Cleaving to God (devekut), up to the point of intimate spiritual closeness, is the most important value in the life of the faithful. However, as shown by Dr. Adam Afterman, devekut was a marginal commandment in the time of the Sages. Only under the influence of external philosophies did the great medieval Jewish thinkers give it a new meaning and a more significant status.
From the 10th century onward, cleaving to God became a central value in the main currents of Jewish thought: in philosophy, Kabbala and, at a later stage, in Hassidism. In Kabbalistic and Hassidic literature, devekut is a mystic experience of intimate and direct connection between the individual and divinity. In order to reach the ideal of devekut and to come close to God, an individual must undergo changes: he must overcome barriers and obstacles—particularly his physical nature, which is liable to prevent an intimate connection of this type. If God is characterized as a spiritual or conceptual entity, then Man must also become more spiritual; he must become a man of thought.
Medieval Jewish thought reinforced a series of earlier rabbinic values, such as the study of Torah and keeping the commandments. Devekut is an exception: its ideal was shaped in a different way, which even contradicted the earlier interpretation of the concept and of the commandment in the literature of the Sages.
A detail from the “Creation of Man” by Michelangelo – the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican (from Wikipedia)
However, even against the background of this conceptual renewal, the ideal of devekut is particularly unique. To a large extent, this was the development of an idea that had hardly received any mention in Rabbinic literature. Not only is devekut not given a prominent place in the literature of the Sages; it is explicitly rejected by some of the rabbis. Many of the Jewish thinkers who related to devekut as a central religious value were in fact important halakhists, who were faithful to the rabbinic values and sources, and it is difficult not to wonder how such a long line of Jewish thinkers had the strength and daring to shape a new value within the core of Jewish religious life, without it being present in the canonical rabbinic literature.
The commandment of devekut appears several times in the book of Deuteronomy (10:20; 11:22, 13:5 and 30:20). Some Biblical researchers of the previous generation, and in particular Moshe Weinfeld, claimed that in the Biblical context the commandment does not express an intimate and direct connection between the individual and God, but rather a demand for the collective faith of Israel in their god. Other researchers, such as Yohanan Mofes and Moshe Idel, felt that even in the Biblical context, the commandment of devekut apparently involved a particular type of intimate connection between the individual and the God of Israel. According to this interpretation, the source of the idea and the value is in the Bible itself and later interpretation and exegesis essentially gave form to an ancient Biblical principle.
Whatever the case, from the few discussions devoted by the Sages to the verses on devekut it appears that they firmly opposed the contemporary meaning of devekut:
But ye that did cleave unto the Lord your God are alive every one of you this day; now is it possible to ‘cleave’ to the divine presence concerning which it is written in Scripture, For the Lord thy God is a devouring fire? But [the meaning is this:] Any man who marries his daughter to a scholar, or carries on a trade on behalf of scholars, or benefits scholars from his estate is regarded by Scripture as if he had cleaved to the divine presence. Similarly you read in Scripture, To love the Lord thy God, [to hearken to His voice,] and to cleave unto Him. Is it possible for a human being to ‘cleave’ unto the divine presence? But [what was meant is this:] Any man who marries his daughter to a scholar, or carries on a trade for scholars, or benefits scholars from his estate is regarded by Scripture as if he had cleaved to the divine presence.
Although in Deuteronomy the commandment is focused on God, the Sages chose the scholars and their students as the focus. It appears that the Sages understood the verb “to cleave” in the context of Genesis 2:24 (“And he cleaved to his wife and they were of one flesh”), where it means to create new family connections. Since according to them God is not accessible for the creation of such connections, the scholars and their students take on the role of intermediaries and perhaps constitute an accessible substitute for the simple Jew. Thus, devekut was interpreted as a command to come closer to the scholars, to support them and to make them part of the family.
The medieval commentators did not hesitate to pass over the Sages and to anchor their interpretations directly within the verses of the Bible. They did this by using “modern” categories of thought that were adopted from the outside and which also had no connection to the literature of the Sages. According to these commentators, the commandment is to be understood according to its simple meaning, i.e., to cleave directly to divinity rather than to the various intermediaries. The Jew should aspire to a direct spiritual connection with his God. Some of the Jewish thinkers did not even hesitate to confront the Sages on this issue. Yosef Gikatilla, a Kabbalist in the 13th century, wrote in his well-known book “Shaarei Ora”: “And the Rabbis of blessed memory asked – is it possible for a man to cleave to the Godly presence? Of course it is!” (Page 8)
The spiritual and abstract view of God and of man was one of the main innovations of medieval thought and made it possible to create new channels of communication between them. Gradually, this innovation transformed the Biblical cleaving from a marginal commandment to one of the most important.
This exegetical process had one important precedent in the ancient world in the philosophy of Philo of Alexandria, a Jewish-Hellenistic philosopher who lived in the first century and wrote wide-ranging commentaries on the Torah and the Mosaic religion. Philo, who did not have a direct effect on Jewish thought in the Middle Ages, has been somewhat forgotten by the researchers of Jewish thought. Nonetheless, he was the first to interpret the Biblical commandment of devekut using philosophical categories of thought, primarily Platonic. According to Philo, the core of the Mosaic religion is spiritual cleaving to a transcendental and abstract god and that is also the interpretation he gives to the Deuteronomistic commandment of devekut. The same exegetical logic that guided later thinkers allowed Philo to present a spiritual/mystic ideal at the center of Jewish religious life, which at its peak involves an intimate and direct connection of man’s soul to the God of Israel. Philo’s philosophy constitutes an example of the exegetical effort to structure Judaism as a religion that focuses on the perfect spiritual existence of the individual, through devotion to the community, to family and to the fulfillment of the commandments.
The integration of philosophy and Judaism, which gave birth to the spiritual-mystic interpretation of the concept of devekut, occurred already in the Hellenist Jewish world, though not among the Sages. With the penetration of philosophical values and ideas into rabbinic Judaism in the Middle Ages, it was natural that the idea of devekut would return to center stage. Since then it has been a foundation stone of Jewish thought and a part of the Jewish heritage.
Translated from the original Hebrew.
Dr. Adam Afterman is a lecturer in the Department of Jewish Culture at Tel Aviv University and a Research Fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute. His book, Devekut: An Intimate Connection between Man and God in Jewish Thought, will be published soon.