Facing God Means Facing that God Has Many Faces
D'var Torah from Riverway Unplugged, 4/18/12
Perhaps you've heard the story that tells of God sitting in heaven one day when a scientist comes up and says, “You know, God, we don’t need You anymore. Science has solved the mystery of DNA. And we’ve finally figured out how to create new life. In other words, we can now do what, in the beginning, You did.”
“Is that so?” replied God, truly delighted by this turn of events. “Tell Me more.”
“Well,” said the scientist, “we’ve figured out how to take dirt, form it into a likeness of You, then breathe life into it and, voila, a human being!”
“Well, that is interesting,” said God. “Why don’t you show Me a demonstration.” So the scientist bent down and began scooping up soil from which to mold the shape of a man.
“No, no, no,” interrupted God. “Get your own dirt!”
Beneath the veil of subtle humor within this tale is a loaded question. Perhaps several. And their age-old questions, which nowadays is no less compelling and divisive that it was for the ancients who crafted the Hebrew Bible. How was the universe created? How does mankind make sense of God—or, to phrase that question humanistically, how do we make or find ultimate meaning in this universe?
In our Torah portion this week, Parashat Shmini, amid the nuts and bolts of the maintenance for the sacrificial cult we find a theological gleaning. In chapter 9, Moses says to the people, "This is what the Eternal has commanded that you do, so that the Presence of God will appear to you." There are two instances in fact within this portion in which Moses tells the Israelites that their sacrificial actions can result on God’s appearance. No further description, just “God or God’s Presence will appear.” I read this and wonder: really? What will God look like? The Hebrew here clues us in: the term we find for God’s presence is k'vod Adonai, often translated as the "Presence of God" but it literally means "glory" of God. It's an expression found mainly in priestly writings, and it denotes a visible manifestation of God. This is the God we can see. In Exodus 24, this k'vod Adonai appears as a consuming fire, often accompanied by a hovering cloud that protects that Israelites in the wilderness. K'vod Adonai: This is the kind of God that actually appears. We can engage this kind of God in space, and perhaps imagine this God saying to us, “get your own dirt.”
But the Bible's not monolithic, and if you look at the text as a whole it's not even monotheistic. The book of Exodus is in fact more monolotrous than monotheistic. The difference between monolatry and monotheism? Monolatry = Different peoples have different gods; my God is bigger than your god. Monotheism = there’s only one God. It’s monotheism that wins the day throughout Jewish history (as we find in the Shema), but that’s not to suggest that this dominantly monotheistic tradition has one thing to say about this one God.
Unfortunately, many popular, influential writers, when critiquing religion, fail to understand this aspect of Judaism. Consider the late writer Christopher Hitchens, in the title of his immensely popular bestseller: God is Not Great. In this polemic against religion, Hitchens responds to the God-image of a literal dictator, who cares for, or neglects, his subjects at will.
Similarly, Richard Dawkins, in his bestseller, The God Delusion, argues specifically against a creationist god, against the God who says, “get your own dirt.” Dawkins, like Hitchens, lumps all religions together, moderate and extreme alike. He writes, “Even…moderate religion helps to provide the climate of faith in which extremism naturally flourishes,” and he ultimately equates religious education with “child abuse.” If religious education were child-abuse, then we’d be left with a God-image of an abuser.
So who cares what they think?
One person who cares is Dr. Carol Ochs, scholar of philosophy and spiritual guide, who teaches that as children we all acquire God-images, from a variety of places: from people, from authority figures; from the stories we read, the songs we sing, and the tales we tell. This all happens, “long before we become involved in…theological debate.”
“Most people,” according to Ochs and co-author Kerry Olitzsky, “are unlikely to reflect on this image when they are older…to modify it in terms of their mature consciousness. More common is the experience that we formulate an image of God in our early years and do not look at it again until a crisis hits.”
When we are in crisis, what kinds of God-images, if any, do we turn to?
Rabbi David Wolpe, a cancer survivor, debated Hitchens in November. He explained that he did not turn to God as a dictator who controls everything. He didn’t even turn to an understanding of God who will surely heal him. “What I prayed for,” Wolpe said, “was closeness….not a miraculous cure…I prayed for the certainty that I was not alone… for blessing and love, not magic.”
In fact, just as we encounter varying images of God throughout Torah, our liturgy too abounds with a plurality of God concepts. We can read our prayer book as one great attempt at pushing language to its limits to find ultimate meaning in the universe. There are many divine words employed in this great task.
Let’s now take a look at the God-words that we sing throughout the Friday evening liturgy. If you’re writing your own siddur, which ones would make your edition? Or what’s missing from the list? (citations from Mishkan Tefila)
In the history of the world, no book has sold more copies than the Bible. In this greatest bestseller, the Hebrew word for God’s face is “panim” (In Yiddish, “punum.”) It’s an unusual word because even though it is singular, its grammatical form is plural: “faces.” It can also mean “Presence.” Perhaps Torah is urging us to consider spiritual Presence in light of this possibility: that facing God means facing that God has many faces.