I’m a rabbi, but I tend to get a little itchy when the question of belief comes up.
Believers and skeptics alike are generally talking about the same God in whom they believe or don’t. He’s really tall, big beard, sits on a throne, sounds like Darth Vader. He rewards us when we do what he wants and punishes us when we don’t. Put simply, people seem to believe or not believe in Zeus.
That’s not the God I believe in.
The Jewish tradition certainly offers that Zeus character as one of the understandings of the Divine, but not the only one, and in fact, that’s not even the main understanding of the Divine in the Jewish tradition, though it does tend to loom large at Yom Kippur.
The Jewish mystical tradition talks about the Ain Sof, the primordial boundless, endless source of all life, all existence. Like love or gravity, it undergirds everything and its manifestations are all around us all the time, but can’t be apprehend directly.
Ain Sof is endlessly fluid and every attempt to nail to the page with ink betrays it.
If we want to think about Ain Sof and talk about it, we might robe it in concepts and language — like the three letter word GOD – but that robing is not reality.
We run the very real risk of debasing the pulsing reality of Ain Sof when we reduce that essential life force to a character called Mr. God, whom we can cast in a middle school musical.
I live up in the majestic Hudson River Valley and am blessed to see the river every day. Imagine trying to “capture” the river — where would you begin? Should you download a satellite image? Paint a panorama from the top of a mountain? Write a poem? Take a camera and shoot from a helicopter? From a kayak? Under the water with scuba gear? Should the picture be taken today? On a cloudy day? A sunny day? A year from now? A year ago?
The river, is a living, pulsing thing. We would never confuse a photograph or a painting for the river itself — that would be ridiculous. Yet that’s exactly what we do with the Divine all the time.
Divinity is an abstract noun, almost a verb, like love or electricity. The idea of God, the character of “Mr. God” is a representation of something much larger and elusive. We know this from the prohibitions on idolatry; it’s not that we shouldn’t represent the Divine — it’s that we can’t represent the Divine. If you can see it in a picture, it’s not the Divine.
Think of contemporary art — it’s not powerful because it capture reality more accurately than a photograph; it’s powerful because it indicates things which cannot be apprehended directly.
At its best, art — and religion — gestures towards the ineffable.
In my dining room, I have a very representational painting of the Hudson River which I love, and I am so grateful to the artist who painted it and to scientists who can explain the how the river works. Their insights enrich my experience of the river, but they are not the river. Even when I swim in the river, I am not the river — only the river is the river and if I’m lucky, I can experience it in a way that makes sense to me for a moment.
The Degel Machane Ephraim, a 18th century Jewish mystical master teaches:
In every [little] activity, like eating or drinking or conducting business, there is an energy that animates us, and this is אל חי – the Divine Force of Life… The very center of nature is this Divine Force of Life, and when we [act in a certain way], we reveal this Divine Force of Life, which is robed in nature.
Last summer, I was camping with my daughter and some friends. Out on a trail called Mary’s Glen at North South Lake, we came to a little waterfall, with water cascading down these massive slabs of rock, each one about seven feet high, stacked on top of each other.
In a tiny crack between these slabs, there was a little dirt, and on that dirt, there was a little moss, and out of that moss, there was a little plant creeping upwards towards the sun. I stood there and experienced revelation as clearly as if I were at Mt Sinai. This was the Divine Force of Life pulsing through the rock, reaching up to turn the sun and dirt and water into life, more and more and more life and more life.
The Truth of the Divine is the energy of life, pumping through everything, flourishing where it can, celebrated-and-helped or ignored-and-hindered by human effort.
I robe the Force of Life differently in the hospital room than I do on the mountaintop, differently in this room than I do in the cemetery. There are different clothes for different occasions, and sometimes even the “robing” as Mr. God is useful. But not all the time.
Reality is endlessly fluid and every attempt to nail to the page with ink betrays it. When we — believers and skeptics alike — limit the Divine to Mr. God and say that belief in that robing character is the necessary prerequisite for a religious life, we commit idolatry and worse, we rob ourselves of our own souls.
This is adapted from a PechaKucha Beacon talk, which can be heard with slides here.