Do Jews Believe in the Holy Spirit?

Sermon given January 15, 2010

by Temple Beth-El's 2010 Wulfe Lecturer, Rabbi Julie Hilton Danan, Ph.D.


    Shabbat Shalom. I love coming back to South Texas after more than 6 years of living in Northern California. I'm sure that you know there's quite a difference between Texas and California. Here in Texas, we have the tourism slogan, “Visit Texas…It's a whole other country.” Well, out in California, they have a different slogan: “Visit California…It's a whole other planet!

    But seriously, what a joy to be back in the magnificent sanctuary of Temple Beth-El, in which I was Bat Mitzvah and confirmed, as your Wulfe Lecturer for 2010. I feel so at home, like it's my Bat Mitzvah and I should invite everyone to the Kiddush lunch in the temple basement after the service (remember the basement?) Thank you to my teachers and colleagues Rabbi Block, Rabbi Bergman Vann and Rabbi Emeritus Stahl for sharing your bimah with me tonight. Let me begin by noting the preciousness of parental legacy. It is my privilege to be invited here tonight because of a lectureship endowed by Jean and Jesse Wulfe, of blessed memory. Thank you on their behalf to their children: Susan and Ken Gindy, Debbie and Alan Wulfe, and Amy and Perry Wulfe. At this time, I also recall the precious legacy of my own dear parents, my father Dr. Charles Hilton and my mother, Chaplain Betty Hilton, of blessed memory, whose funerals were held in this very sanctuary, one 30 years ago and one just over a year ago. I would like to dedicate tonight's teaching to their memory and to their merit.

    Since many of you knew me growing up or during my years leading Congregation Beth Am here in San Antonio, you know that I am somewhat of a late bloomer. I became a Bat Mitzvah here at the Temple at the slightly advanced age of 16, became a rabbi at age 41, and received my Ph.D. this spring from the University of Texas at the tender age of 50. I wrote my dissertation, under the supervision of Prof. Harold Liebowitz, on the subject of how the Rabbis understood the term, “The Holy Spirit,” or Ruah ha-Kodesh. By Rabbis, I don't mean me or my contemporary colleagues-although we are their spiritual descendents-rather, I mean the Sages who transmitted the Oral Torah, the vast Hebrew and Aramaic literature of the two Talmuds and the Midrashim, in the early centuries of the Common Era. This was a pivotal period in Jewish history, a time in which Judaism had to respond creatively in the wake of the Roman destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E, and the eventual rise of Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire. These early Rabbis had to defend Jewish beliefs against many assaults, even though they never promulgated a systematic theology as the Church fathers did. Instead, they presented their view of the world and of God through halachic (legal) arguments, and (my particular interest) through aggadah, stories and lore.

    So what's a nice Jewish girl from San Antonio doing studying the Holy Spirit? The very phrase brings to mind images of priests pronouncing, “In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.” The Christian triune God, composed of God the “Father,” Jesus the “Son,” and a mysterious entity known as the Holy Spirit or more archaically as the Holy Ghost, would seem to be as far as one can go from Jewish theology. While the Trinity only became official Christian creed in the fourth century, back when Christianity was still a variant form of First Century Judaism, the Holy Spirit was already a frequent actor in the New Testament. In the Gospel According to Matthew, one reads that Mary conceived her child by the Holy Spirit. That is one idea not found in Judaism! For the early Christians, the Holy Spirit was presented as an active agent, bestowing God's gifts, defending the people. Eventually Christianity began to assert itself as the new covenant, the religion of the Spirit, in opposition to Judaism, the religion of Law.

    Many Jews might agree with this. While I was studying for my doctorate, I came across these words in a scholarly article on the Holy Spirit in a respected Jewish publication: “The Bible does not want us to be 'spiritual.' It wants us to do the will of God, to respond to God's teachings, to do God's commandments, and to be worthy partners of God in covenant.” The author was basically saying that it's just not Jewish to be too “spiritual.”

    You may guess that I'm going to disagree. Indeed, Jews would be surprised to learn that the Holy Spirit is not exclusively a Christian term, that our own ancient Rabbis made extensive use of it. There are hundreds of references to the Holy Spirit in Rabbinic texts. But let us be clear; there is one very big difference between the Early Christians and our early Rabbis. Judaism has always espoused a strict monotheism and had no concept of the Trinity. Our Sages' use of the term, “Holy Spirit,” never supposes a division within the Godhead.

    The Rabbinic term for the Holy Spirit is the Hebrew phrase, “Ruah ha-Kodesh.” Let's look at these words. Ruah means spirit. If you have been to Jewish summer camp, you know that you are supposed to sing and dance with a “lot of ruah.” And kodesh, as you know, means holy; that is where we get our words kiddush, kaddish, and kedushah. For Jews and Christians alike, ideas of the Holy Spirit originate in the Hebrew Bible, the Tanakh, starting from the very first chapters of Genesis, in which Ruah Elohim, the spirit of God “hovers over the face of the water,” followed by the story of Adam, in which God breaths the life spirit into the first human being. Ruah in the Bible can mean “wind,” “breath,” or “spirit,” and is a very important and frequently used biblical concept. When individuals are imbued with God's spirit, they may become prophets, leaders or kings.

    However, the Bible was not the only influence on the early Rabbis as they formulated their ideas of the Spirit. Judaism in the first centuries before and after the start of the Common Era had so many different flavors that some scholars speak of ancient Judaisms (in the plural). It was a time of many different and competing Jewish sects. (I always try to capture the attention of my undergraduate students by calling my class, “Sects” Education.) The Dead Sea sect, the authors of apocryphal literature, Jewish Hellenistic philosophers, and early Christian authors all made many and varied uses of the term “Spirit.” A sense of Ruah as a divine force pervades the literature and culture of that era and helped to shape the Rabbinic view.

    The Rabbis spoke of “The Holy Spirit” in two main ways, one fairly familiar and one rather provocative. In the first definition, Ruah ha-Kodesh is simply divine inspiration, the flow of spirit from God to men and women that moves and empowers them to serve as God's spokespeople. Great prophets like Moses and Isaiah, and yes, women like Sarah, Deborah, and Esther are said to have the Holy Spirit resting upon them. And even ordinary folks who unwittingly say something prophetic may have experienced a momentary spark of the Holy Spirit kindled within them.

    On certain historic occasions, the Rabbis even believed that this power of the Holy Spirit could extend to the entire people at once. At every morning and evening service, we sing Mi Chamochah, from the Song at the Red Sea. According to an early Midrash, The Mekhilta of Rabbi Ishmael, the children of Israel were able to compose this song spontaneously, in a moment of collective inspiration, only because Ruah ha-Kodesh rested upon the entire people at once, in reward for their great faith in God.

    Only on rare occasions, however, was Ruah ha-Kodesh seen as available to sages in the Rabbinic present, who seem to use the Holy Spirit, one might say, in tamer ways, often to be better pastoral care givers. In a sweet story in the Jerusalem Talmud and the Midrash Leviticus Rabbah, the sage Rabbi Meir sees by means of Ruah ha-Kodesh that a woman's husband has forbidden her to return before spitting in the Rabbi's eye, (because her attendance at his evening lectures has made her late in arriving home). Rabbi Meir concocts a ruse that he needs a woman to spit in his eye as a cure, thus bringing about her reconciliation with her spouse and preserving domestic harmony. A charming story indeed, but not quite like the power of the divine spirit moving the prophet Isaiah.

    I think that this reticence to attribute prophecy to their own contemporaries made sense for the early Rabbis. They acknowledged the role of inspiration but wanted to discourage new revelations. They wanted to renew Judaism, but not to start a new religion. And yet… they taught that if we would embark on an arduous process of self-improvement and personal growth, we too, might reach Ruah ha-Kodesh. Alternately, we could gain it in an instant. If we could do just one mitzvah, fulfill one commandment of the Torah with perfect faith, truly cleaving to God's Presence, filled with spiritual joy, then we, too, could experience divine inspiration.

    But there is a more surprising use of the term Ruah ha-Kodesh in Rabbinic writings. Ruah ha-Kodesh is also personified as a kind of divine character. As I have said, this doesn't mean that the Rabbis viewed the Holy Spirit as part of a Trinity, and yet, they did use the term in the sense of a metonym, something associated with God that stands in for God. I'm sure that many of you have heard the term, Shekhinah, the Divine Presence , sometimes called the “feminine presence” of God. The Shekhinah is also a metonym for God; in fact, one that is interchanged with Ruah ha-Kodesh in some Talmudic texts. Both names are in the feminine gender. The central function of this personification of Ruah ha-Kodesh is to represent the divine voice in the Torah. During the classical Rabbinic period, the main difference between personified Ruah ha-Kodesh and the Shekhinah is that Ruah ha-Kodesh speaks, while the Shechinah remains a mostly silent presence.

    As prophecy, Ruah ha-Kodesh was seen as the divine spirit filling select human beings, enabling them to articulate the word of God. As hypostatization a divine persona, the association with speech continues. Numerous texts from the Midrash and Talmudic lore depict Ruah ha-Kodeshspeaking in emotional and animated ways. For example, sometimes when Israel praises God, Ruahha-Kodesh shouts out and praises them right back. To return to the Midrash about singing Mi Chamocha at the parting of the Sea, the Rabbis imagined Ruah ha-Kodesh answering the praise of Israel: “Israel says, 'Mi Chamocha ba-Elim Adonai…Who is like unto You, O Lord, among the mighty?' And Ruah ha-Kodesh calls aloud from heaven and says (in a quotation from Deuteronomy), 'Happy are you, O Israel; who is like unto you?'”

    At other times, the Holy Spirit is depicted as crying out in sadness at the injustice of the world, offering a clever retort to a biblical villain, or speaking up in defense of the people of Israel. In the Midrashic accounts, the content of these speeches is almost always a scriptural quotation, occasionally with added comments, and often representing “God's perspective” on matters, as it were. Even though prophecy is no longer readily available to men and women, the Rabbis seem to be saying that God is still speaking to us as the Holy Spirit, through the study of Torah and the medium of Midrashic dialogue.

    The personification of Ruah ha-Kodesh was the result of a long historic development. You may remember that in the biblical book of Exodus, God reveals his “proper name,” so to speak, to Moses. This four letter name is spelled Yud-Heh-Vav-Heh, and perhaps pronounced…I can't really say it without violating a grave rabbinic taboo, but something like… Yah… (and)…Weh. During the Babylonian exile, this holy name was used less and less, probably to emphasize God's distinctive holiness and to avoid comparisons to the pagan gods encountered by the exiled Judeans. The “proper” name of God was increasingly limited in use, and eventually confined to the Second Temple service and the pronunciation of oaths, and by the Rabbinic period it was completely forbidden. Various substitute names were introduced, such as “Lord,” “Most High,” or “God of Heaven.” Then as God was perceived as more distant and transcendent, “middle-beings” were depicted to fill in the perceived gap between heaven and earth. In post-biblical Jewish tradition, these intermediary beingsse came to include angels, spirits, and the Memra (divine word or Logos), and finally metonyms for God like the Shekhinah or Ruah ha-Kodesh.

    I have mentioned one main difference in the Christian and Jewish understanding of the Holy Spirit. The Christians see it as part of a Trinity, the Jewish Rabbis in the context of monotheism. But there is a second important difference, one that is less known and perhaps more provocative, to which I have already alluded. And that is that in Christianity, the Holy Spirit is masculine in gender. Pneuma, the Greek word for Spirit, is neuter, but is used with masculine pronouns in the New Testament and Christian Trinitarian theology.

    Not so in Judaism. Since the word “Ruah ha-qode” in Hebrew is one of the rare Hebrew words that could be either masculine or feminine, Rabbinic Judaism too could have gone either way, but chose not only the feminine gender, but a somewhat feminine persona for the Holy Spirit. While not quite a Dan Brown novel, this does lead us to a fascinating exploration of the feminine side of the divine as seen by the Rabbis. It should be of interest, then, that the ndeed, although we tend to think of the Rabbinic concept of God as a masculine King or Father, many divine names or terms for the “immanence” (indwelling or closeness) of God in Rabbinic literature are actually in the feminine: Shekhinah (the Divine Presence) Ruah ha-Kodesh (the Holy Spirit), or the Bat Kol, the heavenly voice.

    Among the supernatural figures that the ancients perceived as mediating between God and humanity, Hokhmah or Wisdom, Sophia in Greek, is of particular interest because of its eventual connection to Ruah ha-Kodesh. The book of Proverbs contains some daring personifications of Wisdom, a feminine figure who proclaims: “The Lord created me at the beginning of his way, the first of his acts of old. I was set up from everlasting, from the beginning, even before the earth…Then I was by him, like a little child; and I was daily his delight, rejoicing always before him.” From the second century BCE Wisdom of Ben Sira, and then in Pharisaic and Rabbinic Judaism, this personified divine Wisdom became identified exclusively with the Torah herself, the blueprint of the cosmos. Ruah ha-Kodesh, the divine voice of the Torah, became the newest manifestation of feminine Wisdom.

    So you see, it is “kosher” for Jews to be spiritual and we do believe in the Holy Spirit, not as part of the Christian Trinity, but as the power of divine inspiration, as well as the dramatically personified divine voice engaged in ongoing dialogue with the students of Torah. The power of Spirit, the intimate, immanent, and moving connection with God, is as integral to Judaism as it is to Christianity. Moreover, in Judaism, this Spirit has a feminine gender, reflecting ancient traditions about feminine Wisdom and the Divine Presence.

    In the Jerusalem Talmud, Rabbi Joshua ben Levi exclaims, “At the rejoicing at the place of the water drawing in the ancient Temple, they drew out Ruah ha-Kodesh, as it is written: 'Draw forth water in joy from the wellsprings of redemption.'” The prophetic era may be behind us, but Ruahha-Kodesh has never really been silenced. As the divine voice of the Torah, it continues to inspire, to speak to and through human beings. The wellspring of Ruah ha-Kodesh has not run dry at all, but continues to flow abundantly for all who merit to draw from it in joy.