Lecture #26b: Yossel Rakover Speaks to God (Part 2)

  • Rav Tamir Granot


B.        Levinas’s commentary: Mature Jewish faith


How are we to regard these powerful words? This prayer is also a farewell letter, with an attempt to express a more or less orderly thought system.  Is prayer the crux of the letter, or is it rather the thoughts that represent its essence?


The philosopher attempts to extract from the words of the prayer, which deviate from the orderly, systematic presentation of a philosophical essay, some coherent thread of thought.  Indeed, beyond the powerful emotions, Levinas detects some profound Jewish thinking – perhaps even real theology.  The essence of Yossel Rakover’s letter is his stubborn faith despite everything, to the point of giving up his life for his faith in God and love of Him – a truly absurd stubbornness, as the text itself acknowledges.


Levinas sees in this act of faith a most fundamental expression of genuine Jewish faith.  Why? Because it is precisely here that we find a response to the heresy that is the result of childish belief.  A declaration that “if God does not comfort me or prevent my suffering, then I no longer have any connection with Him,” assumes that this is the role reserved for God in one’s religious world: to organize us an acceptable sort of life, perhaps even a happy life – at the very least, a life without suffering.  Is this the God that a Jew should hold in his heart, believing in and loving Him?


[Levinas:] What is the meaning of the suffering of the innocent? Does it not witness to a world without God, to an earth where only man determines the measure of good and evil?  The simplest, most ordinary response would indeed be to draw the conclusion that there is no God.  This would also be the healthiest response for all those who until now have believed in a rather primitive God who awards prizes, imposes sanctions, or pardons mistakes, and who, in His goodness, treats people like perpetual children.  But what kind of limited spirit, what kind of strange magician did you project as the inhabitant of your heaven – you who today state that heaven is deserted? And why are you still looking, beneath an empty heaven, for a world that makes sense and is good?


It is precisely in the midst of his suffering that Yossel Rakover achieves a more elevated and pure religious consciousness.  He no longer expects God to organize the world for him.  He has already waived miracles and personal intervention.  What will he not concede? His demand for justice.  Now that he is no longer in the position of someone begging for his life, now that he is already elevated beyond questions of life and death, beyond the egocentric religious position that seeks reward for observance of the commandments, he can face God and the world and demand justice:


[Levinas:] Yossel son of Yossel experiences, with renewed vigor, beneath an empty heaven, certainty about God.  For his finding himself thus alone allows him to feel, on his shoulders, all of God's responsibilities.  On the road that leads to the one and only God, there is a way station without God.  True monotheism must frame answers to the legitimate demands of atheism.  An adult's God reveals Himself precisely in the emptiness of the child's heaven.  That is (according to Yossel ben Yossel) the moment when God withdraws Himself from the world and veils His countenance.  “He has sacrificed humankind to its wild instincts,” says our text.  “And because those instincts dominate the world, it is natural that those who preserve the divine and the pure should be the first victims of this domination.”


God veiling His countenance: I think this is neither a theologian's abstraction nor a poetic image.  It is the hour when the just person has nowhere to go in the outside world: when no institution affords him protection; when even the comforting sense of the divine presence, experienced in a childlike person's piety, is withdrawn; when the only victory available to the individual lies in his conscience, which necessarily means, in suffering.  This is the specifically Jewish meaning of suffering – one that never takes on the quality of a mystical expiation for the sins of the world.  The condition in which victims find themselves in a disordered world, that is to say, in a world where goodness does not succeed in being victorious, is suffering.  This reveals a God who, while refusing to manifest Himself in any way as help, directs His appeal to the full maturity of the integrally responsible person.


The God Who is revealed in a heaven that is devoid of childish Divinity is the source of the demand for justice.  It is He Who guides, from within, the sense of truth of my path, of my Jewishness, and the readiness to swim against the foul tide of evil that is spreading throughout the world.  There is no reason in the world to be part of the Jewish lunacy of battling against the entire world in the name of truth and goodness other than the Godly reason – that is, the profound belief that this is God’s demand of us, a belief that has long been part of our essence.  Right now, there is no reason to desire goodness and to fight for it, since the effort will award us no prize, nor is there any real chance that goodness will prevail.  This is precisely the significance of the situation of suffering: not only the pain, both physical and psychological, but also the world being transformed into something absurd, since the battle for the good seems to lead nowhere.  This, argues Levinas, is exactly the point where man is called upon to assume full responsibility, the point where faith in God joins with the aspiration for justice and the sense of human responsibility:


But by the same token, this God who veils His countenance and abandons the just person, un-victorious, to his own justice – this faraway God – comes from inside.  That is the intimacy that coincides, in one's conscience, with the pride of being Jewish, of being concretely, historically, altogether mindlessly, a part of the Jewish people.  “To be a Jew means… to be an everlasting swimmer against the turbulent, criminal human current… I am happy to belong to the unhappiest people in the world, to the people whose Torah represents the loftiest and most beautiful of all laws and moralities.”  Intimacy with this virile God is attained in passing an ultimate test.  Because I belong to the suffering Jewish people, the faraway God becomes my God.  “Now I know that you are truly my God, for you cannot possibly be the God of those whose deeds are the most horrible expression of a militant absence of God.” The just person's suffering for the sake of a justice that fails to triumph is concretely lived out in the form of Judaism.


Faith in God, a natural and proud sense of Jewish identity, and the aspiration for a just world and for a life of justice – all of these are the same thing.  It is therefore the bottomless suffering, leaving me nothing in my final moments except for myself and the Master of the universe, that exposes the roots of the faith that is embedded in me by virtue of the very fact of my being a Jew who has internalized in an eternal and immortal way the Divine demand for goodness and justice, the deepest significance of the covenant between God and Israel, and who is prepared to stand up to the whole world in the name of that faith.


C.        The God of Commandment and the God of History


From whence springs this faith in a God Who hides His face completely, and Whose intervention – if He does not respond even to the very depths of evil – can apparently not be expected? According to Levinas and according to the prayer of Yossel Rakover, the point of faith is a more primal place that is not dependent on God’s revelation in history and is not shifted from its place when God fails to save or to comfort.  Nevertheless, must we resort to mysticism in order to understand the illumination of that spark of faith, or are we able to understand the ground in which it grows from observation of actual Jewish life?


Yossel Rakover’s letter provides an answer, whose centrality to the understanding of the text as a whole has not always been noted.[1] In the recitation of the “shema,” we say:


You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your being.  And these things which I command you this day shall be upon your heart… (Devarim 6:5-6)


The first verse is God’s demand to love Him; in the second verse, He commands us to place the Torah upon our hearts.  Childish faith relates to love only in terms of God’s direct presence in history and His Divine providence: God has compassion, He gives, He redeems – and we love Him because of His revelation to us within reality.  But God is also revealed in the Torah; in fact, that is His main revelation.  The Torah is a Jew’s very life; it is where God is revealed to him.  The more firmly the Torah is laid upon his heart, the greater his identification with the Torah and with its Giver, and the more he loves Him.  And the closer the God Who is revealed in the Torah is to us, while God Who is revealed through reality and history hides His face and is distant, so the paradox that Yossel expresses in his prayer grows. 


Levinas ponders the source of faith:


God veiling His countenance and recognized as present and intimate: is He possible? Or are we dealing with a metaphysical construct, with a paradoxical salto mortale in the style of Kierkegaard?


He answers:


I thinks something very different manifests itself here, namely, the characteristic features of Judaism; the relationship between God and the human person is not an emotional communion within the context of the love of an incarnate God, but a relationship between minds that is mediated by teaching, by the Torah.  The guarantee that there is a living God in our midst is precisely a word of God that is not incarnate.  Trust in a God who does not reveal Himself through any worldly authority can rest only on inner clarity and on the quality of a teaching.  There is nothing blind about it, much to the credit of Judaism.  Hence, this phrase of Yossel ben Yossel's, which is the highpoint of the entire monologue, echoing the whole Talmud: “I love Him, but I love His Torah even more… And even if I had been deceived by Him and, as it were, disenchanted, I would nonetheless observe the precepts of the Torah.”  Blasphemy? Well, in any case a protection against the folly of a direct contact with the Sacred not based on the triumph of any institution, but on the inner clarity of the morality conveyed by the Torah.  A difficult journey this, already being undertaken in spirit and truth, and which has nothing to prefigure!


D.        The God of Vengeance Demands Righteousness and Kindness


The existential paradox of faith in the God of the Torah Who Himself refrains from fulfilling His demand in history is the source from which flows a cleaving to God’s Torah which is even greater than the cleaving to God Himself.  And this in itself gives rise to a further paradox, no less disturbing: the Torah inculcates in us a faith in righteousness and kindness and an aspiration and desire for goodness, yet the God of the Torah is revealed to us in history as the God of vengeance; He appears to us in His anger, exacting His justice.  This face of God also finds expression in the Torah, whose demands are unbending and whose justice is strict.  Yossel Rakover has no theoretical answer to this paradox; he simply suggests that we look to history.  Christianity, which offers a caressing, undemanding God, has been transformed into a religion of vengeance and bloodshed, while Judaism, with its firm Divine demands, seeks righteousness and kindness.  A person who bears full responsibility on his own shoulders, not leaving it to God, may demand justice of himself and of the world.  He can even demand this of God, after he has relinquished all of his other demands of Him:


To veil His countenance in order to demand – in a superhuman way – everything of man, to have created man capable of responding, of turning to his God as a creditor and not always as a debtor: that is truly divine majesty! After all, a creditor is one who has faith par excellence, but he is not going to resign himself to the subterfuges of the debtor.  Our monologue opens and closes with this refusal to settle for resignation.  Capable of trusting in an absent God, man is also the adult who can take the measure of his own weakness; if the heroic situation in which he stands validates the world, it also puts it in jeopardy.  Matured by a faith derived from the Torah, he blames God for His unbounded majesty and His excessive demands.


God must unveil His countenance, justice and power must find each other again, just institutions are needed on this earth.  But only the person who recognizes the veiled God can demand His revelation.  How vigorous the dialectic by which the equality between God and man is established right at the heart of their incommensurability!


Thus, the terrible suffering of the Holocaust catalyzes the maturity of the deepest foundations of Jewish faith – a faith that rests upon the Torah and the educational demand that it places upon us.  A Jew who is no longer dependent on the Master of the universe Who has hidden His face from him is filled with Divine responsibility towards the world.  From this point arises his demand of Heaven for a different world – but from that same point comes also his readiness for full commitment and self-sacrifice.  It is this that cries out from within the great love for God that is expressed by Yossel, the ultimate Jew.  It is a demanding love, a love that is not dependent on anything:


And thus we are as far removed from the warm, almost palpable communion with the divine as from the desperate pride of the atheist.  An integral and austere humanism, coupled with difficult worship!  And from the other point of view, a worship that coincides with the exaltation of man! A personal God, one God alone: that is not revealed as quickly as a slide shown in a dark room!  The text I have commented on shows how ethics and the order of first principles combine to establish a personal relationship worthy of the name.  To love the Torah more than God – this means precisely to find a personal God against whom it is possible to revolt, that is to say, one for whom one can die.


The faith depicted by Levinas is one in which “You shall love the Lord your God” is subservient to “And these things which I command you this day shall be upon your heart.”  This is not naןve Chassidic faith – “childish faith,” in Levinas’s words.  It is not a trusting, pleading “Father have mercy,” a “Tatte zisse,” but rather a more serious love, whose essential meaning is the responsibility that it awakens in the depths of one’s heart, Jewish responsibility, rooted mainly in the Torah:


Rav Huna and Rav Yirmiya, in the name of Rabbi Shmuel, son of Rabbi Yitzchak, said: We find that the Holy One, blessed be He, was prepared to forgive idolatry, and sexual immorality, and bloodshed, but He was not prepared to forgive disdain for Torah, as it is written: “Why was the land lost… And God said, ‘Because they abandoned My Torah’” (Yirmiyahu 9:11-12).  It does not say, “because of idolatry,” or “because of sexual immorality,” or “because of murder,” but rather, “because they abandoned My Torah.”


Rav Huna and Rav Yirmiya, in the name of Rabbi Chiya bar Abba, said: It is written, “They have abandoned Me and have not observed My Torah” (Yirmiyahu 16:11).  If only they would have abandoned Me but observed My Torah! For while they engaged in it, its leaven (or, according to a different version, “its light” – T.G.) would have brought them back to the proper path.” (Eikha Rabba, Buber edition, Petichta 2)



Translated by Kaeren Fish


[1]      In some printings of the letter, the paragraphs pertaining to this theme have even been omitted.