logo

Spirit in Judaism – part 2: Rabbis and Chasidism

Article by

(Ruach HaKodesh, Session 3b)

 

This session of the Ruach HaKodesh series gives a brief survey of the history of ideas in Judaism regarding the Holy Spirit. In part one we looked primarily at the Second Temple Era. This episode, part 2, explores rabbinic literature, the Medieval era, and the Chasidic movement. We will see some attitudes of the rabbis toward the Holy Spirit, as well as some fascinating parallels between Chasidic Judaism and Charismatic Christianity.

The following is a condensed version of the audio teaching, including the text of sources cited. You can also subscribe to this podcast here.

 

Rabbinic Judaism

The main rabbinic works include:

  • Mishnah (ca. 200 CE)
  • Tosefta (ca. 300)
  • Jerusalem Talmud (ca. 425)
  • Babylonian Talmud (ca. 525)
  • Various midrashic works

Rabbinic literature is different from previous literature in that Judaism considers rabbinic literature to be authoritative. The Mishna and the Babylonian Talmud have carried most of the weight of authority. Rabbinic Literature is not monolithic or systematic. It is varied, immense, and often self-contradictory.

One of the difficulties involved with studying rabbinic writings is the immense volume of literature involved. We won’t even scratch the surface in this brief session. We are going to focus on two main uses of Ruach Hakodesh in rabbinic literature:

  1. Power of prophecy
  2. Personification of God and His Word[1]Julie Hilton Danan, “The Divine Voice in Scripture: Ruah ha-Kodesh in Rabbinic Literature” (PhD Diss. University of Texas at Austin, ...continue

 

Power of Prophecy

As before, rabbinic literature often equates the Holy Spirit and the spirit of prophecy:

In rabbinic thought [the Holy Spirit] is the spirit of prophecy which comes from God, a divine inspiration giving man an insight into the future and into the will of God. Traditionally the Pentateuch was given directly by God to Moses, but the other canonical writings were all produced under the inspiration of Ru’ah ha-Kodesh.[2]Unterman and Horwitz, “Ru’ah Ha-Kodesh” in EJ, 364-365.

So, for example, King David composed his psalms under inspiration of the Holy Spirit (b.Brachot 4b; cf. Mark 12:36). Indeed, all the Scriptures were written by inspiration of the Holy Spirit (b.Megillah 7a; cf. 2Tim 3:16).

Now, a logical extension of all this is to affirm that such prophecy has ceased (since the canon is closed). Hence we see that doctrine of the cessation of prophecy come up again:

After the later prophets Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi had died, the Holy Spirit departed from Israel, but they still availed themselves of the Bath Kol.
(b.Yoma 9b; cf. b.Sotah 48b)

In five things the first Sanctuary differed from the second: in the ark, the ark-cover, the Cherubim, the fire, the Shechinah, the Holy Spirit [of Prophecy], and the Urim-we-Thummim [the Oracle Plate].
(b.Yoma 21b)

When the Temple was destroyed and Israel went into exile, the Holy Spirit returned to heaven; this is indicated in Eccl. xii. 7: “the spirit shall return unto God” (Eccl. R. xii. 7).[3]Jacobs and Blau, “Holy Spirit” in JE, VI:448.

Based on some passages, it seems that the presence of the Holy Spirit is possible even in contemporary times, but that possibility is not usually realized:

The Holy Spirit dwells only among a worthy generation, and the frequency of its manifestations is proportionate to the worthiness. There was no manifestation of it in the time of the Second Temple (Yoma 21b), while there were many during the time of Elijah (Tosef., Soṭah, xii. 5).[4]Ibid.

According to the Tosefta:

A bat ḳol announced twice at assemblies of the scribes: ‘There is a man who is worthy to have the Holy Spirit rest upon him.’ On one of these occasions all eyes turned to Hillel; on the other, to Samuel the Lesser.[5]t.Sotah 13:2-4. As quoted in Jacobs and Blau, “Holy Spirit” in JE, VI:449.

In this line of thinking, we see passages that suggest the Holy Spirit is attainable through pious living:

R. Phineas ben Jair says, Zeal [for Torah] leads to cleanliness, and cleanliness leads to purity, and purity leads to self-restraint, and self-restraint leads to holiness, and holiness leads to humility, and humility leads to the fear of sin, and the fear of sin leads to devotion, and devotion leads to the Holy Spirit, and the Holy Spirit leads to the resurrection of the dead, and the resurrection of the dead shall come through Elijah of blessed memory.
(m.Sotah 9:15)[6]My translation. Cf. also b.Avodah Zarah 20b.

Woe unto us: Just as whoever cleaves to impurity, a spirit of impurity rests upon him, so, too, whoever cleaves to the Shekhinah; it is logical that the Holy Spirit will rest upon him. And who caused [the Shekhinah to depart]: “But your iniquities have been a barrier between you and your God.” (Isaiah 59:2)
(Sifrei Deuteronomy, Piska 173)

Other ways of attaining to the Holy Spirit include “those who teach the Torah in public, those who study from pure motives, and those who perform even one mitzvah in complete faith.”[7]Unterman and Horwitz, “Ru’ah Ha-Kodesh” in EJ, 365. Referencing Song R. 1:1 no. 8; SEZ, 1; and Mekh. Be-Shallah, 2:6. The Midrash says:

All that the righteous do, they do with the power of Ru’ah ha-Kodesh.[8]Tanh. Va-Yehi 13. As quoted in Unterman and Horwitz, “Ru’ah Ha-Kodesh” in EJ, 365.

So the heart of Solomon was full of wisdom but no one knew what was in it but when the Holy Spirit rested on him and he composed three books, all knew his wisdom . . . because he discoursed on the Torah in public, he earned the privilege that the Holy Spirit rested on him and he composed three books, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and The Song of Songs.
(Song of Songs Rabbah 1:7)

 

Personification of God and His Word

Scholars contend that in Judaism the Holy Spirit is not a “person” like in Christianity. Yet there are times when the Spirit is treated as a person in rabbinic literature. For example, we read about the Holy Spirit speaking, acting as defense counsel for Israel, or leaving Israel and returning to God.[9]Pes. 117a; Lev. R. 6:1; Eccles. R. 12:7. Unterman and Horwitz, “Ru’ah Ha-Kodesh” in EJ, 365. The Holy Spirit seems to act as a personification both of God’s presence and also of His Word. As Abelson says:

Holy Spirit is another name for Holy Writ and vice-versa; and where we get the phrase “Holy Spirit says,” the meaning is equivalent to “Holy Writ says.” But, what is so very arresting, is the extraordinary ways in which the Holy Spirit is personified in all such passages. [E.g. crying and weeping, rejoicing and comforting, having a conversation with God or others, etc.] . . . . But it always effects these things by introducing quotations from Scripture. The explanation is this: Holy Scripture is the Holy Spirit; the Holy Spirit is God. Hence all this pleading, crying exhorting, blaming, punishing, comforting, etc., on the part of the Holy Spirit is a graphic attempt on the part of the Rabbins [sic] to show the abiding presence of God by the side of man.[10]Joshua Abelson, The Immanence of God in Rabbinical Literature (London: Macmillan and Co., 1912), 225.

We also see “Ruach Hakodesh” often used interchangeably with “Shekhinah.” Both are often used as an evasive synonym for God’s Name. The primary difference between the two in rabbinic usage is that the Holy Spirit speaks.[11]Danan, “The Divine Voice in Scripture”, p. 100.

But none of this ever developed into a theology of the Godhead like it did in Christianity:

The Holy Spirit in the dogma of the early church becomes a coeternal hypostasis in the doctrine of the Trinity. Ruah ha-kodesh, on the other hand, is a didactic dramatization of God’s immediacy and not a substantive intermediary between God and man.[12]Aaron Singer, “Holy Spirit,” in Arthur A. Cohen and Paul Mendes-Flohr, eds., Contemporary Jewish Religious Thought (New York: The Free ...continue

In summary, the Spirit is something of the past, but it is also something of the present and is attainable through intense piety.

Ruah Ha-kodesh has come to signify a prophetic spirit that graces an individual or community. The bearer experiences a clairvoyance that enables him to discern an event or human encounter in the continuum of time and space, illuminate a text of the Torah, be inspired to transcribe a book of Scripture, and, in some cases, perform supernatural feats.[13]Ibid. p. 409.

Some of the characteristic behavior that is associated with ruah ha-kodesh may be found in one who teaches Torah publicly, studies Torah in order to put it into practice, performs deeds of loving-kindness, is joyful of heart, sighs for the honor of God and Israel and pines for Jerusalem, and sacrifices self for the people of Israel. Equally instructive are the acts that drive ruah ha-kodesh away, such as arrogance, insensitivity to the anguish of others, living outside of the land of Israel, being a member of an unworthy generation, or committing one of the cardinal sins of shedding innocent blood or practicing immorality or idolatry.[14]Ibid. p. 410-411.

 

The Medieval Era

According to Encyclopedia Judaica:

The concept of the Holy Spirit played a relatively small role in medieval Jewish thought, possibly as a reaction to the Christian trinitarian understanding of the notion. It is primarily used to denote a low type of biblical prophecy, but it also describes a kind of prophecy that could still be attained even after prophecy proper had come to an end with Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi. A. J. Heschel enumerates many early medieval thinkers who believed that the door to prophecy was not completely closed, and that there was still a possibility for revelation that takes place by means of the Holy Spirit in a dream, a lower type of prophecy, or through a bat kol.[15]Unterman and Horwitz, “Ru’ah Ha-Kodesh” in EJ, 367. Referencing A. J. Heschel in Alexander Marx Jubilee Volume (1950), 175-208.

In this era, Maimonides suggested different levels of prophecy:

Maimonides described eleven degrees of prophecy (with a twelfth and highest rung attributed only to Moses), and confined Ruah ha-Kodesh only to the lowest two degrees, which he believed included the composition of the hagiographia by Kings David and Solomon.[16]Danan, “The Divine Voice in Scripture”, p. 105.

Another trend, which began much earlier, was the rise of Jewish mysticism. Like Christian mysticism, Jewish mysticism often represents a collision of Platonic philosophy with the Bible. The main difference between Christian and Jewish mysticism is that Judaism rejected monasticism. Also, because Judaism had less emphasis on theology, they could be more blatant about their mysticism without it being labeled as heresy.

The Holy Spirit is depicted as a mystical experience achieved through intense and exhaustive Torah study:

After a person has studied the Torah, Prophets and Scriptures, and read the Midrash, Mishnah, Aggadah and Talmud, and engaged diligently in the subtle analysis of the Law, immediately the Holy Spirit descends upon him; for it is written “The Spirit of the Lord spoke within me, and His word was on my tongue.” (2 Sam 23:2)[17]Midrash Eliyahu Zuta ch. 1, as quoted in Moshe Idel, “Mysticism,” in Arthur A. Cohen and Paul Mendes-Flohr, eds., Contemporary Jewish ...continue

Another passage, in which Rabbi Ishmael speaks of his teacher, Rabbi Nehunya ben ha-Kanah:

Upon being revealed the secrets of the Torah, immediately his heart was illuminated by the Eastern Gate and [his] eyes beheld the unfathomable depths, and all of the pathways of the Torah were open to [him]. Since then, nothing was ever lost from [his] memory.[18]Merkavah Shelemah 4b, as quoted in Idel, “Mysticism,”, p. 649.

In other words, the Holy Spirit is attained through intense study and is characterized by a mystical transformation in which the sage becomes constantly aware of his proximity to God’s Throne, understands deep secrets in the Torah, and supernaturally never forgets anything he has ever learned. Medieval Jewish mysticism laid the foundation for a movement that would reshape European Jewry, to which we now turn.

 

The Chasidic Movement

Chasidism was a “mystical revival movement that swept through Eastern Europe in the latter half of the eighteenth century.”[19]Arthur Green, “Hasidism,” in Arthur A. Cohen and Paul Mendes-Flohr, eds., Contemporary Jewish Religious Thought (New York: The Free ...continue Here are some facts and concepts about Hasidism:

  • Founded by the charismatic popular figure, Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer, aka the Ba’al Shem Tov (1698-1760)
  • Intense emphasis on the immanency of God
  • Promoted an accessible mysticism that is monistic (panentheistic), yet that focuses on the unification of nothingness (ayin) and being (yesh)
  • The concept of redeeming divine sparks (the Breaking of the Vessels myth, descent for the sake of ascent)
  • The concept of the Tzaddik
  • The concept that we are partners with God in fixing the world (tikkun olam)

Arthur Green describes the Chasidic emphasis on the immanency of God:

[The early Hasidim] never tired of insisting that the divine is everywhere, even — and perhaps especially — where we least expect to find it… [They intentionally read] such innocently theistic phrases as “there is none beside Him” to mean “there is nothing beside Him.”[20]Ibid. p. 318.

The early Chasidic sages were believed to possess the Holy Spirit, and there are stories of healings and miracles among them.

 

Chabad

One of the most well-known branches of Chasidism, Chabad, takes Chasidic theology even further:

It is in Habad (an acronym derived from the names of the three highest sefirot) Hasidism, particularly in the teachings of its founder, Shneur Zalman of Lyady, and his disciple Aaron of Starosielce, that the acosmic implications of the Mezhirech doctrine are most fully drawn forth. Habad is a theological system in which God alone has real existence and all else is illusion.[21]Ibid. p. 320.

Chabad was founded by Rabbi Sheur Zalman of Lyady (ancestor of Menachem Mendel Schneerson). He made the statement that “Even though it appears to us that the worlds exist, this is a total lie.”[22]Torah Or [1899], Tisa, p. 86b. As quoted in Rachel Elior, “HaBaD: The Contemplative Ascent to God,” in Arthur Green, ed., Jewish ...continue

Chabad went even further in emphasizing the goal of the worshipper as the abnegation of his/her own being (bittul hayesh). As Rachel Elior explains:

The acosmic view, asserting the nihility of creation, demanded that the consciousness of this nihility become the basis for a spiritualist worship which sought the restoration of the finite to the infinite, a form of worship known in Habad terminology as ‘avodah be-bittul (“worship through negation”).[23]Elior, “HaBaD”, p. 181.

In pre-Habad Hasidism, bittul was not a value in itself, but a means toward attaining the desired communion, whether as a stage toward its attainment or as a means of acquiring the passivity that is conducive to the ecstatic state of being moved by the divine Spirit. In this Hasidic approach, bittul is understood as a stage in the acquisition of the highest human perfection, which involves the destruction of natural forces in order to allow the divine to act within humans.[24]Ibid. p. 182.

In Habad, bittul is understood as the spiritual practice derived from the acosmic assumption and as humanity’s portion in the dialectical process of divine concretization and annihilation…

The service of bittul begins with hitbonenut (“contemplation”), — rational, intellectual speculation on the finite and the infinite, of being and nothingness…

The purpose of this contemplation is to serve as a means for the excitation of the soul to mystical arousal, for breaking out of the boundaries of finite and empirical consciousness, and to achieve unio-mystica.[25]Ibid. pp. 182-184.

 

Opposition to Chasidism

Not everyone was happy with the Chasidic movement. In fact, they were fiercely persecuted by other Jews in some areas. Those who opposed them were known as the mitnagdim (“opposers”). The most prominent mitnaged was the famous Vilna Gaon. He thought the Chasidim had gone over the top in their emphasis on emotion and enthusiasm.

The mitnagdim believed Torah study was the path to attaining the Holy Spirit. Hayim of Volozhin, the successor to the Vilna Gaon, established “mishmarot” (watches or shifts) of study in the main hall of the yeshiva 24 hours a day.

Ḥayim taught that Torah study also serves as the most promising path toward the spiritual elevation of the individual Jew; it is precisely through Torah that a person is able to reach communion with God. The Torah is an embodiment of God with respect to His will, God and His will being one and the same. Therefore, the deeper a person delves into Torah, the more strongly he becomes one with the giver of the Torah (God). Furthermore, in the course of studying Torah, a person may attain divine inspiration [ruach hakodesh], which expresses itself in an enrichment and intensification of intellectual abilities.[26]Immanuel Etkes, “Ḥayim ben Yitsḥak of Volozhin,” in YIVO Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe (2010).

 

Chasidic Judaism and Charismatic Christianity

There are some fascinating parallels between Jewish Chasidism and Charismatic Christianity. Both seem to share the following:

  • A movement of spiritual renewal
  • An emphasis on experience and prayer over study
  • An exuberance in worship/prayer
  • An emphasis on ecstatic experiences and attaining the Holy Spirit
  • An emphasis on this deeper spirituality being available to the masses, especially the unlearned
  • A sense of this renewal anticipating the eschaton to some extent
  • Seen by those outside as being unruly and sacrilegious
  • An emphasis on healings and miracles
  • The concept of super-spiritual leaders who are able to confer health and wealth upon their supporters
  • Even the Wesleyan doctrine of sinless perfectionism in the holiness movement (out of which sprang the Charismatic Movement) has some parallels with the concept of the Tzaddik. (Although there are significant differences.)

 

Conclusion:

The following are some insights we can glean from this study:

  • The title “Holy Spirit,” used of the Spirit of God, was very common in both Christianity and Rabbinic Judaism, even though the title is rare in the Tanakh. The Dead Sea Scrolls provide a precedent for this.
  • The Holy Spirit and prophecy go hand in hand. Speaking God’s Word is one of the most basic concepts of what it means to be filled with the Spirit. (We will unpack that more in a future session.)
  • There is a sense in Judaism that the Holy Spirit ceased with the latter prophets (Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi).
  • There is a huge expectation of an end-time outpouring of the Spirit on Israel
  • There is an expectation that the Messiah will be an intensely Spirit-filled individual, and in some sources the Messiah has a role to play in inaugurating the final outpouring on Israel.
  • Even though Judaism denied any association with Christian Trinitarian theology and did not consider the Holy Spirit to be a “Person” in the Godhead, yet we see the Spirit personified to an extent.
  • The Spirit is closely associated with Wisdom and the Scriptures, as well as Torah study. In other words, being filled with the Spirit is an anti-intellectual endeavour.
  • Judaism, just like Christianity, was heavily affected by Hellenism, although it manifests itself in very different ways. Some Jewish groups embraced Greek philosophy, while others reacted against it. But all were influenced by it.
  • Mysticism sought to make the Holy Spirit something attainable through intense piety.

It is important for us to keep all this in perspective. Ultimately, we want to know what the Bible says. All this stuff so far is only background. To know God better we need to be firmly grounded in the Scriptures. In our next session we will finally dive into to studying the Holy Spirit in God’s Word.

 

Photo credit: Ori Lubin (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

 

Feel free to Share
Email this to someoneShare on FacebookShare on Google+Tweet about this on TwitterShare on LinkedIn

References   [ + ]

1. Julie Hilton Danan, “The Divine Voice in Scripture: Ruah ha-Kodesh in Rabbinic Literature” (PhD Diss. University of Texas at Austin, 2009), p. 99.
2. Unterman and Horwitz, “Ru’ah Ha-Kodesh” in EJ, 364-365.
3. Jacobs and Blau, “Holy Spirit” in JE, VI:448.
4. Ibid.
5. t.Sotah 13:2-4. As quoted in Jacobs and Blau, “Holy Spirit” in JE, VI:449.
6. My translation. Cf. also b.Avodah Zarah 20b.
7. Unterman and Horwitz, “Ru’ah Ha-Kodesh” in EJ, 365. Referencing Song R. 1:1 no. 8; SEZ, 1; and Mekh. Be-Shallah, 2:6.
8. Tanh. Va-Yehi 13. As quoted in Unterman and Horwitz, “Ru’ah Ha-Kodesh” in EJ, 365.
9. Pes. 117a; Lev. R. 6:1; Eccles. R. 12:7. Unterman and Horwitz, “Ru’ah Ha-Kodesh” in EJ, 365.
10. Joshua Abelson, The Immanence of God in Rabbinical Literature (London: Macmillan and Co., 1912), 225.
11. Danan, “The Divine Voice in Scripture”, p. 100.
12. Aaron Singer, “Holy Spirit,” in Arthur A. Cohen and Paul Mendes-Flohr, eds., Contemporary Jewish Religious Thought (New York: The Free Press, 1987), pp. 409-410.
13. Ibid. p. 409.
14. Ibid. p. 410-411.
15. Unterman and Horwitz, “Ru’ah Ha-Kodesh” in EJ, 367. Referencing A. J. Heschel in Alexander Marx Jubilee Volume (1950), 175-208.
16. Danan, “The Divine Voice in Scripture”, p. 105.
17. Midrash Eliyahu Zuta ch. 1, as quoted in Moshe Idel, “Mysticism,” in Arthur A. Cohen and Paul Mendes-Flohr, eds., Contemporary Jewish Religious Thought (New York: The Free Press, 1987), p. 646.
18. Merkavah Shelemah 4b, as quoted in Idel, “Mysticism,”, p. 649.
19. Arthur Green, “Hasidism,” in Arthur A. Cohen and Paul Mendes-Flohr, eds., Contemporary Jewish Religious Thought (New York: The Free Press, 1987), p. 317.
20. Ibid. p. 318.
21. Ibid. p. 320.
22. Torah Or [1899], Tisa, p. 86b. As quoted in Rachel Elior, “HaBaD: The Contemplative Ascent to God,” in Arthur Green, ed., Jewish Spirituality, Vol. II (Crossroad, 1994), p. 161.
23. Elior, “HaBaD”, p. 181.
24. Ibid. p. 182.
25. Ibid. pp. 182-184.
26. Immanuel Etkes, “Ḥayim ben Yitsḥak of Volozhin,” in YIVO Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe (2010).


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *