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Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Apotheosis (you always wanted to know what it means, right?) / Sotah 14a

“Apotheosis” is one of those words I run into now and then and have to look up each time. It never sticks in my head, but hopefully this posting and this piece of gemara will work like Crazy Glue.

“Apotheosis” comes from the Greek ἀποθεόω meaning “to deify” or “become divine.” The term refers to an individual or group that has been elevated to godlike stature. Historical examples include the Hellenistic leader Philip II of Macedonia and most of the Roman emperors. Here is the famous painting, “The Apotheosis of Homer,” by Jean-Auguste Dominique Ingres (1780-1867).


In Ingres’ imagination, Homer rises above the human realm to join the divine beings in heaven.

The type of apotheosis our Sages have in mind, as reflected in the teaching of R. Chama b. Chanina in Sotah 14a is quite different: one becomes most godlike when one engages in the difficult, uncomfortable, and messy work of caring for those most vulnerable and most hurting here on earth in this world.

The Sages are discussing the location of Moses’ burial site. It has been suggested that it is a magical, mystical place that no human can locate, or perhaps that it is located near Baal-Peor to atone for the egregious sin committed there (see account in Numbers chapter 25). Into this discussion a teaching of R. Chama b. Chanina is inserted because his last (of four) points relates directly to the burial of Moses:
R. Chama b. Chanina further said: What is the meaning of the text: You shall walk after the Lord your God (Deuteronomy 13:5)? Is it even possible for a human being to walk after the Shechinah; for has it not been said: For the Lord your God is a devouring fire (Deuteronomy 4:24)? But [the meaning is] to follow after the attributes of the Holy One, blessed be God. Just as God clothes the naked, as it is written: And the Lord God made for Adam and for his wife coats of skin, and clothed them (Genesis 3:21), so should you also clothe the naked. Just as the Holy One, blessed be God, visited the sick, as it is written: And the Lord appeared to him by the oaks of Mamre (Genesis 18:1), so should you also visit the sick. Just as the Holy One, blessed be God, comforted mourners, as it is written: And it came to pass after the death of Abraham, that God blessed Isaac his son (Genesis 25:11), so should you also comfort mourners. Just as the Holy one, blessed be God, buried the dead, as it is written: And [God] buried him in the valley (Deuteronomy 34:6), so should you also bury the dead.
Four specific behaviors are mentioned:
  1. Clothing the naked
  2. Visiting the sick
  3. Comforting the bereaved
  4. Burying the dead
Can we imagine God engaged in the nitty-gritty of these tasks? Perhaps a prior question ought to be: can we image ourselves engaged in these tasks? For many people, these are tasks that place us in contact with people and situations that are unsettling, disturbing, and frightening. These four situations, and the people who are caught in these four situations challenge many of to the core. As the saying goes, “There but for the grace of God go I.” And even if your theology doesn’t match that statement, these are four of the most “messy,” nitty-gritty situations of ordinary life that require loving attention. These are the very situations to which God personally attends. God doesn’t send angels; God does it with (as it were) God’s own hands. When we stand in that spot, attending to those most in need, we stand in God’s shoes and we extend God’s loving hands (our own).

R. Chama b. Chanina teaches us that being godlike does not mean sitting on a throne and having an angel crown us with an olive wreath or elevate us out of this world to the heavenly realm. Apotheosis occurs when, like God, we attend with our own hands those most in need, most in pain. We raise ourselves to heaven when we become most human.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

1 comment:

Simcha said...

...Not a response to the Japanese post... :-)

I am reading this post in the airport, using the Hotspot for internet connection. Funny! I am thinking how at times I need my own Hotspot to connect with God. I do not always find this Spot, nor do I always succeed in connecting to God because of on-line interference. Your post illuminates the idea that when we act with Chesed – Loving kindness, we elevate ourselves and become divine, and all of this can happen because we imitate God’s way.
The main connector is “to stand in God’s shoes”, but problem is that we not always reach the “shoes of God”. We do not always connect to God! If we do not understand and know God, how could we try to walk in God’s ways and imitate God?

It is true that our sages tried to enforce social actions within the community in the context of commandments. In Talmud Babli Shabbat 127a we see the same motifs we see in Sota; Visiting the sick is included but it is singled out by the rabbis as something special. “These are the deeds which have no measure… and which yield immediate fruit and continue to yield fruit in time to come: honoring parents; doing deed of loving kindness; attending the house of study punctually…; providing hospitality; visiting the sick; helping the needy bride; attending the dead; probing the meaning of prayer; making peace between one person and another; and between man and wife. And the study of Torah is the most basic of them all”.
I think people may be better connected to the idea that doing good is not only about being nice. You can do nice things all day long for many people, but it could just be more service of your own self, food for your own ego. The world was designed so people would need each other, not so that you could be nice. The trick is to help someone you do not want to help, just because it is the right thing to do. If we know what is God, we will also know that we act like God, and than we are divine that way.

Now the question is a philosophical question - what is God and what nature does God present? Plato, Heschel, Buber, just to name a few did not really agree about this topic, did they...?