Shabbat Rosh Hodesh Iyar
April 25, 2009
Many people look to religion in a quest for definitive answers to significant questions. Their expectations are that the truest religion will offer the most absolute answers. Even in the Jewish world, there are those who frame the world in these terms. It may be asked whether this mentality will provide those who search with what they anticipate and whether what they are sold as answers to their question will really reflect the much sought after truth.
Isaiah\’s opening prophecy in this special haftarah for Shabbat Rosh Hodesh is a case in point. The prophet opens on a polemic note: \”Thus said the Lord: \’The heaven is My throne and the earth My footstool: Where could you build a house for Me? What place could serve as My abode? All this was made by My hand, and thus it came into being, declares the Lord.\’\” (66:1) This prophecy argues that the Temple does not contain God. How could it, since the world that would contain the Temple was created by God.
To what is this prophecy responding? There were those who professed a different attitude toward the Temple and its relationship to God. They saw the Temple as God\’s very dwelling place: \”Then Solomon declared: \’The Lord has chosen to abide in a thick cloud: I have now built for You a stately House, a place where You may dwell forever.\’\” (1 Kings 8:12-13) This verse expresses a faith that the Temple of God and the city are the resting place of God. (See S. Paul, Isaiah 40-66, Mikra L\’Yisrael, p. 556-8)
In confronting this belief, Isaiah asserts that the heavens are God\’s dwelling place and the earth is God\’s footstool. What we see in these two theological representations are two different attitudes towards God\’s relationship with the world. Isaiah believes in God\’s transcendent nature while Solomon has a sense of God\’s immanence or closeness. The Temple, for Solomon, was a House of communion with God while for Isaiah it was a House of prayer.
How does one explain these two radically different perspectives? Solomon\’s expression of God\’s nearness is easy to explain. There is security and comfort in having a sense of intimacy with God, so why would Isaiah believe otherwise? It may be that Isaiah feared some of the possible implications of this theology. He may have feared that God might be implicated in some of the corruption he describes in the verses that follow (66:3-4). God\’s transcendent nature puts him above this \”business\”. It should not be thought, however, that God ignores this \”business\”. He is not above the fray. He does choose sides: \”Yet on who do I [God] look: To the poor and brokenhearted, and to the one who is concerned about My word.\” (66:2)
So which understanding of God is the \”true\” understanding of God – Solomon\’s or Isaiah\’s? The answer is that simple answers are inadequate expressions of the truth of who God is. There are elements of these two prophecies which are contradictory but still tell us something about God. They also teach us a valuable lesson about the search for truth in Judaism. The expectation that simple answers tell all of the truth is a path not to be followed.
This study piece is offered as a service of the United Synagogue Conservative Yeshiva. It is prepared by Rabbi Mordechai (Mitchell) Silverstein, senior lecturer in Talmud and Midrash at the Conservative Yeshiva. He is a graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.
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