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Reprinted from The Jewish Religion: A Companion, published by Oxford University Press.
Bahya Ibn Pakudah was a Spanish philosopher of the 11th century. Bahya’s Duties of the Heart is a treatise of morals and religion, translated into Yiddish, sure evidence of the work’s popularity among ordinary devout Jews, although the opening section on the unity of God is strictly philosophical and written for thinkers.
In this section Bahya stresses that the nature of God cannot be apprehended by the human mind. The biblical anthropomorphic expressions do not mean that God can be described in human terms. Indeed, God cannot be described at all. The biblical descriptions are necessary, however, for the psychological reason that if humans are to worship God they must have some picture of God in the mind, always with the proviso that "the Torah speaks in the language of men" (a Talmudic expression which Bahya has adapted for his purpose); that is, the language used in the Torah does not and cannot convey the Reality but provides humans with a vocabulary of worship.
For Bahya, when Judaism teaches the unity of God this should not be understood only to mean that God is one not many, but to indicate particularly that God is unique, totally different from His creatures and completely beyond the imagination.
In his introduction, Bahya states his aim of calling attention to the inwardness that Judaism demands of its adherents. Religious Jews are fully aware of the external rites, ceremonies, and other external obligations and perform these, the duties of the limbs, diligently. It is with regard to the duties of the heart that they often fall short. These duties include the love and fear of God, prayer with proper intentions, love of the neighbor, and pure, sincere and disinterested worship of God with all the heart.
These, far from being incidental, belong to the very essence of Judaism. Bahya was influenced by Sufi teachings even in the title he gave to his work. He is not averse to quoting favorably non-Jewish pietists, as when he tells with approval the tale of the non-Jewish saint (hasid) who slept outdoors where he was in danger from wild beasts and robbers because his fear of God was too profound to allow him to entertain any fear of God’s creatures.
The Duties of the Heart is ascetic in tone, although it rejects extreme forms of asceticism in which a man shuns the society of others. Bahya’s ideal is for man "to mix freely with others but be alone with his Maker in his Mind." Man must engage in battle at all times with his great foe, the evil inclination within his heart that seeks to prevent him following the way of the Torah. The maxims in the book are often quoted in the literature of Jewish piety. One of these is that prayer without inwardness is like a body without a soul.
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