American Orthodoxy

Are Modern Orthodox Jews More Comfortable with Mysticism or Anthropomorphism?

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 Yaakov Jaffe

Judaism focuses on the observances and commandments that govern our practice and religious expression, and often bypasseses—or looks past—questions of belief and faith. Still, questions of what Judaism really believes often stand directly behind our practices, and Jews take a stand about what our beliefs are through their regular mitzvah observance, and through their prayers.

Different groups of Jews place more energy on maintaining and projecting certain beliefs within Judaism than on other beliefs. This essay will examine how Modern Orthodox Jews feel about two beliefs that may or may not be parts of the Jewish faith: anthropomorphism—the attribution of human characteristics to the Creator; and mysticism—a feeling of immanence and narrowed distance between humanity and the divine world; and how those Jews respond when faced with a choice to experience Judaism mystically or anthropomorphically.

Both mysticism and anthropomorphism come from the same point of departure: a desire to create a greater connection and a feeling of closeness with a distant, detached, perfect, and all-powerful Creator. Still, they arrive in two very different ways.

Anthropomorphism narrows the gap by describing, representing, and analogizing the Divine using human characteristics and human emotions, in order to enable a human being to associate and understand that distant God. The simple meaning of anthropomorphic texts are generally easy to understand, even if what they imply more broadly about theology can be more complicated and troubling.

In contrast, Jewish mysticism narrows the gap less by describing the Divine in simple terms, and more by describing a system or series of layers of divine names, angels, emanations, and attributes which through their great complexity purport to provide understanding of that complex God, so long as one continues to study and probe the depths of these secret, obscure teachings. Here, the body of teaching that is Jewish mysticism is often obscure even at its initial stages, without even reaching the ultimate implication of those teachings.

Both of these approaches might be considered theologically problematic, especially for those whose Judaism is grounded in a Maimonidean-style rationalism. Rambam famously argued against both mysticism and anthropomorphism, and a pure rationalist would probably reject them both.[1] Yet, Jewish observance in general, and prayer in specific, becomes harder and harder when God is distant, unchanging, and unmoved. This has created a motivation for many Jews to embrace aspects of mysticism or anthropomorphism into their practice and prayer.

Before turning to the specific problem of the prayers of Sukkot, a brief historical sketch charts the role different prayer books in the United States have played in the development of this area of Jewish thought.

The ArtScroll Siddur

Orthodox Jewish prayer in this country has been shaped and defined for the last few decades through the editorial decisions of the ArtScroll Siddur, which demonstrates much more comfort with mysticism than anthropomorphism. The most anthropomorphic long-section of the Bible is Ketuvim’s Shir Ha-shirim, which appears “translated” in the ArtScroll Siddur. Yet, these translations shy away from anthropomorphism on essentially every occasion, and provide only a hyper-metaphoric reading of the text, and not the underlying metaphor which captures the love between G-d and His nation.[2] Similarly, when the love song Yedid Nefesh appears, the words and translation follow the less controversial, and less anthropomorphic version.[3]     

On the other hand, the Siddur is replete with mystical prayers. “Ana Be-koah[4] appears prominently as part of the daily Shacharit prayers, the counting of the Omer, and “Kabbalat Shabbat,” as do the mystical songs for the third meal of Shabbat. Numerous mitzvot appear in the Siddur along with mystical dedications before the performance of the mitzvah,[5] as do numerous prayers which are mystical in nature and invoke unusual names of G-d or of angels.[6]        

A significant portion, if not a majority of American Orthodox Jews, praying during the three decades beginning with the publishing of the first ArtScroll Siddur in 1984, would have become habituated to an experience of Jewish prayer that was heavy on mysticism, but reluctant and resistant in regard to anthropomorphism.

The Sacks/Koren Siddur

Besides a well-documented shift in focus around issues related to secular knowledge, Israel, and women’s role in prayer, the recent Koren Siddur also brought with it a decided and focused shift away from mysticism in the prayer experience of the American, English-speaking, Orthodox synagogue-goer. Many of the mystical prayers appear in smaller print and without explanation and commentary, and are often preceded with the instruction “some say”—indicating that these mystical aspects of prayer constitute minority opinions within conventional Jewish prayer. The Ushpizin prayer is divorced from almost all of its original/mystical meaning, and is instead understood as strictly inviting historical Biblical figures as guests, nothing more.[7] The secret “Divine names” of the third prayer of Birkat Kohanim are also glossed over by the Siddur (736-37), left unexplained as if they were never there.

At the same time, the Koren Siddur is more comfortable with anthropomorphism. The alternative, anthropomorphic version of Yedid Nefesh appears in the siddur (40-41), along with Anim Zemirot. A literal translation of Shir Ha-Shirim appears, despite the anthropomorphic nature of the allegory (1108-17). Thus, a Jew today using this Siddur might conclude that an authentic prayer service may include more human descriptions of God, or of the humanity/God relationship, but that mystical pronouncement, divine sefirot, and names of angels might be judged improper or marginal parts of the prayer service.

When Forced to Chose

The prayers of Sukkot offer an interesting case to contrast between the two approaches, as we reach a prayer that can be understood either anthropomorphically, or mystically, but probably cannot be understood without one or the other, in a neutral/rational vein. The individual coming to pray may take one approach or the other, but must take one and is forced to chose which one he or she is more comfortable with.

The Mishnah in Sukkah (45a) relates that already in the times of the temple, a special and unusual prayer was recited while walking around the altar in the temple on the holiday of Sukkot. The four-word prayer was based on Psalms 118:25, and ends with the two words “Hoshiah Na,” “Save Now.” The first two words of the prayer, used in the temple and still used today, spelled Alef-Nun-Yud and Vav-Heh-Vav, are more obscure. From context, we can deduce that they serve as an address or invocation to the Almighty, but what they mean and how they refer to God is far from clear.

As expected, Rashi’s Talmud commentary strives to explain the two word phrase, and offers our first explanation of the phrase, in an explanation that is decidedly mystical in nature, and which understands this phrase through an analysis of secret Divine names. Firstly, Rashi notes that the numerical value of the six letters Alef-Nun-Yud and Vav-Heh-Vav equals 78, which corresponds to the words “Please God” which appeared in the original Psalm at 118:25. But, moreover, Rashi continues, each of these two words Alef-Nun-Yud and Vav-Heh-Vav, are actually in and of themselves secret three-letter names of God, derived through the positioning of the letters in Exodus 14:19-21.        

This first, mystical explanation of the phrase carries with it an important implication for the translation of the phrase and the vowelization of the phrase. For Rashi, the two words should be translated in one of two ways, either “Please God” (what they numerically replace), or “God” (what the words mean), or perhaps should be left untranslated as “Ani Va-Ho.” Furthermore, the second word should also likely be vowelized with a holam as the second vowel, much as the Tetragrammaton and the Divine Name of Mastery are vowelized.[8] True to form, ArtScroll adopts the mystical understanding of Rashi, (735-36), supplying his interpretation in the commentary, with the corresponding vowelization and lack of translation.        

Yet, other interpreters and commentators of the Mishnah and Talmud offer a second explanation of this special phrase, which leans more in the direction of anthropomorphism. In their view, the first word Ani, should be understood not as a mystical name, but as the standard Hebrew word, “I.” The second word should be vowelized and translated also not as a mystical name Va-Ho, but as the standard Hebrew word “Va-hu,” “And He.” This second explanation, supported also by the spelling (Vav-Heh-Vav-Alef) and vowelization of the Kaufmann Kodex (Va-hu) argues that God is invoked in this prayer through the use of two familiar pronouns “I and He.”        

Why would God be referred to not by name, but with a pronoun or two pronouns? In the words of Ritva:

In the Yerushalmi they explained the matter, like the verse “I am with him in the painful situation,” that even the Divine Presence is with us in exile, and will be with us in the salvation … Here too we say “Save us and You.” And in my view, “He” [is used to refer to God instead of ‘You’] in order to use the third person, in a manner of honor towards God.

In this explanation, the first pronoun “I” refers to the reader of the prayer, who asks that him or herself, “I,” be saved. The second pronoun, the “He” who must be saved—is God himself, and thus this prayer strikingly beseeches God in anthropomorphic terms that He save Himself from being in exile.         

The Tosafists begin with a partial agreement to Rashi, but in the end accept the Ritva, with the minor change that both the “I” and the “He” refer to God’s need to save Himself, on the basis of Yechezkel 1:1 and Yirmiyahu 40:1. G-d is in exile, and in chains, and must Save Himself, now.[9] Maimonides’ Mishnah commentary also adopts the interpretation that this prayer uses two pronouns and refers to God’s Own exile, and not a mystical incantation.[10]        

This interpretation of the prayer is significant, in that it ascribes to God the human, mortal quality of being in exile, being limited from a particular space, and being in need of salvation. Clearly, one choosing to adopt a strict Maimonidean rationalism would find it difficult to pray that God be saved, and might prefer instead to understand this prayer as being two mystical names of God instead.        

Here also, the Koren Siddur conforms with expectations (754-55). The word is vowelized “Va-hu” to match the pronoun, and the phrase is translated “I and He.” For whatever reason, the word is still spelled Vav-Heh-Vav as spelled by Rashi, and not Vav-Heh-Vav-Alef, as spelled by Ritva and the Kaufmann manuscript, but the translation and vowelization clearly indicate a preference for the anthropomorphic view and not the mystical one.

How Should a Modern Orthodox Jew Chose?

To the rational, modern Jew, both readings might seem problematic. We might be uncomfortable with the notion that there are two, new, sui generis Names of God which are unnecessary and hard to explain, used specially and uniquely in this one prayer. On the other hand, we might be equally uncomfortable with the idea that we pray for God to save Himself, as it were, from Himself being somehow limited or exiled. Yet, any Jew uttering this prayer must adopt one or the other reading, and—because of the unique pronunciation that corresponds to each view—is forced to intentionally select one and reject the other.

Modern Jews praying this Sukkot might be uncomfortable with having to chose, and with the philosophic implications of that choice. Yet, it is an important test-case to evaluate the twin doctrines of mysticism and anthropomorphism, their impact on our prayer book, and the implications for Jewish theology.

Surveying and researching how Modern Orthodox American Jews approach the prayer, and which of the two major approaches of the two major publishing houses dominates, will provide an important insight to the conventional theology of Judaism in this country today.

[1] A famous reply to a mystical teaching appears in Maimonides’ Laws of Mezuzah (5:4): “but those who write the names of angels inside, or the names of Holy Ones, or verses or signatures, they are within the category of those that have no share in the world to come, for these foolsit is not enough for them that they have invalidated the mitzvah, but they even make this great mitzvah which is the Unity of God’s name and his love and service as if it was an amulet for their own benefit.” Maimonides’ rejection of anthropomorphism and God possessing human characteristics appears in the first chapter of Mishneh Torah. The Guide goes to great lengths to read most scriptural passages that appear anthropomorphic in non-anthropomorphic ways, by using expanded or new translations for the words that appear in those prophecies.

[2] A literal translation of Shir Ha-Shirim might have posed two different problems to the translator: both the anthropomorphic descriptions of God, and also the detailed descriptions of love and affection which might trouble a more conservative audience. While we cannot know for certain which of these problems led Artscroll towards their translation, the cumulative effect is that an opportunity for describing the humanity/God relationship in human terms is removed from the Siddur. All references to the ArtScroll Siddur are to Nosson Scherman and Meir Zlotowitz, The Complete ArtScroll Siddur (Brooklyn: Mesorah, 1984). Shir Ha-Shirim is found on pp. 298-307.

[3] In ArtScroll (590-91), God is asked to “Ehov,” “Show Love,” in the last line; but is not referred to as “Ahuv,” “Beloved one, as He is in the other version. Despite this, however, Anim Zemirot still appears in standard form.

[4] A prayer with “profound mystical significance” (41). Which in their view “contains forty-two words, the initials of which form the secret forty-two letter name of God. Moreover, the six initials of each of its seven verses form Divine Names” (315).

[5] Tzitzit/Talit (4), Tefillin (4), Prayer (58), the Counting of the Omer (282-87), the Lulav (630), the Sukkah (720), and the beating of the Aravot (756).

[6] Including the third prayer during the Birkat Kohanim (698-701) and the Ushpizin prayer (720-21).

[7] See Jonathan Sacks, The Koren Siddur for Shabbat and Hagim (Jerusalem: Koren, 2015), 496-99. The change to the Ushpizin prayer is particularly striking, when one realizes that in its original origins, the Ushpizin prayer was designed to represent the seven sefirot of God. Yet, the option of arranging the Ushpizin around those sefirot is not recognized at all by the Koren Siddur.

[8] This vowelization is also the standard one, found in the influential 1928 Siddur Otzar Ha-tifelot (Vilna: Romm), 10, and in an early American English Siddur- David de Sola Pool, The Traditional Prayer Book (New York: Behrman House, 1960), 523-24.

[9] The relationship between the first and third verses of Yechezkel has long troubled interpreters, since the third verse refers to the prophet by name, while the first says that it was actually “Ani” or “I” who was in exile. Rashi’s interpretation of the verse is that Yechezkel 1:2-3 is an editor’s interpolation to Yechezkel’s first person narrative of the I, namely himself, in exile. [The words Ruach Ha-Kodesh in Rashi refer to the voice of the omniscient narrator, see Bereishit 37:22.] That Yechezkel was edited is clear from Bava Batra 15a. Yet, Tosafot’s resolution to the problem is to argue that the “I” in exile was actually God, Himself.

[10] See Joseph Kapach, Mishnah with Commentary of Maimonides (Jerusalem: Mossad Ha-Rav Kook, 1963), 185.  In Rambam’s first explanation, the two words I and He are references to Devarim 32:29, and the phrase is taken non-anthropomorphically and non-mystically as “The I and He [of Devarim 32:29] please save [us] now.”  Yet, he still cites the view later espoused by Ritva in the name of the Geonim, but says that “this is in the manner of poetry [melizah].”


Yaakov Jaffe serves as the rabbi of the Maimonides Kehillah, founded by Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik in 1963, and as the Dean of Judaic Studies at the Maimonides School. He received his ordination and doctorate from Yeshiva University, where he holds graduate degrees in Bible, Jewish History, and Jewish Education. He is the author of Isaiah and his Contemporaries, a commentary on Yeshayahu and the other Biblical books of that time, now available from Kodesh Press.