Hasidei Ashkenaz: The Inner and Outer Glory
What is God?
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Among the more famous controversies of intellectual Jewish history is the 300-year long (about 1100 – 1400) debate between the philosophers and the mystics. The philosophers pushed a rational approach to Judaism, based on an uneasy combination of Aristotelian thought, Scriptural revelation, and rabbinic tradition. The mystics pushed a non-rational approach based on an equally uneasy combination of neo-Platonic ideas about God, Scriptural revelation, and a rather hazy but nevertheless powerful mystical tradition.
It is interesting that this debate does not appear to have affected the Ashkenazi Jews of Germany, who give no evidence of this controversy in their writings. This was not because they lacked interest in philosophy or mysticism. They were well versed in both Throne mysticism and the philosophy of Saadia Gaon. It seems that they managed to find a way to get these two opposing theologies to fit together. Their philosophy was tinged with mysticism and their mysticism was highly philosophical. But it was a mysticism that was meant to be lived in daily life and not relegated to the mental gyrations of the Sefirot. For this reason, the mystics of Germany are called by the name Hasidei Ashkenaz – the pietists of Germany. That is what they were – Jews, perhaps scholars, perhaps mystics, whose primary goal was to attain moral and spiritual purity.
The best known of the Hasidei Ashkenaz was Rav Yehuda (Judah), known as the Pious. He died in 1217 and was highly influential in creating and compiling the theological doctrines of the Hasidei Ashkenaz. His most famous and influential work was called Sefer Hasidim (Book of the Pious) - a long list of rituals and beliefs that formed the core of life for the Hasidei Ashkenaz. His major theological work, ‘The Book of Glory’, laid the foundations for the philosophical mysticism of the Hasidei Ashkenaz. Unfortunately, this book was never published in any widespread form and all we have today is scattered references from books that quote it and a manuscript in Oxford that is very likely a good deal of the original text.
One of the main concerns of the Hasidei Ashkenaz was how God interacts with creation. This was precisely the subject we covered in the section dealing with Saadia Gaon, and precisely the issue that the dividing line was drawn between the philosophers and the mystics. The Book of Glory deals with this question through an imaginary three-sided debate between Jewish philosophers concerning the nature of God, in response to the questions of a Spanish king who wished to convert to Judaism. The first philosopher expressed the classic rationalist position – God was totally invisible and unknowable and whatever any prophets claimed to have ‘seen’ or ‘envisioned’ was a grand illusion. The second philosopher’s explanation, which is taken from the writings of the 12th century Spanish Bible commentator, Abraham Ibn Ezra, is the one that concerns us in this essay.
‘The highest aspect (literally ‘goodness’) of the Glory is attached to the Creator, and it is not a creation. But the aspect of the Glory that faces the creations – the angels and the prophets – they can see it when they direct the human mind to it…And Moshe requested from the Creator to show him the highest aspect of the Glory that faces towards the Creator, which is the absolute highest essence of the Creator – to see (it) And God said: For one who is alive it is not appropriate to see...’
The third philosopher agrees with the second on everything except one crucial point. This third opinion is that of Saadia Gaon- that the Glory is a created entity and not an uncreated intermediary between God and the creation. This is possibly, even likely, the crucial point of disagreement between the philosophers and the mystics.
This idea of the non-created Glory is expanded in the rest of the explanation of the second philosopher. It seems to be taking a middle path in between the two opposing schools of rationalist (Saadia Gaon) and literalist (the Biblical and rabbinic view in which God takes an almost physical form). In this middle path, the Glory is the form God takes, but the Glory is neither identical to God nor is it a creation. So what is it?
To appreciate the revolutionary nature of what is being introduced here, we have to take a step back. Up to now, the approaches we have studied have all had a firm dividing line between God and the creation. God creates the creation. God may be able to interact with creation, and even to take what appears to be a form that resembles a creation, but God must forever remain distinct from creation. This approach agrees with that dividing line, but insists that there is a divine bridge that crosses it. This is not exactly the neo-Platonic idea of God’s essence emanating outward and becoming more and more ‘real’ until it takes the form of the created world. This approach has a Creator and a creation. That bridge in between them, the Glory that isn’t God but isn’t a creation, is the missing piece in the puzzle.
How could something not be God but also not be a creation? First off, we already have seen the beginnings of such an idea in the writings of Philo. Philo’s Logos was a non-created ‘thing’ that made God’s will take form in the created world. The Glory seems to be the same idea but with two sides. ‘The highest aspect of the Glory is attached to the Creator, and it is not a creation. But the aspect of the Glory that faces the created world – the angels and the prophets – they can see it when they direct the human mind to it’. The dual nature of the Glory is the key to understanding how it could be distinct from God but also not a creation.
An earlier version of this idea can be found in the 11th century Hebrew dictionary known as the Aruch, by the Italian Rabbi, Natan ben Yechiel. In the entry for the Greek word spekluria, which means either lens or mirror, he digresses into a discussion on the nature of the Glory. A key line in that discussion is ‘There is Glory above Glory, and the Glory which is the great splendor, close to the Shechina, no man has seen it…This is what Moshe requested to see…’ The Glory has two sides, only the lower of which is perceivable by the created world.
All the sources for this idea trace it back to that dialogue between Hashem and Moshe right after the Golden Calf (Exodus 33:19-23). Moshe requested to see God’s glory. God’s response came in three parts: 1) I will pass all of my goodness in front of you; 2) You cannot see Me and live; 3) When my Glory passes I will shield you so that you see My back but not My face. The word ‘goodness’ refers to the higher aspect of the glory, that which is attached to the Creator. This is the ‘face’ that Moshe requested to see but was told he was unable to see, the ‘Glory above Glory’. The ‘back’ refers to the lower side of the glory that ‘faces the creations’. This was what Moshe actually saw when God removed the shield. These five verses serve as a window into the mysterious nature of the bridge between the Creator and the creation. They describe that bridge as having front and a back, the former of which is unknowable to the creations, the latter of which is knowable under certain unique conditions.
What is that bridge? It is a continuous entity that is completely different on its two ends. On one end it is attached to the Creator, almost like an extension of God, or perhaps an emanation in the neo-Platonic sense. The other side, the ‘outer Glory’, is attached to the creation. But it is not part of the creation, since it is not a creation at all. It is God’s glory extended further until it becomes knowable, perceivable, and measurable.
How could something be infinite and unknowable on one end and finite and knowable on the other, and yet be continuous? There is no easy or obvious answer to this question. It is not clear if there is an answer at all. This mystery - how God’s glory could be unfathomably infinite from one side but finite and knowable from the other - is the central mystery of how we perceive God.
These twin glories – the glory that fills the earth, and the glory that is above the earth – are the two sides that face opposite directions on the God-reality bridge. We cannot know the inner glory, for it cannot be seen, known, or measured by the living. But we can know, in our own limited way, the outer glory, which fills the entire bit of the universe at every moment of time. God is absolutely unknowable from one side, but from the other side, nothing can be more real than God.
Perceiving the Image
To attempt an explanation of this question is to venture into the dimension of mystery. Perhaps, with great emphasis on that word ‘perhaps’, we can suggest a direction. We are created in the image of God. Elsewhere in the Book of Glory, man is called an Olam Katan – a ‘miniature universe’. In our own way we reflect the image of God. We also possess this infinite-finite bridge within our mind/soul. On the one hand, it seems infinite in scope – able to grasp the vastness of the universe, to delve into the profound mystery of existence, to experience the boundless beauty of creativity, and to pierce the almost impenetrable veil that obscures why we are here. At unique times, we sense the infinite potential of free will and the unlimited domain of the imagination.
But more often, we are stuck in the limited horizons of our needs and desires, and the all too finite capacity of our capabilities. We need concrete things to grasp – numbers, sizes, descriptions, facts, and figures. We frequently cannot venture beyond the borders of our own egos, and have trouble regarding anything outside of it as worthy of our attention. We also have that same bridge inside of ourselves. We are both infinite and finite, limited and boundless. And yet it is all us. There is no discontinuity in the mind. On the side that faces the body and the physical world we sense very clearly that the mind has limits and is quite human. On the side that faces the spiritual, the side that is directed towards God, we occasionally glimpse our unlimited reach. This bridge is our ‘glory’; it is our internal emanation from infinite to finite.
God’s glory, perhaps, is the divine parallel to the human mind. It emanates from God’s essence outward, first manifesting as the ‘inner glory’ – the unknowable infinite beginning of God’s mind. But it continues outward until it becomes the ‘outer glory’ – the knowable and finite ‘end’ of God’s mind that is only one step away from the physical creation. One side is attached to God’s essence and the other to the creation, but they are both part of the continuous uncreated interface called ‘Glory’. The Glory, when looked at in this sense, is really God’s mind. On its innermost level it is infinite and unknowable. On its outermost level it is finite and knowable. It is on this level that we can partially penetrate the reality of God – to understand that it is available to be grasped, and to revere the unfathomable mystery that is there.
This dichotomy of God’s being both knowable and unknowable, is both fascinating and difficult to grasp. But what good does it do to tantalize us with an aspect of Glory that we cannot perceive?
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