And God spoke to Moses and said to him: “I am the LORD. I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob, as God Almighty (El Shaddai), but by My name LORD (YHVH) I was not known to them. — Exodus 6:2-3
. . .
“My name is Alice, but — ”
“It’s a stupid name enough!” Humpty Dumpty interrupted impatiently. “What does it mean?”
“Must a name mean something?” Alice asked doubtfully.
— Lewis Carroll, “Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There,” 1871
. . .
The meaning of the divine name El Shaddai holds the key to the possibility of religious passion and commitment alongside tolerance.
In 1989, Francis Fukuyama penned his essay, “The End of History?” in which he argued that the end of the Cold War, with the victory of liberal Western democracy over other forms of government, heralded “the endpoint of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.”
Twenty-five years later, we are left scratching our heads, astonished at Fukuyama’s naïveté. Old ideological rivalries are indeed dead, but ferocious religious conflicts have replaced them with a vengeance, becoming a major source of global instability and providing horrific examples of cruelty for all to see.
In 2001, a few months before 9/11, before most of us could imagine what was coming, the Taliban destroyed the ancient Buddhas of Bamyan in Afghanistan. The civilized world was taken aback at the barbarity of the destruction.
I, too, thought the act to be a display of barbarism and savagery. Yet I was troubled by an uncomfortable thought. Doesn’t the Torah, which I hold dear, call for similar violence against idols? (Deuteronomy 7:5 is a good example: “But thus shall ye deal with them: ye shall destroy their altars, and break down their images, and cut down their Asherah poles and burn their graven images with fire.”) And aren’t all traditional religious systems closed structures that allow for very little tolerance of the infidel or the heretic?
I began to ask myself honestly: How was I, an Orthodox Jew, essentially different ideologically from the Taliban? Was it only that westernized Jews (and Christians, for that matter) no longer possessed authentic religious enthusiasm? Was it only that in modern religion, concern for public relations has displaced passion? I also found myself wondering about the question Peter Berger asks in his book “The Heretical Imperative”: How is it possible to maintain sincere and passionate fidelity to one’s particular religious tradition while being genuinely tolerant of other people’s choices?
Berger speaks of what he calls “soft certainty.” This means that the basis of religious faith lies not in metaphysical assertions, but in the recesses of the human heart. It is in the heart where God is revealed and experienced. The reality of this experience is the foundation of “soft certainty.” Certainty is not available through contemplation of the reality “out there.” “Out there,” there is doubt and uncertainty that carves out the topography necessary for tolerance.
The proper place for institutionalized orthodoxies (Jewish or otherwise) that preach exclusivity and obedience to external authority, in a landscape of intensely personal divine revelation in and of the heart, is beyond our scope here. But for those of us committed to a tradition that is alive for us, it is crucial to encounter this spiritual landscape within our tradition.
A Hasidic interpretation of the divine name El-Shaddai, which appears in this week’s Torah portion, helped me do so. Shaddai has a number of possible meanings. R. Simcha Bunim of Przysucha (1765–1827), one of the great Hasidic masters in Poland, explained it by breaking it into two parts. The letter shin is a prefix meaning “that,” and “dai” means “enough.” “She dai” would mean “that [which] is sufficient.” He goes on to explain that this means that there is just enough revelation of God in the world in order for humans recognize His existence. In the revelation of the name Shaddai, God says of Himself that “there is just enough of Me in the world to know Me.”
R. Simcha Bunim’s reading of God’s name provides the necessary space for tolerance of others and their choices. God has delimited Himself, in order to make human activity meaningful and free; the tolerance we exhibit toward others is a necessary consequence of God’s ongoing choice to reveal “just enough” of the divine self. The significance of this teaching, however, extends beyond facilitating a space of uncertainty that allows for religious tolerance. It actually promotes deeper and more engaging religious possibilities.
R. Simcha Bunim’s teaching discloses the precarious nature of creation. Too much Divine revelation and we lose our independent identity. An example of this is the reaction of the children of Israel at Sinai to the intense revelatory experience; they beseeched Moses to protect them from the all-consuming Presence of God. On the other hand, too little divine revelation and we have a world that is devoid of meaning or the possibility of redemption.
Creation, as reflected in the divine name Shaddai, teeters perilously between faith and skepticism, hope and despair, existence and annihilation, God’s at once comforting and disquieting presence and His terrifying absence. Only in the world of El Shaddai, where belief in God cannot be taken for granted and atheism is possible, can faith be meaningful. And only in the world of El Shaddai,where certainty about God is elusive, can we have religious passion alongside religious tolerance.
Rabbi Herzl Hefter is founder and dean of Beit Midrash Har’el, a beit midrash for the study of rabbinics open to men and women in Jerusalem. His Torah essays and lectures are available on the Har’el website.