As with Christianity and Islam, Scriptural references
about the Divine Light are not abundant in Judaism, but are certainly
present. The writer of the book of Psalms refers to God as He
"who coverest thyself with light as with a garment..." (Ps. 104:2).
The book of Daniel tells us that God "knoweth what is in the darkness,
and the Light dwelleth with him" (Dan. 2:22). The prophet Ezekiel
witnessed a very dramatic vision of God:
And I looked, and behold,
a whirlwind came out of the north,
a great cloud,
and a fire infolding itself
and a brightness was about it...
And I saw as the colour of amber,
as the appearance or fire round
about within it...
I saw as it were
the appearance of fire,
and it had brightness round about.
As the appearance of the bow
that is in the cloud in the day of rain,
so was the appearance
of the brightness round about.
This was the appearance of the
likeness of the glory of the LORD...
(Ezekiel 1:4, 27-28).
Together with this vision were images of various
creatures and a man. Fire was also among these creatures, "and
the fire was bright, and out of the fire went forth lightning.
And the living creatures ran and returned as the appearance of
a flash of lightning" (Ez. 1:13-14). The Lord went on to tell
the prophet that Israel was a rebellious nation. Because of its
wrongdoing before the Lord, the nation was in exile, and captive
to other nations. The prophet was to tell Israel to change its
ways, to do what was right before God. To aid him in his task,
another vision of God appeared, and the spirit of God entered
Ezekiel so that God would speak to Israel through the prophet
(Ez. 3: 23-27). One day in front of the elders of Judah, the book
of Ezekiel tells us that
Then I beheld, and lo a likeness
as the appearance of fire...
as the appearance of brightness,
as the colour of amber.
And... the spirit lifted me
up between the earth and the heaven,
and brought me in the
visions of God to Jerusalem...
Like other prophets of Israel and Judah, Ezekiel
spoke for God to set the nation straight from its errant ways.
In Ezekiel's case this was done in one of the most stunning and
captivating visions of God and His bright light ever told.
Further references to the Divine Light are found
in the writings of Philo. Philo felt that "of all things, light
is best," first because it drew mankind's attention upwards to
heaven.1 Even more than that,
though, light is "pre-eminently beautiful." This Divine Light
is not perceptible to the senses -- i.e. through one's eyes --
but it can be seen through the mind,
|for the intelligible as far surpasses the visible
in the brilliance of its radiance, as sunlight
assuredly surpasses darkness day and night...2
This Light which is accessible to the mind is to
Philo the source of all light -- what we see with our eyes is
simply varying degrees of dimness away from pure light. Philo
would call this pure, brilliant light
|'all brightness,' to signify that from which
sun and moon, as well as fixed stars and planets
draw... for that pure and undiluted radiance is
bedimmed so soon as it begins to undergo the change
that is entailed from the intelligible to the sensibly
discerned for no object of sense is free from dimness.3
To Philo, all that we see is a dim version of the
pure light, the light of God. We can never see God with our eyes,
though; it would be far too bright. Only through the mind can
we "see" God, whom Philo identifies with this brilliant radiance,
the purest of all light:
|... for He Himself is His own light.
For the eye of the Absolute Existent
needs no other light to effect perception,
but He Himself is the archetypal essence
of which myriads of rays are the effluence,
none visible to sense, all to mind.4
So how does the mind go about finding God's light?
Philo tells us that to see this, we must practice virtue and pursue
the truth. "Life," says Philo, "has no clearer light than truth."5
The lover of virtue is "set on fire by the brilliant appearance
of the beautiful...."6 At this
point, longing to see the Great King Himself, "pure and untempered
rays of concentrated light stream forth like a torrent, so that
by its gleams the eye of the understanding is dazzled."7
Finally one reaches "that most brilliant and truly divine light
For Philo, this place of brilliant light and perfect
virtue is Eden. Eden is a place of "profound content (sic)
and joy."9 This is the consummate
end for the perfectly righteous person; Philo tells us that "the
soul's feast is the joy and gladness which the perfect virtues
bring, and by perfect is meant virtues unspotted by all the tainting
evils to which the human race is liable."10
As a Jew living in Alexandria, Philo was certainly
influenced by Hellenistic (Greek) culture. The ideas of the Stoics
and Plato are unmistakable. And so, very clearly, was he influenced
by his own religious heritage: the entire discourse we have seen
so far was a commentary on Hebrew Scripture. Not so culture-bound,
however, was Philo's description of the Divine Light. Once again
we find an account of someone who has "seen" this super-brilliant
light -- an experience which is accompanied by unsurpassed joy.
Beyond Philo, the Rabbinic literature also makes
reference to this brilliant, Divine Light. David Shapiro tells
us that "we read in the Sifra that, while man cannot see
the glory of God during his lifetime, he can see it at the time
of his death.... Hence, we have such expressions as the righteous
envisioning 'the brilliance of the Divine presence' in the afterlife.
There are also Talmudic reports of a pillar of light which precedes
the bier of the righteous."11
By far the most numerous references to the Divine
Light, however, comes with Jewish mysticism -- the Kabbalah. In
the Zohar (meaning "splendour"), we find once again the
mystic yearning to get closer to God, to see His Light, and feel
the joy that so often accompanies that contact. As we might expect,
the Zohar interprets the experience with the Divine in
a uniquely Jewish way. The similarities between the Jewish encounter
with the Light and the accounts from other cultures, however,
The Zohar tells a story of Rabbi Isaac, who, when
|he opened his mouth to expound
the Torah, a pillar of cloud
reaching from heaven to earth
appeared and stood before us,
and in it a great light shone.12
Rabbi Abba, travelling with him, said that he, too,
was "privileged to see that light," which he identified "certainly"
as having seen God (I, 29). God, according to the Zohar,
designates Himself Ein-Sof -- "Limitless" -- who, as the Cause
of causes, called his crown the "Source," an "inexhaustible fount
of light" (III, 131). This is a light "which illumines the supreme
heaven, a light never ceasing..." (IV, 224). This is "the supernal
primordial light.... When this light shone on what was below,
its radiance spread from one end of the world to the other..."
(I, 116). Compared to this Supreme Cause, "all lights are dark
in its presence" (I, 94).
According to the Zohar, "God wrought the
light as the medium for the creation of the world.... For all
the generations of heaven and earth were produced by the energy
of that treasured-up Light..." (IV, 252). It was not until "He
unfolded Himself in a covering of a supernal radiance of thought"
that he created therefrom a world" (I, 111). God "summoned to
issue forth from [His] complete Light which was in the centre
of a certain radiance which is the foundation of the world" (I,
70). The Zohar's place in all this "is that from which
were created all the creative utterances through the extension
of the point of this mysterious brightness" (I, 63).
The Zohar illustrates this place of light
The secret Garden
In worlds of light hidden...
Its splendour sends forth
To the ends of Creation,
In the fullness of glory
Is revealed in its beauty
To the eyes made seeing --
The garden of Eden
When God said, "Let there be light, and there was
light," and "let us make man in our image, after our likeness,"
the Zohar gives us an indication of the nature of humanity.
"'In our image' corresponds to light, 'after our likeness,' to
darkness, which is a vestment to light in the same way that a
body is a vestment to the soul..." (I, 92). Thus, man's spirit
emanates "from the realm of holiness, to which his body is a vestment,
as we read, "Thou clothest me in skin and flesh" (Job X, 11).
Other animals such as ox, sheep, goat, deer, etc. are simply formed
from another vestment (I, 86). This also explains why we cannot
see God with our bodily eye: we can only perceive the vestment
of darkness around God's light.
The soul, however, can see the Divine Light.
We read in the Zohar that
|The essence of man is his soul;
the skin, flesh, bones and sinews
are but an outward covering, the
mere garments, but they are not the man.
When man departs from this world, he
divests himself of all these garments...
skins are a garment which protects a garment,
viz, the extension of the heavens which is
the outer garment [of the Divine] (III, 230).
The mystical book goes on to tell us that "before
a man dies he beholds a Divine Presence, towards which the soul
goes out in great yearning..." (V, 106). The soul then leaves
the dead person, "and the body returns to the earth." The "spirit
returns to God who gave it (Eccl. XII, 7)," reads the Zohar,
"both thus returning to their original source" (I, 21).