Breath of Life: God as Spirit in Judaism by Rabbi Rachel Timoner
Reading the title of this book is quite puzzling to me, seeing to it that I find glimpses of God as Spirit in the Old Testament as pointing to the coming of the Messiah, yet I had not thought much about this theme. Rabbi Rachel Timoner helpfully puts into perspective what is meant by God as Spirit in Judaism by dividing her book into three sections: Creation, Revelation and Redemption. At the beginning of the book, she takes time to explain what is meant by both the terms ‘God’ and ‘Spirit.’ She writes, “Judaism’s primary innovation was its understanding that God cannot be reduced to any thing we know-not a body, an object, or a natural force” (xiv). The poetic expressions and prophetic voices that reference God’s body are understood as metaphor, helping us to relate to God rather than describing who God is. Part of the difficulty in seeking to describe God as Spirit is that by saying God is spirit might actually reduce the infinite One to our own concept or words for the Divine. Timoner writes, “More often, it seems God has spirit, or gives spirit, or takes spirit back” (xix). The Tanakh is very careful not to associate one word or phrase as providing ultimate meaning to God, for God is without shape or form but also a wholly different kind of being than humanity.
Rabbi Timoner makes an interesting point in the first chapter of the book by writing, “One of the most extraordinary features of God’s spirit, God’s creative force, is that some of its creatures also have spirit, enabling God’s creations to create as well” (6). By bestowing upon us God’s ruach, we are able to create and shape others, including in the very concrete way of pro-creation. Not only do offspring reflect God’s Spirit as working in creation, but these members reflect their mothers and fathers in a unique way. Further on, Timoner seeks to align modern scientific theories with the creation story in Genesis by saying, “When understood metaphorically, this language need not be at odds with our latest scientific theories of the Big Bang and evolution but instead they offer complementary wisdom about our origins and the origins of the universe we find ourselves in” (7-8). I understand that the language and structure of Genesis 1-2 is not seeking to delineate the specific age of the earth or of our origins, but I think Timoner stretches too far the relationship between the creation story and science. Structure evolving out of chaos, primordial energy turning into specific matter tears apart the original polemical intent of Genesis 1 in which Moses is declaring before the nations that God is the one who is sovereign over all things, including the created order.
One fascinating part of Timoner’s book was her description of the weakness and strength of the spirit within us. She writes, “In this sense, the ruach that is within us corresponds to vigor or vitality and is closely linked to emotion” (26). Drawing from many biblical examples, Timoner relates periods of grieving and good news to the flow of ruach in our bodies, lifting us up or bringing us down. Shortness of spirit brings out impatience and anger, while being full of spirit brings hope and perseverance. One very big example Timoner uses regarding the strength of spirit is Daniel’s strength to speak, which is very pivotal for the people as well.
One of the all-encompassing features of the Sinai revelation was that the laws given by God were not meant to be for the sake of private application, but were to be seen as impacting the world. Thus, Timoner writes, “We are unable to see the entire plan, but Jewish tradition teaches that we are to live out this plan through mitzvoth-specific, prescribed behaviors that repair the world. Thereby, each of us, in our own small way, lives out our purpose, making a contribution to the redemption of our world” (47). The covenant relates God’s initiatory effort to be in relationship with His people, and as part of that covenant relationship He gives them commands to follow. What I really thought was powerful in Rabbi Timoner’s explanation of the mitzvot here is the practical effect of practicing these commands for the world, to repair and restore it, to take account of the way things aren’t what they should be. Thus, concerns for justice, the poor, and acts of mercy take their cue from the Mosaic legislation.
Rabbi Timoner at one point talks about the spirit relating to the coming Messiah by writing, “However, even more than the prophets speak of a personal messiah, they speak of a messianic age, in which a universal spirit enters all people and returns us to God” (120). The pronouncements of Isaiah’s vision of peace will come upon the people and we will see God’s spirit upon the people, Timoner indicates. This vision inculcates the entire world living justly, living in an age of peaceful righteousness that is consonant with God’s rules over all things. What is key to Timoner’s understanding of the Messiah and the Messianic age is that this coming God’s spirit upon all people is radically reflected in concrete acts of justice for the entire world. Repairing the brokenness that comes from sin, reversing the curse upon the creation is part goal of the messianic age to come for Jewish believers.
This book was a very good look into the God as Spirit in Judaism, from the creation to redemption. Timoner is careful to elucidate the spirit in Judiasm apart from a Christian understanding that is very helpful. At times, you could see her understanding as providing more of a progressive take on such issues as creation and evolution. Yet, I think this book will do well to help people get a grasp of some of the biblical teachings on the Spirit in the Hebrew Bible.
Check out Paraclete Press for more books on the Spirit @ www.paracletepress.com
Much thanks to Paraclete Press for the review copy of this book in exchange for review.