Simon the Righteous: The Man Dressed in White
What is God?
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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.
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.
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).
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?
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.
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.
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?
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?
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
Perceiving the Image
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.
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.
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.
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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