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yesh omrim

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Quiquid latine dictum, altum videtur

25 August 2003

In the course of an otherwise interesting commentary on last week’s parsha, Rabbi Avraham Fischer says:

[Someone who feels very distant from God] must continue to pursue Hashem, to revere Him from the position of beholding the “mysterium tremendun” [sic] and to obey His commands.

Reading this, I wondered: why, in the course of a d’var Torah written for an Orthodox Jewish audience, does this rabbi use the language of the Roman Catholic Church?

As far as I can tell from Google, “mysterium tremendum” was first used by Rudolph Otto, in his book The Idea of the Holy (1923), referring to God as a Wholly Other Being who inspires a numinous dread. The phrase also appears in an oft-quoted sentence from Martin Buber: “God is the mysterium tremendum that appears and overthrows, but he is also the mystery of the self-evident, nearer to me than my I.”

OK, so I think I understand what he means now, and it’s not like “mysterium tremendum” is some term that the Vatican came up with that refers to the Trinity. But I am still left with two questions:

  1. Why should a person in this situation regard God specifically as the “mysterium tremendum?” Why not, say, the mystery of the self-evident? This issue probably deserves a page in and of itself, but instead the matter is just referred to in passing in the next-to-last paragraph of the drash.
  2. Why can’t R. Fischer just say what he means in plain Yiddish?