Once, toward the end of the First World War, Prof. Doktor Hermann Cohen, the German-Jewish founder of Neo-Kantian philosophy, gave a lecture to a packed hall in his hometown of Marburg. The audience, mostly an assemblage of merchants and practical-minded exponents of Judaism as a “religion of good citizenship,” had gathered to hear his thoughts on “The Jewish Idea of God.”
The great professor, nearly at the end of his long life, made no concessions to his audience. Neo-Kantian theory is not for everyone! At times many nodded off, their gratitude to Prof. Cohen for his brilliant thoughts overcome by a warm room and altogether too many demonstrations of what we can know about God “within the limits of reason alone.” (Very little, it turns out!)
After the lecture, came the questions. As in none. A heavy silence descended upon the room. Finally, a wizened old gentleman dared to wonder:
“Prof. Cohen! I only have one question. Is there any place in Prof. Cohen’s idea of the Jewish Idea of God for the ribboini shel oilem?”
This Yiddish-inflected Hebrew phrase (“Master of the World”) is one of the most common names by which Jews, especially in prayer and times of need, traditionally call upon God for help and comfort.
What the man meant was something like this: “Where in all of your high-minded concepts, Herr Professor Doktor, do we encounter the God Who really matters? The God Who knows our suffering and gives the strength to endure it? Where is the God Who responds to prayer?”
With the Days of Awe coming up, many of us are especially sensitive to the various dimensions of the divine reality we encounter in the season’s prayers. One of the most puzzling is also among the most common. Recall the opening lines of Kol Nidre, which convenes both the celestial and terrestrial courts for the nullification of vows on Yom Kippur Eve:
With the consent of the Makom,
and with the consent of the community,
we declare it permissible to pray with transgressors!
You wonder who this Makom is? If you consult your High Holiday machzor’s English translation, you’ll probably encounter one of the most colorless renderings of the divine Reality to ever mar a liturgical text: “The Omnipresent!”
This “Omnipresent” literally sticks in my throat — it reminds me of “omnivorous”! But just try to replace it. Literally, makom means “place.” If you think it’s tough to pray to the “Omnipresent,” try praying to “the Place” sometime!
Why, then, did the rabbis, who knew a thing or two about how to pray, invent this odd nickname for God? Why would anyone want to call upon God as “the Place, May He be blessed?”
The answer, at least as the rabbis saw it, comes from — you guessed it! — the Torah. When Jacob fled to Haran from the anger of his brother, Esau, he spent his first night on the road just inside the border of the Land of Israel, in the place he would call Bet El. There, says the Torah, he “encountered the place” where he would spend the night (Genesis 28:12). The midrash Genesis Rabba (68:9), perplexed by this strange reference to “the place” — what place? — takes it as a proper name. That is: “he encountered God, known as ‘the Place.’”
Here’s the punchline. Asking the question, “why does the Torah use ‘the Place’ as a nickname for God?” the midrash cites the reply of Rabbi Huna in the name of Rabbi Ami: “Because He fills the place of the World, but the World is not His place!”
Here we see the theo-logic of calling upon God as “the Place.” God, as Creator, infuses all creation, even as no particular place in creation can confine or contain God. This is what “Omnipresent” is shooting for. But I’ll stick with “the Makom!”
We can pray to “the Place” because to paraphrase the prophet, God is “closer to you than your own kidneys,” (Jeremiah 12:2) even while being infinitely beyond our grasp.
So now we know what the rabbis were thinking when they called upon God as the Makom. But where did they get this notion from? In all the Hebrew literature of the Second Temple period the term never appears as a divine nickname. What gives? Did the rabbis make it up?
Not at all! They got it rather from those arch-rivals of rabbinic culture, the Greek-speaking Alexandrian Jews, who were so assimilated to Greek culture they commissioned a Greek version of the Torah to replace the Hebrew.
The oldest Jewish source for calling God “the Place” is in fact found in the writings of the “Hermann Cohen” of Hellenistic Judaism, the first-century philosopher Philo of Alexandria. Cohen dusted off Kant for a philosophical defense of Judaism; Philo dusted off Plato and Aristotle for the same task.
In his essay “On Dreams,” Philo is perplexed by the very thing that perplexes the midrash on the verse in Genesis 28:12. Except in Philo’s Greek Bible (he couldn’t read a word of Hebrew) the word makom was rendered in Greek as topos, which simply means “place.” From it we get such English words as “topography” and “topic.”
Here’s what Philo wrote: “Why is God called by the name Topos? From the fact of His surrounding the Universe and being surrounded Himself by nothing whatsoever, and from the fact of His being the refuge of all persons, and since He Himself is his own domain, containing Himself and resembling Himself alone.”
Was Philo lifting an unwritten page from the rabbis’ oral Torah? Or did the rabbis tuck a few illicit copies of Philo into their togas for “privy reading?” We’ll probably never know. But, for the record, Philo lived in first century CE Egypt, while Rabbis Ami and Huna were fourth century CE Galilean sages. Do the math!
I guess that it wasn’t for nothing that the sages insisted that on Yom Kippur we are permitted to pray together with the transgressors. Sometimes, those “transgressors” have some pretty good ideas!