God is not God

From Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev, Kedushas Levi, Parshat Vaetchanan.

Hear, O Israel, the LORD is our God, the LORD is One. Deuteronomy 6:4

When we pray and call God “great,” then God puts on the “garb” of greatness, and when we call God “mighty” God puts on the garb of might, and that of awe when we call God “awesome” (1)… ּThere is a danger here of mistaking our “garbs” of God with God’s own self, but we must not allow such a separation (God forbid!). This is why we declare God’s unity with the Shema, saying “Hear, O Israel, the LORD,” YHVH, the One Whose essence cannot be garbed, and Elohim, “God,” Whom we see in the garb of our prayers, “is One.” Truly, we should cleave not to the garb but to the Source of all garbs, and this is the second “LORD,” the One Who unites everything.

Our sages teach that “every day the voice of prophecy goes out from Mount Sinai” calling us to Torah and atonement (2). The righteous merit to hear this voice. This is “Hear, O Israel” — You! Hear it! Every day, in every moment, a voice calls out, “the LORD is our God, the LORD is One!”


From the opening blessing of the Amidah: “God, the great, the mighty, the awesome…”   2) Pirkei deRabbi Eliezer 15; Zohar III 126a

Jeff says…

These were difficult pieces to translate, despite their brevity, because even in the Hebrew words fail to accurately describe what the Kedushas Levi is getting at, and the English is at yet another remove. But I think as long as you don’t try to make it make sense linearly, the meaning comes through. Here’s my take on it.

First of all, let’s get God’s names straight. What I translated here as “the LORD” is the four letter Ineffable Name God reveals to Moses, YHVH, yod-hey-vav-hey. Since the destruction of the Temple and the cessation of the priestly service, the pronunciation has been lost. One suggestion is that, since all the letters can be read as vowels, it really only sounds like breathing. However it sounds, we do know that it is built on the root “to be,” so we could read the name as “Being.” It’s not any conjugation we know, however — if anything, it’s all tenses at once, as if God’s name is “Is-Was-Will be,” in one word. Today we don’t even try to pronounce it; rather, we call God “Hashem,” which literally means “The Name.”

The second name is Eloheinu, “our God,” built on the name Elohim. Since earliest times Elohim has been taken as the aspect of God found in nature (hence the use of this name in the Creation account), the less personal aspect than YHVH, which comes into the Torah only when God decides to create Adam, seeking relationship. In other cases, Elohim is taken to mean God the Judge, while YHVH means G!d the Merciful One. In both cases, Elohim is seen as a more “contracted” and conceptualized aspect of God, farther from the divine essence.

Beyond God’s actual names, we have the words we ascribe to God, in this case the words from the other central prayer in Judaism, the Amidah: “great, mighty, awesome,” taken from Nehemiah 9:32, itself quoting Deuteronomy 10:17. According to this teaching, when we call God by these names, God “garbs” the infinite unknowable divinity in something we can wrap our heads around. While this “knowing” of God is central not just to human spirituality but to the existence of the cosmos, we have to recognize that what we’re “knowing” is a limitation of God, because God in God’s fullness cannot be known. So while we pray and we call God “great, mighty, awesome,” God actually becomes those things for us so that we can “know” Him, but we have to keep in mind that what we “know” pales in comparison to the divine reality.

But there’s a danger here, and this is where the thrust of the Kedushas Levi’s teaching comes in. The danger is one of “separation,” which I think can take two forms: between God and God’s “garb,” and between us and God. In the first case, we might imagine some kind of multiplicity within God, addressing our prayers to Elohim or YHVH or the Shekhinah, when in reality God is a single, indivisible unity. (This was actually a danger pointed out and warned against by several Jewish mystics who were alarmed by the way some people understood God’s various manifestations in the divine names and the sfirot.) If we take our words for God too seriously, then, we can end up worshiping our own ideas of God instead of God. Or, in the second case, we can reject those words and ideas and also God right along with them, because we’ve confused the two. Take the image of God as king. Some people take it literally, and imagine God “up there,” on a throne, looking down on us. They then worship a cardboard cutout of the real God, or they reject this giant king in the sky entirely as nonsense (which it is). In both cases they separate themselves from the divine reality, and they would do well to educate themselves about what this image means — that just as all the land in a kingdom belongs to the king, all of Creation belongs to the Creator, and just as a king is the basis of the kingdom, God is the Source of existence; or that the Hebrew word for king, melekh, is actually an acronym for moach, lev, kelim, or “mind, heart, and guts” of the universe. But the key here is that we have to see God’s names (and all the other words we use to talk about God) as pointers to God, not as God’s own self.

But by constantly reminding ourselves that G0d’s names are not God, that the God we praise in prayer is not God, we run the risk of separating ourselves also from what they’re pointing at. The mental acrobatics required to think about God in any way approaching accuracy can get in the way of our souls’ connecting to God. The solution (not surprisingly, coming from a Hasidic master) is to unite everything: to see God’s “garb” as a true manifestation of and path to God’s essence, to cleave not only to God’s names but to the Ineffable on the other side of those names. A true balancing act for sure.

The second teaching here ties in to this balancing act. We have the Torah, given on one day some three thousand years ago, now contained in a book we can open and read. But Torah is given every day; the Voice never stopped. If we open our ears and live in tune with God, we can merit to hear that voice every day, even every moment. In this way the Torah becomes not a dead letter but a living force pointing us back to God, the Ineffable, unknowable — yet somehow eminently knowable — God behind it all.

This paradox is found also in two other teachings about G!d’s names and the Torah. One is that God is never mentioned in the Torah. Sure, many names for the ineffable divine appear, but all of them are of necessity “garbs,” even YHVH. The true essence of the divine is totally unnameable. The other teaching is that all of the Torah, in fact, is one long name for God. Go figure.

This entry was posted in Concepts, God, Hasidic Masters, Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev/Kedushas Levi, Parsha, Prayer, Vaetchanan and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to God is not God

  1. Pingback: The Least of Things | Hasidism for the Rest of Us

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