎Septuagint into Greek. The early Christian communities, both Jewish and non-Jewish adopted ‎it as their fundamental text. They became tremendously adapt at finding references to a ‎Father-Son deity system in every nook and cranny of the text. The late 1st century CE rabbis ‎had a major goal of eliminating the threat of Jewish Christianity from their midst. They ‎weren’t so concerned with gentile Christianity, but they considered the internal threat to be ‎fairly grave. In an effort to stamp out Jewish Christianity they decided they needed a new ‎translation to replace the Septuagint. This task fell upon the most unlikely of people – a ‎Roman convert named Akilas. ‎
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The Jerusalem Talmud (JT) calls him Akilas. The Babylonian Talmud calls him Onkelos. Both ‎Babylonian and Israeli sources say that he was a convert who was related to a Roman ‎emperor, the former to Titus, the latter to Hadrian. The JT says that he translated the Torah ‎into Greek. The Talmud Bavli doesn’t say what the language was. It seems pretty obvious ‎that Akilas and Onkelos were the same person and that the original translation was into ‎Greek. However, the ‘Onkelos’ translation that we have, is translated into a dialect of the ‎Aramaic language which similar, but not identical, to the dialect used in the Talmud. What ‎probably happened was the original Akilas translation was translated into Aramaic, which ‎became the ‘official’ version, and that’s the way things remain. ‎
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Onkelos had a standard technique for dealing with God’s physicality. He frequently adds ‎words to a sentence to create an ‘intermediary’ between God and the world. Whenever the ‎Torah states that God ‘appeared’ to someone, Onkelos appends the word y’kar (glory), or ‎some close variation, to the word ‘God’ An example of this is in the dramatic verses ‎following shortly after the giving of the Ten Commandments: ‘And they saw the God of ‎Israel, and under His feet was like the work of a clear sapphire, and like the essence of the ‎heavens in purity’ (Exodus 24:10). Onkelos renders the phrase ‘God of Israel’ as 'glory of the ‎God of Israel'. ‎
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Another of these ‘intermediary’ words is the well-known word ‘shechina’. For instance, when ‎Moshe requests divine grace in experiencing God’s essence following the Golden Calf, ‎Hashem tells him that he will pass His goodness before him in some way and call out in the ‎name of Hashem (Exodus 33:19). When this actually takes place a few verses later the text ‎reads: ‘And Hashem passed before his face (in front of him), and called…’ ‎‎(34:6). Onkelos translates it as ‘Hashem passed His Shechinteh (His presence) in front of him’. ‎A third word used in this way is the commonly found word maimreh (utterance), which ‎frequently serves as an interface between God and creation. ‎
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Analysis ‎
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The importance of Onkelos cannot be overstated. Onkelos virtually defined the basic Jewish ‎image of God. It was non-Christian, non-corporeal, and non-human. It told us a great deal ‎about what God wasn’t. By putting in these intermediary attributes of God, it took God out ‎of direct contact with the creation and set God in a completely different dimension of reality. ‎Though there were many attempts to bring God back in, it never really happened. Almost all ‎future images, and all the images that endured, focused either on God being beyond, or on ‎the intermediaries that formed the interface between God and creation. ‎
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These three intermediaries that Onkelos uses: the presence, the glory, and the utterance, are all ‎familiar to us already. In fact, they all really come under the rabbinic umbrella term ‎‎‘shechina’. Onkelos divided the Shechina up into three specific functions. The ‘glory’ aspect ‎was used for when the Torah talks about God being seen; the ‘utterance’ used for God’s ‎actions; the ‘presence’ was used for everything in between. ‎
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There is a major rabbinic/philosophical debate about what Onkelos really meant by these ‎intermediaries and what he was trying to accomplish. According to Maimonides, his singular ‎goal was to avoid any notion of physicality with regard to God. The intermediary terms were ‎creations of God. Glory was a creation that enabled God to appear in the world. ‎The Shechina was a creation that enabled God’s presence to be sensed. The ‘word’ was the ‎Logos – the creation through which God’s mind activates things in the world. They are all ‎classic interfaces between God and creation. They may be higher than angels but they are still ‎creations and not God. ‎
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Nachmanides, backed by numerous examples in Onkelos, contended that this explanation ‎cannot tell the whole story. He shows how Onkelos many times does not shirk from ‎physicality when he should have if that was his sole objective. Nachmanides claims that the ‎intermediaries are not creations at all. Along the path of almost all Jewish mystics, he claims ‎that they are really manifestations of God that have somehow become perceivable in the ‎world. ‎
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This debate would haunt Jewish theology throughout the Middle Ages. It was a matter that ‎could not be solved merely by looking at Scripture. There were ample examples in the Bible ‎demonstrating the absolute reality of God’s presence, but Onkelos had thrown a monkey ‎wrench into the works. How literally could one take all those descriptions? Once Christianity ‎took things too far for Jewish taste, all those quotes had to be regarded as non-literal. But ‎once they were made non-literal, what did they mean? To the philosophical school of thought, ‎championed by Maimonides and Saadia Gaon, those seemingly visible and palpable ‎appearances of God were really just creations of God made to give human beings the ‎impression that God was somehow interacting with them in a very real manner. God’s true ‎reality was totally inaccessible to any creation. Anything short of this would be to admit ‎physicality to God. ‎
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The mystical school, championed by Nachmanides and many others, rejected this restriction ‎out of hand. Limiting human interaction with the divine to these created ‘interfaces’ is ‎tantamount to driving God out of the Bible and out of the world. If all those appearances and ‎reactions of God that occur all over the Bible do not really involve God at all, then where is ‎God to be found? Because of this problem, this school of thought claims that Onkelos cannot ‎be siding with the philosophers but must be saying something else with his intermediary ‎terms. These terms – the utterance, the glory, and the presence – are not mere creations but are ‎God passed through a kind of divine filter. They would called ‘emanations’ of God, and ‎would become the primary subject of Jewish mystical theology. ‎
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What really are they? They are not God per se. They have no powers independent of God. ‎But they are also not non-God. They are God revealed in some way. God can cause revelation ‎of godliness anywhere, or take it away from anywhere. It is God who causes it all to happen. ‎The appearance, presence, or action is the result of God causing it under those circumstances. ‎The way God interacts with the world is through these intermediaries. They are God’s divine ‎agents in the world, like a localized snapshot of God restricted to a particular time, place, and ‎state of being. There is no better way of stating it than to say that the intermediary terms ‎are manifestations of God – a word that we shall be seeing quite a bit as we proceed forward ‎in time. ‎
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Perceiving the Image ‎
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Manifestation. It is a long word with multiple meanings. With regard to God it is particularly ‎vague. Technically it means something like ‘appearance’, but it really means much more than ‎that. One of the goals of Onkelos was to clarify what the Bible means by the various ‎expressions of God’s interaction with the world. These interactions, Onkelos essentially tells ‎us, were ‘manifestations’ of God. These manifestations were not angels or some other ‎secondary spiritual forces. They were the real thing in a form that could be sensed through the ‎spiritual and perhaps physical properties of the created world. ‎
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This, of course, sounds reminiscent of the very thing Onkelos was trying to avoid – ‎Christianity. The difference between Judaism as defined by Onkelos, and Christianity, is in ‎the degree of physicality that the manifestations can take. In Christianity it can be totally ‎physical to the degree that it assumes human form complete with birth and death. In Judaism ‎it cannot be physical at all, but is able to interact with and be detected by the created world. ‎This proved to be an extremely important difference, one that has never been smoothed over. ‎Once God can be physical there is no end to God’s physicality and no firm dividing line ‎between man and God. On the other hand, if God cannot become physical, the God-man ‎divide remains essentially unbridgeable. Each has its advantages and disadvantages in a ‎religious framework. ‎
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The Jewish belief system has the advantage of ensuring that God will always be above all ‎human considerations. Jews would always have some higher-than-human, beyond-creation ‎dimension to try to connect with and to obey. But this ran the danger of not being able to ‎relate to God on a human level. It all boils down to perceiving God. How is one to perceive ‎God in this world? For Judaism, addressing this question is everything. There is no easy ‎answer. It is like walking a tightrope – stepping too far off in one direction leads to the abyss ‎of physicality, but stepping out in the other direction leads to the undetectable no-thingness ‎of God’s essence. The manifestations are the tightrope itself. Understanding them and ‎perceiving them became the Holy Grail of Judaism. ‎
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Reflections ‎
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The Biblical world was over. God could no longer be perceived as something ‘real’ in any ‎familiar sense. Something had to replace that image. The manifestations were the answer. ‎Were they really the answer? Are they still the answer? ‎



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