Annelise on Chanukah
Orthodox Judaism lets us know that God has shown us His face. It is true that we don’t look at any of the humans of history, or any other thing or experience in heaven and earth, as if it were personally Him. But we believe He has revealed His face to us, and that He seeks for us to turn our faces to Him in return.
Every time we experience anything from God it’s because, in His love and in the gift of creation, He has engaged with us; interacted personally with us. To us, every experience like that is a kind of ‘face’, a point of real contact and knowing between us. When the Israelites called out to God during slavery in Egypt, He was showing them one kind of face. When they saw the plagues and walked through the sea, they saw another. At the mountain where they met with Him to receive His Torah, the totality of that experience was another small face; while wandering in the desert, another. It is similar for us in all our lives. When God met with Moses from the bush that was alight but didn’t burn up and the ground was a holy place, Moses saw a face of God; so did Elijah when he experienced Him from within stillness.
We do not believe that any of these experiences, which we come to as the face of God, ‘is God’. Every level of perception through which He relates to us is part of the created process of relationship with us. Coming past them, beyond the multiplicity of perception, is only Him Alone, the maker of our hearts.
But we see Him with us closely. When we pray, no image or form needs to anchor us. We can’t know what the connection between Creator and creation is like, as that is hidden from our capacity to glimpse, but we know we are created and we are thankful. We know Him, and we turn our faces away from created things to praise Him; or rather, we ‘see’ through them to their Maker.
No angel (messenger), no sound waves, no physical form, no idea or feeling, no likeness, is our God. But there are many lights in this world that do shine His light. He makes Himself known in creation, and that includes ourselves as we grow in humbler devotion and obedience.
Here is an important thing. To say that one person or thing ‘in the world’ is not just a created face of God to us, not just a reflection of His glory, but ‘is God’, does limit our understanding of God to a severe degree. It is not because Christians think that God ‘became a man’ and stopped being God of creation. They don’t think that. In fact, they think that sustaining heaven and earth while also intimately relating with it in incarnation shows the height and breadth of His majesty. This is not so. We know God does not need us to consider something or someone in the world He created ‘as Him’ in order to show His kindness to us in many different, intimate glimpses of His infinite face. And to say that someone not only let us see through himself to God, but was personally one person of God? This is not at all how the fathers of Israel learnt to know Him.
As beings created by God, we cannot see parts in Him. That means that if we see something reflecting Him, pointing to Him, or being very transparent to know Him through, then what we see is not God, not a part of God, but a blessed aspect of creation. When “the sea looked and fled” in front of Israel, it was not because that nation was God; it was because His presence was in them. This is the greatest glory that can exist in the form of creation, an intense blessing, and it should not be made little by the imaginary idea of ‘actual incarnation’. So if a Christian says that God has revealed more of Himself than we are willing to embrace, we reply the same thing. There is so much in Yiddishkeit and in the people themselves that Christians haven’t even seen to embrace; it would be beautiful in they could surrender to dwell here and begin to know it.
When anything or anyone who is part of the created realm (heavens and earth, and all that are in them) is called God, then they cease to be a transparent vessel of His light. They cease to show a face of the one who is beyond all faces and yet is truly known in them. Instead, they become opaque, the endpoint of the worshipper’s attention. And that, in itself, dims the ability of God’s light in creation to be appreciated in the strength and purity of the gift it is! At this time of Chanukah, we remember the devotion to the light of the world alone, and choose not to allow any compromise into the oil of our knowledge of Him, which He graciously renews each day as we come to Him.
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Yisroel C. Blumenthal