BREATH OF LIFE: God as Spirit in Judaism. By Rabbi Rachel Timoner. Brewster, MA, 2011. Xxv + 145 pages.
It’s true that the Spirit is present in the Hebrew Bible, sometimes seemingly incognito, but many Christians have this sense that the Spirit really wasn’t very active until Pentecost. I’ve found myself, in some of my own writings on the Holy Spirit, making that claim. But, perhaps there is more to the story than many Christians have realized. Having a Jewish guide to this topic would be helpful, and help has arrived. I will confess that I’ve never really read anything specifically Jewish on this topic until I took up Rabbi Rachel Timoner’s new book from Paraclete Press -- Breath of Life. And what a breath of fresh air this book is.
I’ve read a lot of books on the Holy Spirit, including another recent contribution on the Holy Spirit published by Paraclete Press, Amos Yong’s excellent Who Is the Holy Spirit? (2011). While many of these books are helpful and contribute to my understanding of the nature and function of the Holy Spirit, rarely do I see something really new and refreshing. Breath of Life offered me something new and even revolutionary. Timoner writes as a Jew, knowing that much of her audience for this book likely will be Christians (Paraclete Press is, after all, a Christian publishing company). I wasn’t sure what to expect, though I wasn’t expecting to learn anything all that new and revolutionary, and yet I found it that truly opened my eyes to new ways of looking at the Spirit, recognizing that the Spirit didn’t just come and go, but the Spirit was and is present and active in all of life’s experiences.
The starting point of this discussion of the Spirit involves definitions. Timoner notes that most Christians think of the Spirit in terms of the Trinity, a theological construct that is foreign to Judaism. In fact, she states that for many Jews the phrase “God as Spirit” sounds too Christian. But, as she notes, Jews recognize that God has many names and thus words like Shekinah have their place in the conversation. Therefore, spirit can be a name, a metaphor, a possession, or a “human experience of God.” We the readers, especially Christian readers, will need to keep these concerns in mind as we read the book.
When we come to the Hebrew Bible many of us know that the predominant Hebrew word for Spirit is ruach, a word that like the Greek pneuma, can be translated in a number of ways including breath and wind as well as spirit. We encounter this word in the very first lines of Genesis, where the spirit/wind/breath of God is hovering over chaos and thus participating in the creation of the earth. The word appears 378 times in the Hebrew Bible, making it an important concept. But it is helpful to be reminded that this isn’t the only word for spirit. The other leading word, neshamah, is according to Timoner a much more personal force than ruach. It belongs, she says, to the “essence of God and the essence of humanity.” Another way of translating it is soul, and thus “our souls and our breaths [neshimah] are intertwined and interdependent, coming from God, dwelling in us for a short time, and returning to God each night and upon our death” (p. xix).
Timoner tells the story of the Spirit in Judaism in three parts. The first part works with the concept of creation and the breath of life. Here we look at ideas such as the Spirit’s role in shaping the cosmos, the Spirit in us, and the Spirit as a way to God. This is the foundation. From there, in part two, she looks at revelation, which she subtitles “Sinai’s Inspiration.” Here we explore God’s covenant making at Sinai and the differences between the extraordinary and the ordinary spirit – we might think of this as a conversation about spiritual giftedness – and finding purpose through the Spirit. Finally, in part three she looks at the concept of redemption, a reminder that the Christian idea of redemption is rooted in Judaism. In this she speaks of our aspiration to wholeness, looking at God’s redemptive Spirit, prophecy, and the actions of the Spirit in our present world. This is followed by a postscript that expresses Judaism’s hope that all will return to God.
Regarding creation, while the story itself is not to be taken in a literal fashion, the story brings in the idea of the Spirit of God (ruach elohim) engaged in creating the universe as an artisan, blowing the world into existence as if a glass-blower. From the creation of the universe we turn to the Spirit who indwells us, and we’re reminded that in Genesis 2, God forms the human person (adam) from the dust (adamah) and blowing life into this human (nishmat chayim) so that the person might be a living being (nefesh chayah). Thus, humans are composed of two ingredients earth and life breath. It is this second element that makes adam different from the earth, making humans embodied spirits dependent on God’s spirit for our lives. This sense of the Spirit’s engagement with our existence, leads to the conclusion that our connection, our way to God is through the Spirit that we essentially share with God.
From Creation she turns to revelation, and the Spirit (ruach) provides the basis of understanding so that a covenant can be created. The three truths of Sinai are that God is not a physical being, God speaks to humans as a people, and revelation is for the purpose of creating a covenant. Having made a covenant with the people the Spirit is present as extraordinary and ordinary ways. With regard to the first, Timoner notes that in the Tanakh, a few individuals are described as possessing an extraordinary spirit, which involves “talents and abilities that enable them to lead or play a pivotal role in the development of the people and the nation’s relationship to God” (p. 49). Examples of such persons include Joshua, who receives the spirit that he might lead the people after Moses’ death and Saul, who receives the Spirit so that he might lead Israel as king. Then there is Bezalel, who is endowed by God with a ruach enabling him to craft the metalwork of the Temple. There is the spirit of courage that enables Gideon and Samson to rescue their people. But, what about other persons? There is a hope expressed that all might receive the ruach, whether that is expressed by Moses after Eldad and Medad receive the spirit of prophecy or Joel’s expectation of a day when the Spirit might fall on all. Peter, of course, uses Joel to interpret Pentecost, which is why there is this sense in Christianity that the Spirit isn’t present with all Israel before that time. While this hope of revelation being present to all is expressed in several places, there is also the sense that ruach is amongst the people, enabling them to understand and experience divine presence. It is simply available to all in a smaller measure than with those called to extraordinary duty. That sense leads us to the conclusion that we are to find our purpose in the Spirit, for we all have a portion of ruach The question then is – are hiding our gifts? The story of Joseph serves as an example of the value of letting our gifts shine through, showing the holy purpose of God.
In the third part we come to the question of redemption, which is rooted in the human aspiration for wholeness. The Spirit is present in the going out of the people, from Abraham to the people of Israel who move out of slavery and into the promised land. This wholeness is experienced and expressed in our holiness, which involves our obligations to the poor, for the Holy God listens to the oppressed, the stranger, and the marginalized amongst us. This aspiration for wholeness is expressed in the prophetic spirit, which gives voice to those suffering in silence. God’s ruach inspires the prophets to speak truth to power and point the people to the messianic age when the spirit rests on all the people. We see these expressions of the redemptive work of the Spirit in the Hebrew Bible, but what about today? Timoner suggests that the Spirit is that power that motivates us to change and advocate for change. The presence of the Spirit reminds us too that we are persons of value and that our actions matter.
Timoner’s book is an invitation to read the story of Israel as a story of the Spirit. The story moves from creation to covenant to redemption, and ultimately a return to the creator, knowing that there is the hope that “no matter how profound our alienation, no matter how far God may have turned away, we will turn back toward one another. We will return. One of the benefits of this book is that it interprets this story in light of the ongoing development of Jewish thought during the many centuries since the destruction of the Temple and the refashioning of Judaism. We who are Christians are reminded that we have an inheritance that is shared and that we will benefit from hearing the story in a different voice.
I found the book to be not only a good read, but a book that provided immense blessings and insight. I would highly recommend it to anyone desiring to experience the fullness of the Spirit. In the end, perhaps, having heard this voice we can join together in the act of tikkun olam, the healing of the world.
This book was provided for review by Paraclete Press