March 5, 1998 / 7 Shevat, 5758

Rabbi Hillel Goldberg / Tetzavah

The highest presence is absence

IN JUDAISM, the highest presence is absence.

This week's Torah portion unfolds this paradoxical concept through - appropriately - the absence of Moses.

The strongest human presence in the Hebrew Bible is Moses. From the time of his first appearance in the first portion of the second book of the Pentateuch, which records Moses' birth and first stages of growth, until the last chapter of the Pentateuch, which records Moses' death, he is mentioned by name in every single Torah portion - 42 in all - with one exception: this one. The name of Moses is found nowhere. "And you shall command the Children of Israel" - the opening verse in this portion - refers to Moses, but does not mention him by name. Neither do all similar verses in this, the seventh portion of Exodus.

Like the exception that proves the rule, Moses' single absence from the books in which his presence is otherwise overwhelming allows us to peer piercingly into his essence. Absence is the indispensable essence of Moses and all critical actors in the human drama - the pious person, the saint; the ordinary human being, created in the image of G-d; and even G-d Himself.

And absence is the essence of holiness.

Saul, the first King of Israel, is the paradigm of the saint, the pious person, the exemplar of character. Saul is humble and self-effacing - absent.

When Samuel the Prophet first intimates that Saul will rise to high station, Saul replies quizzically that he is but a member of the smallest tribe of Israel and of the youngest family in that tribe. When Samuel shortly thereafter seeks to anoint Saul the first King of Israel, Saul is in hiding. He is described by the memorable phrase which has become a metonymy for the Jewish understanding of piety: nechbah el ha-kelim, literally, "hidden within the vessels" (II Samuel 10:22). Inwardness, modesty, avoidance of honor, embarrassment over status - absence - Saul embodied. It is all this that the pietistic tradition in Judaism idealized and that the saints of Judaism emulated. The saint is the opposite of the celebrity. He is absent.

When some learn of a pious person through his devotees, they exclaim, "Why haven't we heard of him!" Saintliness is not a commodity, subject to the laws of marketing and distribution. It is not the goal of a saint to be heard of - it is the success of the seeker after piety to locate him, the failure of the moral voyeur to expect to be informed of him.

G-d Himself is an absence, philosophically speaking.

To attribute any positive attribute to G-d, no matter how lofty, is to limit G-d, to reduce and attenuate His presence. To say, for example, that G-d is omniscient is to regard G-d as a knowing being, only more so; putting G-d essentially on the same plane as any other knowing being. Similarly, to say that G-d is omnipotent is to regard G-d as only quantitatively, not qualitatively, different from any other powerful being. All other positive attributes similarly limit G-d.

The only way not to limit G-d is to describe Him by what Maimonides and others term "negative attributes." To place no limits on G-d, to describe Him as unlike any other being, is to describe what G-d is not - to say, for example, that G-d is invisible, incomprehensible, unnameable, ineffable. The attempt to describe G-d positively is the attempt to describe G-d's essence, and this is impossible. In His essence, G-d is G-d only by virtue of what He is not - by virtue of His absence.

One cannot even attribute to G-d the positive attribute of "life." If this seems like a religious deficiency, consider: Only a living G-d can die. In the 1960s, Christianity was beset by a "Death of G-d" theology, but Judaism was not. This was no accident. It reflected the philosophic vulnerability of Christianity, to whose radical theologians the "death of G-d" meant this: The transcendent G-d - the "Father" - had long coexisted with the immanent G-d - the "son." But of sole relevance to many in a secular age of materiality and pleasure is not transcendent but immanent godliness. Worldly godliness. Justification and elevation of the flesh. Only the "son" is relevant; the transcendent Father, "G-d," died.

For Judaism, G-d could never die, because G-d never lived. When Christianity divides between a "transcendent" and an "immanent" person of G-d, even its transcendent G-d is just that: transcendent, possessing a positive attribute. This is unavoidable, since the Father was in the son, and the son lived and died (in the literal sense of the flesh). Therefore, the Father also had to possess the positive attribute of life. Of necessity, both Father and son, coexisting, possessed life. Therefore, the Father could - and did - die. Only the son - immanent godliness - survived.

The late Prof. Steven Schwarzschild put it this way:
Transcendence enters into immanence while remaining itself. . . . [Thomas] Altizer draws the consistent conclusion: "Only the Christian can celebrate an Incarnation in which G-d has actually become flesh, and radical theology must finally understand the Incarnation itself as affecting the 'death of G-d.'"

G. Vahanian . . . puts the cards on the table in recognizing, as Paul Ramsey does . . . that immanence is the crux of the problem and that it derives from peculiarly Christian premises:
"This, then, is the irony of the cultural tradition of Christianity, it has bequeathed the idea of the death of G-d. To kill the deity is to become G-d oneself: this is the meaning of the transition from radical monotheism to radical immanentism which has taken place in Western culture." Because Judaism has no "persons" in the one, indivisible G-d, Judaism has no need for "life" in G-d. Because Judaism has no life in G-d, Judaism has no death of G-d. G-d's absence guarantees His presence.

The human being - any human being - is, by virtue of being created in the image of G-d, an absence.

If one may not posit any positive attribute of G-d, is there not an unbridgeable gap between Him and humanity? If we have preserved, by a theology of negatives attributes, the purity of G-d, have we not also removed the possibility of all human contact with Him and rendered Him irrelevant? Judaism's answer to these questions is this: G-d's essence is unknowable, indescribable, indivisible, but G-d's actions - the expressions of His will - are knowable. If human beings can never know G-d's essence, they can draw close to Him by obeying His will. G-d both preserves His private essence and communicates His will, through the Bible. G-d has no positive attributes and expresses His concern for humanity by revealing His commandments.

Similarly, the human gesture must be twofold: concealment and revelation, privacy and interaction, inscrutability and disclosure. G-d combines an ultimate, essential mystery with ethical activity. The human being must combine the protective privacy of an ultimate boundary with communication. This is a form of imitateo Dei.

Just as G-d is resistant to final theological curiosity, the human being must retain a private, individual essence. The human being must resist being a mere composite of characteristics, be they economic, social, physical or psycho- logical. To be fully human, a human being must possess an element of absence. That one person cannot fully know another is a measure of human dignity - and holiness.

What is holiness? It is kedushah. Etymologically, this denotes separation, restraint, withdrawal. Holiness is the limit that G-d's will places upon the unrestricted revelation of human desire. Holiness is not eating certain foods, not acquiring property by certain means, not indulging in intimate relations at certain times, not saying certain things about others. Holiness incubates absence: the absence of partaking, of acquiring, of indulging, of speaking, on the criteria of G-d's will.

Such is the message of this Torah portion, first hinted at by the absence of Moses and further highlighted by the mysterious "breastplate of judgement."

The breastplate of judgement, a small, pouch-like garment worn by the High Priest, is mysterious by virtue of its strange juxtaposition. Its crafting is described alongside all of the other priestly garments, themselves preceded by a description of, and forming an integral part of, the most externalized and majestic expression of religion in the Pentateuch: the Tabernacle. Amid the pageantry and physicality of the priestly garments in the Tabernacle, the small breastplate of judgement, with its mysterious procedure, conveys the presence of G-d intensively.

The breastplate of judgement was folded in two, with its front half containing 12 settings, holding 12 stones, one for each of the 12 tribes of Israel, with the letters spelling the name of each tribe engraved on its stone. Inside the fold was a parchment on which Moses wrote the ineffable name (or names) of G-d.

Inside, hidden, unpronounceable: the absence of G-d went by the metaphor, Urim ve-Tumim. As the High Priest inquired of G-d, individual letters of the tribal names lit up. This luminosity was signified by Urim, literally, "lights." The High Priest's correct arrangement and deciphering of the letters was signified by Tumim, literally, "completeness," i.e., the correct arrange- ment and deciphering of the Divine message. The hiddenness of the Urim ve-Tumim yielded G-d's will in the form of specific answers to specific questions. The absence of the name of G-d, folded between the two sides of the breastplate of judgement, yielded the awesome sense of G-d's presence. It was evoked by His provision of unerring guidance.

This mysterious mode of G-d-man communication was awesome. How much more awesome does it appear by virtue of the absence of Moses from this portion - Moses, whose communication with G-d was still more intense, "face to face, as a man would speak to his friend" (Exodus 33:11). In focusing on the importance of absence - the presence that inhered in absence - this portion provides both a definition and a motive for holiness: for the special holiness of the saint, and for the holiness available to every person, each in imitation of G-d Himself. His highest presence is absence; so, too, man's.


Teruma: What is religious emotion?
Mishpatim: 'Eye for an Eye:' Jewish Justice?
Yisro: Between ten and seven: A spiritual distinction
Beshallah Shira: Undisputed symbols of unity
Bo: Who rules? Man or G-d?
Vayera: The summoning of courage
Shemos: The paths of the hated
Vayechi: I go myself
Vayyigash: Two types of power
Vayeshev: Jacob's dreams, Karl's dreams

Rabbi Hillel Goldberg is the executive editor of the Intermountain Jewish News and the author of several books on Jewish themes.

© 1998, Rabbi Hillel Goldberg