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June 1, 2023

Protest as Prayer (Part 9): “The Shechina which is called I” (Zohar….)


By Marc Gafni

This post is continued from Part 8.

The implication of this Kabbalistic strain of thought needs to be unpacked more fully. One of the core ideas in the Lurianic understanding of the religious act is the need to identify with the pain of the Shechina in exile. According to the Talmudic masters the divine presence  — the Shechina — is exiled with the Jewish people. In one of the most daring affirmations of divine intimacy, the Talmudic teachers and later the kabbalistic masters insist that the transcendent God of the Bible becomes incarnate in the suffering of the Jewish people (and, I would add, of all people).

Indeed the actual term for Shechina in many kabalistic sources is kenesset yisrael — the community of Israel. The community per se is an embodiment of the divine. This identification achieves its most extreme form when God is described as suffering the pain of the people. Emerging from the verse in Isaiah, “In all your pain — he is in pain,” the mystical writers develop at great length the very powerful notion that God suffers together with every person in pain. For the mystic there may be much quiet desperation in the world but there is no lonely desperation. And being “with” is always the beginning of redemption. One mystical writer turns God’s infinity — which is understood by the medieval rationalists as being the expression of divine perfection — on its head and talks not about infinite power but of the infinity of divine pathos, intimacy and love. God loves us so much that when we suffer he experiences our pain — infinitely. This explains why God is hidden in the world. For if God’s infinite pain were to be revealed — if one divine tear were to fall, it would surely destroy the world in an instant.

This notion of divine intimacy — together with a combination of two major ideas — one from Cordevero’s and the other from Luria’s Kabbalah — need to be transformed into a mandate for human spiritual activism. Luria teaches that a major raison-de-etre for the performance of Mitzvah is to participate in the pain of the Shechina in exile. When I perform a ritual act says Luria I am engaging in far more than the fulfillment of a divine command — I am rather empathetically identifying with the Shechina in exile. Through this identification I contribute to her redemption.

This idea brings us full circle. The human being suffers. God abandons the heavens, risking his transcendence in order to create intimacy with the sufferer by fully participating in her pain. Even for God there is no intimacy without risk.

Yet intimacy demands response. We are called on to participate with God in her pain. The act of Mitzvah is interpreted by Luria as a sort of participation mystique. For example, when we give charity it is not only an act of social justice. It is a movement of redemption — namely the redemption of the Shechina (who is called “the poor one”) from her exile. According to Jewish Law the dispenser of charity to the poor is commanded not only to give charity but to empathize with the pain of the poor person. According to Luria we experience the pain of the poor one on two levels, the actual poor person and the Shechina who is called the poor one. God’s redemption, according to Luria, takes place through our participating in God’s pain.

Cordevero in his classic work the Palm of Devorah teaches that Imatatio dei — the imitation of God — applies to all God’s revealed characteristics. All theology — i.e. knowledge about god — is a challenge to imitate, to be like, God.

Therefore the knowledge of God’s ways passed down by the spiritual visionaries of the generations — that God emerges out of Herself to participate in human suffering — demands that we imitate God. Just as God merges infinity into finity by participating in human suffering, so do we merge finity into infinity by participating in divine suffering.

How do we accomplish this? Clearly in the same way that God does … by participating in the pain of the other. Divine suffering is human suffering. We meet God in the pain of the other. God participates in the pain of suffering human beings. If we are challenged to imitate God by participating in divine suffering — then we meet the challenge by feeling the pain of other. Human beings meet God in pain — not, however, in our own pain, but in our ability to expand the narrow boundaries of self and fully identify with and experience the pain of other.

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