A "Shaliach" Theory of Union with God in Judaism

Yakov Leib haKohain

"This fear of Yahweh is the beginning of wisdom." (Psalms 110:10)

I submit that Judaism (at least in its very early, primitive stages) did not reject the possibility of "union with God," so much as it feared and cautioned against the potentially-devastating consequences of such an encounter on the functioning ego. Job (an archetypal symbol of the Jewish psyche who should know), like the Psalm quoted above, exclaims, "Wisdom? It is fear of the Lord" (Job 28:28). From whence does he come to that conclusion? From his direct experience:

"This was the answer Job gave to Yahweh . . . . I knew you [before] only by heresay; but now, having seen you WITH MY OWN EYES, I retract all I have said, and in dust and ashes I repent."
(Job 42:5-6)

What Job is saying here is that it is one thing to know God through the second-hand testimony of others, and quite another to encounter him face-to-face. The former is "safe," while the latter is "dangerous." So dangerous, in fact, that Job, having collided with God and lost everything because of it, repents of ever having had the temerity to do so in the first place.

So, as I began by saying, it is not that esoteric, or even exoteric Judaism denies the possibility of personal union with God but -- having experienced it on a collective level at Mount Sinai -- steps away from such a possibility in order to maintain its "sanity." Read for example:

"Then God spoke all these words [and] . . . all the people shook with fear at the peals of thunder and the lightening flashes, the sound of the trumpet, and the smoking mountain [i.e., their face-to-face encounter with Yahweh]; and they kept their distance. 'Speak to us yourself,' they said to Moses, 'and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, or we shall die' . . . So the people kept their distance while Moses approached the dark cloud where God was."
(Exodus 20:18-21)

This is an extremely important passage for our understanding of Judaism's stance vis-a-vis union with God: having come to its perimeter, what they experienced there was so overpowering that they stepped back from it in terror, and appointed Moses to "go in" on their behalf, which he did.

We see here the first mention of the "intermediary" (i.e., "Shaliach" in Hebrew) between the fragile ego of man and a the dangerous power of God.  This "Shaliach" (i.e., Messiah) is chosen by the collective nation to sacrifice himself on their behalf in order to commune with God: from now on, it his HE and not THEY who will run the risk of personal anihilation through direct contact with, and even entrance into, the presence of Deity. Job speaks of the need for such a Shaliach when he says:

"Yes, I am man, and he is not; and so no argument, no suit between the two of us is possible. There is no arbiter between us, to lay his hand on both, to stay his rod from me, or keep away his daunting terrors."
(Job 9:32-34)

Put another way, "union with God" is conceived of and achieved in Judaism not by each individual -- who is considered, rightly or wrongly, to be too fragile to witstand the experience -- but by a chosen representative (a "Christ" if you will) who enters "into" God (as the High Priest alone entered "into" the Holy of Holies) on their behalf.

The danger, however, in such a "union," even for the Shaliach, is always death. For that reason, a rope was tied to the ankle of the High Priest before he entered the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur to utter the unspeakable Name of God (i.e., call Yahweh up into his presence). But that was symbolic; the death is not always to the Shaliach's "body" but potentially to his "soul" -- which is to say, the destruction of the personal ego and its resulting insanity.

We see this in virtually every great avatar in history. In a famous Buddhist scripture, Buddha's disciples debate whether the mantra Gatai gatai, parasamgatai, Bodhi svahah ("Gone, gone, gone to the other side") does not mean that the Buddha was literally "crazy;" Jesus's family believed him to be insane, as did the family of Sri Ramakrishna much later; after awakening to his divine nature, Avatar Meher Baba displayed what would clearly be considered "psychotic" behavior -- for example, often banging his head against the concrete floor until it bled; and Sabbatai Zevi is notorious for his "strange gestures" and so-called "manic depression." Indeed, it would seem that the price the Avatar pays for his union with God is, as Judaism cautions, a kind of "death" symbolized in Christianity by the crucifixion and in Sabbatianism by AMIRAH's holy apostasy and subsequent expulsion from the Jewish community. (In the language of Judaism, "his name was erased," which means to say he was henceforth "dead" to history.)

Thus, in retrospect, what began in Judaism as a CAUTION against union with God, gradually devolved into a DENIAL of its possibility, except among the most esoteric of its teachings which were later to surface in the advent of Sabbatai Zevi.

Aaron's Blessings,

Yakov Leib

posted on the Donmeh mail list
Tue, 26 Oct 1999

About the author: external link Yakov Leib haKohain is a Jewish poet, author, teacher and Sabbatian Kabbalist. He holds a doctorate in Jungian Studies and Comparative Religion, and his poetry and essays have appeared in a number of literary magazines and scholarly journals. He is founder and moderator of the Donmeh West forum

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uploaded on 27 October 1999