20. כבוד [Kavod] – In the shadow of Infinity

The word כבוד [Kavod] means ‘honour’ or ‘respect’.  There are many uses for this word in everyday life.  When we congratulate someone we say כל הכבוד – ‘all the honour’.  Or we close a letter with the word בכבוד which means ‘with respect’.  The word Kavod is also important in Jewish mysticism where it refers to God.  When used in this context it is usually translated as ‘Glory’.

In Jewish theology, God is both near and far; part of our world and completely removed from it.  The mystics have developed their own vocabulary to talk about God.  The word Kavod is part of this vocabulary.

There are many different ways to think about God.  In Kabbalah the distinction is made between ‘God as he is’ and ‘God as he manifests himself on earth’. ‘God as he is’ is known as  אין סוף [Ein Sof – lit. infinity] the real actual God, something that we cannot perceive or understand. ‘God as he manifests himself on earth’ – is our perception of God and how we see Him in our reality –a shadow of the real God but the only way that we can perceive and understand.  The God which is accessible to us isכבוד  – ‘Kavod’.  This is in Biblical Hebrew. In Rabbinic Hebrew the word שכינה  ‘shechina’ means the same thing.

One of the sources of this idea is found in the Torah.  After Moses builds the tabernacle God enters it.

So Moses finished the work. Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the LORD [Kavod HaShem] filled the tabernacle.    And Moses was not able to enter into the tent of meeting, because the cloud abode thereon, and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle.—    And whenever the cloud was taken up from over the tabernacle, the children of Israel went onward … [Ex 40:34]

The presence of God in the tabernacle is symbolised by the ‘Kavod’ and the ‘cloud’.  When they are both present, it is impossible for a human being to draw near, for the presence of God is overwhelming. Once the ‘cloud’ departs it is possible to draw near into God’s presence.  It is the Kavod that makes proximity to God possible.

These are very difficult concepts.  It is impossible for us to really understand God.  Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote that one of the big difficulties we have when thinking about God is that we can only understand things when have words to think about them.  We cannot think about things when we have no words.

Words are created when we talk about our shared experiences. But God is abstract and we have no shared experience of Him.  As a result we have no shared vocabulary.

The Jewish mystics have tried to overcome this.  They have developed the vocabulary so we can start to think about these very difficult ideas.  Although we struggle to understand, we owe a great debt to them for providing the means to start on this journey.

Rabbi Chaim Weiner

My Hebrew Word thanks the World Zionist Organisation and Masorti Olami for their support of this Project.

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