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THE HOLY SPIRIT IN RABBINIC TRADITION

In this short post I am going to cite certain authorities, which discuss the rabbinic Jewish view of the Holy Spirit. For instance, in rabbinic Judaism God’s Spirit is his very own Presence, his Shekhinah that fills the entire earth:

“Another Rabbinic concept to indicate the nearness of God and His direct influence on man is that of Ruach Hakodesh (the Holy Spirit). Sometimes it seems to be identical with the Shechinah as expressing the divine immanence in the world. For instance, it is related that after the destruction of the Temple, the Emperor Vespasian dispatched three shiploads of young Jews and Jewesses to brothels in Rome, but during the voyage they all threw themselves into the sea and were drowned, rather accept so degraded a fate. The story ends with the statement that on beholding the harrowing sight: ‘The Holy Spirit wept and said, “For these do I weep” (Lament. i. 16)’ (Lament. R. I. 45).

“More often it is employed to describe the endowment of a person with special gifts. Prophecy, in the sense of the ability to interpret the will of God, is the effect of which the Holy Spirit is the cause. Its possession also endows one with foreknowledge.” (Abraham Cohen, Everyman’s Talmud, [Schoken Books, New York], Chapter II. God And The Universe, II. Transcendence And Immanence, p. 45; bold emphasis ours)

Cohen goes on to explain what the Shekhinah is in Jewish thought:

“What, in Rabbinic teaching, is God’s relation to the world? Is He thought of as transcendent and far removed from His creatures, or is He considered as being near to, and in contact with, them? The true answer is to be found in a combination of both ideas. The Rabbis did not look upon the two conceptions as contradictory or mutually exclusive, but rather as complementary.

“When they reflected upon the ineffable Majesty of the Creator, His absolute perfection and boundless might, they reverentially spoke of Him as a Being immeasurably removed from the limitations of the finite world. But they, at the same time, realized that such a transcendent God was of little use to the human being who was grappling with the problems of life and yearned for communion with a Helper and Comforter and Guide amidst his perplexities and struggles. They, accordingly, stressed the doctrine that God was immanent in the world, and was very near to all who call upon Him in sincerity.

“We have seen that in the cosmology of the Talmud, the Deity is located in the seventh heaven. His habitation was therefore infinitely removed from earth

“Much more prominent, however, in the Talmudic literature is the conception of God’s immanence in the world and His nearness to man. It follows as a corollary from the doctrine of His omnipresence… ‘On the other hand, the Holy One, blessed be He, appears to be afar off, but in reality there is nothing closer than He.’ … ‘However high He be above His world, let a man but enter a Synagogue, stand behind a pillar and pray in a whisper, and the Holy One, blessed be He, hearkens to his prayer. Can there be a God nearer than this, Who is close to His creatures as the mouth is to the ear?’ (p. Ber. 13a)…

“With the object of utilizing the doctrine of the immanence of God in the world, while avoiding the suggestion that He could be located in any spot, the Rabbis invented certain terms to express the Divine Presence without giving support to a belief in His corporealityThe most frequent of these terms IS SHECHINAH, which literally means ‘dwelling.’ It denotes the manifestation of God upon the stage of the world, although He abides in the far-away heaven. In the same way that the sun in the sky illumines with its rays every corner of the earth, so the Shechinah, the effulgence of God, may make its presence felt everywhere (Sanh. 39a).” (Cohen, pp. 40-42; bold and capital emphasis ours)

And:

“The Talmud offers this demonstration of divine omnipresence: ‘The 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 wither they had been dispatched. It is written: “Canst thou send forth lightnings, that they may go and say unto thee, Here we are?” (Job xxxviii. 35). It is not stated “they returned” but “they go and say”, i.e. wherever they go they are in the presence of God. Hence it is to be deduced that the Shechinah is in every place’ (Mech. to xii. I; 2a; B.B. 25a).

“The question how God could be everywhere at the same time received various answers. The problem was elucidated by this analogy: ‘It may be likened to a cave situated by the seashore. The sea rages and the cave is filled with water, but the waters of the sea are not diminished. Similarly the Tent of Meeting was filled with the lustre of the Shechinah, which was not diminished in the Universe’ (Num. R. XII. 4)…

“‘A heretic said to R. Gamaliel: “You Rabbis declare that wherever ten people assemble for worship the Shechinah abides amongst them; how many Shechinahs are there then?” He called the heretic’s servant and struck him with a ladle. “Why did you strike him?” he was asked, and he replied, “Because the sun is in the house of the infidel.” “But the sun shines all over the world!” exclaimed the heretic; and 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 so can the Shechinah radiate throughout the entire Universe!“’ (Sanh. 39a).” (Cohen, Chapter I. The Doctrine Of God, IV. Omnipresence, pp. 9-10)

That’s not all. In certain rabbinic traditions the Spirit is viewed as a distinct Person from God who intercedes and prays to God:

“Interestingly, there are several references in the Rabbinic literature to the Holy Spirit speaking, announcing, crying out, rebuking, and even serving as the counsel for the defense. For example:

The Talmud (m. Sotah 9:6; b. Sotah 46a) states that when the elders performed the rite of the red heifer (Deut. 21:1-9), ‘They did not have to say, “And the blood shall be forgiven them” [Deut. 21:8], instead the Holy Spirit announces to them, “Whenever you do this, the blood shall be forgiven you.”’

Commenting on Exodus 1:12, ‘But the more they [i.e., the Israelites] were oppressed [by the Egyptians], the more they multiplied and spread,’ the Talmud states (b. Pesahim 117a) that the Holy Spirit announced to them, ‘So will he [Israel] increase and spread out!’ This is explained by Rashi and other major Jewish commentators to mean that the Holy Spirit said to the Egyptians, ‘Just as you seek to oppress them more, the more so will they increase and spread out!’

In Pirke D’Rabbi Eliezer 31, as Ishmael (Abraham’s son) and Eliezar (his steward) argue about who will be Abraham’s heir—seeing that they are going together with Abraham to sacrifice Isaac to the Lord (Genesis 22)—the Holy Spirit answers them and says, ‘Neither this one nor this one will inherit.’

In a late midrash cited in Yalkut Reubeni (9d) to Genesis 1:26, after Ben Sira shared the secret, mystical teachings with his son Uzziah and his grandson Joseph, the Holy Spirit called out, ‘Who is it that revealed My secrets to mankind?’ Ben Sira replied, ‘I, Buzi, the son of Buzi.’ The Holy Spirit said to him, ‘Enough!’

Lamentations Rabbah 3:60, 9 relates that after the Roman emperor Hadrian indiscriminately executed two Jews, the Holy Spirit kept crying out, ‘You have seen O LORD, the wrong done to ME. Uphold MY cause! You have seen the depth of their vengeance, all their plots against ME’ (Lam. 3:59-60). This provides an example of the Spirit making intercession.

According to Leviticus Rabbah 6:1, the Holy Spirit is a defense counsel who speaks to Israel on behalf of the Lord and then speaks to the Lord on behalf of Israel. To Israel the Spirit says, ‘Do not testify against your neighbor without cause’ (Prov. 24:28), and to the Lord the Spirit says, ‘Do not say, “I’ll do him as he has done me”’ (Prov. 24:29).

“In all these citations, which can easily be multiplied (see, e.g., Genesis Rabbah 84:11; Song of Songs Rabbah 8:16; Lamentations Rabbah 1:48), there can be no question that we are dealing with a ‘who’ and not just a ‘what’, WITH A PERSONAL DIMENSION OF GOD and not just an impersonal power, WITH GOD HIMSELF and yet with a ‘separate’ entity who can mediate between God and man. And these citations closely parallel some of the New Testament descriptions of the Holy Spirit, although virtually all the Rabbinic texts cited were written many years later…” (Dr. Michael L. Brown, Answering Jewish Objections to Jesus—Theological Objections [Baker Books; Grand Rapids MI, 2000], Volume Two, 3.5. The Holy Spirit is not the so-called Third Person of the Trinity, pp. 55-57; bold and capital emphasis mine)

These citations expressly show that even unbelieving Jews came to the same conclusion as Christians did regarding the Holy Spirit being both personally distinct from and identical to the one true God. And these Jewish authorities and scholars did so solely from their reading of the Hebrew Bible, and independently from Christianity.

One would think that, in light of the challenges posed by Christians to their beliefs, these Jews would have wanted to negate the notion of the Spirit being a divine personality who is both distinguishable and yet inseparable from the one true God. The fact that they didn’t do so, only goes to show that the OT witness to the Deity and personhood of the Holy Spirit is so overwhelming that even the rabbinic Jews had no choice but to acknowledge it.

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