Simon the Righteous: The Man Dressed in White

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			If we divide the second temple era into four periods: Persian, Greek, Jewish, and Roman, we ‎find four significant religious leaders or groups who each dominated one period. The Persian ‎period was dominated by Ezra. Nehemiah was a secular leader who got a book in the Bible ‎named after him, but even that book has Ezra calling the religious shots. The Jewish period is ‎dominated by the Hasmoneans. The Roman period has the two early rabbinic figures, Hillel ‎and Shammai, setting the pace. The period of interaction with the Greeks has Simon the ‎Righteous at the helm. ‎
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The quote we shall examine in this section concerns his legacy as a High Priest of the temple. ‎As noted in the introductory section to this period, the office of High Priest was a hereditary ‎office that was frequently subject to problematic personalities and less than pure political ‎maneuvering. Talmudic tradition has it that there were about 400 High Priests during the ‎second temple period. That is quite a bit considering that the temple stood for about 420 years ‎according to the same tradition. Apparently, the High Priest typically didn’t last very long. A ‎major exception was Simon the Righteous who served for 40 of those years, also according to ‎that same tradition. ‎
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The story associated with his longevity as High Priest is found in both the Babylonian and ‎Jerusalem Talmuds. We are going to use the version found in the Jerusalem Talmud though ‎they are very similar and obviously stem from the same tradition. ‘Simon the Righteous ‎served Israel as High Priest for 40 years. During his final year he said to them (his students), ‎‎“In this year I will die”. They asked him how he knew. He replied, “Every year that I enter ‎into the Holy of Holies there is an old man dressed in white wearing a white turban who ‎enters with me and leaves with me. This year he entered with me but didn’t leave with me.” ‎They asked Rabbi Abahu (a third century CE rabbi of Israel): ‘But doesn’t it state that “There ‎shall be no man with him (the High Priest) in the Tent of Communion when he comes to atone ‎on the sanctuary until he leaves” (Leviticus 16:17), even those about whom it is written “And ‎the image of their faces was like the face of man” (Ezekiel 1:10, that is, the angels) shall not ‎be in the Tent?’ He answered, ‘What are you saying to me, that it was a man (or an angel)? I ‎say that it was the Holy One Blessed Be He’ (Talmud Yerushalmi Yoma 5:2). ‎
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Analysis ‎
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Wow. Did we read that right? This Rabbi Abahu responds to what appears to be a pretty ‎classic rabbinic question concerning a story that contradicts a Biblical rule, with an answer ‎that smacks of heresy. This guy all dressed in white was God? God wears white? God even ‎wears a white turban? Does He wear a white tuxedo to go with it? How about white shoes? ‎‎(Perhaps we can dodge this last question with the rule that the priests couldn’t wear shoes ‎when performing the services in the temple. But the tux question still stands.) What’s going ‎on here? ‎
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We’ve already seen in Ezekiel an image that suggests a kind of corporeal image of God. There ‎it was an image of a man on a throne. But it was couched in so many ‘image of a likeness’ ‎phrases that the purists who insist on complete non-corporeality of God can easily squirm out ‎of it. The truth is that this is a controversy that has been with Torah and Judaism since the ‎beginning. Abraham seems to be speaking to God like he’s taking to his next door neighbor. ‎Then again, the Torah seems to go out of its way to avoid any chance of making the fatal ‎mistake that God has a physical image. Throughout the Tanakh the same tension exists. ‎Ezekiel sees the image of the likeness of the Man on the throne. Isaiah sees the Lord sitting ‎on a throne surrounded by angels. Other prophets see an image with an outstretched arm ‎holding a sword. Maybe it’s all angels; maybe it’s some version of God’s glory. But it’s ‎something that has to be dealt with. ‎
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At the risk of alienating all those purists who insist on God’s total non-corporeality ‎‎(Maimonides is the champion of this view and it has become almost universal among theistic ‎Jews), we are going to go out on a limb and say that all of these images, including this one, ‎are real and not mere metaphors. There is simply no way of pulling the metaphor trick out of ‎the bag this time. Simon may not have touched anything palpable, but he saw something. And ‎the shape of the image that he saw was that of a man. ‎
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Is this heresy? To the purist followers of Maimonides the answer is an unqualified ‘yes’. To ‎others throughout Jewish history, as we shall see in coming sections, the answer is no. ‎According to the second line of belief, there is nothing wrong with believing that God can ‎assume a physical shape, perhaps even a palpable physical form. If God can smell the ‎fragrance of burnt sacrificial offerings is it so terrible if He can assume the appearance of a ‎man? This is what the Talmud says that Simon the Righteous saw, after all. Why not just take ‎it at face value? ‎
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The reason why not is that there is a great deal at stake here. It is not for nothing that ‎Maimonides and his many followers thoroughly rejected this view. They knew what was at ‎stake so they took the weighty choice of reinterpreting countless verses in the Bible and many ‎rabbinic allusions like this one. Without question, they would have rejected a literal or even ‎semi-literal interpretation of this story and said that Simon was imagining the whole thing in ‎some sort of spiritual trance. Although even that smacks of heresy to the true purists, at least ‎it is digestible. Is there any other way around this problem? ‎
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Perhaps we can suggest that in ancient times, Judaism had no problem with the idea that God ‎could assume a form, even a physical form. In a pre-Christian world would this really be so ‎unbelievable? It certainly fits in with the Bible. It absolutely fits in with Ezekiel. If God is the ‎Creator of the universe and the sustainer of all creation who constantly breathes life into ‎everything and knows the inner workings of the mind, is it so hard to believe that God could ‎take a physical form? If God can do anything why should this be the one thing that God ‎cannot do? ‎
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If the problem is that it limits God to one place or one time, we can deal with that. This belief ‎would obviously accept that God can be both everywhere and in one particular place. It is no ‎different from the already familiar concept of the Shechina, or dwelling presence. Anybody ‎familiar with the world of Midrash knows that the Shechina can be located at one particular ‎place in the world. In fact, the Shechina can be permanently situated in one spot. ‎The Shechina can even be in more than one place at one time. All that is required is a little ‎flexibility on how one sees God’s reality. The Shechina expanded the possible manifestations ‎of God in the world to include being located in one place. This Simon the Righteous story ‎takes that idea one step further. It suggests that the Shechina may be visible to the human ‎mind in some way. Not only is the Shechina ‘there’, but it can take what appears to be a ‎human form. ‎
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With this as a background, we can now try to understand what Simon the Righteous actually ‎saw. This ‘man’, who was the visible Shechina, was dressed in white and wrapped in a white ‎turban. This was not Simon’s imagination coming up with this. It was the actual appearance ‎of the shechina. The Shechina wears white. Would it be better if the Shechina was naked? ‎What is wrong with the Shechina wearing white? It took the form of an immaculately dressed ‎man. ‎
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The Talmud explained that this did not violate the rule of the High Priest being the only ‎person in the Holy of Holies. This ‘man’ was not a man. It had the appearance of a man, like ‎Ezekiel’s man on the throne. But it absolutely was not a man. It was the presence of God in ‎the room with the High Priest in the same way that the glory of God dwelt around the Ark of ‎the Covenant. The Ark was no longer there but that did not prevent God’s presence from ‎being there. This was what Simon saw – the presence of God taking the form of a man ‎dressed in white. ‎
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This is the ‘physical’ image of God. It will take many forms through the centuries. It began ‎with a ‘Man of War’, reappeared as ‘Glory’, was visible to Ezekiel as a Man on the throne, ‎and was visible to Simon the Righteous as a Man dressed in white. It is possible that at those ‎stages of Jewish history a physical image was necessary. It is also possible that such an image ‎is still necessary but we no longer feel comfortable with it. Our own intellectual development ‎has made this image incompatible with other beliefs about God so we had to abandon it. ‎
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Perceiving the Image ‎
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For better or worse, this image is not available to just anyone. Simon the Righteous ‎experienced it when he entered and left the Holy of Holies once a year on Yom Kippur. This ‎happened about 2,300 years ago. We do know that Judaism and Christianity split over the ‎issue of whether an image like this was really kosher. It appears that the image became taboo ‎among Jews some time after the split with Christianity, though it did take over a millennium ‎for the taboo to really set in. There is little question that for the past several hundred years this ‎image has not been considered acceptable from a Jewish vantage point. ‎
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Putting limits on what God can do or cannot do may very well be part of certain religious ‎belief systems but it doesn’t necessarily reflect what God can or cannot do. God ultimately is ‎beyond the limitations of any belief system. Judaism is one particular path to experience ‎spirituality and religious fulfillment in life, among other things. It approaches spirituality from ‎a certain angle and offers guidelines and techniques towards achieving certain spiritual goals. ‎But God is infinite in scope and not restricted by the particular perspective of Judaism. If ‎God could take a human form at one point in history, there is no strong reason to assume that ‎God has lost that capability. We human beings, Jewish or otherwise, have no power to place ‎God in a spiritual straitjacket. ‎
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We have our beliefs which may shape the way we choose to see reality, but we do not have ‎the complete picture. Closing off pathways may prevent extreme behavior and reduce the risk ‎of encountering false spiritual leads, but it also limits one’s perspective on what is out there. ‎This is the price to pay for following a given belief system. It is a big price, but it may very ‎well be worth it. To perceive this image of God is to venture outside of the mainstream ‎Jewish spiritual perspective. This is a personal decision, and not one which should be taken ‎lightly. ‎
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Reflections ‎
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What are we to make of a situation in which a given image of God is no longer kosher within ‎Judaism?  Does this mean that some methods of experiencing God simply do not fit ‎with others, and if a choice had to be made, it was to choose one method over another? ‎


		


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