By Gene Matanky
In Hasidut we find two opposing conceptions of God’s place in the world. One being that God is everywhere, meaning that God is not only to be found in learning Torah, but also in prayer, in nature, in our fellow man, and most importantly inside each and every one of us. The notion that God is to be found EVERYWHERE is revolutionary for the religious man; it bestows the divine in the mundane, in the average man.
However within Hasidic thought there is a drastically different, and seemingly contradictory, conception of God; that God is in exile from His world. This view is expressed in the following stories:
“The Baal Shem Tov was walking once when he spotted a little girl crying. He asked her, “What is the matter?”. She responded, “I’m playing hide-and-seek, but no one came to find me.” At this the Baal Shem Tov said, “And so too it is with us, God is hiding, but we don’t look for Him”.
So too, R’ Shmelke would say that until we began to pray for the Shechina which is in exile, instead of for ourselves, the Messiah would not come.
This idea of God not being able to be found is brought to its climax in the thought of the Kotzker Rebbe. The Kotzker Rebbe asked his Hasidim, “Where is God to be found?”. Answering his own question to them, he explained that “God is found wherever man lets Him in.”
According to these stories, God is not everywhere, but is in fact far away in exile! How may we explain the incongruity between these two opinions of where God is to be found?
A. J. Heschel, although not directly speaking about this subject, sheds light on it. In his work “The Sabbath” he speaks about the plight of modern man. Modern man, Heschel writes, lives in a world which pursues and values things and objects, such as the domination of nature, and a materialistic lifestyle. He seeks to use others (not just people, but anything that is outside the self) as objects and therefore does not relate to them as subjects in and of themselves.
The problem, he explains, is that when man treats others as tools to be used, he becomes one himself. One becomes a “self” by incorporating the “non-self”, the understanding that one is more than his “ego”. The “ego” is essentially a survival mechanism, a machine, and by only acting as the “ego” without any regard for the “other”, one becomes what is, essentially, only a machine.
Here lies the answer. There is no real difference between the conception that God is everywhere or that He is only to be found where man lets him in. If I may rephrase the Kotzker, his question is not “Where is God?”, but “Where is man?”.
The answer is that man is wherever he lets God in. God is everywhere. However it is man who is not always to be found.
In Heschel’s thought, caring for something outside of ourselves is to transcend the self, and only when we transcend ourselves can we be called human. By relating to others as subjects we become subjects too, thereby making room for God, the subject par excellance.
There is a parable R’ Nachman would give of someone standing by an amazing view, mountains, valleys, rivers, and forests. Another man joined him and placed his hand in front of the first man’s face, blocking his view.
The hand is so much smaller than the mountains and valleys, R’ Nachman explained, however it can still block them. So it is with us; the objects of this world are so much smaller than God yet they can block Him from our view. It is our task, we learn from Hasidut, to see God anyway.
Gene Matanky studies Jewish Thought in Bar Ilan University. He is also involved with מרק״ם and the Boger community of Midreshet Ein Prat.