There is an uncritical assumption that often circulates in scholarship and popular belief that Judaism is a religion of hearing to the exclusion or ignoring of seeing. This assumption operates by pointing to Jewish aniconism and reducing Jewish encounters with the divine to the Deuteronomistic emphasis on audition. Did not God say that humans could not see God—or literally God’s face—and live (Exod. 33:20)? Nonetheless, this reductive maneuver ignores the rich ambivalences of the Bible and later Jewish views concerning whether and how one can see God and live. Some follow Exod. 33:20 and categorically claim its impossibility. In this case, numerous intermediary figures fill the ocular gap, allowing appearances of aspects of God—like God’s Memra, Shekhinah, Glory, or even God’s tefillin or phylacteries—or angels. Others, however, think a full and direct vision is possible for the especially righteous and humble. A few would claim that even the unrighteous can glimpse God, but they are those who see God and do not live. Some limit this visual ability to the righteous of the distant past, as a special dispensation for Moses or Enoch; others see these past figures as models to emulate and also achieve such a vision. This paper will illustrate these vistas of optic possibilities by investigating the denial, acceptance, occurrence, and accomplishment of divine visions in biblical narrative, prophecy, and apocalypses; how these biblical visionary stories were retold and interpreted in the Targumim and Midrashim; and the instructions to ascend to and gaze upon God on his chariot throne and participate in the heavenly liturgies and live in the Hekhalot literature.
Hope to see you there if you are in NY!