This is a first post on a remarkable Pirke D'Rabbi Eliezer. This passage is important because it discusses the very nature of divine unity. I will begin with briefly reviewing the nature of the problem and how to other religious traditions have dealt with it.
First let me quote the passage itself, which is found in the beginning of the third chapter.
Ad Sheinivra Haolam haya Hakadosh baruch hu v'shmo Hagadol levad.
Until the world was created there was only Hakadosh Baruch Hu and His great name alone.
Some versions use the word "Kodem" instead of "Ad shenivra".
The issue of, of course, is that it seems to imply eternal duality within the God-Head. Before the world was created, there were two entities: G-d and His Name. That's pretty strange, isn't it? Hashem is One, not Two!
A few points are in order. It is of course axiomatic in Judaism that God is One. As Rambam expresses it, this One is unique and unlike any other One that is known to man. All other entities known to Man are by definitions either composite or in some way share some characteristic or attribute with created things. Since God is categorically different, His being One is also completely different from anything we know. We can only define His uniqueness by saying what He is not, the so-called "negative theology". A G-d like this cannot be dual.
This does, however, create another problems. How is G-d able to interact with the world? How was He able to crate it? How did he bridge the radical divide between One and Many? How does He continue to guide us, to answer our prayers, to teach us His Law, and dwell within us and in our Holy Places?
It is tempting to interpose another Deity to fulfill this function.
Although Kabbalists define One differently, they also, as we shall see, uphold the Unity of Hashem.
So what I R. Eliezer talking about?
To appreciate what Judaism is, it is essential to understand how it handles challenges to its essential beliefs from within its own tradition. We will launch on an exploration that will do just that. R Eliezer's statement is a serious challenge to the concept of Hashem's Unity. Let see how it had been explained throughout the ages.
First, let's look at how other traditions have handled the issue of One and Many. Even within the context of monotheistic religions, dual g-ds are not unknown. Neopatonists, such as Plotinus, envisioned a single Hidden God (Deus Absconditus) that could not be known and had no interactions with the created world. It was permanently joined with its knowledge, Nous, in the process of Self-Contemplation. That is all that this God does: self-contemplation. The Nous is a part of of this G-d and of same Essence but also sufficiently distinct of It, that it could lead to a series of emanations, one of which was the Demiurge, the actual Creator of this world that we know. The Nous was inseparable from the Hidden God, but at the same time presented a beginning of a movement toward emanations. Of course pagan NeoPlatonists did not have a problem with a Duality within the Divine.
Christianity faced a similar problem. Having chosen to follow the high Christology of the Gospel of John, it launched itself into the morass of theological complications and contradictions. Unlike the synoptic Gospels, John represents Jesus as the Word or Logos, that existed before the creation and, hence before his own humanity. By choosing John over the Synoptic Gospels, Christianity received two contradictory doctrines. From Jews it knew that God is One. From John it learned that He was Two, and eventually, when the Holy Spirit was added, that He was, R"L, three. John claimed that JC was the son of God, but not only the Son, but pre-existent and in some way equal to Father. In a crucial opening passage, John says, that Word was God. It is interesting and noteworthy that Christianity when faced with this kind of a conflict, always elected the more pagan interpretation or directions. As time went on, Christian sects that were more Jewish or that tended to Judaic sensibilities, became heretics. Jewish Christians and Ebionites were quickly read out of the church (as were, in all fairness Marcionites and Gnostics).Then the Church rejected Arianism,a teaching in which the Word/ Logos was one of God's creation's in time and not fully Divine. Anastasius, Bishop of Alexandria and Arius' antagonist, taught that the Son was not created but eternally begotten from the Father, which means that the Father is eternally Father, but never without a son. EventuallyChristians came to believe that there were three persons(Father, Son and the Holy Spirit) that are identical in essence, the difference between the three is simply that the father begets the son and not vice versa and that differentiation between the Three is in causation and not in essence.
Judaism of course chose the opposite direction when faced with the challenge of One and Many. It elected to explain the statement of R. Eliezer in a way that accentuated the Unity and explained away the plurality.There are a number of explanations, some Kabbalistic and some not.
In the next post we will explore Rambam's approach to this puzzling passage in Pirke D'Rabbi Eliezer.