The Mishna: The Holy One Blessed Be He ‎

What is God? | Total Comments: 0 | Total Topics: 3

			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? ‎
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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. ‎
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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. ‎
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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: ‎
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‎'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). ‎
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Analysis ‎
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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. ‎
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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. ‎
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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. ‎
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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. ‎
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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? ‎
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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? ‎
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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. ‎
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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. ‎
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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. ‎
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Perceiving the Image ‎
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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. ‎
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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. ‎
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Reflections ‎
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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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