The Talmud: God's omnipresenceA history of pantheism* by Paul Harrison.
Featured, Dec. 12, 1996.
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Has any other people heard the voice of God speaking out of fire,
as you have, and lived?
Can there be a nearer God than this? He is as near to His creatures as
the ear to the mouth.
Lava explosion in the crater of Stromboli.
The God of Judaism is often described in Christian literature as totally foreign, distant, unapproachable by humans - in contrast with the loving God of Christianity. Yet this portrait is inaccurate. From the time of Moses Yahweh was always an ambivalent deity.
He was transcendent, invisible, awe and fear inspiring. In Exodus no-one but Moses was allowed to come near him or hear Him speak, in case his blinding power destroyed them.
And yet from the first encounter he was also immanent,. He manifested himself especially in Palestine, in the Ark and the Temple. But He could show Himself anywhere in the world - in the midst of a bush, in the fire on top of Mount Sinai, or in the tent of meeting.
There were other paradoxes. Yahweh created all material things, and could act in the world in a very concrete and dramatic way. Yet he had no form or body.
He was thought to dwell in heaven, yet he was also - especially in later Judaism - thought to be present everywhere in the world. The form of this presence is often called Shechinah, "dwelling," and is often depicted as light or glory.
So later Judaism is not pantheist - it does not believe that God is the world.
But it is panentheistic - it believes that God is present in the world as well as extending beyond it. There is no doubt that this element of Judaism influenced Spinoza in his pantheist philosophy.
These contrasting views of Yahweh are already very apparent in parts of the Old Testament. Quotations are from the Revised Standard Version.
And they are clearly stated in the Talmud - quotes from C. G. Montefiore and H. Loewe, A Rabbinic Anthology, Schocken Books, New York, 1974; and A. Cohen, Everyman's Talmud, Schocken Books, New York, 1975.
God is He who existsThen Moses said to God, "If I come to the people of Israel and say to them, `The God of your fathers has sent you,' and they ask me, `What is his name?' what shall I say to them?" God said to Moses, "I am who I am." And he said, "Say this to the people of Israel, `I AM has sent me to you.
God speaks out of fireGod .. called to Moses out of the bush, "Moses, Moses!" And he said, "Here am I." Then he said, "Do not come near; put off your shoes from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground."
You came near and stood at the foot of the mountain while it blazed with fire to the very heavens, with black clouds and deep darkness. Then the Lord spoke to you out of the fire. (Deuteronomy, 4.11)
Has any other people heard the voice of God speaking out of fire, as you have, and lived? (Deuteronomy, 4.33.)
God is everywhereWhither shall I go from thy spirit?
Or whither shall I fell from thy presence?
If I ascend to heaven, thou art there!
If I make my bed in Sheol, thou art there!
If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there thy hand shall lead me, and thy right hand shall hold me.
Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty;
the whole earth is filled with his presense.
Can a man hide himself in secret places so that I cannot see him? says the Lord. Do I not fill heaven and earth? says the Lord.
God sustains the world every dayDuring a third of the day he is occupied with sustaining the whole world from the mightiest to the most insignificant of living beings.
(A. Z. 3b c. Cohen)
God fills the worldThe messengers of God are unlike those of men. The messengers of men are obliged to return to those who sent them with the object of their mission; but God's messengers return at the place whither they had been dispatched . . Wherever they go they are in the presence of God. Hence . . the Shechinah is in every place.
(Mech to xii,1, 2a)
Rabbi Phinehas said: If an earthly king is in his bedchamber, he is not in his dining room, and vice-versa, but God fills the upper and the lower regions at one and the same time, as it is said, "His glory is over the earth and the heaven" and "Do I not fill heaven and earth?"
(Midr Ps on XXIV, I.)
Why did David think of praising God with his soul? He said "The soul fills the body and God fills the world, so let the soul which fills the body praise God who fills the world. The soul carries the body and God carries the world … The soul is one and alone in the body, and God is one and alone in the world.
(lev. R., Wayikra, IV,8.)
As God fills the whole world, so also the soul fills the whole body. As God nourishes the whole world, so also the soul nourishes the whole body. As God dwells in the inmost part of the Universe, so also the soul dwells in the inmost part of the body,
There is no place where the Shechinah is notA heathen asked Rabbi Joshua b Karha: "Why did God speak to Moses from the thorn bush?" Rabbi Joshua replied: "If He had spoken from a carob tree or form a sycamore, you would have asked the same question. But so as not to dismiss you without an answer, God spoke from the thorn bush to teach you that there is no place where the Shechinah is not, not even a thorn bush."
(Exod. R., Shemot, II, 5.)
God said to Moses, "In every place where you find a trace of the feet of man, there am I before you."
(Mech. to xvii, 6, 52b)
A heretic said to Rabbi Gamaliel: "You Rabbis declare that wherever ten people assemble for worship, the Shechinah abides with them; how many Shechinahs are there then?" … The Rabbi retorted, "If the sun, which is only one out of a million myriads of God's servants, can be in every part of the world, how much more can the Shechinah radiate through the entire Universe.
God is as close as the ear to the mouthGod is far (for is he not in the heaven of heavens?), and yet he is near … For a man enters a synagogue, and stands behind a pillar, and prays in a whisper, and God hears his prayer, and so it is with all His creatures. Can there be a nearer God than this? He is as near to His creatures as the ear to the mouth.
(T. J. Ber, IX, 1)
At times the Universe and its fullness are insufficient to contain the glory of God's divinity; at other times He speaks with man between the hairs of his head. (Gen. R. IV.4)
God is transcendent as well as immanentRabbi Isaac said: "We should not know whether God were the dwelling place of the world, of whether the World were His dwelling place, had not Moses come and said "The Lord is for us a dwelling place." . . . He is the place of the world; the world is not His place. So the world is an appendage to Him, He is not an appendage to the world.
[Midr Ps. on XC, i, (195b, 10)]
is the belief that the universe is divine and nature is sacred. It fuses religion and science, and concern for humans with concern for nature. It provides the the most solid basis for environmental ethics. It is a religion that requires no faith other than common sense, no revelation other than open eyes and a mind open to evidence, no guru other than your own self. For an outline, see Basic principles of scientific pantheism. Top.
Scientific pantheism: index. History of pantheism. Basic principles of scientific pantheism. Join the World Pantheist Movement
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© Paul Harrison 1997.
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