You Can’t See God; Or Can You?


You can’t see God; or can you? The Torah actually thinks you can. Way back at the burning bush, Moses averts his eyes, “for he was afraid to look at God”; and here, not just Moses, but Aaron, Nadav and Abihu as well, “saw the God of Israel,” after which, “they ate and drank” — probably an idiom implying their amazement at remaining alive and functioning after such a harrowing experience. Indeed, Bachya and Sforno think they held a feast of celebration on account of seeing God but not being struck dead on that account.

Later on, when Moses climbs Sinai a second time, he asks to see God’s face, but learns that mortals cannot do so without dying. They can do it, that is – but at a cost.

The Rabbis feel no need to read the Torah literally, however, and by the MiddleAges, they were increasingly uncomfortable with the idea of a visible God. By the 10th century, philosophers like Saadiah were busy denying divine anthropomorphisms, and a couple of centuries later, German pietists held that God is indeed beyond our vision, but to make things easier for us, God projects an image of the divine self into the world for us to see. God is “two faced” so to speak – not in the moral sense, but in the sense that one side of God’s face (God’s actuality) can never be seen, but the other side of that face, God’s projection presence, does manifest itself somehow.

Most famously, Maimonides denied all corporeality to God: God has no body, does not hear or see or talk. All such descriptions merely liken God to the best we know about ourselves. But nothing more. Traditionalists judged Maimonides a heretic.

Mordecai Kaplan, just last century, took the next step, emboldened, he said, by Maimonides. Maimonides had divested God of a body. Kaplan now stripped God of even being supernatural. God, he held, is a natural force, a part of the universe like gravity and electromagnetism. He called God the power that makes for salvation – a word we might better translate (for our time) as “meaning.” God is the power in ourselves, our relationships, and even our projects that makes life meaningful. Traditionalists excommunicated Kaplan too.

The fact that we cannot apprehend God via any of our senses does not mean that God isn’t real, however – no one actually “sees” gravity either. But we apprehend its effects. So maybe the question ought to be what Godly effects we ought to look for as our sign of something divine within the world. Rashbam (to our portion) seems to have that in mind when he says that whenever a covenant is made, God’s presence is somehow manifest. If we want to know God, look, then, for covenants. Not just covenants, of course, but the most distinctively Jewish contribution to understanding God may be that mysterious word, “covenant.”

No word has greater Jewish currency than “covenant” – b’rit, in Hebrew; meaning a combination of “pact,” “agreement,” and “promise of mutuality.” The ability to make covenants rather than to fight or quarrel; to find common cause rather than acting selfishly without regard for a future beyond ourselves – this, says Judaism, is what God has most profoundly taught us. When we rise to the level of negotiating peace, standing firm by our promises, we observe what Jews mean by evidence of God.

Our sedra contains the famous promise, “We will do and we will listen.” Why do we “do” the mitzvot and only then “listen”? Perhaps the idea is that we first act in covenant with God, living up to our higher selves; and then we listen for signs of God’s applause. As Elijah taught us, God is not in earthquakes, thunder and lightning; God is in the still small voice of knowing we have transcended selfishness and made covenant the guiding principle of our lives.



Growing Up Is Hard To Do

Growing up really is hard to do. If you doubt it, just google those very words, and spend an entire day reading about it.

Most of the entries focus on the millennials, the people , presumably, who still have to do the growing. The idea that the rest of us have already grown up, however, may come as a surprise to millions of people who are much older than the millennials but who wonder regularly if they ever mastered the thing. I’m over 70 but still joke about not knowing for sure what I want to be when I grow up, and my friends (sometimes even older than I) laugh knowingly when I say that. I am, apparently, on to something.

A recent Clark University poll describes the problem of growing up as economic. “Emerging adults” (age 21-29, that is) have huge student loans but are often still in school; they work but have uncertain career paths; if growing up means independence, and if independence requires financial security, growing up is certainly harder to do now than it was a generation ago.

But what about those aging baby boomers whose finances are in order but who think they are still growing up? We are always growing, aren’t we? What counts as “becoming an adult”?

The Jewish account of growing up arises this week, as Jews around the world complete the Book of Genesis. Genesis is our metaphoric childhood; its final reading marks the transition into Exodus, the biblical book where we come of age. The reading features a dying Jacob, gathering his children around him to review their past and future.

Appropriately, the accompanying prophetic reading (from I Kings) pictures a dying King David instructing his son Solomon in the art of growing up. The passage reads, at first, like a scene from The Godfather, with an aging Marlon Brando playing David. Most of the monologue is the king’s political run-through of family members: those whom Solomon can trust and those whom he cannot. Barzillai the Gileadite is a loyal soldier, David counsels. But don’t trust Joab or Shimi ben Gera; they are (in mob-talk) to be “whacked” – eliminated.

Unsurprisingly, commentators largely ignore this seedy side of the conversation, relative to David’s positive advice, “Be a grown-up.” The Hebrew for “grown-up”, ish, means “man,” but there is nothing sexist about the advice that follows. Grown-ups, says the medieval commentator Redak, govern themselves by controlling their impulses – as in Numbers 13:3, which calls people “grown-ups” when they act in ways that earn them honor and the right to be invested with leadership. Independence is not a question of finances, but of sound and honorable judgment.

And how do you achieve independence of judgment? Through study of course – learning what God wants. “Walk in God’s ways,” David explains, “observing God’s decrees, commandments, ordinances and testimonies.” Redak and Metsudat David (another commentator) identify each of these God-given bodies of instruction as its own category of thought and behavior that requires mastery. We should think of it all as education for character, a far cry from educational goals today that care only about how to get ahead, make a living, and achieve financial reward. We need that utilitarian education too, but it should not be confused with growing up.

Most important, the commentaries insist that this character formation spills over into all aspects of life. “Walking in God’s ways,” makes us kind and merciful. The “commandments” (mitzvot) govern relationships between one person and another (bein adam l’chavero). The “ordinances” reflect relationships between an individual and God (bein adam lamakom). Such wisdom, moreover, informs “all that we do, whatever we turn to.”

Growing up is about an independence other than financial. Some business moguls never grow up; some grown-ups barely make a living.

We know we are grown up when we have matured in character to know what is right, what God wants of us, and what, therefore, we should want ourselves.

Our Way of Thinking

Biblical place names often mean something, so when the unnamed stranger informs Joseph that his brothers have gone to Dotan (Dothan, in English), Rashi wonders about the place’s name. It might be just a name, of course, but he allows for the possibility that it refers to the Hebrew dat, from which we get the modern word for “religion.” In Rashi’s day, however, and in the classical rabbinic era before him, it didn’t mean “religion” per se, but, rather, “a way of thinking.”

We see it in the rabbinic marriage ceremony, where (traditionally) the groom says to his bride, “Be Thou consecrated to me … according to the dat of Moses and Israel [kdat moshe v’yisra’el].” Dat Moshe, say the Rabbis, represents the laws that are supposed to govern the relationship between husband and wife; dat yisrael (also called dat y’hudit, “the dat of Jews”) comprises the non-legal understandings that should constitute it.

Dat, then, is both legal and extra-legal. With marriage, for example, dat Moshe is law while dat yisra’el (or y’hudit) is custom – the understandings that have less force than law, but that, nonetheless, are the way married Jews are supposed to think and act toward one another.

Dotan is that word dat (“a way of thinking”) with a grammatical ending for “our.” The brothers, said the stranger, are in Dotan, “Our Way of Thinking.” Joseph duly finds them “in Dotan.” That is to say, he finds them “in our way of thinking.”

But whose way of thinking is that? Why didn’t the stranger say “Your way of thinking” or “Their way of thinking”? And who is this stranger — the one who includes himself in the name by saying “our”?

The text calls him a “man” – the generic term for a human being, a generality that is especially striking because others in the story, the traveling Midianites and Ishmaelites, get named the usual way, according to their tribes.

The absence of a tribal name for the unidentified “man” is telling. If the stranger is “no tribe at all,” he must stand for “everyone,” any human being at all. Dotan is “our way of thinking,” and the “our” in Dotan is the way any human being might think and behave.

Alas, that turns out to be the problem. We would like to think that Joseph’s brothers, our Jewish progenitors, would be more ethical, more compassionate, and more just than everyone else back then. But they weren’t. They were jealous and small-minded; vengeful to the point of considering fratricide. They sold their own brother into slavery, and then covered up their act by lying to their father. It cannot get much worse than that. Every Yom Kippur, in fact, we recite a martyrology (Eleh Ezk’rah) that goes so far as to imagine that the persecution of Jews in Roman times was a delayed punishment for the brothers’ crime against Joseph.

To be sure, the brothers were not all of one mind. Judah, say the Rabbis, was not pure evil; he could have convinced the brothers to spare Joseph; but he hadn’t the courage to do so. Reuben did try to save Joseph – but failed. As the stranger pointing to Dotan is “everyone,” so the brothers in Dotan are anyone — any group of people at all, that is — in this case, Jews, who act out a scenario that includes enslavement, a bungled attempt by one brother to save the victim, a second brother afraid to stand up for what is right, and a cover-up to their father who, they know, will grieve to the day he dies.

Apparently, Jews are not beyond such things. Judaism demands a higher standard than what we see in this week’s portion. It follows that we should exercise special vigilance to make sure we do not fall into the pattern of being just anyone, in our own day. God expects more of us; as we do, of ours

In Praise of “Ordinary”

Student: Teacher, what is the point of Isaac? Abraham was the first Jew. Jacob became Israel. Why even bother with Isaac?

Teacher: Maybe just because he existed. As the bridge generation between Abraham and Jacob, the Torah had to include him.

Student: But the Torah frequently leaves things out. Last week’s sedra, for example, was called “Life of Sarah,” but it said virtually nothing about Sarah’s life. The Torah always reports selectively. So it cannot be accidental that this week’s reading begins, “These are the generations of Isaac.” Why “Isaac,” who, truth be told, is easily forgettable? The Torah even says next, “Abraham bore Isaac,” as if it assumes we need reminding.

Teacher: Come now, who could forget Isaac? What about the akedah [the binding of Isaac]? How many people are almost sacrificed by their father?

Student: Actually, the Torah overlooks that point altogether here. It tells us, “Isaac was 40 years old when he married Rebekah,” but not how old he was at the time of the akedah.

Teacher: Maybe recollecting the akedah was just too painful. Why dwell overly much on trauma? Better to move on to Isaac’s marriage and the birth of Jacob.

Student: But teacher, we spend every Rosh Hashanah remembering the akedah. Had our tradition wanted just to move on, we would have some other Rosh Hashanah reading. No, in some way even “easily forgettable” Isaac must be important enough to warrant saying, “These are the generations of Isaac.” I want to know why.

Teacher: The Rabbis asked that very question – so do what they did. Read on. Let the Torah provide its own answer.

Student: There isn’t much to read. After finding out that “Isaac was 40 years old when he married Rebekah,” we get nothing of importance.

Teacher: Nothing?

Student: No. Nothing. Only that “Isaac prayed to God because his wife could not become pregnant”; and then, that he gets rich and settles in a comfortable oasis — like someone today whose business prospers and who moves to a fancy uptown address.

Teacher: You call that nothing?

Student: Compared to Abraham and Jacob? Of course that’s nothing. Abraham and Jacob are monumentally heroic characters. Abraham intercedes to save a whole city of Sodom. Jacob dreams of angels going up and down a ladder connecting heaven to earth. How important, by comparison, is praying for your wife, going into business or moving to a new neighborhood?

Teacher: You miss the point. Isaac’s story matters precisely because of its ordinariness. Of all our patriarchs, only Isaac is a real person with real problems. The akedah teaches him how little we human beings are in charge of our lives, and how much of life we spend simply trying to muddle through. Sure, his business prospers, but look at his record as a husband and father. He lies about Rebekah in order to save his life, and he gives his blessing to the wrong son.

Still, he loves his wife enough to pray for children on her account — better than Abraham, by the way, who prayed for a child only so he himself could become a father of multitudes. And upon hearing Sarah laugh in desperation at the unlikelihood of giving birth in old age, Abraham is of no help at all. He laughs too; and he should have cried, either for joy on Sarah’s behalf, or (if he didn’t believe it) out of sympathy for her anguish. Isaac, by contrast, feels Rebekah’s pain and puts aside everything to pray for her.

Then years later, he messes up the blessings. He is properly aghast, however, and when Esau cries out for at least some blessing, Isaac duly provides it. Isaac is any of us on our death bed, looking back at the messy business of trying to be human.

Real people love, but make mistakes; they alternately succeed, then fail, then try again. Isaac is you and me, consumed with life’s day-to-day struggles. He is imperfect, but his very imperfection supports the Torah’s claim that we are indeed “the generations of Isaac.

Principles Not Programs: The Resurrection of Denominational Religion

Denominational religion is not yet dead, to judge by the biennial of the URJ (the Union for Reform Judaism) that took place last week in Orlando, Florida. It wasn’t only that it attracted some 5,000 attendees from all over the world. Nor was it just the superstars it attracted to its stage: actor Michael Douglas and Vice President Joe Biden, for example. Nor, even, was it the media mastery with which its message was delivered. It was the message itself, a message that demonstrated the transformation of Reform Judaism for the computer era.

Denominationalism’s very raison d’etre was irreversibly altered when computers transferred power from the center to the periphery. In the print era, synagogues (to take the Jewish case) required a denominational center to produce and distribute such necessities as programming guides and religious-school curricula. Computers offer these things on line – cheaper, quicker, and customized to boot. Denominational headquarters thus devolved into inefficient bureaucracies creating materials that could not compete with the internet’s ever-expanding and abundantly creative open market.

Had money been no object, the old denominational order — like General Douglas Macarthur’s fabled old soldiers — might not have died, but simply faded away. The economic collapse in 2008, however, hastened the near demise. What does a denominational headquarters do when it has spent half a century gearing up to disseminate what member synagogues no longer need?

The answer came clear last week. To begin with, the biennial caught up with the long-term trend from a “service” to an “experience” economy, by becoming a massive and spectacular experience itself; and then highlighting the need to understand how people experience the synagogue, rather than what concrete services they get from it. The call for “audacious hospitality” was everywhere, stretched to make attendees sympathetic to what people actually experience as they walk through the synagogue doors.

But attention to hospitality was just the sidebar story. The headline news was the Reform Movement’s decision to offer a message that matters. We live in an era of anxious identity. On the one hand, we must increasingly choose our own identity mix; on the other hand, everything is up for grabs, even motherhood and apple pie, all the more so the inherited Jewish identity of one’s youth, not to mention choosing Judaism anew if you find yourself in a Jewish orbit but were not born or raised that way. If Judaism is a choice, it better be worth choosing, and the old ethnic draws (Holocaust memories and Israel loyalties, not to mention Jewish food, jokes and nostalgia) are insufficient nowadays. The biennial broke new ground in its call to embrace Reform Judaism as a proper continuation of an age-old tradition and a profound statement of the human condition.

Over 50 years ago, psychologist Abraham Maslow posited a hierarchy of human needs: food, shelter, and safety; then honor and respect to salve our egos. But higher up the ladder – the perch we mostly occupy – we need also to know that we matter. We strive in the end to count for something, not just in the eyes of others, but in those mirror moments when we contemplate who we have become, and who we might yet be. We imagine one more workweek, one more vacation, one more dinner out; and we wonder if that is all there is.

The Reform biennial offered a proud and joyous vision of a mirror image that might matter. It gave a rationale for choosing Judaism in its Reform guise.

In times past attendees left biennials with best practices. This year, they departed with best principles, reasons to believe that the world itself requires the amplified voice of progressive Judaism. Already the largest Jewish movement in America, and worldwide, Reform Judaism (it was said) can yet double or triple its influence – not by programs but by these principles:

  1. Absolute commitment to the State of Israel, but modified by the right — even the obligation — to critique and to oppose any immoral governmental policies;
  2. The recovery of the prophetic call for justice, righteousness, and compassion;
  3. Eliminating barriers to full participation by all who seek what Reform Judaism is;
  4. Serious grappling with the vast library of Jewish classics, to access their wisdom for our time;
  5. Responsibility to the Jewish People and its universal mission to add light to the world; and
  6. Striving, along the way, to enrich one’s own life, personally, through spirituality, community, and commitment to what God asks.

If denominational movements champion messages like these; if they celebrate their promise, in a world where promise is sorely lacking; if they call adherents to become their highest selves, in synagogues that exemplify the principles that will make them so; if they do all this, denominational identity will thrive.

What’s In a name?

We should not be surprised when God promises Abram (later Abraham), “I will make your name great.” Abram is already wealthy beyond measure, with pretty much everything he might want. True, he lacks children, and God will grant him those eventually, but meanwhile, God promises a great name. Why not? What do you give someone who has everything?

What complicates things is that our great sage Hillel (no less!) warns, “A name made great is a name destroyed” (Avot 1:13). How can a great name be Abraham’s reward if “a name made great is a name destroyed”?

In part the answer comes from the language Hillel employs for “made great”: the Aramaic n.g.d, meaning “stretched out, elaborated, extended.” My teacher in rabbinic school, John J. Tepfer, zikhrono livrakhah, “of blessed memory,” used the example of Shakespeare. “Suppose Shakespeare had received doctorates from Cambridge and Oxford, earned and honorary, and begun signing his name, “Dr. William Shakespeare, Ph.D., D.D.” Would his name have been any more glorious than it already is?

At least Shakespeare would have merited the doctorates. Other people’s names get enlarged beyond what their bearers are worth. Take Sir Joseph Porter, in Gilbert and Sullivan’s HMS Pinafore. He was made First Lord of the Admiralty, because, as a politician, “I always voted at my party’s call/ and I never thought of thinking for myself at all./ I thought so little they rewarded me/ by making me the ruler of the Queen’s navy.”

First Lord Porter is just a fictitious dolt, however. Other people – the real-life variety – acquire outsized names that they take with all undue seriousness to wreak damage. The Maharal thus links Hillel’s adage to people who blatantly seek power by building reputations for evil. Think of Tomas de Torquemada, medieval Spain’s First Grand Inquisitor; or Vidkun Abraham Lauritz Jonssøn Quisling, the Norwegian whom few people ever heard of until he became a Nazi collaborator, and whose surname “quisling” became a dictionary noun meaning “traitor.” Sefas Emes goes farther, to include people who actually pursue virtue, but for the wrong reason – even serving God, but just to establish their names. They may do good things, but their lack of integrity will be their downfall.

The great name granted Abram, Rashi tells us, was nothing like that. It consisted in the addition of the extra letter heh, to make Abram into AbraHam. The letter heh is one of the ways we write the name of God. Its addition to “Abram” made his name (and him) more godly. Abraham’s wife, Sarai, also gets this gift — she becomes SaraH. Kish’mo ken hu, say the Rabbis — “People become like their names.” The midrash explains: “In times past,” God said to Abraham, “I alone could confer blessing. Now that I am part of your name, you can do it too.”

A name made great is a name destroyed – unless, of course, its greatness lies in outfitting the bearer to bless others, just like God.

These past High Holy Days, we read Un’taneh Tokef, a prayer we normally associate with reminders of how paltry we are relative to God. We are but dust and ashes, while God is the Judge, Jury, and Prosecuting Attorney in our court of last resort. God’s years are boundless, while we are mortals, doomed to die. But Rabbi Margaret Wenig points out the prayer’s surprising conclusion: “You [God] named us after you” (sh’meinu karata vishmekha). We are all like Abraham: God’s name is part and parcel of our own.

If so, we all can be a blessing to others. And in so doing, even our deaths are not the final word. When we die, people will say of us (as I said of my teacher, above), zikhronam livrakhah, “remembering us is a blessing,” because however long we lived, and whatever our worldly accomplishments, the only thing that matters is the blessing that we added to their lives. We are indeed mortal, but we transcend mortality by a name made great like God’s.

Gather All The Guests: The Good and the Bad

This Sukkot, I have been consumed by two compelling images, one commonplace, the other largely ignored.

The lesser-known (from Deuteronomy 31:9-12) is called Hakhel (“gather”) – the commandment that on every seventh Sukkot, the population gathers to hear “this teaching.” The Rabbis elaborate on “this teaching.”

At Hakhel , they say, the king himself (no less) proclaimed various passages from Torah, culminating in “the blessings and the curses” (Deuteronomy 27-28), the frightening explanation that good and bad are divine reward and punishment for our behavior.

This message is hardly ideal sukkah reading, however. Indeed, most Jews no longer believe it.

Fortunately, the book of Job provides an alternative: we simply do not know why good and bad occur; the laws of nature are impervious to moral logic.

But just acknowledging our inability to know why bad things happen lets God too easily off the hook. I don’t particularly relish a daily Sukkah dose of Job either.

So I turn to my second image: the familiar Kabbalistic invitation to other-worldly guests (Ushpizin, in Aramaic) to visit our Sukkah. This image too is tied to the problem of evil.

Kabbalah brings enormous sophistication to the issue. Begin with the fact that as thoroughgoing monotheists, Jews cannot blame the bad on some other deity. If a single God created everything, that same God must somehow be implicated in the bad, not just the good. At the very least, an all-powerful God ought to have arranged the laws of nature better!

Kabbalah solves the problem by implying that God is actually not all-powerful. God intended only good, but the process of creation went wrong, allowing evil to become embedded in the otherwise good universe. We human beings now face the task of cleaning up the mess – hence, the concept of tikkun olam, the human obligation to “correct” creation’s flaws.

I return to the ushpizin, the Sukkah guests. Our Ushpizin Ritual names them as biblical heroes, like Abraham, Isaac, and David. But Kabbalah meant these names as euphemisms for the good and the bad that crept into creation. It is really personifications of the world’s good and bad whom we summon to our sukkah!

Recall now the image of the king, every seventh Sukkot, reading the blessings and the curses. The “blessings and curses” of Torah are not altogether different from “the good and the bad” of creation. I need not read the former on Sukkot, it seems to me, as long as I consider the latter. As the king once assembled the population to hear the blessings and curses of Deuteronomy, we might assemble friends and family to hear the good and bad in our world – an updated version of the ushpizin, and a reminder of the tikkun the world needs.

Here’s my list for the seven years past.

2008: An elderly pensioner left penniless by greed that brought recession beyond imagination.

2009: A suffering child, now healthy, because she is insured through the Affordable Care Act of that year.

2010: A Haitian mother who died of cholera following the most devastating earthquake in memory.

2011: A liberal Muslim lawyer who joined the crowd in Egypt’s Tahrir Square hoping for freedom, but who got, instead, Islamic extremists who betrayed what the revolution might have become.

2012: A six-year old gunned down in Newtown CT, because we have no gun control.

2013: A homosexual couple, finally married, because the Supreme Court rejected the “Defense of Marriage Act.”

2014: An African father, dead from the Ebola epidemic.

Sukkot evokes gratitude: for the food, the brilliant autumn colors, and the gift of life renewed after another Yom Kippur fast. It should also prompt admission that all is not yet rosy throughout the world. God began creation, but left us to correct it: curing disease, preventing wanton cruelty, insisting on freedom, demanding equality, and standing up for the dignity of every human being. At least once every seven years, we should create our own Hakhel – a Sukkot “gathering” to acknowledge both the good and the bad that remain our human lot.