Review of Justin David, Longing: Jewish Meditation on a Hidden God

Justin David. Longing: Jewish Meditation on a Hidden God. Eugene: Cascade Books, 2017. 217 pp.

Hanoch Ben Pazi
Bar-Ilan University

The book under review contains three parallel discussions, each worthy and interesting in its own right, which together constitute a challenging and intriguing framework for religious thought and internal observation via biblical texts. The first constitutes an invitation to engage in a meditative reading of the stories of Elijah and Elisha in the Book of Kings. The second proposes a philosophical and theological outlook based on the structure of Franz Rosenzweig’s The Star of Revelation: creation, revelation, and redemption. And the third encourages readers to rethink the meaning of religion and theology in the era of the death of God.   

Bereshit: In the Beginning     

I trace my own spiritual life to my teenage years, when the Torah came alive for me with its first words, Bereshit. (18)

In his introduction, author Just David shares what appears to be a personal story about his role as a rabbi and a teacher in his community. In this context, he introduces readers to the question of religious leadership in current times, as well as the manner in which religious leaders, who serve as educators for their communities, seek to incorporate the members of their communities into meaningful spiritual discourse. In the context of Jewish discourse, this dilemma encompasses a structural tension between halakha and aggadah—that is, between the practical study of Jewish law and living a Jewish way of life on the one hand, and the meditations and stories that attract attention and draw the general public closer to issues of faith and religious experience on the other hand. The difference between these two genres also has to do with the decision of which texts to study: which serve as the primary texts of study in the basic study of Jewish culture? Traditionally, this position has been filled by Talmudic study (the textual tradition of the Jewish sages of the periods of the Mishna and the Talmud), and this tradition is the basis for Jewish halakhic thought and writing. This comes as something of a surprise, as it assigns paramount status not to the Holy Scriptures—the Bible itself—but rather to a written text that is fully acknowledged to be a work of human creation. 

At the outset of his commentary on the Bible, Rashi (1040-1105), the French rabbi who was the foremost Jewish biblical commentator of all time, asks why the biblical text begins with the story of creation. After all, the Torah is a book of laws and should have begun elsewhere, with the verse “this month shall be your first month” (Exodus 12:2), which is a commandment that precedes the story of the exile from Egypt. Many of the writers who have addressed this commentary have offered their own views of Rashi’s answer. David, however, focuses our attention on Rashi’s question of what is the starting point. Although there are many points from which it is possible to set forth, what interests David is the surprising prerogative to wonder where to begin. The journey to the text begins with this prerogative to contemplate, which is also the journey from the text to the spiritual voyage.

On the Importance of the Principle of Tzimtzum

When we examine David’s sources of influence and the sources from which he draws his ideas, we discover a respectable core of mystical and Hassidic Kabbalistic texts, including use of literature of the Zohar, the Kabbalah of the “Ari” (Isaac Luria Ashkenazi), and the doctrine of Reb Nahman of Bratslav. The book’s uniqueness, however, lies in the manner in which it draws the right to read the secret and the spiritual out of the literal text, or—as he describes the basis of inspiration for his work—the infinity that contracts itself within the text.

One of the most curious traditions of the Jewish Kabbalah since the sixteenth century has been the principle of tzimtzum. In its literal sense, this Hebrew term means to reduce something. In its biblical and midrashic sense, however, it is intended to explain God’s revelation in reality—that is to say, the infinite God’s ability to contract itself and reveal itself to humans, as in the revelation in the burning bush, the revelation at Mt. Sinai, and the contraction of God’s Shekhina within the Temple. However, the Ari, one of the foremost Jewish Kabbalists and mystics of all time, posed the question of tzimtzum in the opposite direction by means of the following philosophical and theological question: How can a world and a reality even exist within the infinite existence of Godliness? Tzimtzum is not required to enable God to reveal himself in the world, but rather the opposite: to enable the world to reveal itself within God. The wholeness of the Shekhina and the wholeness of Godliness preclude the revelation of anything personal or finite, and for this reason an act of contraction is required within Godliness to facilitate the creation of a space that is devoid of Godliness. The existence of such a space is what facilitates the establishment of reality, the creation of the world, and the significance of human action. David’s mystical reading draws the divine dynamic nature of reality from this idea—that is to say, the infinity of reality, the possibility of tzimtzum and the absence of Godliness from reality, and the quest for divine revelations within this absence, within this empty space.

This mystical and theological idea also holds psychological and social significance, as it pertains to the question of the oneness of God and the oneness of man facing God. In a variation on the words of Descartes based on Saint Augustine of Hippo, Rabbi Soloveitchik relates to the loneliness of the believer (“I am lonely therefore I believe”), as the loneliness of man encounters the loneliness of God, and the solitariness of man faces the solitariness of God. Soleveitchik describes the complex personality of the believer in relation to man’s experience of existential loneliness, which leads him to the dignity and uniqueness of man who was created in God’s image.    

Similarly, in this book, the notions of God’s solitariness and the contraction of Godliness encounter the unique character of the believer, who longs for Godliness itself” “For me, Judaism requires no ‘leap of faith’. Rather, it entails a confrontation with an existential conundrum: that we must live with some degree of isolation so as to induce longing, which prompt us to seek an existential and spiritual foundation that we feel we need” (37). 

The two main characters who are present throughout the book, in whom and through whom David seeks to construct his perception of longing, are Eliyahu and Elisha: two prominent prophets from the time of the kings who were known for their social, political, and supernatural activity. For David, however, these two characters represent first and foremost the prophets’ experience of loneliness and need, and his infinite longing for the other and for Godliness. Elisha’s moving cry—“My father! My father! The chariots and horsemen of Israel!” (2 Kings 2:12), exclaimed as Elijah the prophet is swept up to heaven by a divine whirlwind—echoes in David’s ears. Indeed, the verses in the book of Kings that depict this separation are heart-wrenching:

Elisha saw this and cried out, “My father! My father! The chariots and horsemen of Israel!” And Elisha saw him no more. Then he took hold of his garment and tore it in two. Elisha then picked up Elijah’s cloak that had fallen from him and went back and stood on the bank of the Jordan. (2 Kings 2:12-13)

But the pain of Elisha the prophet is immediately translated into a religious appeal: “He took the cloak that had fallen from Elijah and struck the water with it. ‘Where now is the Lord, the God of Elijah?’ he asks” (2 Kings 2:14). It is an appeal that translates Elisha’s suffering and longing for his teacher and father into spiritual suffering and an attempt to search and long for God.

This moment marks the onset of the journey that David depicts in his book. It is the great journey for an understanding of the mystical and religious movement of the student and the teacher, of the great prophet Elijah and his student Elisha. The book proposes understanding the movement toward Godliness as a movement based on longing. It is important to take note of the significant sensitivity proposed here regarding the modes of longing and yearning. It is a movement toward ‘that which was and is no more’ and toward ‘that which will be and is no more.’ Longing is accompanied by pain and hope, desire and movement, and the great wisdom that emerges between Elisha and Elijah is the wisdom of translating this longing and this sense of having missed out into devotion to God and the hope of hearing his voice.

Abraham converses with his father Terah, whose departure from and perhaps longing for his father emerges as major elements of his spiritual movement. Elisha, who refers to Elijah as “father,” seeks to regard him as a father figure and to signify his longing for him. And, of course, David, the book’s author, thinks about his own father and their conversations on spiritual and ethical matters. 

According to David, rupture and pain constitute a central element of spiritual longing. The breaking of the vessel in the Kabbalistic story of the creation of the worlds is an important basis for understanding the divine worlds and man’s connection to Godliness. More significant, however, is the great rupture of the modern world and current times, in which we think in terms of ‘the death of Godliness’ and in which paradoxical terms of ‘to have and to have not’ are the concepts leading the movement toward Godliness. Drawing on Martin Buber’s dialogical I-thou relationship, David speaks of man’s connection to the Godliness that is absent from the world. The I-thou relationship, which in the story culminates in the relationship between teacher and student, is the spiritual relationship to which Buber refers and which he regards as a remedy for the human suffering of current times.     

Using the Hebrew term tikun (repair), which he translates as “integration,” David rethinks the unique character of Elisha the prophet, who misses his master and teacher, who lives a solitary life of isolation, and who learns to live with his surroundings and community and to be committed to them. It is the Elisha who makes an effort and hopes to hear the voice of Godliness (107-110). Richard Rubinstein reverberates both aloud and silently in the emotionally moving paragraphs regarding the absence of God, or the paradoxical wholeness of the absence of Godliness from the world. The language of longing for Godliness is retranslated into acts of repairing a world without Godliness. In other words, the hope for Godliness and the longing for Godliness lie at the heart of the spiritual activity of man, who assumes responsibility for the world as a whole. David presents the act of taking responsibility in Levinasian terms, and what follows is an excerpt from this unique presentation:                  

God, for Levinas, is not the deity of our popular cynical imagination, who makes false promises, grants rewards, or executes punishments. God is being itself, and in particular, represents a moral way of being that Jewish tradition calls ‘holiness’. As Levinas himself observed, the Talmud gives God the name, “Holy One, Blessed be He (sic),” which is to say, that the quality of holiness between people is itself the most convincing manifestation of God. (171)

Longing: Jewish Meditation on a Hidden God offers a wonderful opportunity for thought and reflection on theology and Godliness in current times, in the era following the death of God, and in the modern experience of his absence. But it is also a moving opportunity to experience the deep meaning of longing for a vision and a divine voice in a world in which the paradoxical experience of wholeness and emptiness is fundamental. The book also constitutes an invitation to partake in an exceedingly personal journey that each of us can experience—a journey beyond our personal existence, and from there to the other and to Godliness.

In the book’s final lines, the author uses personal words to address the close connection between the absence of the father and the absence of God, and between the experience of incurable pain and the experience of the desire to create and repair the world. It is an individual, almost prophetic call to each of us to transform our painful experience of existence into a magnificent and meditative tool toward repairing the world.