This is the Monday essay from Life is a Sacred Text— the newsletter from Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg, which you can read about here. If you like it and want more like it in your inbox, please consider subscribing.
We’re a few weeks into this project, and I think I need to pause and take a moment to talk a little more directly about God, and the character of God as depicted in the Torah/Bible. Which, at least for me, aren’t necessarily always the same thing.
I know that for some people, it’s really important to be able to track how every verse in the Bible can be totally consistent with every other verse in the Bible and also their theology, but that’s never been my jam, honestly.
I was an atheist student of religion long before I was ever a religious Jew.1 Which means that before all this stuff meant anything to me personally, I was taught about Biblical criticism--the theory that there were multiple authors of the Bible, coming from different perspectives, with possibly different agendas, whose words were all eventually redacted (edited) into one cohesive document. Or, perhaps, there was an earlier base text, with later additions by redactors--there are different theories about all this.
And for some people, this approach is harmonious with the idea of divine revelation, divine inspiration, or theophany in a myriad of ways, and for others, it’s more about sacred myth and history. But regardless of how you slice it, the idea that, somehow, the stories of the people of the Ancient Near East exist in and through Torah in many multilayered and winding ways was something that I was first taught many, many years ago. And I came to religious Judaism with this as my foundation.
The French philosopher Paul Ricœur talked about a “second naïveté,” the ability to see meaning, truth, and perhaps God shining through the words of the Bible after immersion in these potentially cynicism-inducing theories.
I never had much of a first naïveté, I suppose--a more literalist approach to Bible--but by the time I got over to understanding the exquisite power of Judaism, the way Torah could inform and transform my own life—it was already OK with me that God in the Torah wasn’t necessarily always going to be acting like the God I’d begun to meet in prayer, in mystical encounters, in the woods and on my long, winding walks outside at night.
I mean, sometimes, yes! Sometimes it all felt clear and easy--divine as redeemer, divine as comforter, that tracked for me. And sometimes it wasn’t clear and easy--but that lack of obvious path could be an invitation, rather than a dealbreaker.
(Eventually we’ll get to the whole business about how Jacob is renamed Israel, the one who wrestles with God. But needless to say, God-wrestling is what we do.)
Sometimes our relationship to the God that was described in Biblical verses was going to be more complex and nuanced than our culture has trained us to see-- and perhaps the expansive, transcendent Infinite was not, was never, Zeus the Angry Sky Daddy.
In fact, we, the Jews, don’t get too fussed by the literal descriptions of God as described in the Torah. Rabbinic texts teach that “the Torah speaks in the language of human beings,” (Sifrei Bamidbar Shelach 6 and elsewhere), meaning the Torah describes God in ways that our puny little human brains can comprehend--not because it’s an accurate reflection of God, just because we can’t handle anything more than that.
The 12th c. Jewish philosopher Maimonides takes this further, making it clear all over his work that anybody who takes literally either the physical anthropomorphisms (God’s strong hand and outstretched arm, or God’s back when Moses is in the cleft of the rock, etc.) or the emotional ones (God getting angry, being jealous, being happy, wanting or doing or feeling pretty much anything) commits idolatry.
Got that? If you take the anthropomorphism literally, you commit idolatry.
As Maimonides writes in his Guide for the Perplexed (I,30):
“Those who believe that God is One and that God [also] has many attributes declare the unity with their lips and assume the plurality in their thoughts.”
So what does Maimonides think we’re supposed to make of the depictions of God in the Torah, then? Allegory, of course.
As Ricœur put it,
“It is through interpreting that we can hear again.”
Or as my own rabbi, Alan Lew, put it in one of his books,
“the Torah is the record of the human encounter with God—the transcendent, the absolute. Every page of the Torah either describes this encounter or prepares us for it or discusses its implications.”
How the Torah describes the encounter, how the Torah discusses its implications isn’t always obvious.
And that’s part of the magic.
In Judaism, we talk sometimes about the fact that there are seventy faces of Torah (Midrash Numbers Rabbah 13:15-16)--infinite interpretations. Infinite ways in to making sense of the-character-of-God’s behavior in these stories. (Perhaps now it’s clearer why I say “the character of God”? The Torah speaks in the language of human beings.)
So my theology--my (limited) experience of and (limited) understanding of the great, vast, expansiveness, the great, pulsing Infinite--isn’t much threatened if some of the words in Torah don’t line up perfectly at first glance. There’s room, there’s time, turn it and turn it and turn it again (Pirke Avot 5:22), we’re all finding our way here together.
Oh, and if you’re part of the atheist/agnostic/shrug emoji contingent of readers, you’re most likely definitely not getting fussed about the depictions of God in these verses--just know that a lot of us also don’t think we’re reading a story about Zeus, either. Carry on, then.
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I wrote a book about how I got from one to the other (atheist to religious, that is), if you’re curious about that, which is also about all the stuff they don’t tell you about taking on a serious spiritual practice. Featuring God, punk rock, late 90’s San Francisco (featuring glitter, drag, and truly extraordinary parties), sobbing on the meditation cushion, running away from Shabbat afternoon prayer services, plastic aliens sewed onto yarmulkes, awkwardness, exhilaration, ecstasy, grief, and the hard, hard work of getting up to do the thing, day after day.