The Light - Judaism
As with Christianity and Islam, Scriptural references about the
Divine Light are not abundant in Judaism, but are certainly present.
> God Almighty (Brahman) resides within all humans as Light, a fact
> that is supported by all scriptures. Thus we can meditate on Him
> within and that long search for the Creator is at last over,
> ending within ourselves. That is why Jesus kept telling the
> ignorant masses two millennia ago that the Kingdom of God is
> A few months ago i asked my daughter Lalita what is that Light
> above Shri Mataji in her Sahasrara (Kingdom of God). She
> i remained silent for a long time to absorb the immensity of that
> single word answer.
As with Christianity and Islam, Scriptural references about the Divine Light are not abundant in Judaism, but are certainly present. The writer of the book of Psalms refers to God as He“Who coverest thyself with light as with a garment...” (Ps. 104:2). The book of Daniel tells us that God"knoweth what is in the darkness, and the Light dwelleth with him" (Dan. 2:22). The prophet Ezekiel witnessed a very dramatic vision of God:
And I looked, and behold,
a whirlwind came out of the north,
a great cloud,
and a fire infolding itself
and a brightness was about it...
And I saw as the colour of amber,
as the appearance or fire round
about within it...
I saw as it were
the appearance of fire,
and it had brightness round about.
As the appearance of the bow
that is in the cloud in the day of rain,
so was the appearance
of the brightness round about.
This was the appearance of the
likeness of the glory of the LORD...
(Ezekiel 1:4, 27-28).
Together with this vision were images of various creatures and a man. Fire was also among these creatures,” and the fire was bright, and out of the fire went forth lightning. And the living creatures ran and returned as the appearance of a flash of lightning" (Ez. 1:13-14). The Lord went on to tell the prophet that Israel was a rebellious nation. Because of its wrongdoing before the Lord, the nation was in exile, and captive to other nations. The prophet was to tell Israel to change its ways, to do what was right before God. To aid him in his task, another vision of God appeared, and the spirit of God entered Ezekiel so that God would speak to Israel through the prophet (Ez. 3: 23-27). One day in front of the elders of Judah, the book of Ezekiel tells us that
Then I beheld, and lo a likeness
as the appearance of fire...
as the appearance of brightness,
as the colour of amber.
And... the spirit lifted me
up between the earth and the heaven,
and brought me in the
visions of God to Jerusalem...
Like other prophets of Israel and Judah, Ezekiel spoke for God to set the nation straight from its errant ways. In Ezekiel's case this was done in one of the most stunning and captivating visions of God and His bright light ever told.
Further references to the Divine Light are found in the writings of Philo. Philo felt that"of all things, light is best,” first because it drew mankind's attention upwards to heaven.1 Even more than that, though, light is"pre-eminently beautiful.”This Divine Light is not perceptible to the senses—i.e. through one's eyes—but it can be seen through the mind,
for the intelligible as far surpasses the visible
in the brilliance of its radiance, as sunlight
assuredly surpasses darkness day and night...2
This Light which is accessible to the mind is to Philo the source of all light—what we see with our eyes is simply varying degrees of dimness away from pure light. Philo would call this pure, brilliant light
'll brightness,' to signify that from which
sun and moon, as well as fixed stars and planets
draw... for that pure and undiluted radiance is
bedimmed so soon as it begins to undergo the change
that is entailed from the intelligible to the sensibly
discerned for no object of sense is free from dimness.3
To Philo, all that we see is a dim version of the pure light, the light of God. We can never see God with our eyes, though; it would be far too bright. Only through the mind can we"see"God, whom Philo identifies with this brilliant radiance, the purest of all light:
... for He Himself is His own light.
For the eye of the Absolute Existent
needs no other light to effect perception,
but He Himself is the archetypal essence
of which myriads of rays are the effluence,
none visible to sense, all to mind.4
So how does the mind go about finding God's light? Philo tells us that to see this, we must practice virtue and pursue the truth.”Life,” says Philo,” has no clearer light than truth.”5 The lover of virtue is"set on fire by the brilliant appearance of the beautiful....”6 At this point, longing to see the Great King Himself,” pure and untempered rays of concentrated light stream forth like a torrent, so that by its gleams the eye of the understanding is dazzled.”7 Finally one reaches"that most brilliant and truly divine light of virtue.”8
For Philo, this place of brilliant light and perfect virtue is Eden. Eden is a place of"profound content (sic) and joy.”9 This is the consummate end for the perfectly righteous person; Philo tells us that“The soul's feast is the joy and gladness which the perfect virtues bring, and by perfect is meant virtues unspotted by all the tainting evils to which the human race is liable.”10
As a Jew living in Alexandria, Philo was certainly influenced by Hellenistic (Greek) culture. The ideas of the Stoics and Plato are unmistakable. And so, very clearly, was he influenced by his own religious heritage: the entire discourse we have seen so far was a commentary on Hebrew Scripture. Not so culture-bound, however, was Philo's description of the Divine Light. Once again we find an account of someone who has"seen“This super-brilliant light—an experience which is accompanied by unsurpassed joy.
Beyond Philo, the Rabbinic literature also makes reference to this brilliant, Divine Light. David Shapiro tells us that“We read in the Sifra that, while man cannot see the glory of God during his lifetime, he can see it at the time of his death.... Hence, we have such expressions as the righteous envisioning 'the brilliance of the Divine presence' in the afterlife. There are also Talmudic reports of a pillar of light which precedes the bier of the righteous.”11
By far the most numerous references to the Divine Light, however, comes with Jewish mysticism—the Kabbalah. In the Zohar (meaning"splendour"), we find once again the mystic yearning to get closer to God, to see His Light, and feel the joy that so often accompanies that contact. As we might expect, the Zohar interprets the experience with the Divine in a uniquely Jewish way. The similarities between the Jewish encounter with the Light and the accounts from other cultures, however, is unmistakable.
The Zohar tells a story of Rabbi Isaac, who, when
he opened his mouth to expound
the Torah, a pillar of cloud
reaching from heaven to earth
appeared and stood before us,
and in it a great light shone.12
Rabbi Abba, travelling with him, said that he, too, was"privileged to see that light,” which he identified"certainly“As having seen God (I, 29). God, according to the Zohar, designates Himself Ein- Sof—"Limitless"—who, as the Cause of causes, called his crown the"Source,” an“Inexhaustible fount of light" (III, 131). This is a light“Which illumines the supreme heaven, a light never ceasing...” (IV, 224). This is“The supernal primordial light.... When this light shone on what was below, its radiance spread from one end of the world to the other...” (I, 116). Compared to this Supreme Cause,” all lights are dark in its presence” (I, 94).
According to the Zohar,” God wrought the light as the medium for the creation of the world.... For all the generations of heaven and earth were produced by the energy of that treasured-up Light...” (IV, 252). It was not until“He unfolded Himself in a covering of a supernal radiance of thought"that he created therefrom a world” (I, 111). God"summoned to issue forth from [His] complete Light which was in the centre of a certain radiance which is the foundation of the world” (I, 70). The Zohar's place in all this“Is that from which were created all the creative utterances through the extension of the point of this mysterious brightness" (I, 63).
The Zohar illustrates this place of light poetically:
The secret Garden
In worlds of light hidden...
Its splendour sends forth
To the ends of Creation,
In the fullness of glory
Is revealed in its beauty
To the eyes made seeing—
The garden of Eden
When God said,” Let there be light, and there was light,” and"let us make man in our image, after our likeness,” the Zohar gives us an indication of the nature of humanity.”'In our image' corresponds to light, 'fter our likeness,' to darkness, which is a vestment to light in the same way that a body is a vestment to the soul...” (I, 92). Thus, man's spirit emanates"from the realm of holiness, to which his body is a vestment, as we read,” Thou clothest me in skin and flesh" (Job X, 11). Other animals such as ox, sheep, goat, deer, etc. are simply formed from another vestment (I, 86). This also explains why we cannot see God with our bodily eye: we can only perceive the vestment of darkness around God's light.
The soul, however, can see the Divine Light. We read in the Zohar that
The essence of man is his soul;
the skin, flesh, bones and sinews
are but an outward covering, the
mere garments, but they are not the man.
When man departs from this world, he
divests himself of all these garments...
skins are a garment which protects a garment,
viz, the extension of the heavens which is
the outer garment [of the Divine] (III, 230).
The mystical book goes on to tell us that"before a man dies he beholds a Divine Presence, towards which the soul goes out in great yearning...” (V, 106). The soul then leaves the dead person,” and the body returns to the earth.”The"spirit returns to God who gave it (Eccl. XII, 7),” reads the Zohar,” both thus returning to their original source” (I, 21).
The Joy of Joys
The encounter with the Light Divine is clearly joyful, loving, even ecstatic. The“King of Peace“Is He Who emanates“The light of the supreme joy from the fullness of his joy" (IV, 98). After God"'divided the light from the darkness'... light continued to emanate from the supernal radiance, and through that radiance to bring gladness to all" (I, 143). When“The Holy Ancient One reveals Himself... all the worlds are irradiated with joy" (III, 270). When“The loving kindness of the Ancient One is manifested... all is satisfaction and joy....”When“The streaming, inexhaustible light" bursts forth“In splendour and beauty,” be prepared for“The joy of joys" (III, 272). The light of God evokes a"stirring of all joy, all felicity, all illumination and all freedom" (II, 250). The"place to meet the Most High King“Is that place"from whence there issues all light, all blessings, and all joy, to cause all faces to shine...” (II, 282-283). God is the“Wine which gives light and joy to all... the joy of love and mercy, the source of all life and joy" (IV, 16). When someone's spirit reaches the heavenly realm,” there is an effulgence of light all around...,” and a"transcendental holy bliss and sublime delight...” (IV, 193).
Not everyone gets to see these things and feel these feelings, however. Consistent with Jewish notions of justice, only the righteous have access to the Divine Light—darkness is for evil ones. Consequently, God hides the light from evil ones.”The radiance which God produced at the time of Creation illumined the world from one end to the other, but was withdrawn in order that the sinners of the world might not enjoy it, and it is treasured for the righteous...” (I, 120). Indeed,” God created man in the world and gave him the faculty to perfect himself in His service and to direct his ways so as to merit the enjoyment of that celestial light which God has hidden and reserved for the righteous...” (I, 148). The mysteries of the world to come“Are imprinted in light such as no eye can look upon, nor can our imagination comprehend the measure of joy and delight which the Holy One, blessed be He, has in store for the righteous...” (IV, 48-49). God even created the Garden of Eden“In order to satisfy His own ardent desire for joyous and continual communion with the souls of the righteous...” (III, 360).
More specifically, and uniquely Jewish, is the view that Israel will lead the way of the righteous. Israelites"saw eye to eye the splendour of the glory of their Lord...” (III, 280). When the Israelites stood at the Red Sea, they“All held the Divine glory eye to eye, and when their singing was ended their souls were so filled with joy and ecstasy that they refused to continue on their journey, desiring yet more perfect revelations of that glorious mystery" (III, 187). Israel is blessed by God because“The Holy One, blessed be He, has chosen them above all the other nations of the world" (IV, 100). God will,” at the proper time cause to shine on Israel that sun which he stored away at the time of the Creation, out of sight of sinners" (II, 273). At that time“The Holy King will restore [Israel] to its place, to unite itself with her in perfect bliss...” (III, 172).
This is not to say, though, that access to the Divine Light and its joys are restricted to the nation of Israel:
while Israel are the foundation of the divine
light from out of which issues forth light for
the whole world, yet when heathen nations come
to accept the glory of the Holy One and to worship
Him, then the foundation of the light is strengthened
and all its rays are unified... (III, 215).
God will first open“A tiny aperture of light, then another somewhat larger, and so on until he will throw open for them the supernal gates"for Israel, and for“The righteous among them" (II, 152).
The Jewish Way
The key, then, to attaining communion with the Divine Light, according to the Zohar, is to be righteous—whether one is Jewish or not. To be righteous is to pray to God, and to study and obey the Torah. Prayer evokes“A certain illumination" (II, 212). It is actually“Incumbent upon a man to offer up prayer and supplication each day so as to unite Himself with God” (II, 294). The earnest, devoted, and properly concentrated silent prayer, when heard by the Holy One, will result in a"feast on the supernal radiances that will stream with added brightness from the supernal world...” (II, 294-295). Further,” it is through the Torah that man can make himself worthy of that light" (I, 148). Knowledge of the Torah"means union with the Holy One” (V, 45). Those who study the Torah“Are beloved before God,” and their souls“Ascend to the bliss above” (II, 370).
Various other Jewish mystics outside the Zohar echo sentiments similar to that book of Splendour. Rabbi Yehuda L. Ashlag, commenting on the writings of Hasidic Rabbi Isaac Luria, said that God's original goal was to favour humanity with"eternal joy and goodness.”As God thought out this plan, thought itself stretched out as a light, comprising all joy and contentment, indeed the whole of creation.
Mankind, as part of the creation, shared with God in almost every respect the same spirit. The only difference was man's desire to receive. With respect to God, then, Man's desire is to receive the bliss and happiness that God wants to bestow. With respect to other people, problems arise because everyone wants to receive. Reversing this nature is very difficult, but it must be accomplished in order to become Divine in nature. It can be done"through Torah study and performance of Torah precepts with the motive of delighting one's Maker.”Once we transform our will to receive into a will to bestow, we achieve the Creator's goal of giving mankind“Ineffable bliss and happiness.”13
Similar sentiments are found elsewhere in Hasidism. Meshullam Teibush Heller of Zbarah espoused the following:
The first aspect is that of one who performs
the mizvah in order to fulfil what is written
in the Torah... each and every one of the
Kabbalists had unified and connected world
with world and light with light and radiance
with radiance and brilliance with brilliance
through their clear and pure thought...14
Rabbi Shneur Zalman's Habad system of the 18th century was much the same in this respect. In this we find that God, the Ein- Sof, the Infinite One,” completely fills the whole earth temporally and spatially... everything is equally permeated with the Ein-Sof light.”15 For Zalman, Torah study ought to be one's pre-eminent occupation, for
while a person occupies himself with words of Torah...
It follows [that at that time] the soul and these
garments [of thoughts and speech] are also truly united
with Ein-Sof.... Moreover, their unity is even more
exalted and more powerful than the unity of God's
infinite light with the upper [spiritual] worlds.
For the Divine Will is actually manifest in the soul
and its garments that are engaged in Torah study,
since His Will proper is identical with the Torah itself....16
One's attitude in studying is also important. While occupying oneself with the Torah, one must"harbour a great love for God alone, to do what is gratifying to Him alone, and not for the purpose of quenching his soul's thirst for God.”Moreover, this is certainly not to say that one should not pray or engage in philosophical speculation about God. On the contrary, in addition to Torah Study one can attach oneself"to Him by intellect and thought... and in prayer and other blessings.”Indeed this is the foundation of human happiness:
The intellect of a created being delights and derives pleasure only in that which it conceives, understands, knows and grasps with its intellect and understanding, as much as it can grasp of the Blessed Ein-Sof light, through His wisdom and His understanding which radiate there....17
1. In Philo, vol. I,” On the Creation,” trans. by F.H. Colson (London: William Heinemann, 1929), 41.
2. Philo,” On the Creation,” 25.
3. Philo,” On the Creation,” 25.
4. Philo, vol. II,” On the Cherubim,” 67.
5. Philo, vol. I,” Allegorical Interpretation of Exodus III,” 331.
6. Philo, vol. II,” The Posterity and Exile of Cain,” 421.
7. Philo,” On the Creation,” 57.
8. Philo, vol. I,” Allegorical Interpretation of Genesis, I,” 157.
9. Philo, vol. II,” On the Cherubim,” 15.
10. Philo, vol. II,” The Sacrifices of Abel and Cain,” 175.
11. Sifra to Lev. 1:1 in reference to Exodus 33:20; Berakot 17a, cf. Hagidah 12a. Quoted by David S. Shapiro in"Death Experiences in Rabbinic Literature,” Judaism 28, 1 (Winter 1979): 90-94.
12. Zohar, vol. IV, trans. by Harry Sperling, Maurine Simon and Dr. Paul P. Levertoff (Jerusalem: The Soncino Press, 1977), 23. Hereafter, references to the Zohar by volume and page number will be quoted within the text.
13. Rabbi Yehuda L. Ashlag, A Study of the Ten Luminous Emanations from Rabbi Isaac Luria, trans. by Rabbi Levi I. Krakovsky (Jerusalem: Research Centre of Kabbalah, 1972), 28-51.
14. In Derek Emet (Jerusalem: n.d.). Quoted by Rivka Schatz Uffenheimer in Hasidism as Mysticism, trans. by Jonathan Chipman (Jerusalem: The Magnes Press, 1993), 240.
15. Liqqutei 'marim: Tanya (Brooklyn: 1954; photo copy: Vilna, 1937). Quoted by Uffenheimer, Hasidism as Mysticism, 266.
16. Zalman, Tanya, quoted by Uffenheimer, Hasidism as Mysticism, 281.
17. Zalman, Tanya, quoted by Uffenheimer, Hasidism as Mysticism, 288.
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