The Word Made Animate
Seeking the living soul of our sacred texts.
Provided by the Jewish Theological Seminary, a Conservative rabbinical seminary and university of Jewish studies.
Christianity turns on the doctrine of incarnation as formulated famously by the Gospel of John: "So the Word became flesh; he came to dwell among us, and we saw his glory, such glory as befits the Father's only Son, full of grace and truth" (1:14). It is a doctrine that Jews tend to identify as uniquely Christian. Whereas both Judaism and Christianity equally acknowledged that at creation "the Word dwelt with God" (1:1) as both wisdom and instrument, Judaism refrained from ever endowing it with human form. Though valid, the distinction does not preclude the appearance in Judaism of the doctrine. For Judaism, the Word became incarnate as book.
The comparison occurs to me because of a Talmudic comment on the first word of the Ten Commandments. Like many such comments, its brevity conceals a world of profundity. The emphatic form of the pronoun "I," anokhi, did not fail to arrest the midrashic imagination. R. Yochanan, the dominant Galilean rabbi of the third century, treated it as an acronym, that is, each letter stood for a word. Thus deconstructed, he read the word to amplify the divine authorship of the Decalogue: "I Myself, wrote and gave [this]" (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 105a). Implicitly, the statement affirms that the entire Torah embodies God's word.
But Abraham Joshua Heschel in his final book Kotzk: A Struggle for Truth (Yiddish, 1973) goes beyond the doctrine that the Torah was literally revealed. In quoting this passage from the Talmud, he translates the words of R. Yochanan to mean "I give Myself in writing" (p. 58). That formulation is a Jewish version of incarnation. The words of the Torah are more than the medium of God's will; they are the very form which God's presence takes in our world of time and space. Concentration on the text leads to union with the Almighty.
In the spirit of the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of modern Hasidism, Heschel reminds us that when we study the words of a particular sage in the Talmud, we ought to conjure up his presence, to see him standing before us. Beyond understanding his words, we must actually live with him and feel the power of his spirit. Similarly, the words of the Torah enable us to lose ourselves in God's presence.