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I've been following some of the discussion here: Is Jewish theology Panentheistic by definition? and here: Hashem is here and there and everywhere?

And I have to admit I am more confused than ever!

To help me understand, I am wondering if Ya'akov's statement “G-d is truly in this place, but I did not know it” (Beresheet, 28:11–17) refers to the immanence of G-d as a presence in our world, not 'physically' as such, but somehow embedded within the structure of all things?

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First, some background information:

The passuq in question is Bereshith 28:16 -

"Wayyiqass Ya'aqov mishenatho wayomer akhen yesh HaShem ba-maqom ha-zeh wa-anokhi lo yadha`ti"

Translation:

"And Ya`aqov awoke from his sleep and said, 'Surely HaShem is in this place and I did not know it."

However, the Targum Onqelos renders the sense (cf. Nehhemyah 8:8) of the passuq as follows:

"Wa-it`ar Ya'aqov mi-shinteh wa-amar be-qushta it yeqara dha-Shem be-athra ha-dhen wa-ana la hawethi yedha'"

Translation:

"And Ya`aqov awoke from his sleep and said, 'Truly, the Glory of HaShem is in this place and I wasn't aware of it."

Now this term, the "yeqara dha-Shem - glory of the LORD" is a regular circumlocution utilized by the Targumist(s) to indicate that an apparent attribution of existing in time, moving within physical space, or some sort of anthropomorphism to the Creator (blessed be He) is purely metaphorical and that something else is meant entirely.

One example of this is in Bereshit 17:22, where it says:

"...waya'al Elohim me-`al Avraham."

Translation:

"...And God went up from off of Avraham."

Here Targum Onqelos utilizes the same circumlocution to remove the apparent attribution of any type of physicality (i.e. spatial/dimensional existence) from the Creator (blessed be He):

"...wa-istallaq yeqara dha-Shem me-`illawohi de-Avraham."

Translation:

"...And the glory of HaShem departed from upon Avraham."

Other similar circumlocutions used by the Targumist(s) include the Aramaic phrases "memra dha-Shem - expression/communication of HaShem" (used to indicate Divine Providence - cf. Bereshith 28:20), "shekhinta dha-Shem" (used to indicate continued - "dwelling" - Divine Providence - cf. Shemoth 17:1), or sometimes they are used in combination. The Rambam z"l discusses these concepts in relative depth in his Moreh HaNavokhim I:25-27 (see there).

Essentially, these kinnuyyim are in effect to help the reader understand that these apparent descriptions of God are actually descriptions of His actions in the world.

What Targum Onqelos communicates through his use of circumlocutions (Heb., kinnuyyim) was eventually expressed in explicit terms and codified by the Rambam as the third foundation of Jewish faith, which says:

And the third foundation is the rejection and negation of all physicality from Him and [to believe] that this One is not a physical body and not a force or power within a physical body and He is unaffected by those accidents which affect physical bodies, such as motion and rest - not actually nor unintentionally. And therefore they [i.e. Hazal], peace be upon them, rejected and negated from Him [any form of] connection or separation. And they said, "...no sitting and no standing, no decapitation and no joining together" (cf. Hhaghighah 15a), that is to say, no separation - and this is what is meant by "decapitation" - and no connection, for the term "joining together" (עפוי) is in the sense of "wa-`afu va-khathef pelishtim - And they will fly (עפו) upon the shoulder of the Philistines," that is to say that they will push them with the shoulder in order to join themselves to them. And the prophet said, "To whom will you liken God?...and to whom will you compare Me and I will be equal?" (cf. Yeshayahu 40:18, 25). And if [God] were a physical body then He would be comparable to other physical bodies, and everything which comes in the books [of the Tanakh] that describes Him in terms of physical bodies, such as walking, standing, sitting, speaking, and other similar things, they all by way of metaphor, just as [Hazal] said, "dibrah Torah ke-lashon benei adham - The Torah speaks according to the language of men" (cf. Berakhoth 31b). And people have already spoken much about this concept, and this is the third foundation which guides us concerning that which was said, "ki lo ra'item kol temunah - for you did not see any image" (cf. Devarim 4:15), that is to say, "You did not comprehend him as possessing a [physical] image," because He is as we have said: Not a physical body, nor a force or power within a physical object."

(Rambam, Pirush HaMishnayoth, Sanhedrin 10 - Qafihh Edition pp. קמא-קמב)

[See Mishneh Torah, Hilkhoth Yesodhei HaTorah 1 for a complete and more detailed explanation of the above principle.]

As you can see, the ideas that the Creator (blessed be He) is either identical with the creation (גוף - Pantheism) or within the creation (כח בגוף - Panentheism) is precluded by the Torah and Hazal. It is also contradicted by the logic behind pure monotheism (cf. Hhovoth HaLevavoth, Sha`ar HaYihhudh for a full explanation of this idea). Read the Sefer HaKuzari, ma'amar II:1-8 and ma'amar IV for an excellent exposition of these issues.

Now, to answer your question:

No, the words of Ya`aqov Avinu that "God is in this place" does not refer to a physical location of God in any capacity whatsoever. Rather, it is referring to that place being a "chosen" (nivhhar; mukhan le-nevu'ah) place for achieving prophecy (cf. Seforno; Ibn Ezra to 28:17; Kuzari II:1-8; et al) - and its potential as a prime place for receiving prophecy was indicated by the angels he saw in his dream, since prophecy comes through the agency of an angel (with the exception of Mosheh Rabbenu alaw ha-shalom who himself was the "angel" - cf. Hilkhoth Yeshodhei HaTorah 7-8).

Read this all carefully and you will find your way to understanding.

Hope that this helps. Kol tuv.

  • B'reishis Rabba 68:10 also supports this: ר' הונא בשם ר' אמי אמר מפני מה מכנין שמו של הקב"ה וקורין אותו מקום שהוא מקומו של עולם ואין עולמו מקומו. – Fred Jul 17 '15 at 8:23
  • Thank you very much, that is both detailed and clear. I suppose one of the reasons for my confusion is that I had read articles like this (rabbisacks.org/covenant-conversation-5767-vayetse) which describe G-d as being the "place of the universe" which seem to imply some form of panentheism based on this quote from Ja'akov. – Rem Dav Nan Jul 17 '15 at 8:57
  • @RemDavNan That's the quote I cited above. On the contrary, it indicates that HaShem is transcendent and does not occupy space. Instead, the universe and space-time itself are constructs created by HaShem, and they exist within His infinitude (in some sense). – Fred Jul 17 '15 at 16:43
  • Thank you Fred, that helps a lot when you couch it in the context of a constructed space-time that is limited to incarnate experience; if this is the case, G-d cannot be in any particular 'location'. Got it. 'Within His infinitude' - makes sense intuitively but I'll have to mull that one over! – Rem Dav Nan Jul 17 '15 at 18:38

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