Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

Torah and Incarnation

Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

Torah and Incarnation

Article excerpt

How can finite man commune with an infinite God? To both Christians and Jews, God himself has made that possible by irrupting into the temporal world. To Christians, God became man in the Incarnation; to Jews, the God that spoke out of the fire on Mount Sinai gave his Torah. Their ways of experiencing God follow from their respective accounts of God's irruption into the world - and these accounts are profoundly different and reveal profoundly different theological perspectives. To Catholic, Orthodox, and some Protestant Christians, communion involves partaking of the physical real presence of God in the bread and wine of the Eucharist. By contrast, the Torah draws the Jew into engagement with God's infinite mind. Torah learning is the definitive Jewish mode of communion with God. Although the Torah contains in potential all that God wants to teach us, all the generations of Israel labor together to make this manifest. Because the Torah is infinite and inexhaustible, learning Torah yields new insights - what the rabbis called hiddushim, or innovations. That is how the Torah sustains and renews Israel's love affair with God. A love nourished by the Torah may seem obscure to Christians, and perhaps even more obscure to loosely affiliated Jews. God loves Israel by sanctifying everyday life - waking, eating, and family relations, along with birth, marriage, and death. We bless God who "has sanctified us with his commandments" in all these actions. But God has made Israel his partner in sanctification by giving a Torah that requires the human mind to engage the mind of God.

Jews seek to cleave to the will of God as set forth in the Bible and, particularly, the Pentateuch, with its rabbinic commentaries, the Mishnah and Talmud. And although the five books of Moses contain history as well as law, it is first of all the legal aspects of the Bible that constitute a bridge to the divine. A Jew's definitive devotional act is learning "the law." As the nineteenth psalm puts it: "The Torah of the Lord is perfect, restoring the soul: The testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple. The statutes of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart: The commandment of the Lord is pure, enlightening the eyes."

Judaism thus focuses on the commanded word of God, which stands in contrast to Christianity and its turn toward what the Gospel of John calls the "Word made flesh." Jews focus on the Torah, the embodiment of God's will; Christians, on an embodied God. At the heart of this distinction are two very different answers to the question faced by all faiths: How does finite, physical, fallible man relate to an infinite, immaterial, and almighty God?

God warns us that "man cannot see Me and live." But if we cannot envision God, how can we approach him? The human mind yearns for the infinite but is incommensurate with it. In his reflections on prayer, C. S. Lewis confided that he found it difficult to pray to a noncorporeal God: "I didn't mean that a 'bright blur' is my only idea of God. I meant that something of that sort tends to be there when I start praying, and would remain if I made no effort to do better. And 'bright blur' is not a very good description. In fact you can't have a good description of anything so vague. If the description became good it would become false."

For Christians, that gap is bridged through the Incarnation - through God becoming man. God thus accomplishes what man himself cannot, becoming finite so that finite man may commune with him. For Jews, incarnation seems not so much to bridge the gap as to abolish it. In the Jewish understanding, finitude is absolutely untrue to God's incorporeal, infinite nature. Indeed, recalling the Sinai revelation, God himself sternly warns, "Take ye therefore good heed unto yourselves; for ye saw no manner of image on the day that the LORD spake unto you in Horeb out of the midst of the fire." God's presence dwells in the Temple and amidst the people of Israel, and the "glory of God" descends onto Sinai and leads Israel through the desert. …

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