Many of us are all fairly familiar with the Holy Spirit defined by Christianity as one of the three co-equal persons of the Godhead, as described within the doctrine of the Trinity.
It should be noted that as discussed amongst the early Christian movement different sects argued over the humanity or the divinity of Jesus, another topic that was debated was on the question of whether the Holy Spirit was equal to the Father and the Son. The Pneumatomachi sect, were proponents that the Holy Spirit was inferior to the Father and the Son, whilst the Cappadocian Fathers opposed, claiming that the Holy Spirit was equal.
Of those that claim that the Holy Spirit is co-equal to the Father and the Son, their argument is based primarily on interpretation of certain verses in the New Testament, but they also attempt to argue their case from particular passages in the Hebrew Bible.
Briefly lets look at a couple of examples.
“By the word of the Lord the heavens were made, and by the breath of his mouth all their host.” (Psalm 33:6)
The Cappadocian Fathers read the above verse found in Psalm 33:6, and found that the word for breath which in Hebrew is the word ‘Ruach,‘ could also be translated as Spirit and therefore interpret this verse to be telling us that the Son (word) and the Holy Spirit (breath) are co-creators.
A Jewish reader of this verse would struggle to see how this verse could be hinting at a trinity, it is certainly not explicit or clear, but then again Christians who use this verse and others from the Hebrew Bible do not claim that it would be clear. Of the proponents of the Trinity doctrine the claim is that it is concealed in the Bible and its revelation was gradual, revealed within the Catholic tradition and continued to be accepted amongst the majority of Protestant Christian groups.
Judaism understands that God created everything through speaking, the Hebrew word for ‘word’ and the word for ‘thing’ both come from the same root דבר/DBR, and so derives that God spoke and all things came into being. In Hebrew each word is not simply an arbitrary word but the word captures and describes the essence of what it is.
Judaism believes that the building blocks for all creation are the Hebrew letters. The method of creation is described by way of God speaking. The Hebrew word for to breath comes from the same root as the word for Soul, Neshama, and so it is said that God imparted the soul through breathing into Adam.
Christianity often interprets the use of the term ‘the word’ to mean Jesus. But the root of this interpretation is not found in the Hebrew Bible, it finds its root in the Greek concept of the Logos, and was applied by the Hellenized Jewish philosopher, Philo. Biblical scholar Gerald Sigal in his book The Trinity Doctrine Error, A Jewish Analysis, explains:
“God, being so removed from the world, cannot have direct relations with it. Therefore, Philo introduces an intermediary existence (“words”) between God and the world. The “words” are identified with angels in the Scriptures. These powers are also conceived of as a single independent being called Logos (“Word”), a term which Philo borrowed from Greek philosophy. The Logos becomes the intermediary between the transcendent, absolute spiritual God, and material creation, the only form in which God reveals Himself to mankind. This Philonic conception has its roots in the Platonic and Stoic speculations concerning the relationship of the First Divinity (God) to the world. Philo’s system follows that of the Greeks in that it is irreconcilably dualistic, with spirit and matter constituting a polarity. God and the world stand at opposite ends. By means of the Logos, Philo seeks to solve the problem as to how an absolute transcendent God may be intimately concerned with the world He created. Philo portrays the Logos as the instrument of Gods creation and revelation and of His activity in the universe. This conception of the Logos is derived not from the biblical text, but from Hellenistic sources. It is primarily from the latter sources that Philo developed the concept of the Logos as mediator between God and the world in the ordering of creation. Philo Judaizes his idea by identifying the Reason of the Greek philosophers (Logos in Greek means both “word” and “reason” with the Aramaic term memra’ (“word”).” (Sigal, G 2006:54)
Such concepts as the Logos, or a first creation, a pre-existent son, subordinate force or a mediator between God and man, is as Sigal points out is not a biblical concept. Some may point out that God created Angels, sent messengers, celestial beings, or communicates with man by way of Prophecy but the Torah does not teach that these beings are co-creators, permitted to be worshipped or that to have a relationship with God one must direct their prayers towards any created entity, nor are they co-equal to God.
A common Trinitarian argument for co-creators with the Father (God) is to point to Genesis 1:26:
“Let us create man in our image, in our likeness.”
The question asked is whom is God speaking to? What does He mean by ‘us’ and ‘our’? In Jewish tradition there are a few responses, one position argues that God is consulting with the Angels. Whereas Trinitarians will often claim that He is consulting with Jesus and the Holy Spirit and therefore see this as yet another verse implying that the Holy Spirit and Jesus were co-creators.
But by the same token if Judaism is claiming that this is referring to the Angels, then would that not make the Angels co-creators? If it did then perhaps Jews would conclude that they are to pray in the name of or through the Angels. But they do not. The answer lies in the verse that immediately follows:
“And God created man in His image.” (Genesis 1:27)
Had whomever he was consulting with been instrumental in the creation of man the verse would have been written in the plural not in the singular, “and they created man in their image.”
An example that those who argue that the Holy Spirit is equal to the Father from the New Testament could be found in the book of Acts:
“But Peter said, ‘Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back for yourself part of the proceeds of the land? While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, was it not at your disposal? Why is it that you have contrived this deed in your heart? You have not lied to men but to God.'” (Acts 5:3-4)
Whilst there were Christians who did not accept the view that the Holy Spirit was equal to the Father and perhaps are some today who may also hold this position, the passage above from the book of Acts is somewhat clearer than the first example from the book of Psalms and it could be understood how such verses could be interpreted in such a way, but even in the Hebrew Bible, finite objects or attributes such as ‘wisdom’ for example are metaphorically personified at times, and in Judaism are read in such allegorical ways, whereas others may simply read such verses literally.
The Bible describes God ‘walking,’ or ‘sitting’, or the ‘hand of God,’ or the ‘finger of God,’ but yet Judaism holds that God does not have a physical form, and is purely spiritual. Judaism teaches that the Torah is written in the language of man, and so metaphors are employed when describing God’s interactions with us, and that such verses are not read literally.
This article does not aim to argue in favor of God as a Unity as opposed to a Trinity, it is quite well known that Judaism believes that God is an absolute unity whereas within Christianity there is a widespread opinion that God is a triune deity. Now that we are somewhat familiar with the issues pertaining to this subject regarding interpretation of the Bible using such concepts from Greek philosophy, we are going to explore the term ‘Holy Spirit’ from a Jewish perspective.
Judaism does not accept the New Testament as scripture and so therefore however the New Testament may describe the Holy Spirit or how Christians may interpret those verses are irrelevant, so we will be looking at this purely from within the Hebrew Bible and other rabbinic literature embodied within Judaism.
The Holy Spirit in Judaism
Judaism does not believe that God consists of different parts or persons. So therefore the Holy Spirit is not a person or an entity distinct from but at the same time equal to what Christians call the Father. The Holy Spirit or Ruach HaKodesh is a name for God in a particular context.
The term Shechinah is used interchangeably in rabbinic writings for the Holy Spirit. The name Shechinah comes from the Hebrew root for the word “Dwelling,” meaning the dwelling of the Divine Presence. Shechinah is a name for God when describing a perception of closeness to Gods presence in the world. For example in the Holy of Holies when the First Temple stood, where only the High Priest was permitted to enter once a year on Yom Kippur, also in prayer when 10 Jewish men join for a minion it is said that God’s presence dwells among them.
The Jerusalem Talmud in discussing the fact that the prophetic era had ended and was absent from the second temple period said:
“In the name of Rabbi Aha: Five things existed in the First Temple, but were missing from the Second Temple: Divine Fire, the Holy Ark, the Urim and Thummim, the anointing oil and the Holy Spirit [of prophetic inspiration]. (Talmud Yerushalmi, Ta’anit 2:10 [5a])
The same is recorded in the Babylonian Talmud:
“Our rabbis taught: Since the death of the last prophets, Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi, the Holy Spirit has departed from Israel.” (Sanhedrin 11a)
We use the term Holy Spirit to describe our feeling of God’s presence amongst us. There is no greater feeling of His presence than through revelation, through prophecy. A prophet communicates with God by way of prophecy. The Holy Spirit not being present in the second temple is due to the non-existence of prophecy.
There are also various levels of prophecy, Moses achieved a level of prophecy that no other prophet did, and there is plenty of literature in Jewish sources on what defined the different levels. Maimonides in the Guide for the Perplexed gives us a description of the first two degrees:
“(1) The first degree of prophecy consists in the divine assistance which is given to a person, and induces and encourages him to do something good and grand, e.g., to deliver a congregation of good men from the hands of evil-doers; to save one noble person, or to bring happiness to a large number of people; he finds himself the cause that moves and urges him to this deed. This degree of divine influence is called “the spirit of the Lord”; and of the person who is under that influence we say that the spirit of the Lord came upon him, clothed him, rested upon him, or that the Lord was with him and the like. All the judges of Israel possessed this degree, for the following general statement concerning them:-“The Lord raised up judges for them; and the Lord was with the judge, and he saved them” (Judges ii, 18) Also the noble chiefs of Israel belonged to this class. The same is distinctly stated concerning some of the judges and kings:- “The spirit of the Lord came upon Jephthah”…
(2) The second degree is this: A person feels as if something came upon him, and as if he had received a new power that encourages him to speak. He treats science, or composes hymns, exhorts his fellow-men, discusses political and theological problems; all this he does while awake, and in full possession of his senses. Such a person is said to speak by the holy spirit. David composed the Psalms, and Solomon the Book of Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and the Song of Solomon by this spirit; also Daniel, Job, Chronicles and the rest of the Hagiographa were written in this spirit; therefore they are called ketubim (Writings, or Written), i.e., written by men inspired by the holy spirit. Our Sages mention this expressly concerning the Book of Esther. In reference to such holy spirit, David says: “The spirit of the Lord spoke to me, and his word is on my tongue” (2 Sam. xxiii.2); i.e., the spirit of the Lord caused him to utter these words. This class also includes the seventy elders of whom it is said, “And it came to pass when the spirit rested upon them, that they prophesied, and did not cease” (Num. xi.25)….” (Maimonides, 1956:241)
Different Names for God
Throughout Judaism we have many names for God, which vary depending on the context of the description. We have the Tetragrammaton, which is considered too holy for Jews to pronounce so instead, Jews simply refer to this name as “HaShem” meaning “The Name.” He is also named El and when he dwells among us He is actually then referred to in a feminine form as the Shechinah. During prayer Jews use the word Adonai in place of the Tetragrammaton. There are many other names that are ascribed in different circumstances. None of these names refer to different persons or entities within God, they are just names.
Manifestations of God
It is sometimes argued that the Holy Spirit and Jesus are manifestations of God in the world. Setting aside the fact that Jews do not accept that Jesus was God or a manifestation of God; there are a number of manifestations of God in the physical world other than the Holy Spirit.
God spoke to Moses through the burning bush (Exodus 3:1-4), the Destroyer who smites the Egyptian firstborns (Exodus 12:23), the pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night that guided the Israelites through the wilderness (Exodus 13:21), at Mount Sinai God descended upon the mountain in the fire (Exodus 19:18). Or through visions experienced by prophets or an encounter with an angel. God communicates with man through a number of channels.
We could describe some of these as manifestations of God, but Jews do not pray to God in the name of or through an intermediary or a manifestation. Today we communicate with one another through a number of means other than when we speak face to face, through a computer, via email, instant messenger software or social media, via a smart phone, using text messages or making a phone call, video conferencing or via post through sending letters (although less common now days) and more.
But these are the means by which we communicate with one another; the computer or the phone is not the person we are talking to, even though the words of that person are emanating from the device speaking as if it is that person. We would not conclude that the device is God, and so is the case with messengers such as angels or prophets and that certain things are instrumental and guided by Him in carrying out His will such as the 10 plagues or the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah for example. These forces or celestial beings, are part of Gods creation, they are not a part of God, nor do they have independent power other than what God grants to them.
To argue that the Holy Spirit or Jesus are manifestations of God but also distinct persons within God is problematic as it is clear from the Hebrew Bible that there are other manifestations that Trinitarians do not conclude are manifestations to be viewed as other distinct persons within God. Trinitarians will justify their belief that God is a Trinity by describing God as ‘complex in His unity.’ But to argue that He is complex along the lines that they mark to conclude three persons could also be argued that He is complex in being composed of a lot more than three persons. So why stop at three?
Rabbi Stuart Federow, author of Judaism and Christianity, A contrast suggests:
“The reason is that the highest deities in other religions also came in threes.
Babylon had:  Anu  Bel  Ena
India had:  Brahma  Vishnu  Shiva
Ancient Rome had:  Jupiter  Pluto  Neptune
Ancient Greece had:  Zeus  Hades  Poseidon
And so the Christian community took its own Trinity, made up of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, while disregarding the Lying Spirit, the Evil Spirit, and the Destroyer and other manifestations in the Bible of God.” (Federow, S 2012:5).
Christianity (Trinitarians) believes that the Holy Spirit is a co-equal person within a triune God, that shares equal knowledge with the father and the Son.
Judaism believes that the Holy Spirit is a name for God when describing feeling His presence amongst us.
Sigal, G (2006) The Trinity Doctrine Error, A Jewish Analysis, Xlibris: United States of America
Maimonides, M (1956) The Guide for the Perplexed, Dover: United States of America
Federow, S (2012) Judaism and Christianity, A Contrast, iUniverse:United States of America, pp. 5