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The one who does not experience the hidden face (of God) does not belong (to the People)
Benedetto Carucci Viterbi
The Fact that God Hides: Good and Evil
*From the tragedy of the Shoah, which he presented as the darkest episode of the Hester Panim (The Hiding of the Face) of God, Rabbi Carucci Viterbi tried to draw orientations for actions with sound theoretical and moral foundation. Following are some of the main parts of his presentation on the notion of Hester Panim, and a short resumé of the portion in which he proposed some hypotheses for work and reflection.
Hester Panim: The Chaos of the Accidental
In several places in rabbinic literature we find the idea that God hides his face, which Buber calls “the eclipse” of God. Referred to in Isaiah, Job, and the Psalms, its clearest expression is in the passage of Deuteronomy 31:17-18.
A rapid analysis of these verses enables us to deduce some facts: God hides his face, God no longer faces the people. This absence of God’s regard, due to the people’s betrayal, is at the origin of the misfortunes which strike the whole people who, in an effort to explain these misfortunes, say that they have been abandoned by God. They imagine that God is absent, that perhaps God does not exist. The biblical text is hard: it speaks of abandonment. Rashi’s commentary explains that the fact that God hides consists, on God’s part, of not regarding the sufferings of the people. In a certain sense which raises a first theological question - it is the interruption of a deeply compassionate sympathy and of a providence which the Jewish tradition calls Hashgaha pratit. But if, as it appears to us, it is a question of punishment, it is a very individual or special punishment which requires careful study. It is not a direct divine intervention as is seen in other instances in the Torah. It is rather a “withdrawal”, an absence as Rabbi Levi ben Gershon notes in his commentary. The difference is quite important. In the first case, punishment is directly addressed to the guilty; in the second case, as underlined by Maimonides, it envelopes humanity, the people, by chance. The betrayal of the original covenant then, the fact that man in some degree abandons his responsibilities, gives rise to the accidental event which will engulf everything and everybody, the good and the bad, the guilty and the innocent.
Note! It is useless to seek the reason for the abandonment in the events immediately preceding the Shoah, as some people have suggested. The originating moment must be sought much farther back; in the origin of the Exile, in the destruction of the Temple, in the very place where God and humanity came face to face, the place which guarantees the divine presence within humanity.
Following the destruction of the Temple the historic and natural vision of reality, as well as the audible dimension of understanding God gradually goes from bad to worse. In this perspective (which is perhaps not too paradoxical to affirm) Jewish history after the destruction of the Temple is situated under the sign of the accidental - but an accidental with certain important limitations.
Thus the enormous aberration of the Shoah literally becomes among many evil days the darkest of all. It is certainly the worst though not the only deprivation of the radiance of the divine face in the historic Jewish “continuum” of accumulating destruction. This is the thought of some people, in the religious and orthodox Jewish world, who deny the principle of the uniqueness of the Shoah.
According to the mystical and philosophical Jewish tradition the Hester panim must be distinguished from the notion of Tzimtzum. According to Luria Kabbalah, the existence of the world is possible only because God concentrates on one point: the conceptual existential space which reality demands. Creation, which opened up for humanity the solitude of responsibility - which it immediately neglected - required a withdrawal from God, an easing of his presence as a guarantee of human freedom. In this perspective we might draw a parallel between Hester panim and Tzimtzum: the first is a punishment involving a risk, because it is accidental, that man will destroy others and himself. The second is an inevitable opening for humanity to the history of self-rule or autonomy and the necessary responsibility which flows from it.
Through the use of the Talmud text, Tb Hagigah 5b, the author showed that God’s hiding (Hester panim) is a necessary reality and a necessary element of the Jewish experience. Belonging to the Jewish people puts one in the state of Hester panim and exposes one “as prey to the greed of other people which seems to be a necessity in the long line of history.” However, there remains a link with the divine person who hides himself - a tenuous link which nevertheless leads towards the hope which can become actualized in the triple blessing so often repeated in the synagogue by the Kohanim, and most notably in the third part (Num 6:26): “May the Lord shine his face upon you and grant you peace!” From this reflection on the Hester panim, Rabbi Carucci Viterbi deduced some guidelines:
Some Guidelines Along the Way
1. Never abandon the game of hide and seek with God, because humanity’s principal role is to seek and to ask, not to find and to answer...It is the certitude that the Covenant will not be forgotten by the Jewish people - the Covenant agreed to on Sinai - which allows one to hope. Fidelity to the Covenant represents in Jewish tradition the fundamental ethical structure, the point of reference, and it allows one to wait for the future while concluding with the priestly blessing. In this sense the dramatic game of hide and seek must always be kept alive, accompanied by study and by conduct in conformity with Torah.
2. Live an ethic of responsibility which broadens the sphere of each one’s conscience beyond a simple individual dimension to simultaneously include those who live now and those who will come after us. Also preserve an ethical system which puts humanity on guard against the temptation to measure everything against oneself - to make oneself the parameter of good and evil, the master of the divine will. At the entrance to Auschwitz was a deliberately placed sinister sign of the delirium of unbridled power: “Gott mit uns!” (“God with us!”)
3. Live in solidarity with the whole of humanity. Job, in the text which perhaps most closely reflects the Hester panim, illustrates the importance of renewing relationships, of building up a human solidarity. In this “solipsism” Rabbi Soloveitchik regards limiting oneself to individual dimensions as the fragility of the conduct of Job the just man during the time preceding his disgrace. On the other hand, at the end of the book Job shares in the humanity of others - he shares the humanity of the very people who previously tried to make him accept responsibility for the faults which may have caused his woes. The friends will be reprimanded by God who intervenes in person, and they will have to offer a sacrifice. As for Job, he will have to pray for them, and then God will accept their offering. And Job prays for his friends...
Rabbi Benedetto Carucci Viterbi teaches biblical exegesis and rabbinical literature at the Rabbinical College in Rome and Jewish liturgy at the Pontifical Institute of Sant Anselmo