Onkelos: Manifestations of God
What is 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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'.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Perceiving the Image
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.
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.
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.
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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