Can a Jew singly cleave to God? In Judaism, it seems not

Can a Jew cleave effectively to God in private, or is this best achieved in public, in community? I examine this question.


There are many kinds of Judaisms. The kind I refer to here is Chabad Judaism, which Rabbi Shmueley Boteach calls “de facto Judaism.” In de facto Judaism, the Written Torah plays second fiddle to the Oral Torah, where the latter is embodied in the Talmud. The Written Torah plays second fiddle in two ways: first, Oral Torah is the mother to its Written child; and second, if the Written Torah appears to contradict the Oral Torah, mother always wins. (See The Written and Oral Torah: Which is Primary?)

Judaism uses “Written Torah” in two ways: 1. the Pentateuch, or 2. the whole Hebrew Bible, the Tanach. The “Oral Torah” always refers to the oral revelation of the whole Hebrew Bible, which was later written down in the Talmud. My purpose is to examine the clash between the scriptures – the Written revelation that pre-existed the Talmud, and the Talmud – oral commentary on the scriptures (which was later written down). So, as I am only examining the clash between scriptures and the Talmud, the distinction between the two meanings of Written Torah are irrelevant.


Is there a single religious Jew who believes that he or she can meet God One-on-one, because they believe that this is what God wants; a personal relationship with human beings? I suggest there are relatively few, because the majority of religious Jews follow the Oral Torah/tradition, which teaches that God only becomes fully present in community; the Jewish community. The traditional Christian view, in contrast, is that there is no true religion without a close personal relationship with the Father through Jesus Christ, his incarnate Son. Let us now examine what it means to cleave, where the main focus will be on the traditional Jewish Orthodox view. This view generally teaches that to cleave to God means to cleave to His Torah, especially his Oral Torah, as mediated through the community represented by the authority of the Sages and their rabbinical disciples, who bind the community together unto God.

In his “Confessions,” Augustine of Hippo writes:

When I shall cleave unto You with all my being, then shall I in nothing have pain and labour; and my life shall be a real life, being wholly full of You. But now since he whom Thou fillest is the one Thou liftest up, I am a burden to myself, as not being full of You. Joys of sorrow contend with sorrows of joy; and on which side the victory may be I know not. Woe is me! Lord, have pity on me. My evil sorrows contend with my good joys; and on which side the victory may be I know not. Woe is me! Lord, have pity on me. Woe is me! Lo, I hide not my wounds; You are the Physician, I the sick; Thou merciful, I miserable.”

Is it possible to cleave to God? A Christian, as Augustine illustrates, certainly can. Such a God is personal, and if personal then surely one can cleave to God’s Person. Not so fast warns Judaism. God may be personal but this does not mean that you could or should cleave directly to Him.

Revelation in Christianity and Judaism

In Christianity, there are two broad attitudes to divine revelation: the Protestant view of “scripture alone” (sola scriptura), and the Roman Catholic/Eastern Orthodox view of scripture plus tradition. (There are, however, some radical differences between Roman Catholic traditions and Eastern Orthodox traditions, which don’t concern us here). Sola scriptura (scripture alone) does not mean solo scriptura, that is, that we don’t have to concern ourselves with church history, biblical theology and the collective wisdom of past generations.

There are two meanings of written Torah (scripture). The distinction is not relevant here because the dividing line I am concerned with is between written revelation and oral revelation (Oral Torah). “Written revelation” refers to scripture (“it is written”), whether the restrictive meaning of Torah (the five books of Moses) or the inclusive meaning of Torah (the whole Hebrew Bible – the Tanach).

 Both Roman Catholicism and (Chabad) Judaism teach that scripture is subservient to the higher authority of the Magisterium (in Roman Catholicism) and the Oral Torah (mediated by the Sages Chochomim), respectively, where both are subservient to the supreme authority of the Holy Spirit (Ruach Hakodesh). The radical difference between the Magisterium and the Oral Torah (Sages) is that whereas the former usually bases its traditions on “It is written,” the Oral Torah, in contrast, either packs flesh on to the dry bones of scripture, or doesn’t bother tailoring its oral cloth to scripture for the reason that scripture is merely a small part of the oral revelation written down.

 So both the Roman Catholic and the Protestant, which I shall henceforth call the “Christian view,” have a much higher regard for “It is Written” (the scriptures, the Written Torah), for “Hebrewism” than for Judaism, or Talmudism (the Oral Torah). Judaism and Talmudism are different names for the same belief system:

 “That sustained, systematic exposition, through one instance after another, of the right reading of the Torah in both its media comes to Israel now as in the past in a single document, the Talmud of Babylonia. That statement of fact describes the centrality of Talmud in the future curriculum of the Judaic intellect, the priority of the Talmud from the time of its closure in about 600 C.E. to the present time. For ‘Judaism’ is Rabbinic Judaism, and the Talmud of Babylonia is the authoritative statement of the Torah that Judaism embodies.” 

(Rabbi Jacob Neusner, Judaism Discovered, page 27).

“The return from Babylon and the introduction of the Babylonian Talmud mark the end of Hebrewism and the beginning of Judaism.” (Rabbi Stephen F. Wise, former Chief Rabbi of the United States).

The chasm between Written and Oral Torah (Talmud)

I now examine an example of rabbinical interpretation, which, I shall argue reveals the existence of a deep rift between the Written and Oral Torah.

In Deut 11:22 we read: “For if you keep all these commandments which I command you to do them, to love the Lord, your God, to walk in all His ways, and to cleave to Him…”

I shall compare the above verse with Rashi’s commentary. With regard to Rashi, traditional Judaism holds that “ is unthinkable to study Talmud without studying Rashi’s commentary at the same time. Rashi’s explanations and commentaries on the Talmud were so important that for almost a hundred years after his death, Talmud students in France and Germany concentrated their brilliant minds on discussing and elaborating on Rashi’s commentary” (Jewish Virtual Library).

 Here is Rashi’s “Oral Torah” commentary of Deut 11:22:“and to cleave to Him”: Is it possible to say this? Is God not “a consuming fire” (Deut. 4:24)? Rather, it means: Cleave to the disciples and the Sages, and I will consider it as though you cleave to Me. — [Sifrei]

 Rashi says we couldn’t and shouldn’t cleave to the Holy One of Israel because He is a consuming fire. If one believes that words are used to mean, Rashi’s statement means that there are no circumstances where one can cleave to the person of God. We read in Deut 5:25:

Now then why should we die? For this great fire will consume us; if we hear the voice of the LORD our God any longer, then we will die.”

וְעַתָּה לָמָּה נָמוּת כִּיתֹֽאכְלֵנוּ הָאֵשׁ הַגְּדֹלָה הַזֹּאת אִם־יֹסְפִים אֲנַחְנוּ לִשְׁמֹעַ אֶת־קֹול יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵינוּ עֹוד וָמָֽתְנוּ׃

This great fire will devourתֹֽאכְלֵנוּ – TOCHLEINU “eat”

 Here are other verses that probably inspired Rashi’s warning not to attempt to cleave to God: 

 Deuteronomy 4:24 For the LORD your God is a consuming fire, a jealous God.

 Isaiah 33:14 The sinners in Zion are terrified; trembling grips the godless: “Who of us can dwell with the consuming fire? Who of us can dwell with everlasting burning?”

Community, Sages and personal encounter with God

 Rabbi Blumenthal explains what he believes Rashi is getting at (above):

 It is clear and obvious that ‘cleaving’ to God means tying every aspect of our lives to Him – thinking of Him constantly – loving Him, thinking of His will as it relates to our lives, developing a more heightened awareness of Him, learning to see Him everywhere and in everything.

What is being taught here (in this Rashi) is that since we know that God revealed His will as it relates to us in His Torah – then those who are continuously absorbing His Torah and the setting in which this absorption of God’s Torah takes place (in the company of “the Sages and their disciples”) is the appropriate setting for one who seeks to cleave to God. In this setting the combined effort of those loyal to God heightens everyone’s sensitivity to the truths revealed in His Torah.”

Rabbi Blumenthal’s last sentence reminds me of a passage from Gershom Shalom’s “Major trends in Jewish Mysticism”:

The true devotion of the Community of Israel to God, and her longing for him, for these souls make possible the flow of the lower waters toward the upper, and this brings about perfect friendship and the yearning for mutual embrace in order to bring forth fruit. When they cleave one to another, then says the Community of Israel in the largeness of her affections: ‘Set me a seal upon thy heart.’”

Rabbi Blumenthal’s “the combined effort of those loyal to God heightens everyone’s sensitivity to the truths revealed in His Torah” echoes Gershom Shalom’s (above) “When they cleave one to another, then says the Community of Israel in the largeness of her affections: ‘Set me a seal upon thy heart.’”

There is community and En Sof (the Endless one) where God as Father has been swallowed up in the mist of schism; or, more likely, never been experienced. Such a comment evoked – from Yah-man “God-man”) the following outburst: “…is it also possible to literally walk with Him holding His hand on earth? Have you done that? Then you ought to write a book or maybe a new Gospel.” To which I can replied “You have manifested very well the typical Jewish (and Muslim) view that it’s impossible to experience God as a Father.

In Jer 31:9 we read, “They shall come with weeping, and with supplications will I lead them: I will cause them to walk by the rivers of waters in a straight way, wherein they shall not stumble: for I am a father to Israel, and Ephraim [is] my firstborn.”

I should add that the Talmudic view is that impossible to personally experience God as Father (see underlined phrase above), because God can only be experienced in community. “Israel” is a community, and therefore not as personal as the One-on-one relationship in Psalm 89:

26 He (David) will call out to me, ‘You are my Father,

my God, the Rock my Savior.’

27 And I will appoint him to be my firstborn,

the most exalted of the kings of the earth.

28 I will maintain my love to him forever,

and my covenant with him will never fail.

29 I will establish his line forever,

his throne as long as the heavens endure.

In the above psalm, there is no doubt that David is cleaving to his Father the Rock, his Saviour.

When David calls out to God, “Father,” it is much more than merely being sensitive to God’s truths (Rabbi Blumenthal above) or than the community of Israel finding God by cleaving to one another (Gershom Shalom). It’s quite all right for the “I” to come close to the “Thou,” and even to cleave to Him, as a lost child cleaves to his father. David certainly thinks so.

Here is an excerpt from an article (from France) on trust and faith – adapted from the Lubavitcher Rebbe – that also speaks of a personal binding (cleaving): “When you bind yourself to the Eternal Rock on high, the (Eternal Rock on) High will bind Himself to you.” (Vous vous liez avec le Rocher Éternel en haut, et le Haut se lie avec vous).” The “Eternal Rock” is obviously God Himself. Obvious to a Christian, that is, but not obvious to the rabbinical tradition. A Christian would generally say that there is a distinction between God and His revelation, where “revelation” refers to scripture alone (for Protestants) or scripture and tradition (for Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox). Rabbi Blumenthal, as a seasoned defender of Talmudic Judaism seems to be saying the same thing: “The goal is binding yourself to God – and God alone will bind Himself with you.” 

 But, how then do we marry 1. Rashi’s view that we couldn’t/shouldn’t cleave to the Holy One of Israel owing to the fact that He is a consuming fire, and 2. (the implication of) Rabbi Blumenthal’s view that we are indeed able to bind ourselves to this consuming fire. In this regard, consider the following syllogism:

 Major premise: God is a consuming fire (Rashi)

Minor premise: The goal is binding yourself to God (Rabbi Blumenthal)

Conclusion: The goal is binding yourself to a consuming fire.

 Rashi’s statement surely means: “God is always a consuming fire,” We know, of course, from the Written Torah that God is only sometimes a consuming fire., and at other a Father; and fathers don’t usually– not even those who worship Moloch – consume their children (Moloch has that privilege). Rashi’s absolute statement precludes any exception;God is (always) a consuming fire. In Talmudism/Judaism, Rashi is a chosen vehicle ( a Sage) of the Oral Torah, and therefore what he says is perfectly in harmony with the revelation given to Moses at Sinai. Rashi is therefore God’s spokesman: “Cleave to the disciples and the Sages, and I will consider it as though you cleave to Me.” (Rashi).

 Is it legitimate to paraphrase Rashi: “When you bind yourself to the Sages’ interpretation of the written Torah and to the Oral Torah, God binds himself to you.”

 No, says Rabbi Blumenthal, because: “When you bind yourself to the ongoing study of God’s truth – i.e. when you make this study part of your life and you do so by joining with God’s children who are seeking God’s truth as a community – you bind yourself with God and He will bind Himself with you. It is not an issue of binding yourself to a specific person – it is an issue of joining the “Council of God’s Nation” (Ezekiel 13:9). This (italics added) is where God reveals His truth to the Jewish people.”

 Rabbi Blumenthal also believes that sinners are consumed by the fire of God’s wrath; while his faithful – those who cleave to Him – are consumed by the fire of his love, as we read in the Psalms. If, however, cleaving to God’s consuming fire of love is in harmony with the Sages, and with the Psalms, which describes the psalmist aflame and longing for the embrace of the Beloved, how does that fit in with Rashi’s admonition to stay clear of cleaving (directly) to God, for fear of getting torched?

 “Now you know, says Rabbi Blumenthal, why you need an Oral Law – if you take Rashi’s words at face value he is saying that cleaving to God is nothing more than cleaving to the sages and their disciples – but in fact that is not Rashi’s point at all – he is focusing on the Hebrew word for cleaving and telling us that it has to have some physical application as well aside from the conceptual application that is obvious in the words.”

 It’s a truism that clinging to/obeying God’s commandments/precepts/testimony has a physical application (our actions). Furthermore, in the context of cleaving to God in our main text (Deut 11:22), the focus is on a personal relationship between God and man, which unless, of course, complemented by obedience to God’s judgments/precepts/statutes/commands cannot be a personal relationship. 

 In Psalm 119:30, we read “I chose the way of faith; Your judgments I have set [before me].Here’s Rashi’s commentary followed by his commentary on v. 31:

 “Your judgments I have set: I applied myself to your judgments and I CLUNG to your testimony, to choose the way of faith. Therefore, I ask, ‘Remove from me the way of falsehood.'”

 Here is the next verse (31) followed by Rashi: I cleave unto Thy testimonies; O LORD, put me not to shame.

 Rashi: “I clung to Your testimonies; O Lord; put me not to shame.”

 Compare with Deut 11:22 : “For if you keep all these commandments which I command you to do them, to love the Lord, your God, to walk in all His ways, and to cleave to Him…”

 Although it is right that “one who seeks to cleave to God should choose company that is likewise inclined? (Rabbi Blumenthal), I fail to see why that is equivalent to choosing to cleave to God in a personal way. 

Now, once and for all, what does the Talmud say! Communal or private?

 It seems that no matter how much I protest, if you want to cleave to, if you want to meet God, the way to do so, in Judaism, is in the public square, the synagogue or the yeshiva.

“Through the Torah God comes into the world, and the sages, who master the Torah and teach it, therefore bring God into the world… While the Torah may be studied in private, it is received and proclaimed only in the public square of shared worship or shared learning: synagogue, yeshiva. One’s obligation to hear the Torah read can be fulfilled only in community, in a quorum. That is where we meet God” (Neusner in Neusner and Chilton, “Discovering the Torah” in “Comparing Spiritualities, p. 4).

According to Neusner, it is in the community, the quorum that the Jew can effectively meet God. Rabbi Halafta of Kefar Hananiah, in contrast, and with Rabbi Blumenthal, says that it is possible to meet with God in a personal way. He explains how the Torah shows that this possible (Tractate Avot 3:6):

Among ten who sit and work hard on Torah the Presence comes to rest, as it is said, ‘God stands in the congregation of God’ (Ps. 82:1). And how do we know that the same is so even of five? For it is said, And he has founded his group upon the earth’ (Amos 9:6) . And how do we know that this is so even of three? Since it is said, And he judges among the judges’ (PS. 82:1). And how do we know that this is so even of two? Because it is said, ‘Then they that feared the Lord spoke with one another, and the Lord hearkened and heard’ (Malachi 3:16) . And how do know that this is so even of one? Since it is said, ‘In every place where I record my name I will come to you and I will bless you’ (Exodus 20:74).” (Neusner in Neusner and Chilton, “Discovering the Torah” in “Comparing Spiritualities, pp. 4-5).

The problem is that none of these examples have any rational or conventional basis of agreed signals of communication. In short, they bear only the most tenuous of connections to the point that Rabbi Halafta is trying to prove, which is that a child of Israel can meet God in an intimate way. To illustrate the weakness in Rabbi Halafta (and by extension in the Avot “the Fathers”), one of the rabbi’s examples is “how do we know that this is so even of two? Because it is said, ‘Then they that feared the Lord spoke with one another, and the Lord hearkened and heard’ (Malachi 3:16).

Here is Malachi 3:16 in full: “Then they that feared the LORD spoke one with another; and the LORD hearkened, and heard, and a book of remembrance was written before Him, for them that feared the LORD, and that thought upon His name.”

They” refers to the whole congregation or a large part of it. Nothing about a small group like “three,” or even “ten.” But I disregard the fanciful proof, and focus on Rabbi Halafta’s assertion that a personal relationship with God is possible, that individual Israelites can meet God in the Torah. This, according to Neusner, is not the normative route, because “Torah is best studied in community, whether palpable, as in a school, or imagined, as in books, articles, or debates in letters. lsrael encounters God together in the Torah through processes of rational thought: systematic description, critical analysis, rational interpretation” (p. 5)

Regarding “rational processes,” I don’t see any evidence of rational processes in Rabbi Halefta’s appeal to scripture to buttress his commendable, but rare, idea of meeting God on the bypass (of the community); rare because in Judaism “to discover the Torah requires finding a community formed around the Torah, oral and written” (Neusner, p.5).The tools of this discovery rely heavily on rational/systematic/critical/propositional processes. This rationality is, by definition, never private:

“Rationality is always public, by definition. And, given the public character of the giving of the Torah, the propositional character of what is given, and the active and engaged character of the act of receiving the Torah, it is no surprise that the rule for studying the Torah and therefore also the requirement for meeting God is as with Moses and Elijah. God gives the Torah through the prophet to be sure, but always [o the “us” of Israel. So “we” meeting the One may be embodied in the “I,” the individual of whom Halafta speaks, but “we” always stands for the “we” of Israel, Rationality requires community.” (Neusner, p. 5).

Is it true, though, that “rationality is always public?” When attempting to think rationally, doing it all by yourself might indeed not often be or always be as productive as thinking in a communicative (public) setting. To maintain, however, that “rationality is always public” and therefore (always) “requires community” seems to underestimate how rational one can be, say, in one’s study or in a prison cell, or sitting (and studying) on the toilet. If, however, firstly, the only rational enterprise is Torah study, and, secondly, Torah study can only be effective in a communal setting, then indeed rationality could only exist in public. I wonder, then, about a Jewish jailbird serving time in solitary confinement, who wishes to study Torah. Cleaving to Torah in such an unsettling setting would not seem, according to Neusner (and the Talmud?), the rational way to go.

With regard to Rashi, no matter how hard one may try to defend Rashi’s interpretation of Deut 11:22, namely, that no one can cleave to God because He is a consuming fire, I suggest he broke the rule that: Where thought cannot be communicated by some protocol of rationality or convention of agreed signals that sustain communication, we deal with what is not asocial but insane” (Neusner above).

By trying to affirm God’s glory by distancing (at least in his commentary of Deut 11:22) God from man, Rashi does not allow God to be on intimate terms with his son “Israel,” which consists of many individual sons and daughters. Although Rashi does change his tune in his commentaries on the psalms, where – if one had never read his commentary on Deut 11:22 – he paints a softer personal picture of the relationship between God and man, this softening of his separatist attitude in Deut 11:22 does not change Rashi’s view that God is a consuming fire, which makes it “impossible to attach oneself to God.” (Gloria Wiederkehr-Pollack).

What happens when (if) one cleaves to God, which the Christian believes is done mostly in a personal way? One does not become one with God’s nature or become (more) aware that one always was a “piece of God above.” Rather, in the deep spiritual (mystical, if you like) sense, God comes to live in you. In Judaism this privilege – if they follow Rashi (or Rambam [Moses Maimonides]), which they must if they remain faithful to the Oral Torah – is reserved only for the few, namely, those who are devoted to the study of Torah and fulfill the mizvot (commandments). In Rambam’s phrase, these must be “men of excellence.”

All Christians can, like King David, cleave to a personal God, and do so with confidence and joy; but, they must do so in reverence and awe. They can approach the mountain; this time not a mountain that can be touched with the hands, but a spiritual Rock. They must, however, do so in reverence and awe. otherwise they may indeed be consumed by fire

“See to it that no one comes short of the grace of God, that no one be like a bitter root springing up and causing trouble, and through him many become defiled. And see to it that no one becomes an immoral or godless person like Esau, who sold his own birthright for a single meal. For you know that later when he wanted to inherit the blessing, he was rejected, for he found no opportunity for repentance, although he sought the blessing with tears. For you have not come to something that can be touched, to a burning fire and darkness and gloom and a whirlwind and the blast of a trumpet and a voice uttering words such that those who heard begged to hear no more. For they could not bear what was commanded: “If even an animal touches the mountain, it must be stoned.” In fact, the scene was so terrifying that Moses said, “I shudder with fear.” But you have come to Mount Zion, the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to myriads of angels, to the assembly and congregation of the firstborn, who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous, who have been made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks of something better than Abel’s does.

Take care not to refuse the one who is speaking! For if they did not escape when they refused the one who warned them on earth, how much less shall we, if we reject the one who warns from heaven?

Then his voice shook the earth, but now he has promised, “I will once more shake not only the earth but heaven too.” Now this phrase “once more” indicates the removal of what is shaken, that is, of created things, so that what is unshaken may remain. So since we are receiving an unshakable kingdom, let us give thanks, and through this let us offer worship pleasing to God in devotion and awe. For our God is indeed a devouring fire” (Hebrews 12:18-29).

Devouring love or devouring wrath. What determines which it will be? “The devoted study of Torah, a model morality.” No; it’s all of grace.

To summarise: the ultimate aim of Christianity and Judaism should be communion with God.