holy spirit in the Hebrew Tradition: a book review and reflection

Breath of Life CoverAs a somewhat disgruntled (wounded) charismatic and committed evangelical, I am always searching for an intelligible depiction of life in the Spirit; however I have never read a book exploring the Spirit of God in the Judaic tradition (despite having an M.Div with an emphasis in the Old Testament). Rabbi Rachel Timoner does a fine job of illuminating the role of the Spirit in the Hebrew Scriptures and the Rabbinical tradition. She writes of the Spirit in hopes to speak meaningfully to both Jews and Christians. Certainly as a Christian I affirm the Trinity and have a different list of religious authorities to appeal to than Timoner does; still there is much here that is fruitful for Christians to grasp and grapple with if we are to do justice to our shared scriptures and lay hold of the gift of God’s spirit (through out this review I will try to respect Timoner’s lowercase usage of spirit to denote it as God’s possession rather than triune person; that I believe more in this regard, does not mean I don’t respect her integrity to her tradition and think that it has something to teach us).

Timoner received her B.A. from Yale University, was ordained at Hebrew Union College, has won several awards, is an advocate of justice and the Assistant Rabbi at Leo Boeck Temple in L.A. She grew up as a synagogue-drop-out with no particular interest in God or religion. That was until she began to pay attention to life and had the growing sense of the transcendent, a reality she names as God. The Hebrew words for spirit, ruach and neshamah, name God’s immanence and transcendence. Timoner traces the role of the spirit of God through the Hebrew Bible and Jewish tradition exploring three themes which correspond to the parts of this book: Creation, Revelation & Redemption. Rachel Timoner

Creation
The Hebrew Bible begins with ‘the spirit’ hovering over the waters breathing life into the cosmos. Humanity is enlivened by the ‘Breath of life-nishmat chayim. Our life is sustained by the spirit of God. Timoner’s picture of sustaining power of God’s spirit giving us life, underscores the relationship between God’s spirit (breath) and our own. I think any pneumatology which strives to be Biblical should start here.

Revelation
As protestant, I am comfortable talking about specific and general revelation. General revelation, is God’s self revealing through creation. Specific revelation is God’s historic self-revelation through scripture (and as a Christian I think ultimately revelation through Jesus). What Timoner does with the term revelation does not fit into the neat boxes of my protestant systematic theology. She uses the examples of the spirit’s revelation in the Hebrew scriptures, but she uses these evocatively to speak of a universal outpouring of God’s Spirit. Thus she points out the gift of the spirit to enable leaders, artists, the wise and courageous and the eloquent; yet the spirit of God is also what is given to each of us in all walks of life. It is God’s gift of the spirit which helps us clarify our life’s calling. Because ultimately the gift of the spirit of God is given in the context of covenant, a special relationship where we live out God’s purposes for the world.

Again there is little I would disagree with here. I would personally push for more clarification on the nature of covenant than Timoner offers (i.e. obligations and conditions, how you enter covenant with God, who is excluded). But certainly seeing all of our lives, our gifts, talents, insights, proclivities as gift from God seems good and right. Timoner insists that God gives gifts and has an agenda in the world in which we are called to participate. I would not want to say less than this. Her attentiveness to the gift of the spirit takes aim at the practical Deism of our age.

Redemption

In exploring this theme, Timoner has a rich heritage to draw upon. Of course the story of the Exodus is paradigmatic for God’s rescue. But there are also the prophets that talk about redemption, restoration, reviving dry bones and re-dedication. It is the spirit of God issues in an age which is characterized by where God’s people live out God’s redemption for all of humanity. This means advocating for the redemption of the poor and marginalized. The Spirit that creates, sustains, gives and guides directs us to treat our fellow humans with justice and love.

Here is another point where I think Christians can learn from this very Jewish reading of the new age of the Spirit. Sometimes Christians use the same prophets Timoner used to speak of redemption as though they were fulfilled with Jesus and the New Testament (i.e. Redemption, the outpouring of the Spirit on all flesh). The Judaic tradition is a living tradition which holds the same texts sacred; they long for their fulfillment in the same way that we Christians long for God’s kingdom to come in fullness. That our approaches are necessarily different doesn’t obscure the common ground. Jews and Christians both draw on the resources of God’s spirit as we seek to live out God’s redeeming presence in the world.

So I really liked this book and found it helpful. Admittedly it harder reading as a Christian because it draws on a number of sources which are not as readily familiar. Yet it talks of the God of the Hebrew scripture with wonder and reverence and illuminates aspects of the holy spirit (our Holy Spirit) which should help us to understand more fully.

Thank you to Paraclete Press for providing me a copy of Breath of Life in exchange for this review

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