Long Life to the King
By Rabino Joshua Kullock (@kullock )
Executive Director of the Union of Jewish Congregations of Latin America and the Caribbean (UJCL) and spiritual leader of the Jewish community of Guadalajara
God as King is one of the main themes of liturgy during the High Holiday period. How are we meant to relate to a vision of God on high? A ruler of the universe? An external judge? Here are two distinct and worthwhile takes on God as King.
“Ad-nai is king for ever and ever” (Psalms 10:16)
“Ad-nai reigneth” (Psalms 93:1)
“Ad-nai shall reign for ever and ever” (Exodus 15:18)
Possibly Rosh Hashanah is the most suitable holiday in the Hebrew calendar for talking about G-d. Whereas during the rest of the year we are invited to talk about the roles of the people and about the Torah, and at other times we emphasize the concepts of revelation and redemption, when a new annual cycle begins, the Jewish tradition asks us to resolve our relationship with G-d by thinking seriously about the G-d in whom we believe.
Even from the liturgy characteristic of these days, we can shed light on some shades of meaning that our sages proposed for thinking about the divine. For example, the traditional prayer known as the Amidah goes on to include, during the Musaf service, some additional blessings that are read only on Rosh Hashanah; they consist of Bible verses describing and highlighting G-d as the one who remembers, as the one who listens, and as the one who reigns. Moreover, at certain moments in the prayer, we have to change the traditional phrasing that presents G-d as a deity (“HaEl”) in order to move on to praising Him as a king (“HaMelech”).
The metaphor that presents G-d as king is as old as the biblical text itself. In the various formulas that the Hebrew Bible found to describe the creator of the world, on more than one occasion G-d appears in the same verse as a warrior and a king (see Exodus 17:16; Jeremiah 48:15; Psalms 84:4). Other texts, in contrast, anchor the reign of G-d to the idea of salvation: “And saviors shall come up on mount Zion to judge the mount of Esau, and the kingdom shall be Ad-nai’s” (Obadiah 1:21).
In the Talmudic era, too, the mention of G-d as King was to take a predominant place. There were many times when the midrash compared and distinguished between an earthly king and the King of Kings, leading us to understand that in reality the metaphor remains unsuccessful, but that even so we have no escape from the limits of our language. In the Tractate Brachot, for example, we find the following account:
Our masters taught: Once a pious Jewish man was praying on the road. A non-Jewish ministerial official passed and greeted him, but he did not return the greeting. The minister waited until he had finished praying and said: “You fool! Is it not written in your Torah, ‘Take heed and watch yourself carefully’ (Deuteronomy 4:9) and ‘Guard yourselves very carefully’ (Deuteronomy 4:15)? When I greeted you, why didn’t you answer? If I had cut off your head with my sword, who would have sought vengeance for your life?” The man replied, “let me appease you with words.” The pious man said to the minister, “If you were standing in front of an earthly king and your friend passed by and greeted you, would you answer him?” The minister said, “No.” “And if you did respond to the greeting, what would happen to you?” He answered, “They would behead me with a sword.” He said, “And is it not reasonable that if you would conduct yourself in a certain manner in front of an earthly king, who is here today and in the grave tomorrow, so too I, standing in front of the King of Kings, the Holy One, who is eternally present, all the more so I [should not interrupt in order to return greetings]!” The minister was appeased immediately, and the pious man returned home in peace. (Brachot 32b-33a)
The Talmudic account that presents G-d in his capacity as King of Kings within the framework of prayer takes us back to Rosh Hashanah and to the place occupied by the image of royalty in the liturgical imagery of those days. Among other angles that we could explore, one of the questions that I think we cannot cease to ask is the one that brings us face to face with the characteristics that for generations were awarded to the divine monarch. What kind of King is it who is presented before us as we begin a new year? What are his characteristics? What kind of relationship can be established with this monarch on the basis of his particular characteristics?
The model that for generations permeated the description of the King of Kings was that of an absolute and omnipotent being, totally independent of the world that He had created at one time. One of the principal representatives of this position was Rabbi Moses ben Maimonides, who began his book of laws, the Mishneh Torah, with these words:
The fundaments of fundaments and the pillar of wisdom is to know that there is a First Cause and He created all that exists […] If it should come upon your mind that nothing besides Him exists, He would still exist. And He would not be negated by their non-existence. Everything that exists has need of Him, and He, blessed be He, has no need of them […] This Cause is Lord of the World and Master of the Earth. And He directs the sphere with a strength that has neither end nor limit, and with a strength that has no disruption. For the sphere revolves continuously, and it is impossible that it revolve without a force that makes it revolve. (Hilchot Yesodei haTorah 1:1, 3, 5)
In our eyes, a G-d who needs nothing, for in His perfection He has everything. A G-d who desires nothing, for He lacks nothing. But since He has everything and lacks nothing, the G-d who was proposed by Maimonides and all those who followed him in his Judaization of Aristotelian philosophy is decidedly unable to relate to His creation in general and to humankind in particular. In fact, the Rambam himself acknowledged this in his Guide for the Perplexed (I:52):
It is quite clear that there is no relation between G-d and time or space. For time is an accident connected with motion […] Since motion is one of the conditions to which only material bodies are subject, and G-d is inmaterial, there can be no relation between Him and time. Similarly there is no relation between Him and space […] That there is no correlation between Him and any of His creatures can easily be seen; for the characteristic of two objects correlative to each other is the equality of their reciprocal relation. Now, as G-d has absolute existence, while all other beings have only possible existence, as we shall show, there consequently cannot be any correlation between G-d and His creatures.
The difficult thing about this model is precisely its inability to generate a true relationship. Instead of two entities that seek one another, between G-d and mankind there is no place for the establishment of any meaningful pact. G-d does not need us, and therefore He is a King who does not require any recognition on our part. If we dared to extrapolate teachings from the field of chemistry, we could easily assert that the G-d who is proposed by Maimonides and an important segment of Jewish theologians of all times resembles the second element in the periodic table: helium.
Helium is a very special element. If you look up its location in a periodic table, you will find it at the top of the last column, dedicated to what are called the “noble/inert gases.” Given its specific characteristics, we will see that helium has the following properties: it is inert, colorless, and odorless. It does not react in contact with any other element. It is simply closed within itself, which explains why it was not discovered until well into the nineteenth century. The reason for this remoteness has to do with the general structure of atoms, which configure their electrons in different energy levels. As Sam Kean explains:
Helium, element two, has exactly the number of electrons it needs to fill its only level. This “closed” configuration gives helium tremendous independence, because it doesn’t need to interact with other atoms or share or steal electrons to feel satisfied. Helium has found its erotic complement in itself. What’s more, that same configuration extends down the entire eighteenth column beneath helium—the gases neon, argon, krypton, xenon, and radon. All these elements have closed shells with full complements of electrons, so none of them reacts with anything under normal conditions […] That aloofness from everyday experience, so like his ideal spheres and triangles, would have charmed Plato. (1)
Plato and Maimonides present us with transcendent, total, absolute deities. Gods that are locked within themselves, exempt from the search for someone who complements them. From this point of view, it is well worth asking ourselves what would be the nobility of losing one’s head to obey the commands of a King who is not the least bit interested in what occurs on earth, and has no particular concern for what man might do or not do. To report at Rosh Hashanah on a King who governs a world He does not need is to open the door to theological approaches that could end up proving unacceptable for anyone who decides to seek, in the texts and traditions of the Jewish people, a sincere path of access to the divine.
The model of a G-d who is looked upon in accordance with the image of and resemblance to helium is a monological G-d, a deity who can listen only to himself. Under this paradigm, it is imposible to think of a G-d who considers creation as a subject for the establishment of pacts and dialogues. On the other hand, for a monological being that is centered in itself, everything that surrounds it becomes an object, whether for the purpose of taking advantage of these objects for its own benefit, or as entities to whom it is not worth paying attention.
Nevertheless, the Jewish tradition, from its traditional texts, presents a model that exalts the sphere of the dialogical as a main foundation on which to construct meaningful relationships with what surrounds us. In accordance with this model, the world can function only when we give ourselves fully in the establishment of interpersonal pacts that move us further away from our egoism and connect us with what is truly important. And this central principle, on which the relationship between man and his neighbor is built, must also be applied—and to a correlative extent—to the construction of the link we can establish between human beings and G-d. As a result, the King who emerges from this theology is a monarch whose reign revolves in turn around the capacity of humankind to crown Him and acknowledge Him; he is a King who must see His administration revalidated year after year in the symbolic coronation that is carried out each Rosh Hashanah.
It is from this point of view that we must understand the mysterious Talmudic text reminding us that there exists an angel whose celestial duty is to “weave crowns for his Maker” (Brachot 13b). These crowns, as we can learn from parallel texts, are made of nothing more nor less than the prayers lifted up by human beings in this world:
“O Thou that hearest prayer, unto Thee doth all flesh come” (Psalms 65:3). What does it mean that Thou hearest prayer? Rabbi Pinchas said in the name of Rabbi Meir and Rabbi Yirmia in the name of Rabbi Chia bar Abba: When Israel gathers to pray, you find that they do not pray together as one, but that each and every synagogue prays by itself: first this synagogue and then the next one. And when all the congregations have finished all their prayers, the angel responsible for prayers takes all the prayers from all the synagogues and fashions them into crowns to place upon the head of the Holy One, blessed be He. (Shemot Rabbah 21:4)
According to this interpretation, G-d needs mankind in order to be acknowledged as King over all of creation. Only on the basis of this dialogic exaltation can the Jewish texts and traditions later invite us to lead lives in community, where a fundamental part of what takes place here on earth occurs in the “between,” in what happens in interpersonal relations. Only a tradition that presents its link with the divine in this way can aspire to have us transfer this attitude to the rest of our daily relationships and activities.
As a result, if when we spoke of the monological model that offers us an absolutely transcendental G-d uninterested in what occurs here, we mentioned that this view resembles the noble gases in general and the gas helium in particular, then when recapturing a dialogical interpretation of G-d as King of Kings whose crown is made up of the prayers and acknowledgements of Israel, we must mention hydrogen as the element from the field of chemistry that would characterize this fundamental relationship that is established with the divine.
Hydrogen is the first element in the periodic table. Like helium, it, too, is a colorless, odorless, and flavorless gas, but unlike the first noble gas, hydrogen customarily is found in association with all kinds of other elements. Hydrogen simply cannot be alone.
Moreover, helium and hydrogen are the most abundant elements in all the universe. This means that in the origins of the cosmos, the universe was filled with only these two basic components. When G-d called the world into being, He did so through a great mass of hydrogen, which, when heated excessively, gave rise first to helium and then to the other elements. But while helium does not join with any other element by virtue of its unique characteristics, hydrogen did combine with other elements, giving rise to the creation of increasingly complex molecules, which, given the opportunity, produced the beginning of diversity and of life. If there had been only helium in the universe, nothing would have been created. It was only because of the conditions in which hydrogen formed combinations that we are here today.
Similarly, a G-d who finds His satisfaction in knowing Himself would not have created the universe either. On the contrary, at Rosh Hashanah we come together to crown, once again, the Creator who is always seeking not only His crown but also meaningful relationships that complete and improve Him. It is this G-d who teaches us that only by making pacts with others can we enrich ourselves in the diversity of what continues to be created at each step on our path.
And as Rosh Hashanah is a time not only of divine coronation but also of human reaffirmation of our place in the created world, we are given—as always—the possibility of deciding whether we want to be, in our lives, like helium or like hydrogen. Whether we want to be locked up in ourselves or to open ourselves to the possibility of sharing and strengthening; whether we want to be inert because we do not interact with what exists, or whether we want to be significant in the pact that we sustain day by day in joint work with our fellow men. Just as in these solemn days we recall that we have the free will to be “righteous like Moses or evil like Jeroboam” (cf. Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Teshuva 5:2), so must we also recall that we hold in our hands the possibility of elevating our being with dialogue and empathy, or closing ourselves up in the tribulations of our own being and becoming deaf to the cry of our fellow man; we can decide to believe in an omnipotent, absolute G-d, forever remote from us, or choose to establish a sincere, close relationship with a G-d who calls us, seeks us, and always asks us in His subtle, persistent voice to be what we can be each and every day of our lives: the best version of ourselves.
(1) Sam Kean, The Disappearing Spoon, pp. 16-17.
Article by: Rabino Joshua Kullock for JDC Europe. Copyright 2011.
Rabbi Kullock can be found on Twitter at @kullock
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