Spring 1989, Vol.41 No. 1, pp. 18-29.

Hayim Goren Perelmuter:
      Judaism and Transcendence: From Abraham to the Late Middle Ages

From its ancient beginnings to the Middle Ages, the transcendent longing of the Jewish people to dwell in the presence of God developed new forms in meeting the demands of historical change.

Hayim Goren Perelmuter is Professor of Jewish Studies at the Catholic Theological Union, Chicago. He is also visiting professor at the Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary of the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, California.

JUDAISM is the religion of revelation par excellence. Franz Rosenzweig makes it, along with Creation and Redemption, one of the three central ideas that give Judaism power and its thrust. Martin Buber makes it a central moment in the 'I-Thou' relationship. Emanuel Levinas sees it as a central moment in the discovery of the Other. Jewish thinkers speak of the Commanding Voice from Sinai.

To Christianity and to Islam, which saw themselves as successors and replacers, Judaism retained its crucial importance because it was the Jewish people newly freed from Egypt that stood at the foot of Mount Sinai and witnessed to the Commanding Presence of God.

Gershom Scholem has suggested that the commanding voice across the transcendent gap is characteristic of a Judaism that leaves behind its mythological past where gods and men communicated with a simple directness. That gap assume crucial importance in the religious quest. Efforts to bridge it require herculean effort. Either you cross the transcendent gap in a leap of faith, or you affirm that there is nothing on the other side, and like Camus see only the agonies and challenges of this existence.

The question of transcendence has seized the imagination of humanity in all ages, and the efforts to deal with it are constant. What follows is part of a study about Judaism and transcendence as it relates to the modern and secular age. It is a study that is concerned with the persistence of this concern from the perspective of Jewish experience.

From the Jewish perspective, the moment of Sinai was one of transcendent revelation that was intensely present and white hot. It is impossible to live continually at this white hot intensity. Thus, one mystic suggested that even when the questor is successful, and after many efforts achieves the revelation, it is at best a fleeting moment.

What follows is an effort to trace what might be described as the "half-life" of the revelatory experience. It suggests not so much a cooling down, as a contraction of intensity from age to age. The account will move from the beginning, to the late Middle Ages, and will suggest how that "big bang" of original revelation worked its way down through the universe of Jewish experience to the dawn of the modern age.


Transcendence was there with Abraham when Judaism was born. It was there at Sinai when Israel confirmed its nationhood through its covenant with its ancestral God. It has been wrestled with through the ages as Jacob wrestled with the angel. It has been tested in the fires of destruction and rebirth. It is at its core, despite doubts and confusions. Without transcendence, Judaism would be an absurdity.

Transcendence is central to the Jewish experience, because its world view, as recorded in its first spiritual biography, the Bible, and continued into history through the daring transformations within the continuing tradition of Rabbinic Judaism, centers around it.

The mythical world required no transcendence. Gods and men moved about in a universe of constant and ready contact with and communication between each other. Gods were glorified men, and men could be gods; and they shared the same dreams, passions, ambitions and lusts.

Nor is transcendence crucial in the world of pagan religions. Here the gods were deifications of the animate and inanimate, noble and base; but in every case they were preceded by a realm prior to them. From the earliest beginnings in Babylonian, Egyptian and Greek mythology, through their expressions in Greek philosophy, represented by Plato and Aristotle, this is clear. All these "involve one idea which is the distinguishing mark of pagan thought: the idea that there exists a realm of being prior to the gods and above them, upon which the gods depend, and whose decrees they must obey."(1)

For Judaism, in its Biblical record, the basic idea is affirmed that God is supreme over all, that there is no realm above or beside him to set bounds to his sovereignty. God is utterly distinct from and other than the world, subject to no laws or powers that transcend him. Yet He is involved with humankind in a special kind of relationship, a relationship symbolized by revelation and covenant.

It is this unique view of the One God that is experienced, expressed, and reflected upon in the biblical account. It is a folk encounter reflected it in the experience of its elect on one hand, and at one crucial time by the entire people, on the other.

In the midst of a pagan universe, it is the progenitor Abraham who confronts this transcendence and the encounter is sealed with a covenant which commits him and his progeny to it. The covenant is renewed with Isaac in the grim aftermath of the "binding," and with Jacob, in the vision of the ladder at Bethel and wrestling with the angel at Jabbok, thus becoming Israel.

It is hidden, yet implicit in the story, and breaks out again through the burning bush and the Egyptianized Moses returning to his people. It climaxes with the Exodus, the crossing of the sea, and the stand at Sinai, where the entire people is witness to a breakthrough of transcendence that renews the covenant and sets the seal upon the direction into history of that special relationship.

The rest of the biblical record is an account of the continuing dialogue through specially chosen agents like Samuel, Elijah and the prophets through whom God communicates as Voice and commanding force, across the chasm that yawns between the human and the transcendent.

Even in the biblical record there are set limits to the relationship. You can hear God, can know God, but cannot see God face to face. Even Moses learns this in the cleft of the rock -- "no one can see My face and live."(2) Isaiah is dazzled by a blinding vision; Ezekiel, by the chariot that blazes across his horizon. Something of deep mystery has happened in this relationship across the chasm of transcendence, between a people and its transcendent God, recorded in its earliest records, and deeply graven upon the historical experience that shapes its future. Perhaps it can best be summarized by the word -- "survival." It is as central today as was then. Emil Fackenheim can write,

The stake for modern Jewish thought is nothing less than survival. In pre-modern times Jewish thought showed a certain stubbornness to Greek philosophical universalism which it knew to be pagan, and to Christian and Muslim universalism, if only because they pushed Jewish existence into the limbo of "has been" or "never was."(3)
Inherent in the covenant, a developing sense surfaces of mutual interdependence and awareness of the need to survive and to witness to the covenant. The biblical record of this relationship reflects the period of earliest beginnings, of relationship to the Promised Land, diaspora in Egypt, covenant at Sinai, and the period of the First Commonwealth. The traumatic end of this era, the destruction of Temple and State by the Babylonians and the exile, made it appear almost as though the covenant was shattered and the people destroyed.

"When the Temple was destroyed prophecy was taken from the prophets and given to the sages;"(4) we learn from the Talmud. A unique, direct bridge over the chasm of transcendence was severed. One form of being ended. A new form, continuing the old, was in the wings. "The Holy One, praised be He, prepares the cure before he strikes us with the disease" is an old folk maxim.(5) How true this is when we consider Jeremiah's acts as the Temple in Jerusalem was going up in flames. He did two things: first he demonstratively purchased a plot of land in Jerusalem, proclaiming, "Houses and fields and vineyards shall yet be bought in this land,"(6) and he wrote a letter to the exiles in Babylon, urging them to prepare for a long exile, and therefore to organize their communities for survival and ultimate return. The acceptance of this idea began the process, which took several centuries to develop, but which added a dimension to the Jewish people's capacity to survive for the covenant.

It prepared the ground for Rabbinic Judaism, which was the form Judaism assumed to make it capable of surviving what otherwise might have been the end. Through this change the experience of transcendence took a new turn, and it profoundly influences how transcendence is perceived and experienced in our contemporary context, as we shall presently see.


The destruction of the First Temple and the Judean State by the Babylonians is a watershed in the Jewish experience of transcendence. A curtain falls upon the biblical period of Jewish experience. To be sure much is left to be done: the Torah book edited and put in its final form, the works of the last of the prophets reduced to their final form, and some books still to be written. But somehow it seemed the covenant had been broken, God's communication with the people to elect prophetic spirits ended. Even God's indwelling presence, it seemed, had gone into exile.

A process had quietly been born that made the transition possible. It moved slowly and surely into the developing of the second commonwealth, the rich variety of Jewish being, and into the creation of a capacity to rebuild and move forward.

That process emerges as rabbinic Judaism. It is quiet, imperceptible at first, but it has a power and a vision attuned to the needs of the folk and growing out of it. With a strange and creative imagination it achieves a metamorphosis of the prophetic type into bearers of tradition. It achieves a transformation of the former covenant relationship with its fiery explosions of divine communication, prophetic utterance with its cutting edge of rebuke intertwined with abiding love and hope, into a new relationship mediated by the study and shaping of Torah at the hand of its skilled devotees.

It is a revolutionary metamorphosis. Indeed, it goes a step further. It expands the very meaning of revelation and revealed Torah. For side by side with the written Torah, the idea of an Oral Law emerges which made possible the extension and deepening of the meaning of that Torah emerges. For this Oral Law receives equal status with the Written Law, an achievement which, in effect, makes of revelation an open-ended process.

But now it is to be achieved through study of the sacred texts, through expansion of their meaning by commentaries, and commentaries upon commentaries, which in the process themselves achieve a sacred status.

To be sure this process does not happen overnight. It germinates, grows, develops, ebbs, and flows through the period of the Second Commonwealth, five centuries of creative development and growth during which the Jewish world confronts the Persian, Greek, and Roman worlds, and achieves a depth of purpose and of self consciousness. Out of this emerges the capacity of Judaism not only to shape its own survival, but to sire Christianity and Islam.(7)

The sages who are the architects of this transformation give themselves status by creating the concept of a chain of tradition, that leads from Sinai to Moses, to Joshua, to the Judges, elders, prophets, and Men of the Great Assembly who are the bridge from the prophetic period to their own. Gershom Scholem summarizes with brilliant insight Rabbinic Judaism's perception of the nature of truth with the words:

Truth is given once and for all, and it is laid down with precision .... Not a system, but commentary is the legitimate form through which truth is approached .... Commentary thus became the characteristic expression of Jewish thinking about truth...(8)
It is this touching of base with tradition through a link with sacred texts, immersing one's self in it, subordinating one's self to it, and yet transforming it, that becomes the continuation of the covenant relationship and the shaping of the bridge to transcendence.
In Judaism [Scholem continues] tradition becomes the reflective impulse that intervenes between the absoluteness of the Divine Word -- revelation -- and its receiver. Tradition thus raises a question about the possibility of immediacy [italics mine] in man's relationship with the Divine, though it has been incorporated in revelation.(9)
Raising the question about the possibility of the Divine Word confronting us without mediation, Rabbinic Judaism answers with a resounding negative. Every religious experience after that first revelation must be a mediated one. When the Temple stood, the cult was a mediating process. Once the Temple is gone, Torah and its study, interpretation, and Expansion through commentary must assume that role. That is not to deny that the transcendent could be experienced by the reflective saint in mystical contemplation and there are many examples of this in Talmudic literature. One need only think of Yohanan ben Zakkai's disciple, El'azar ben' Arak, of whom it is written,
Said (R. El'azar) to him (R. Yohanan): Master wherefore didst thou dismount from the ass? He answered: Is it proper that whilst thou art expanding the "Work of the Chariot"(9) and the Divine Presence is with us, and the ministering angels accompany us, I should ride on the ass! Forthwith R. El'azar b. 'Arak began his exposition of the "Work of the Chariot,' and fire came down from heaven and encompassed all the trees of the field (thereupon) they all began to utter divine song.(10)
Nor is it to say that the devout, simple soul, unsophisticated and intellectually untrained could not, through devout practice of the divine commandments in everyday deed and prayer make contact with the transcendent or reflect it in his life. These modalities are indeed reflected in the Talmudic record with the vita contemplativa of the pious men of old; the virtuous and pious life of the ordinary folk who combined their daily toil with the ideal life of study of Torah, as an "intellectual-spiritual form of the vita activa."(11)

But fundamentally a change has taken place. The pillar of cloud and the pillar of flame that had been evidence of the Divine Presence and its accessibility -- became the smoke and fire of destruction. The people had been wrenched from their land, God separated from His shrine. New forms needed to be fashioned to create the possibilities of a continuing (or renewed) encounter. This role Rabbinic Judaism assumed in its effort to link people with its divine source as it moved into history.


Rabbinic Judaism was born out of the shock of the destruction of the First Jewish Commonwealth. Its period of gestation and growth came with the Second Commonwealth (circa 500 BC-113 CE) a period of extraordinary inward growth and development. With magnificent diasporas now in existence in Babylonia-Persia and the Greco-Roman world, the conserving and creative force of this form of Judaism deepened its influence and shaped the contours for survival. In its confrontation with world powers, its experience of disasters actual and potential, the ideas of messianic redemption and restoration as a paradigm of national experience fermented. The upsurge of the messianic thrust, apparent in the Maccabean revolt and the final confrontations with Rome, left its mark in a tension between a messianism of instant result and a messianism of long-range expectation.

If Rabbi Akiba's support of the abortive Bar Kochba revolt against Rome (135 CE) was expressive of the former, the careful compromise of Johanan ben Zakkai (70 CE) with Rome was symptomatic of the latter. In a discussion on Messianism in the Tractate Sanhedrin of the Babylonian Talmud, a long and detailed discussion dealing with the short range and the long range, a sage could say, "Blasted be the bones of him that predicts the day of the coming of the Messiah!"(12)

The Roman War against Judea left the Jewish people with three options -- the struggle to the death (the strategy of the zealots at Masada); the way of "instant" messianism, represented by the birth of Christianity and its ultimate "conquest" of Rome itself; and the way of Rabbinic Judaism, which represented a temporary retreat away from Rome to the Parthian world to return to the Roman world in Judaism's march into history.

It is in this form that Judaism and the Jewish people confront the world of the powerful East and the powerful West represented by Islam and Christianity, each surging in an attempt to dominate the other. But there persists a sense of exile, of punishment for guilt, of hope for return, of awareness of the ultimate indestructibility of the Covenant, and of the stubborn uniqueness of the Sinaitic relationship.

The way is fashioned despite the triumphalism of the younger, sibling faiths, each in its way combining religious with secular power. It is fashioned despite their might and conviction that they had wrested the glorious crown of God's special choice from defeated and rejected Israel.

An inner and inward life, seemingly at the peripheries of the ruling cultures, yet deeply involved with them, sometimes in creative dialogue but too often in a dialogue of pain and anguish, grows and develops. There is an awareness of divine relationship, and the development of deed and study under a unifying law and social fabric linked to original sources.

This then is the structure through which Judaism survives and expresses itself throughout the Middle Ages and into and beyond the threshold of the modern era. It is a confrontation for the most part, and a coexistence at some points with the ruling, dominant, triumphalist faiths of Christianity and Islam. It rises and falls, ebbs and flows, moves from center to center, but its inward life grows through layer upon layer of commentary and of expansion of the Rabbinic way. The link with the transcendent continues in the mediated manner of Torah study with the performance of the deeds required by it.

There is always a sense of exile, of abandonment by God or having been punished by Him, and yet always a conviction that their continued witness of Him was crucial and that He would some day intervene in their behalf as in the days of yore. God was known in past rememberings, in the immersion of study of His Torah, and the doing of His way.

Yet the drive to bridge the chasm of transcendence continued, despite the dropping of the curtain, despite the exile of the Shekinah, despite the cessation of direct revelation to the prophets. The hunger to know and to experience continued in the hidden places, as though a subterranean secret river flowed within the main stream of Jewish history.(13) This was the effort to continue the secret studies of the mysteries of being, to achieve a capacity to "know God" face to face, to understand the forces that shaped creation and animated divine being.

This was the cultivation and study of Kabbala, the mystic lore, to efforts to understand the inner meanings and purposes of the universe, of Jewish being and of God Himself. Ancient gnostic roots combined with this hidden search whose goal was to give a new mythic base to the structure of Rabbinic Judaism as it moved into history. Jewish mystics produced a literature that took the devotee into the heavens and returned him to earth; produced secret works that described the realities of creation; detailed the stature of God; described the Torah text as the mystical repository of the secrets of the reality of God.

They developed elect and secret fellowships whose devotees immersed themselves in these studies, saw visions, and experienced on rare occasions the ultimate revelation of the divine. And when the pains of exile grew increasingly acute with the horrors of the Crusades in the eleventh and twelfth centuries; the expulsion from Spain in the fifteenth century; and the Chmelnitzki pogroms in Poland in the seventeenth century; the emphasis of the mystic quest shifted from the efforts to experience God and to describe and understand the inner secret processes of His Being, to the eager anticipation of His reentry into history as redeeming Messianic force to bring an end to exile and suffering, and a restoration to the ancient homeland.

Thus, the Jewish people moves into the Christian- and Moslem-dominated Middle Ages, witnessing to an ancestral covenant, living in counterpoint to these cultures with a realistic survival pattern that kept its link to divine roots through the expansion of the study of sacred texts, and living the sacred life in the face of the pragmatic struggle for survival. Just below the surface, the passion and surge of the mystical quest flowed like a torrential underground stream. (14)

The cumulative impact of these forces shaped the approach of future generations to the problem of transcendence. In our own secular age, the tension between a total rejection of a transcendent Other and desperate acceptance of its inevitable search and mastery, to say nothing of an in-between position of wait-and see, has long been at work. The recent and rapid growth of the mystical option through a renewed interest in spirituality and Kabbalah is a phenomenon that now needs to be explored.

  1. Yehezkel Kaufman, The Relgion of Israel (New York: Schocken. 1972) p. 21.
  2. Exodus 33:20.
  3. Emil Fackenheim, Encounter between Judaism and Modern Philosophy (Philadelphia, 1973) p. 4.
  4. Babylonian Talmud, Baba Batra, 12a.
  5. Ibid., Medillah, 13b.
  6. Cf. Jeremiah 32:15 and 29:1.
  7. Scholem, Gershom, Tradition and Commentary as Religious Categories in Judaism, in Arthur Cohen, Arguments and Doctrines, (Harper & Row, 1970) pp. 307ff.
  8. Ibid.
  9. The effort to know God and bridge transcendence is expressed by mystics in this way. The reference of course is to Ezekiel's chariot vision.
  10. Babylonian Talmud, Hagigah 14b. Also B. Shabbat 80b.
  11. Zvi Weblowski, Kabbalism and the Lurianic Community, at the Conference on Transcendence, University of Chicago Divinity School, Apr. 10, 1972.
  12. Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin, 97b.
  13. Gershom Scholem, Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism, p. 2.
  14. Gershom Scholem, The Messianic Idea in Judaism, (New York, 1971) p. 27ff.

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