Academic journal article Jewish Bible Quarterly

Self-Effacement in the Bible

Academic journal article Jewish Bible Quarterly

Self-Effacement in the Bible

Article excerpt

What is man that You are mindful of him, and the son of man that You think of him? Yet You have made him but a little lower than the angels, and You crown him with glory and honor.... O Lord our Lord how majestic is Your name in all the earth! (Ps. 8:5-10).

Says the Malbim: "Such is the majesty of the Lord: the imbuing of enosh [man] who is frail and transient, with wisdom, cunning, and strength to dominate the universe in the physical realm." (1) What is the human condition? On the one hand, he is a worm, and not a man as King David referred to himself in Psalms 22:7. On the other hand, he may be elevated to positions of honor and strength: Yet You made him but a little lower than angels (Ps. 8:6): In common with the animal kingdom, man is a mortal, vulnerable, physical entity, yet the image of God (Gen. 1:27) endows him with mighty spiritual strengths. (2) Thus, while Abraham avers he is dust and ashes (18:27) and Moses asks Who am I? (Ex. 3:11), both have the temerity and the capability to challenge God. This article will focus on the biblical aspect of bittul hayesh. Such is the paradox of bittul hayesh--the concept of self-effacement [hitbatlut].

This concept of self-effacement and its corollaries is usually attributed to Platonism and its teachings, which include the goal of mystical union, the return to the source, unawareness of the self (or "the flight from the body"), the oneness of reality, the transcending of nature. But indeed it is a teaching integral to Judaism, its literature, and its philosophy, from the Bible to modern times. This paper focuses on the origin and pervasiveness of self-effacement in the Bible and its prominence in the exegesis of the Bible. Within the course of this work the paradox of bittul hayesh and its multifaceted dimensions will be unraveled. Various biblical incidents of self-effacement are surveyed: the sin of Adam; Abraham who is afar v 'efer [dust and ashes]; the humility of Moses; David's dance; the pilgrimages (especially Sukkot); martyrdom; the inheritance and conquest of the Land of Israel. However, this is only a selective study and by no means exhaustive.

Bittul hayesh is the doctrine of surrender of man's thoughts, desires, and, indeed, his very life to the Divine will. It includes the teaching that God nullifies all, tangible and intangible. Man has no independent existence, but is absorbed within the light of the Ein Sof. (3) Humility and self-negation are axiomatic, leading to the state of devekut [cleaving] to God. Bittul hayesh has been described as a "power unique to the Jewish nation," at the core of Jewish nationhood, the attachment to its Land, the festivals, and the essence of the Sabbath day. (4)

Integral to this concept of self-effacement is the negation of the phenomenal world: that all is nullified within the word of God, and that there is no existence apart from God. (5) Joseph B. Soloveitchik, who was one of the most profound theologians of our day, similarly defined this concept, referring to it as ontic monism: "There is only one form of reality, God. He and Being are identical. Creation is the inclusion of other finite substances into the Divine Being. The world, the real and the ideal, the concrete and the transcendental, exist in him." The definition of ehad of Deuteronomy 6:4 "signifies that only God exists; nothing else beside him and besides him. Ehad means negation of the ontic autonomy of finite creation separated from God." (6)


Actually, the first test of self-effacement is recorded in Genesis 2-3. Tragically, the first test of mankind did not produce the intended devekut--neither in the physical nor in the spiritual realm. Failure to submit to the Divine authority brought shame and exile.

Why did Adam sin? Soloveitchik supplied the psychology of the sin: It involved the development of the egoistic personality, the "I" that exploits his partner to satisfy his quest for pleasure and/or power. …

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