Chancellor's Parashah Commentary
Rosh Hashanah 5763
Ismar Schorsch is the chancellor of The Jewish Theological Seminary.
Great theology is the reflective end result of religious experience. If we can identify the underlying experience, it will be easier for us to fathom the abstraction. This has been for me, at least, the key to penetrating a well-known Talmudic statement that has captivated me all summer. Familiarity often obscures meaning. I share the comment of R. Yohanan with you in the hope that it will enrich your High Holy Day season.
A leader of Palestinian Jewry in the unstable conditions of the third century, R. Yohanan observed that "Wherever in Scripture you find mention of God's loftiness, there you will also find mention of God's lowliness." (BT Megillah 31a) To show just how pervasive the pattern is, he brought one striking example from each of the three main divisions of the Tanakh. In the Torah, Moses speaks of God in both veins: "For the Lord your God is God supreme and Lord supreme, the great, the mighty, and the awesome God, who shows no favor and takes no bribe, but upholds the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and befriends the stranger, providing him with food and clothing." (Deuteronomy 10:17-18)
For the Prophets, R. Yohanan chose a verse equally cogent from Second Isaiah which we shall read as part of the haftarah for Yom Kippur morning: "For thus said He who high aloft forever dwells, whose name is holy: 'I dwell on high, in holiness; yet with the contrite and the lowly in spirit - reviving the spirits of the lowly, reviving the hearts of the contrite.'" (Isaiah 57:18)
Similarly, Rabbi Yohanan did not have to look beyond the Psalms to find a suitable example in the Writings: "Sing to God, chant hymns to His name; extol Him who rides the clouds; the Lord is His name. Exult in His presence - the father of orphans, the champion of widows, God in his Holy habitation." (Psalm 68:5-6)
In rabbinic discourse to make a point usually takes but a single verse. Three proof texts seem a case of overkill, except if the point is of utmost importance. At issue is the nature of God. For all the diversity in religious experience in the Tanakh, Rabbi Yohanan avowed there to be no disagreement on God's twofold nature. God is both lofty and lowly, remote and nearby, awesome and intimate. What R. Yohanan came to dispute is the conventional view that God is either one or the other. If you accentuate God's grandeur, as monotheism surely does, you do so at the expense of God's engagement with us, suffering humanity. In making God transcendent, Judaism appears to have given up on the assurance of God's immanence. Not so, declaimed Rabbi Yohanan! The Master of the heavens is also the Guardian of the oppressed.
The High Holy Days turn on this polarity. After each blowing of the shofar in the Musaf Amidah on Rosh Hashanah, we intone it fervently: "On the very day that the world was created, all humanity is arraigned in judgment." The juxtaposition underscores the conviction that the Creator of the cosmos has not grown oblivious or indifferent to what happens at the microcosmic level. The sweep of God's compassion matches God's power.
Creation as the backdrop to the Day of Judgment allows for midrash to bridge the gap. On the basis of the different names used for God in the first two chapters of the Torah, the Rabbis posited a change in design. Originally, God had thought to make the objective principles of justice serve as the foundation of existence, but soon realized that then humankind would fall by the wayside. It especially needed a measure of mercy, that is, God's daily attention and aid, to survive. And so a dose of subjectivity was added to the mix. (Rashi on Genesis 1:1) Justice, being immutable and inexorable, would have enabled God to disengage, to let the world run on its own. But mercy called for administration. Thus the attributes of justice and mercy together point to a God who is austere yet concerned, hidden yet accessible.
The most glorious formulation of R. Yohanan's counter-intuitive polarity that I know is the exquisitely wrought poem by Solomon Ibn Gabirol, Keter Malkhut (A Crown for the King, most recently and adroitly translated by the poet David R. Slavitt). Given its length of forty stanzas, it is doubtful whether Gabirol, who lived in Muslim Spain in the first half of the eleventh century, wrote his meditation for synagogue use. But the intensity of its religious feeling, the harmony of its worldview and the beauty of its poetic language quickly gained for it a place of honor at the end of the Kol Nidre service in many a liturgical rite, to be savored and studied by those who wished to stay longer. The poem is an extended conversation with God that moves from cosmos to consciousness, from grandeur to intimacy, from perfection to depravity. Throughout, the poet addresses God directly, for his soul derives from God's: "You live, but not with a soul, for you are the source of souls." (p. 8) Kinship makes for yearning.
On another level, the poem is an extended plea for forgiveness. The marvelous design of the universe fills Gabirol with radical amazement. The first two-thirds of the poem are an awe-struck depiction of the cosmos, one sphere at a time, in ascending order. Each instance of purposefulness is but another mirror of God's wisdom. The awareness of God's greatness, however, only deepens Gabirol's sense of unworthiness. The perfection of the cosmos magnifies his gross imperfections. Moreover, Gabirol repays God's solicitude and protection with utter wickedness. The all-powerful Creator is also a loving parent:
You created me not out of need but grace, not
out of necessity but only out of love.
Before I existed, you showed me mercy by breathing
spirit into me and giving me life,
and after I came forth into the light and air, you
did not abandon me but like a fond father watched over me.
I was a suckling babe, and you nursed me
and set me at my mother's breast.
You filled me with the delights of childhood and,
when I was strong enough to stand, helped me to my feet.
You took me in your arms and taught me to walk and gave
me wisdom and standards of righteousness. (pp. 58-60)
Clearly, Gabirol's life experience conforms to Rabbi Yohanan's faith: loftiness and lowliness are not mutually exclusive. Grandeur does not rule out a profusion of compassion. In truth in Gabirol's poem, the tension is all but gone: transcendence has become a handmaid of immanence.
For most of us such unity is momentary. We struggle just to keep the polarity in balance. The impersonality of a universe infinitely larger than Gabirol's and immune to miracles fills us with as much angst as awe. Yet our heart experiences intrusions of serenity, holiness and illumination that transcend the here and now. The polarity does justice to the complexity of our perceptions. Being neither wholly cerebral nor emotional, we perceive reality through a fusion of head and heart. There are surely times when reason overwhelms our religious sensibility and everything that passes for religion seems man-made. But there are others when ritual and community and freedom from distraction combine to inspire us with a sense of something far greater than ourselves. Our persistence in the effort to reconcile opposites pushes us toward a maturity of faith. Judaism has remained ever dynamic and creative precisely because it never sundered life's polarities. In the year to come may the moments of God's nearness grow in number and meaning without blotting out the insights garnered by our critical faculties.
Le-shanah tovah tikatevu,