In His Mercy
Understanding the Thirteen Midot
By Rabbi Ezra Bick
Maggid Books and Yeshivat Har Etzion, 2011, 131 pages
Reviewed by Israel Drazin - September 13, 2012
There is an ancient practice that just before and during the Jewish New Year season, many Jews think about their past misdeeds and consider improving. A central part of many synagogue services during the month before Rosh Hashana until after Yom Kippur is the recital of the thirteen divine attributes mentioned in Exodus 34:6 and 7, which Jews repeats often each day. The Jewish Publication Society translates these verses describing God's mercy: "The Lord, the Lord, God, merciful and gracious, long suffering, and abundant in goodness and truth; keeping mercy unto the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin; and that will by no means clear the guilty; visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, and upon the children's children, unto the third and unto the fourth generation." The list raises many questions, one of which is: since it is not a prayer, why recite the attributes so frequently during the High Holiday season?
Rabbi Yohanan in the Babylonian Talmud, Rosh Hashana 17b, understands the verses to say that God wrapped himself in a tallit, a prayer shawl, as a leader of the public prayer service, and showed Moses how to conduct the service of saying the attributes. He told Moses, "Any time Israel sins let them perform this service before me and I will forgive them." Rabbi Yehuda, on the same page, emphasized that the recital never fails; when recited, they always remove sins. This Talmudic statement adds problems. Should we believe that God physically appeared to Moses? Does God wear a tallit? Do rabbis expect us to believe that the recital of these words magically removes sins, without fail?
A simple explanation is that the Talmudic statements are sermonic metaphoric hyperbole. God certainly doesn't make special appearances on earth. God is always present, everywhere. Also God is not physical and doesn't dress up. The rabbis are using a parable to teach that we should correct our mistakes and improve our behavior daily, and the New Year is a good time to remind us to do so. We recite the attributes of mercy to prompt us to realize that the world is good and generally rewards good deeds. Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz explained that these recitals can lead to the insight that changes and improvements are needed.
However, most people dislike this "rationalistic" approach that requires actions beyond the recitals, and prefer to understand the Bible and Talmud literally, even mystically. Rabbi Ezra Bick takes this common approach. He tells us in this book that God created the world and people because he needs them to help him "achieve the degree of kingship that can only exist when there are people who accept His kingship. According to this argument, the existence of the world contributes (emphasis in the book) to the perfection of God by adding another dimension to His kingship." God, Bick says, is not perfect and needs humans to perfect him; that's why he created them. This perfection is brought about by people acknowledging that God is the King. Bick attributes his philosophy to nineteenth century Hasidim. Actually, it is the theology of thirteenth century Nachmanides, an idea that runs counter to the teaching of the rational Maimonides (1138-1204).
Bick writes that God is in heaven, but when Jews recite the thirteen attributes, they recognize God's kingship and empower him, and he rewards them by sending his Shekinah to them. "The Shekinah resides in the place that human beings make for it." God, according to Rabbi Bick, is absent unless people make it possible for him to appear. This Shekinah, according to Bick, is something divine, something separate from God that appears to humans. Saadiah Gaon in the ninth century and Maimonides spoke against this apparent polytheistic notion. The fourth century Bible translation Targum Onkelos treats Shekinah as a human feeling of a divine presence, but not a divine entity.
Be this as it may, whether one prefers the rationalistic or mystical approach to understanding Judaism, Bick's book will hopefully prompt readers to do more than recite the attributes and become inspired to act and improve.