Judaism: Man in search for G-d or G-d in search of man?

Wednesday, 24 September, 2014 - 6:31 am

Woods.jpgAs we approach the holiday of Rosh Hashana and the Ten Days of Repentance leading up to Yom Kippur - Day of Atonement, there is the idea in Jewish thought that man should seek G-d and find Him. A critical aspect of all religions is indeed the search for G-d by man. The premise is that man, though created by G-d, does not actually see G-d in a revealed sense, thus allowing for free choice between good and evil, and is therefore confronted by the spiritual challenge to search for and come closer to the Divine. This presents us with a philosophical question: is religion about man searching for G-d or is it about G-d searching for man, inspiring man to find and come closer to G-d, as indicated in the title of the philosophical work by Rabbi Dr. Abraham Joshua Heschel ‘G-d in Search of Man’? In the latter the onus is on G-d to initiate the process of searching and closeness between man and G-d, implying man is spiritually incapable of independently searching and finding G-d, whereas in the former, man has the ability and is tasked to search for G-d on his own –a far greater challenge.


In the view of many theologians, this is a fundamental difference between Judaism and other monotheistic religions.  In Judaism man searches for G-d, whereas in other religions G-d searches for man. The question that this essay would like to address is, what is meant by the enigmatic and seemingly obscure and elusive concept that man searches for G-d or G-d searches for man?


As with many theological questions there seem to be arguments on both sides. There are many statements in the Torah that appears to emphasise the need for man to search for G-d and only when man is aroused to do so does G-d respond in kind. On the other hand, there are a number of sources in the Torah and rabbinical writings that indicate the idea that G-d searches for man when man is spiritually distant.


We will offer a perusal of some of the statements on both sides of the debate. In Psalms (34:19), it states: ‘The Lord is near to the broken-hearted, and He saves those of crushed spirit’. In Psalms (125:18), it writes: ‘The Lord is near to all who call Him, to all who call Him with sincerity’. Similarly, Isaiah (55:6) says: Seek the Lord while He may be found, call upon Him, while He is near’, and  ‘when you seek Him, He will be found to you’. It also says in Jeremiah (29:13): ‘And you will seek Me and find Me for you will seek Me with all your heart’ and in Deuteronomy (4:29): ‘And from there you will seek the Lord your God, and you will find Him, if you seek Him with all your heart and with all your soul’.


In Judaism a terminology defining man searching for G-d is the concept of repentance. Maimonides in his legal work Mishneh Torah (laws of repentance) explains that the concept of repentance is the decision by man to regret and abandon old ways. What all these ideas have in common is that it is up to man to search for and come close to G-d as opposed to G-d searching for man.


On the other hand, there are sources that indicate G-d in search for man. Jeremiah says (Lamentations 5:21) ‘Restore us to You, O Lord, that we may be restored! Renew our days as of old’. Similarly, it states ‘if You awaken us’. The Sages write in Talmud Berachot (3a; 6a; 7a), that every day a Heavenly voice issues forth yearning for Israel to repent and that there is a concept of G-d praying and laying the phylacteries (Tefiin) reflecting the devotion that G-d desires to show towards man and that man should return.


These sources seem to obscure the question at hand: is it the need for man to search on his own for G-d or does G-d search for man as Jeremiah seems to be suggesting? It is clear from the Jewish point of view that both must be correct in some form, nullifying the argument that Judaism doesn’t have the idea of G-d searching for man.


In this essay, I would like to argue that there are in fact two conflicting views pertaining to this question. One is by Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi (1745-1813) and another by his son Rabbi Dov Ber of Lubavitch, known as the Miteler Rebbe (1773-1827). One may argue that there is a third perspective by their great grandson, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneersohn, known as the Rebbe (1902-1994), who somehow tries to find a reconciliation between the two views on this fundamental question.


At the heart of the question regarding man’s search for G-d or G-d in search for man is the concept of the soul and a debate how the soul is connected to G-d. The supposition is there are two parts to the soul: there is the soul on high that remains connected to G-d and then there is the soul that descends in to a physical body with all the related changes that this entails impacting the soul. This is based on a statement in the Talmud (Berachot 10a), where it says, just as G-d fills the world, similarly the soul fills the body. It is clear that as G-d is not limited to His presence in the universe, similarly the existence of the soul is not only the part that descends into the body but there are the dimensions that remain above. The Midrash (Midrash Rabbah, Bereishit 14:9) talks of the five components of the soul, Nefesh (soul), Ruach (spirit), Neshamah (breath), Chayah (life) and Yechidah (singularity), three of which are present in the body, whereas two loftier parts remain in various degrees of unity with the Divine.


Thus, argues Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, the search of man for G-d is the soul trying to disentangle itself from the bodily desires and impulses seeking to cleave to the parts of the soul that are in unity with the Divine. Conversely, G-d in search for man relates to the Divine seeking to arouse the soul that is in body and which is frequently, as Maimonides puts it (Mishneh Torah Laws of Repentance), in a state of slumber affected by the vanities of the world.


The first – man searching for G-d - is described as the lower repentance; the latter – G-d searching for man – is described as the higher repentance. The word ‘higher’ in this case relates to the search originating from on high, rather than below.


In his magnus opus the Tanya, Rabbi Schneur Zalman describes the connection between the soul on high and the soul below with an analogy of a rope. When one has a rope there are obviously two ends. If one pulls one end the other end moves along and vice versa. While the ends of the rope are in two separate locations, they are connected to each other. One cannot divorce the higher end of the rope from the lower end. One has however two options: one may pull the lower end that allows the higher end to move or one may pull the higher end that allows the lower to be pulled upwards. Similarly, explains Rabbi Schneur Zalman, when the higher end of the soul is tagged, the lower end is forced to alter its position. This can be compared to the soul being aroused from above. When one pulls the lower end then this affects the higher end. This can be compared to the person searching for G-d from below as he is in his material and sometime negative state of being.


In Derech Chaim (Gate of Repentance, ch. 1), the son of Rabbi Schneur Zalman, Rabbi Dov Ber of Lubavitch argues that the above analogy describing the soul is inadequate. The problem with the above analogy, he argues, is that it describes the soul as a single being and whether there is a tag from above or a tag from below is essentially the same, as they are two parts of the same rope. In the concept of the soul, this would mean that even when man searches for G-d it is because of the soul’s connection to its own essence which is part of G-d above. In other words, if the analogy had been that of a severed rope then one has two independent options: to bring a to b or b to a. In the case of the soul this means either man seeking G-d or G-d searching for man. However, if they are two ends of the same uncut rope then there is no difference between a and b; it is the same rope that is being pulled. Even when one pulls the lower end, its movement is due to its connection to the higher end, as they are essentially connected. This would suggest that there is no possibility of man independently searching for G-d, as it is all essentially about G-d searching for man.


Rabbi Dov Ber therefore argues (Derech Chaim Gate of Repentance ch. 2) that a more suitable analogy is not two ends of a rope but of a spark and a torch. There are two ways for the spark to connect with the torch: either by bringing the spark to the torch or the torch to the spark. They may be attracted to each other when they are close to each other but the greater the distance the less would be the pull to one other. It is possible for there to be no apparent pull at all. In the case of the soul, when the spark that is captured in the body seeks to come closer to the torch, then this would be man in search of G-d or lower repentance. When the torch comes close to the spark causing the spark to jump towards the flame, this is the concept of G-d searching for man. In Kabbalistic thought this concept is called higher repentance (Teshuvah Ila’a).


The advantage of the spark analogy is that it allows for the concept of man independently seeking G-d. Rabbi Dov Ber argues this is an essential element in Judaism – the genuine and independent search of man for G-d. It is only after man searches for G-d that G-d comes closer to man. This is reflected in the many statements in the Torah as mentioned above.


Regarding the Scriptural sources that indicate that there is the possibility of G-d to search for man independently of man’s search for G-d, Rabbi Dov Ber suggests (ibid ch. 11) that one needs to separate the two concepts into two eras. In the times of the diaspora man must be in search of G-d independently and only then does G-d come close to man. In the times of the Messianic era, as described by Isaiah as a time of great revelation and knowledge of G-d, then there will be G-d searching for man, inspiring man to seek G-d.  In the analogy, the torch will come forth towards the spark.


It would appear that the dispute between Rabbi Schneur Zalman and his son Rabbi Dov Ber is a watershed in the evolution of Chassidism and Jewish thought more broadly. From the time of the founder of the Chassidic movement by Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov, the emphasis was about the power of the soul of every person and its connection to G-d that cannot be severed. This top down approach was reflected in the conduct and teachings of the Baal Shem Tov. He was known as a miracle worker and healer and his teachings were laced with inspirational miraculous stories (Likutei Sichot 18 Elul). It would appear then that the view of Rabbi Schneur Zalman may be seen as a continuation of the Ba’al Shem Tov.


A fundamental shift would have been created by his son, Rabbi Dov Ber, who argued that this mitigates the burden and responsibility of man independently to search for G-d uninspired by some lofty source.


This understanding of the view of Rabbi Schneur Zalman seemingly suggesting a mitigation of the need for man to be independent in his searching for the Divine is reflected in another interesting teaching of his. In Jewish teaching there are two times of year reflecting two fundamental opposing perspectives. One is the time of Passover and another is the time of Rosh Hashana, described in the Talmud (Rosh Hashana) as days of judgment and awe. The difference between the two times of year is that on Passover the Jews were unworthy of redemption (Midrash) and G-d decided to show empathy and bring about the Exodus. This revelation of the Divine can be described as G-d searching for the Jewish people without any search on behalf of the Jewish people for G-d. On the contrary Jewish teaching goes out of its way to tell us that Jews were idolaters and spiritually naked.


In contrast, the time of Rosh Hashana is at its core a time of repentance and man coming closer to G-d. This is the case not just on Rosh Hashana and the ‘days of judgment’ but beginning thirty days before Rosh Hashana from the beginning of the Hebrew month of Elul in preparation for Rosh Hashana.


In a most interesting teaching, Rabbi Schneur Zalman presents an analogy to understand the thirty day period before Rosh Hashana (Likutei Torah Parshat Re’eh) comparing it to a king who is in the field among the commoners allowing him to be approached by all and greeting each person with a friendly disposition. It is then possible to follow the king to the palace and gain a private encounter,


The analogy is meant to demonstrate that although this time of year is a time for repentance and searching for G-d, man does not actually do so on his own but is inspired to do so by the king – G-d – being present in the field in search of man. This would be in line with the view of Rabbi Schneur Zalman that it is fundamentally G-d in search for man that calls for man to search for Him, rather than man independently searching for G-d, as argued by Rabbi Dov Ber.


I would like to further argue in this essay that there is an additional evolution of this debate in the teachings of Rabbi Menachem M. Schneersohn, the Rebbe. The first discourse he gave in 1941 upon the beginning of his leadership is about independent service of the Divine. Similarly the final discourse he edited was the emphasis of total independent searching for the Divine on behalf of man, as spiritually necessary for the elevation of humanity and existence itself.


However, in an interesting way, theologically, the Rebbe is loyal also to his great grandfather Rabbi Schneur Zalman. He argues that the essence of the soul in man and the essence of the soul above are one and the same. The soul that is vested inside the body as an independent being is in fact the loftiest level of the soul. It is only such a lofty level of the soul that may descend into a physical body and then have the need to seemingly independently search for the Divine.


It would appear the Rebbe is trying to somehow bridge the views of Rabbi Schneur Zalman and Rabbi Dov Ber, suggesting that there is a difference between man’s reality and G-d’s reality. In man’s reality, he is independently searching for the Divine and this is a fundamental prerequisite to coming closer to the Divine in Judaism. In the reality of the Divine, the soul that is searching for G-d is indeed essentially connected to G-d albeit in a concealed state and may be unaware of this connection. It would appear then the Rebbe wouldn’t have the same problem with the analogy of the rope as does Rabbi Dov Ber.


In conclusion: at the heart of Judaism is the need for man to feel that he is independently searching for G-d and all the challenges that this entails. This is in contrast to the idea that it is G-d who is searching for man and man needn’t toil in this regard. However, from the perspective of G-d, He is also in fact in perpetual search of man, as demonstrated in the numerous sources above.


Comments on: Judaism: Man in search for G-d or G-d in search of man?

Esteban Hübner wrote...

Very inspirational and appropiate for Rosh Ha Shana. For me this article was a blessing. Many thanks, e