Over the past year I have enjoyed a surprising and rather interesting friendship with a young American, a member of the Catholic Community of the Beatitudes,
which has a center in Israel in the ancient village of Emmaus. He is studying for the priesthood and some months ago wrote me the following letter:
Last year, a young man studying to be a priest for the NeoCatechumenal Way, the large Catholic movement that has the big new house above Kinneret, asked
me a question. The “Way,” like us, has a great attention for Israel and Judaism. The Polish young man asked me, “I know your community actually visits
synagogues and meets practicing Jews. I was wondering, what is really the different in their relationship with God from the relationship we have with
God through Jesus Christ? I think the difference is that we have a ‘personal’ love relationship with God, and perhaps they don’t.” I have tried hard
to withhold judgments during my time here, as I listen, learn, and walk alongside God’s people. On several occasions in synagogues or in a dati family,
I have sensed a very deep love relationship, people who know the Lord, who let Him know them, who seek to please the Lord and realize that He, in His mercy,
is seeking them. This is the kind of experience of prayer that drew me to offer my life to the Lord, to start onto a serious path of Christian prayer,
community, and charity.
I responded to Protestants and to my bishop who often described the Lord’s love for us, for me, as “personal.” My question for you is, what do you think
of this word? I would have a hard time talking about both God’s love and the dignity of man without using this term. John Paul II, Jacques Maritain and
others began a whole school of thought called Personalism, and for me, this perspective has resolved so many difficulties with philosophy and with questions
about God and who I am to Him.
The concept of personal love also helps me now, as I try to discern the encounters I am having with various Christian, Jewish, and other religious paths
during my time here in Israel. The deceased Pope spoke of you as our “older brother in the faith.” This means there is a unique relationship, there is
something deeply in common. I would like to be able to say that what we have in common has to do, above all, with the experience of love of the Lord.
I feel this sometimes in a Kabbalat Shabbat, in a Carlebach song, or simply in an encounter with an Israeli family. But sometimes I don’t feel it as
much with Jews and Israelis who are dedicated to an encounter with Eastern meditation. We feel the common endeavor for recollected prayer and for simplicity
and sincerity; however, sometimes we cannot sense so much the encounter with the personal love of the Lord. As Catholics, we are less interested Buddhism
and Hinduism, whose spirituality is somewhat “impersonal,” stressing a negation of the self that doesn’t necessarily find its way into the love and knowledge
of the One Lord who has revealed himself.
These are many thoughts I’ve had as I tend the garden and work on house repairs this year. A great gift and revelation came at Christmas time when Pope
Benedict XVI gave the Church and the world his first “encyclical letter,” entitled God is Love. He speaks often of the Jewish relationship of love with
the Lord, and specifically, he says that this love is personal. So, do you have any thoughts on the word person? For the Greeks, this term simply meant
mask, but Western thinkers like Boethius developed this concept to make sense out of the reference to God in Greek three hypostases, which gives a new
sense of who we are as made in the image and likeness of God, who is love, whom we as Christians see as a communion of love of three persons. Clearly
you would avoid any reference to the persons of God. But does it mean something to a Jew to say that God’s love is personal, implying a lot about how
we are able and called to love as He loves, with him and amongst each other?
In His grip,
First, to answer your question in brief: certainly, a personal relationship with God is a deep and central part of our religious life as Jews. The impression
that this may not be the case comes from the fact that we don’t talk about it as much or in quite the same way as Christians do; also, as I shall explain
below, that we have two other very important focii: the Law or halakhah, and Jewish peoplehood. Moreover, Jews in general have not cultivated a language
for the personal stuff as Christians have. But it is nevertheless definitely a central part of our experience.
This may be seen, for example, among Jews, particularly women, who regularly recite Tehillim (Psalms) as part of their everyday practice, finding in the
personal language of the Psalms an avenue for their own personal connection with God. There have been numerous other attempts to supplement the fixed,
statutory liturgy with various personal elements: for example, prayers written by women —in past ages, often in the vernacular Yiddish of Eastern European
Jews, known as tekhines (from the Hebrew tehinot); or in the practice, among Bratslav Hasidim, of setting aside a time, at least once a week, to “talk
to God” alone, using their own language and vernacular, pouring out whatever is on their hearts to God in their own words. This practice is called hitbodedut:
“being alone with God,” and may be done in an isolated spot in the woods, in the open desert, or even in a closed room in their homes in the still of
There are nevertheless a number of caveats:
1. My own teacher , Rav Soloveitchik, used to speak of the personal aspect of the religious life as being so much rooted in the private and intimate realm,
that a certain modesty, even reticence, were befitting to it—meaning that one doesn’t go around talking about your love of God. In much the same way,
in a kind of old-fashioned tradition that is not much seen today in modern cities, a man and woman will not express their closeness intimacy in public.
To this day, many pious Jewish married couples will not, for example, hold hands while walking in the street.
2. Halakhah, i.e., behavioral norms, rather than religion or theology, are the main concern of what might be called “dogmatic” Jewish teaching. We don’t
have a catechism, in the same sense that the Church does; significantly, the greatest flowering of Jewish religious philosophy has been in those times
and places where Jews have engaged in discourse/polemic with the non-Jewish world and felt the need to articulate a kind of apologetics to explain themselves
and their beliefs to the Other, and in which many Jews were themselves intellectually involved in the non-Jewish world —i.e., in the ancient Graeco-Roman
Diaspora (e.g., Philo of Alexandria); in medieval Spain (Judah Halevi, Maimonides, Crescas, Albo, etc.); in 19th-early 20th century Germany (S. R. Hirsch;
Hermann Cohen, Franz Rosenzweig, etc.); and of course in the modern West. By contrast, in such times and places as ancient Palestine, medieval Ashkenaz
(Franco-Germany), and 17th-18th-19th century Poland and Russia, which were great centers of Jewish creativity, this flowering produced Midrash, Kabbalah,
pietism, Hasidism, and great centers of Talmudic and halakhic exegesis, but rarely philosophy or theology.
I know that the models you have in mind on the Christian side are probably not so much those of formal theology as such, and more the personal, confessional
genre, such as John of the Cross and Francis of Assisi and Bonaventure and Bernard of Clairvaux and all the anonymous Anchorites and pietists, but even
Where the personal approach to God did find expression among Jews is in such things as: the Bible itself; the Midrash, which elaborated and reconstructed
conversations of such figures as Abraham and Moses, who spoke with and even challenged God; Hasidic tales; etc.
3. In terms of identity, Jews are a people, not a church. Someone once said that one is born a Jew, but converts to Christianity. Thus, even though
the Catholic Church has infant baptism, in principle, if I understand correctly, one becomes part of the Church through the sacraments, and not merely
through being born into a particular family or ethnic group. In addition, you are of course familiar with those Protestant groups that insist on personal
choice and baptism only after a person has reached the age of mature decision (which, to complete the analogy of conversion, is required of converts to
Judaism. Hence, minor children adopted, taken through our conversion ritual, and raised by Jewish parents, are technically considered Jewish in only a
conditional way until they “ratify” their conversion to Judaism after reaching their majority).
The point being, that since ethnicity or peoplehood lies at the basis of Jewish identity, one can, and does, have many Jews in the world who are in fact
not at all religious; some of these may even be prominent and central figures in the Jewish world. Zionism and the State of Israel, arguably the central
project in Jewish life today, is in principle a secular movement or institution. For such Jews, the type of personal relationship to God of which you
speak is generally irrelevant.
There are also agnostics and atheists among our number who are Jews in the ethnic and communal sense, who may participate in religious acts for a variety
of “secular” reasons: cultural, historical, ethnic, or survivalist. Though I don’t agree with such people’s ideology, I love them as my brethren, sometimes
in the literal sense.
4. Finally, there are certain theological problems entailed in what you call a “personal” relationship to God. As mentioned, we do not have any one normative
theology, but one of the closest things to it is that of Maimonides (see my new series in HY on the Thirteen Principles). Maimonides’ theology is philosophically
abstract. He defines God as the First Cause, as a perfect unity unaffected by earthly matters, and insists that any talk about emotion or action on God’s
part is a metaphor. Carried to its logical conclusion, it is hard to imagine a personal relationship with a Maimonidean God. On the other hand, Maimonides
himself, in Hilkhot Teshuvah (Laws of Repentance) Chapter 10 and in many other places, speaks in passionately emotional terms of the love of God!
I think a similar problem, at least on the theoretical level, also exists for a person who pushes Kabbalistic thought to its logical conclusion. Can one
talk to the Sefirot, which are apotheoses of various aspects of the Divine? Something akin to this may be what you found troubling about the New Age people
you’ve met, who seem to cast Judaism in an almost Eastern, quasi-Buddhist garb. (I should mention, in passing, that for better or worse this school is
in no way typical of the mainstream of religious Judaism, historically or contemporary, but is very much a creation of recent decades.) But there, too,
note: people’s real spiritual lives are very different from the abstract position they adopt. I have known Reb Zalman of Boulder for nearly four decades.
He uses many different kinds of language in his talk about God—but his bottom line seems to be a God one can relate to personally, however a-personal
that God may be in theory. Likewise, Art Green, one of the important teachers of our day, has described his theology as “naturalistic” and “panentheistic”
—but I cannot escape the impression that his own religion is in many ways a very personal one, that has helped him through difficult times in life in ways
that Mordecai Kaplan’s “to-whom-it-may-concern” God could not.
To return to Maimonides and philosophy: St. Thomas Aquinas is often thought of as a kind of Catholic counterpart to Maimonides (or vice versa), both of
them having created a kind of synthesis of their own faith with neo-Aristotelian philosophy. (Indeed, about 20 years ago the late Prof. Yeshayahu Leibowitz
and Dominican father and Hebrew University Professor Marcel Dubois taught a joint seminar on these two thinkers.) How did Aquinas deal with these issues?
Is the Thomistic God a personal one, or in some sense an unmoved mover? (I know this is really an unfair question; as if to say: “Teach me Aquinas,
whose Summa is even more voluminous than the Talmud, on one foot…”)
Or, to ask the principled question, without names or labels: for me, it’s clear that on some level the image of God as a person is just that—an image ,
a form of language used to make the infinite, the transcendent, the “Wholly Other,” He whom “human thought cannot at all grasp,” in some way accessible
to human thought. Hasidim, as much as Maimonides, is aware of this problem. That’s why I wonder on what level we are meant to understand the pope’s statement
that the personhood of God, and man being made in God’s image, is essential for human dignity. I’m not sure whether this point is as much a difference
a between Christians and Jews, as it is between different ways of understanding religious language, or different levels of religious speech. In our faith,
at any event, people with very different intellectual super-structures can live together very comfortably, often sitting around the same Shabbat table.
(All this, in an aside, also relates to a question I asked your parents when they were at my home: according to Christian theology, where, so to speak,
is Jesus after he crucifixion and ascension? If he became incarnate, did he subsequently become un-incarnate, i.e., spiritual? And is sitting at the
“right hand” of the Power meant literally, or some sort of metaphor? Would it be correct for me to say that the three persons of the Trinity are apotheoses
of the one god, rather like the ten sefirot in Kabbalah—assuming they are viewed as emanations, i.e., divinely created vessels, and not themselves as divine
substance—or do you view these matters rather differently? In other words, is the relation of God’s threeness to His oneness like that of the Sephirot
to the One God in Kabbalistic theology, and could you translate each person of the trinity from symbolic into conceptual language?)
About God as love: Notwithstanding the traditional stereotypes of Law and Gospel, of the OT God of judgment and fear and sternness vs. the NT God of Love,
it is very clear to me that in Judaism God is seen as a loving, compassionate God. Or, perhaps more precisely, there is a constant interplay, in our
midrashim and in our religious life, between God as love and God as sternness and judgment.
You may find different emphases, different feeling tones, among different Jewish groups. Some may radiate a sense of anxiety about performing the mitzvot
as perfectly as possible. But there are others for whom the mitzvot themselves are an expression of love, performed with joy, with a sense of inner confidence
that one’s deeds will almost certainly be accepted by God in a loving manner (which is not an excuse for treating mitzvot in a slipshod or lackadaisical
manner, but more a kind of ground feeling of confidence in the power of Divine love). The whole psychological sense of being somehow “condemned by the
Law,” which appears as a central psychological motif in the Pauline epistles, is one I’ve never felt as a Jew, and I don’t know too many people who have
(although a rather offbeat and very interesting non-Orthodox Jewish theologian, Richard Rubenstein, once wrote a book, My Brother Paul, in which he developed
that very idea). One might also argue that the difference between Hasidism and Mitnaggedism is as much one of collective temperament—viz. emphasis on
love as against fear—as it is one of actual teaching. But there’s no end to the questions one could ask…
With blessings of Father Abraham,