Friday, April 23, 2010

God and humanity: who's imitating whom? / Parshat Kedoshim

When we read Western literature we know just where to find the climax. It’s in the penultimate chapter, very near the end, with just enough after it to resolve unanswered questions. But Biblical literature is often structured differently: the essence is in the middle. Picture Mt. Sinai, its peak in the center. Hence many scholars have pointed out that the central “high point” of Torah – the Five Books of Moses – is Leviticus. Leviticus delineates the rites and requirements of the sacrifices made in the Mishkan, and later in the Temple in Jerusalem. Ironically, Leviticus has the least amount of narrative (only two small portions) and is weighed down with rules and rituals.

Leviticus itself has a fascinating structure, but for our purposes here, let us consider the book as another Mt. Sinai. The peak is chapter 19, which has been dubbed “The Holiness Code.” It begins:
The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to the whole Israelite community and say to them: You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy. (Leviticus 19:1)
The content of chapter 19 is a mix of laws that we moderns would say fall into various (and sometimes overlapping) categories: ethics, rituals, agricultural laws, social legislation, and business law. These categories are meaningless to the Torah because everything we humans do matters to God. There is no distinction between ethical and ritual laws for the Torah. It is all a matter of aligning our lives and behavior with God’s vision of the world as it should be.

The phase, You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy encapsulates a radical idea: we can be, and should be, like God. How is that possible? Is not God wholly other, completely removed, at a far distance from us and our world? Not at all! God is as near as the air we breath and continuous reality in our lives to the extent that we permit God into our lives.

Our Sages went further and offered and even more radical notion: Not only do we imitate God, but God imitates us! In the Talmud, R. Yochanan learns from a verse in Isaiah that God prays, muh as we humans pray. This leads to a question we might well be inclined to ask: what prayer does God pray?
R. Yochanan says in the name of R. Yosi: How do we know that the Holy One, blessed be God, prays? Because it says: Even them will I bring to My holy mountain and make them joyful in My house of prayer [literally: “the house of My prayer”] (Isaiah 56:7). It does not say “their prayer” but rather “My prayer”; hence [we learn] that the Holy One, blessed be God, says prayers.

What does God pray? R. Zutra b. Tobi said in the name of Rab: “May it be My will that My mercy may suppress My anger, and that My mercy may prevail over My [other] attributes, so that I may deal with My children through the attribute of mercy and, on their behalf, stop short of the limit of strict justice.” It was taught: R. Ishmael b. Elisha says: I once entered into the innermost part [of the Sanctuary] to offer incense and saw Akathriel Yah, the Lord of Hosts, seated upon a high and exalted throne. God said to me: Ishmael, My son, bless Me! I replied: May it be Your will that Your mercy may suppress Your anger and Your mercy may prevail over Your other attributes, so that You may deal with Your children according to the attribute of mercy and may, on their behalf, stop short of the limit of strict justice! And God nodded to me with his head. From this we learn that the blessing of an ordinary person must not be considered lightly in your eyes. (Babylonian Talmud, Berakhot 7a)
Did you guess the answer to the question: what prayer does God pray? Are you surprised that God prays for self-control? What an exquisite and remarkable view of God! It is one thing to conceive of God as a model for human behavior, but here the Rabbis imagine human behavior as a model for God.

This is a dynamic view of God. This is not the God of Maimonides: the Unmoved Mover, the First Cause, the Active Intellect. This is a God who engages in deep relationship with people and the world God created, who cares deeply, loves intensely, and seeks self-improvement – teaching us to care deeply, love intensely, and seek self-improvement. You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy.

Dr. Yochanan Muffs writes in The Personhood of God (pages 192-193):
It is almost tragic that in order to liberate the religious from religion, the God of the common faith from the God of supernaturalism, it should be necessary to demythologize religious literature, thus draining off its poetic power, and to depersonalize religious doctrine, thus draining it of its educational power. A model of divinity that does not partake of personhood can hardly be expected to cultivate personhood in man. Further more, a boring and unevocative model, no matter how correct philosophically, is certainly of little “world-creating” value. The problem, therefore, of the modern religious humanist is how to demythologize the model without sapping its poetic force and psychological profundity.

I believe that many of these pitfalls could be avoided if we remythologized our theology rather than demythologized it. Fully realizing that the anthropomorphic God is to a very great degree a projection of man’s understanding of his own psyche (not merely of his own intellectualized and abstracted ideals), we must turn up the mythical decibels of the old personal God.
Parshat Kedoshim offers us a doorway into that process. Shabbat shalom.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

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