Tuesday, October 2, 2012

God: Frightening Father, Sweet Sister or Mystery

(Written 30 September), Note: This is a critical reflection on certain aspects of my tradition. It has been suggested to me that in highlighting these elements, I am reinforcing a misconception of Judaism as overly harsh. A balanced study of Judaism and the Yom Kippur service will show God as compassionate and an emphasis on love and kindness as well as themes of judgement). 

Last night I “worshipped” by clipping little branches off bamboos with my older four sons and putting these bamboos on top of our Pergola. These shorn bamboo poles combined with corflute walls constitute a temporary “home” called a Succa. It was great to be doing something Jewish that was so uncomplicated. This in contrast to Yom Kippur last week, our day of atonement, a day to be cleansed of sin and spent in communion with God.  But, what kind of God are we reconciling with? It seems to me that a lot of the prayers reflect a concept of God as a judgemental  punitive father and harsh ruler. This approach is both familiar to me but also a bit jarring. I think I may have at least partially absorbed a contemporary view of God which, at the risk of oversimplification, could be compared to a loving, friendly, older sister who provides guidance but is in no way overbearing.

Punishment Ritual
The day leading up to the holy day began for my family just before 4 am. We piled into the car and arrived at a rural property where we were handed a chicken or rooster to hold and say a brief prayer. Many Jews have long ago substituted the bird for money, but my community does it the old way. Holding the chicken we recited,“this is my atonement, this is my exchange…this chicken will go to die but I will go on to a good life”. I then handed the chicken to a slaughterer and watched him slit its throat, for it to be donated to the poor.  I don’t particularly feel great resonance with this ritual, there was something worrying about the chickens, but it somehow felt like the right thing to do.

Judgement and Overwhelming Power
After a delicious meal with family and guests with traditional dumplings called Kreplach prior to the fast we gather for what will be a marathon of prayer. We plead to be written in the book of life, that our prayers be heard and confess to long list of sins ten times over the day. I am moved by the words to a song in which we compare ourselves to clay and God to the moulder  ourselves to a stone and God to the mason, iron and smith, glass and glass-blower etc.  Overall, there are some beautiful prayers and poetry, but there are also so many repetitive passages about the absolute greatness of God, judgement and punishment.

Angry God?
The punitive concept of God is also reflected in the Torah reading Haazinu. Heaven and earth[i] are called to be witnesses against the Jews[ii] in case they sin. In anticipation of sin, the Jews are called twisted and warped[iii], a “Naval[iv]” nation which is interpreted as stupid[v], and ingrates[vi]. God’s anger is described as “my anger has kindled a fire,   burning to the lowest depths, it shall consume the land…[vii]” God says he will use all his arrows against them. God is described as reflecting that “I thought I will exterminate them, I will make their memory vanish from among mankind”. The reason he would not do so is because “I was afraid[viii] that the enemies of the Jews would think that they achieved the destruction of the Jews themselves rather than recognising the calamity as being an act of God, thereby damaging God’s brand as the master of the universe. Wow! No “God is Love” here.

Beyond any Emotional expression
In Chasidic and Kabalistic teachings, the essence of God is understood to transcend any emotional or intellectual expressions or forms. God can only thought of as being kind or judgemental when he takes on such a role in order to connect with his creation. This process is referred to as Tzimtzum/ Contraction. I would compare this to the time that I had to wake up some Yeshiva students on the morning after some were drinking at the Purim feast. We were scheduled to put on a performance for school children at 8:30. Leib[ix] decided he was going to stay in bed, which was no big loss, his part in the play could be covered by one of the other actors. I knew that Getzl in the other room was probably overhearing our conversation and if Leib got away with this, he might also refuse to get up and I really needed Getzl. I put on a show of being absolutely furious with Leib I screamed and seemed to lose it. When I got to Getzl’s room, he gave me no argument. In a sense, God puts on an angry persona to relate to us as a strict parent.

God would like to be Liberated from the Current World Order
The Yom Kippur service begins with a solemn prayer about vows that might have been violated called Kol Nidre (which means all vows). The words are technical and legalistic, the tune moving. I find this prayer quite meaningful because of an interesting explanation[x]. A story is told in the Talmud[xi] about a sage overhearing a heavenly voice lamenting, “Woe is to me that I made a vow and I have no one to annul my vow”. Essentially God wishes he would never have promised to destroy his temple and exile the Jews from the holy land if they sin, and now would love to have someone to release him from this vow. For me, Kol Nidre this year was about asking God to “free Himself” and us from the world as it has developed. A world in which if western troops stay in Afghanistan innocent people will die, if they leave other death and terrible things will happen. A world in which, Iran is presumably seeking nuclear weapons and according the “rules” of the real world, there are some very scary and deadly choices. Please God, liberate us from all that. Do something magical.

God as Mother or Sibling?
It has become popular to talk about “mother nature” or mother earth. The idea of God as the force behind nature is authentically Jewish. I took a few minutes to wander outside during the service and admire the very tall majestic old trees that testify to God’s greatness. In our Torah reading God is discussed as delighting in finding the Jews in the desert[xii]. Protectively, carrying the Jews like an eagle carries it’s young on its wings[xiii], nursing him with honey from bedrock[xiv]. This is very nurturing, even maternal imagery. Even God as a sibling almost has a source in our holy books, when we imagine God as a lover calling on us to open our hearts to him. “Open for me, my sister, my friend, my dove…[xv]. Perhaps what works best for me is God as Mystery, His essence utterly un-knowable and indescribable. We can pray “according to the mind of the young child[xvi]. Still, I need to accept that my tradition still has a strong patriarchal idea of God as well. For today, the conceptualisation of God is less important, there are a few more bamboos to throw on to the Pergola. Ah, what joy!

[i] Deuteronomy 32:1
[ii] Rashi
[iii] Deuteronomy 32:5
[iv] Deuteronomy 32:6
[v] Bchor Shor,
[vi] Ramban
[vii] Deuteronomy 32:22
[viii] Translation of Ibn Ezra of the word “Agur” in Deuteronomy 32:6
[ix] Names changed to protect privacy
[x] Munk, Rabbi E, (1963) The world of Prayer Vol 2.
[xi] Talmud Bava Basra chapter 5
[xii] Deuteronomy 32:10
[xiii] Deuteronomy 32:11
[xiv] Deuteronomy 32:13
[xv] Song of Songs 5:2
[xvi] Derech Mitzvosecha

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