The Mishna: The Holy One Blessed Be He
What is God?
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When we enter the post-temple period we encounter the post-Biblical names of God. The first of these, and perhaps the earliest of the rabbinic names for God, is Hakadosh Baruch Hu – The Holy One, Blessed be He, the title of this essay. The name itself says very little about God. That God is called the Holy One is no major surprise. What better way is there of referring to God. The ‘Blessed be He’ part is also pretty blasé by this point. Where do we go to find out more about this name and what it means?
It turns out at it is by far and away the most popular name of God in rabbinic literature. There are a few others – Master of the Universe, the Merciful One, etc., that come up now and again, but Hakadosh Baruch Hu comes up almost 700 times in the Mishna and the Talmud alone. If we add in the Midrashim from later rabbinic literature and it comes to almost 3,000 times. No other name comes close to this. This was the name of God in the rabbinic world, and to this day it remains fairly popular. It has been outstripped by the name Hashem in daily and scholarly use, but it is still alive and well.
It probably dates back to second temple times, though it does not seem to have been very popular in Apocryphal literature and in the Dead Sea Scrolls. It appears to have really come into its own during the early rabbinic era. It is found 13 times in the Mishna, in various usages that do not reveal a common pattern other than that they always refer to God. Perhaps the exclusive use of this name for God reveals a desire to enlarge the spiritual gap between God and the angels – a gray area that had narrowed in much of the second temple spiritual literature.
More than anywhere in the Mishna, this name comes up in the tractate known as Avot, which is almost like a survey of early rabbinic views on what life is all about. Here are two examples:
'Akavya ben M’halalel (1st century CE) said, ‘Gaze at three things and you will not come to sin – know from where you have come, and to where you are going and before whom you are destined to give an accounting. From where did you come – from a putrid drop. Where are you going – to a place of dirt and worms. Before whom are you destined to give an accounting – before the King of kings, Hakadosh Baruch Hu’ (3:1). This same theme is expanded on a little later by Rabbi Elazar Hakappar of the late 2nd century: ‘He used to say, ‘The born are destined to die, and the dead are destined to live again, and the living to be judged – in order that they know, teach, and understand that He is God. He is the Designer, He is the Creator, He is the Knower, He is the Judge, He is the Witness, He is the Litigant, He will judge in the future, blessed is He. Before Him there is no iniquity, no forgetting, no favoritism, and no taking bribes, for everything is His. And know that everything is according to the accounting; and do not let your inclination promise you that the grave will be a refuge for you – for you were formed against your will, and against your will you were born, and against your will you live, and against your will you die, and against your will you are destined to give an accounting before the King of kings, Hakadosh Baruch Hu’ (4:22).
The Holy One Blessed be He – it sounds so rabbinic. This rabbinic name, Hakadosh Baruch Hu, puts God front and center in our lives. God is the Holy One. All holiness stems from God but God is still the One. Every single thing that is holy in life is rooted in God’s holiness. Everything worthwhile in life somehow springs from the Oneness of God. This image puts God squarely in the middle of Judaism.
This was indeed the primary goal of rabbinic spirituality – to make God the focal point of Jewish life. There were legal and ritual sides to rabbinic Judaism, to say nothing of political and philosophical concerns, but the spiritual focus was directed to God. Angels continued to float in the background and Elijah would make periodic appearances, but God was really it from here on in. The big questions, as always, were how God interacted with creation and what God expected from us. What God actually is, was a question that receded into the murky realm of mysticism. The rabbis felt that calling God ‘The Holy One’ was sufficient.
But those passages from Avot quoted above, and countless others sprinkled all over the Mishna, the Talmud, and the Midrash, reveal a great deal about what God did through this image. The first quote, for instance zeroes right in on the core of life – where did we come from, where are we heading, and what are we responsible to do. The answers to these questions are quite revealing about the early rabbinic take on life. We come from a putrid drop, we are heading towards death and decay, and we will have to answer to God. What happened to the soul, to immortality, to God’s love and mercy, to holiness and glory and wisdom? None of that is in this tidy picture. It’s just a drop of semen, a meal for the worms, and a major guilt trip.
The next quote is even more revealing. Birth, death, afterlife – it’s all just a prop to understand about God. God is everything. God runs the entire show from creation to final judgment. There is no getting anything by God. God forgets nothing, overlooks nothing, and needs nothing from us. And lest we be tempted to believe that we can scoot by in life ignoring all this and simply fade off into the everlasting sunset of death, it doesn’t end there. In fact that is really where it gets started. Everything else was just a prop – a bunch of forced props that we have to go through in order to face our true test. We will have to give this final accounting of our lives before none other than the all-knowing, no baloney, Holy One.
It’s pretty harsh. There is no sugar coating here. There are no reassuring flowery images of God walking with us along the seashore of life holding our hand and carrying us through the tough times. This is the divine version of boot camp. But it is life. This is no temporary nightmare that goes away when we wake up. This is the real thing. And it only gets worse as the final accounting comes around. Where did this image of God come from? Where did the God of the Bible go when the temple was destroyed?
God had become a little bit of a divine drill sergeant – a no-nonsense coach who makes pretty big demands and expects His charges to live up to His expectations. It doesn’t sound all that holy, does it? ‘You were formed against your will, and against your will you were born, and against your will you live, and against your will you die, and against your will you are destined to give an accounting before the King of kings.’ We didn’t really want any part of any of this. If it was up to us, we’d just as soon skip the whole thing. What is so holy about this image anyway?
Before we attempt to tackle that question, we have to gain a little historical perspective on what was happening back then. The temple had been destroyed. The old standby religion was in pieces. Everything seemed to have gone wrong. The Romans, these idolatrous, lecherous, treacherous, bullies, who lived by the sword and died by the sword – the Biblical Esau in comparison to the Jewish Jacob/Israel – were victorious. The Jews lost. All the magnificent prophecies of the glorious return from exile, the rebuilding of the temple and the rekindling of the flame of the Torah, the light to the nations and the lion lying down with the lamb – it all went up in smoke when the temple was burnt. This was a catastrophe of the first order.
To this picture these quotes from Avot speak. God is the Holy One, blessed be He. He promises nothing but blood, sweat, and tears. That accounting at the end is serious business. No bribes, no forgetting, no easy answers, no excuses. You came from nothing and you’ll go back to nothing and what you managed to do in between will be under tremendous scrutiny. You will be held answerable for everything. The whole point, it seems, is to demonstrate beyond any shadow of a doubt that God means business. There are no easygoing images here - no shepherds or life coaches – only the austere Holy One who cuts no slack. This is life in exile.
So what is so holy about this image? It is holy because it is so hard core. It is holy because there is no room for baloney or for compromise. There is no fluff or sugar coated promises of divine salvation, no easy atonement in exchange for a simple acceptance of faith. The Romans came and God showed that He meant business with all those threats in the Torah and the Prophets. He still means business and that is holy. It is the real world, the hard-driven, only-the-strong-survive, no-nonsense world of God. It is the real thing and nothing but the real thing. If that ain’t holy - distinct from this fake world of false promises and deceiving temptations - if that ain’t about as godly as it gets, then good luck in the grave.
Perceiving the Image
Like we said before, this is a harsh image. Not all “Hakadosh Baruch Hu’ quotes in rabbinic literature are this harsh. Most are actually quite pleasant. They more closely resemble the Shepherd or the Lord or one of the other more agreeable images. The truth is that God is the Holy One through the good stuff and through the tough stuff. We may prefer experiencing God’s holiness through the nice and pleasant stuff, but that doesn’t make the rough and tough stuff any less holy. It’s simply a matter of perspective. In our day and age, things are pretty comfortable for the most part. The destruction of the temple is ancient history. The Romans are a nation to watch on the History Channel. The Christians are still the Christians but they are no longer religious rivals of the Jews. Even the exile seems to be coming to an end. The Holocaust was a last (hopefully) gasp of the horrors of exile but it ended, and we survived. There are other challenges, of that there is no doubt. But life on the whole is pretty good.
Under these circumstances nobody wants to be reminded of the harsh Judge and Jury, the unforgetting, unbribable, all-knowing, Holy One, who demands so much of us without asking us if we want any of this and without giving us a way out. This is not a very popular image anymore, assuming it ever was. But there still is something to be gleaned by that old taskmaster image, something holy and precious. It is the simple fact that life is serious. God does mean business even if we don’t. And God’s meaning business make life holy. It makes life matter, and there is nothing holier than that.
Nobody wants this image but without it life loses something vital. It may be an uncomfortable fact of life that holiness only comes when life is taken seriously. We cheat ourselves when we treat life like a joke. Who do we think we are fooling?
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