Joel Cohen

Do we want to always imitate God?

Reflexively, the answer to the question posed by the title should be “yes.” Still, are all of God’s characteristics positive? Can’t He be – when judged through the prism of human thinking – vengeful?  Needy?  Narcissistic, even?

We’re taught to emulate the Ways of God: Imitatio Dei. A derivation, if you will, from Imago Dei – that we are made in the image of God.  Not only do the Torah’s revered characters aspire to take on the virtues of God, but the Torah anthropomorphizes God’s behavior which ironically assists mankind in promoting good behavior on his part by seeing God in human (or virtually human) terms — at least when He interacts with man. God visits the sick in the instance of Abraham, and thus commands us, too, to visit the sick.  God buries Moses, and He instructs us, likewise, to bury the dead. And, to further the thought, as the Talmud tells us, “As He is merciful, so should you be merciful.” Imitatio Dei!

But God, it seems, is not always kind and virtuous. Given His oftentimes human-like conduct, He sometimes seems (forgive me) deeply flawed in how He deals with mankind. Perhaps irrational at times. Or vengeful. He suffers from fits of anger. And rage.  He treats the enemies of Israel as if they were His enemies, even though He alone created these “enemies.” He proposes to destroy an entire people without being willing to separate the wheat from the wayward chaff, as in the episode of Sodom; He declares an intention to kill off all the House of Israel whom He purportedly prizes, after the episode of the Golden Calf; and He even decides to destroy all humanity before backtracking to direct Noah to build the Ark.

But no matter how human God may appear to act, there is no room for questioning that He sees all of creation as about Him. He did create the world and all that is in it, but the Hebrew inhabitants of the world, it seems, must constantly bow to His existence.  Notwithstanding the questionable mantra that God created man imbuing him with “free will,” God simultaneously appears to have eradicated that freedom by warning mankind of the dire consequences of exercising it.   

More poignantly, though, God instructed Moses and in turn the House of Israel exactly how, and the words to use, to pray to Him for forgiveness – directing them to obsequiously recognize repeatedly that He is a forgiving God. Rather than having left man’s expressions seeking forgiveness to his own creativity, He tells us exactly the requisitely subservient protocols of prayer.  Looking at it from that perspective, doesn’t the word narcissist come to mind?

However one labels the unique characteristic of God’s demeanor in placing prohibitions on mankind, that demeanor surely presents itself pervasively.  He wants us to remember that “God is One” and “Jealous,” and that we should take no other god beside Him; that we dare not use His Name in vain; that we love Him “with all our hearts, all our souls and all our possessions”; and that if we don’t follow His Laws meticulously, we are doomed to painful destruction. He also created an entire regimen of animal sacrifice to honor Him. Beyond that, He deliberately created many laws for which mankind couldn’t possibly understand the rationale – in effect demanding blind faith. Maybe, too, an act of narcissism?

And, although the Torah tells us that six hundred thousand Hebrew males left Egypt to travel in the desert, the rabbis tells us that many Hebrews stayed behind unwilling to encounter the inevitable danger in the desert. Perhaps, a case of better the devil you know, rather than the devil you don’t. Either way, we’re never told in the Written Word how many stayed behind; or, indeed, that any stayed behind. Their unwillingness to follow His will and leave slavery perhaps a failure on God’s part, intended to remain unmentioned?

So, who exactly is a narcissist? The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual-5 describes a clinical narcissist with these characteristics, among others: he features grandiosity, with expectations of superior treatment from others; he finds himself fixated on fantasies of power, success and intelligence; he perceives himself as being unique and superior; he requires the continuous adoration of him; he has a sense of entitlement to obedience from others;  and, finally, he constantly demeans and belittles others. Indeed, the DSM-5 diagnosis for narcissistic human beings describes people who have “God complexes” of a sort.

There is little doubt, given how He has interacted with mankind, that if God were a human being He would likely be diagnosed as having a narcissistic personality disorder. But He is God – so shouldn’t that sui generis reality absolutely exclude God from any “diagnoses” by man?  What, then, does it mean that God demonstrates conduct that human beings might characterize as “narcissistic” (a trait which we always see as negative)?  Is this a character trait we should want to emulate?

In studying the Ways of God we often make judgments about God that we simply have no right to make. We see Him as having a “temper” because we see God only through the prism of human experience. When He punishes man’s sin over successive generations, we see Him  through the dirty windows of human experience. We see God as cruel in punishing idol worshippers because modernity has taught us to be more tolerant of our fellow man no matter his belief system.

Here’s the thing, though.  A belief in God is a leap of faith (beginning with the overriding and existential question whether He Himself authored the Torah).  However, He’s not human under any circumstances and shouldn’t be judged in human terms. We can’t make “judgments” about God’s conduct because, as a lawyer might say, we simply lack the necessary “standing”  to do so. This particularly when we arrogantly argue, even when we simply muse aloud in purely philosophical terms, that God is a narcissist.  Some who believe in Jesus may ask themselves  “What Would Jesus Do?” when they confront an ethical quandary personal to themselves. But Jesus, to his believers, was human before he became divine.  We, however, don’t believe that God ever had a human existence — God, for us, thus, is in a uniquely different orbit. That God is described in human terms in the Torah to help us better understand Him makes total sense.  For humans, though, to characterize God in human terms makes none.

We (should) certainly accept God as beyond our ken — and so our judgments of Him are unavoidably somewhat meaningless.  If, however, the Torah was actually authored by man, the projection onto God of man’s own human frailties, such as narcissism, opens a Pandora’s box in analyzing who God really is for us. Think about what that means!

So, to answer the question, “Do We Want To Always Imitate God’s Ways?” (I personally believe not), perhaps we should first consider and decide for ourselves individually precisely who the Scripture’s Narrator — or is it narrator?– actually is!  Meaning, was it God Himself who, in Scripture, presented God to the world warts and all?  Or did ancient man, with arrogance abounding, himself paint a subjective, very human, portrait of how he chose to perceive God? And if it’s the latter, are we truly constricted by the portrait of God that our predecessors painted – especially when we don’t always desire, for replication in ourselves, the image that the canvas presents?

About the Author
Joel Cohen is a white-collar criminal defense lawyer at Petrillo, Klein & Boxer in New York and previously a prosecutor. He speaks and writes on law, ethics and policy (NY Law Journal, The Hill and Law & Crime). He teaches a course on "How Judges Decide" at Fordham Law School and Cardozo Law School. He has published “Truth Be Veiled,” “Blindfolds Off: Judges on How They Decide” and his latest book, "I Swear: The Meaning of an Oath," as well as works of Biblical fiction including “Moses: A Memoir.” The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the Petrillo, Klein & Boxer firm or its lawyers.