Elliott Malamet

Psalm 19 – Mad About God

Songs of Praise – A War Diary

For the director of music. A psalm of David.

“The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.
Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they reveal knowledge.
They have no speech, they use no words; no sound is heard from them.
Yet their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world…
The law of God is perfect, refreshing the soul.
The statutes of Hashem are trustworthy, making wise the simple.
The precepts of God are right, giving joy to the heart.
The commands of Hashem are radiant, giving light to the eyes…
They are more precious than gold, than much pure gold;
they are sweeter than honey, than honey from the honeycomb…
May these words of my mouth and this meditation of my heart
be pleasing in your sight, Hashem, my Rock and my Redeemer.”

The 18th-century German poet and mystic Novalis famously called the Dutch philosopher Baruch SpinozaEin Gottbetrunkener Mensch,” [“a God-drunk man”]. And though you clearly drink from a whole other cup, David, your God intoxication is also filled beyond the brim. One might ask if this is an inebriation bordering on the unhealthy, a kind of mental illness. But perhaps that is flogging categories from the age of therapy; I do not think that they really fit. You are mad about God, and leave the rest of us to ponder our own paltry faiths. And that is not such a bad thing, after all.

In trying to capture this devotion bordering on pathology, Maimonides goes much further than Novalis’s terse depiction:

“What is the proper [fitting] love of God? That a person should love God with an excessive and powerful love until one’s soul is totally bound up in the love of God, and one is constantly obsessed [shogeh] by this love, as though ill with love sickness, and your thoughts are never free from the love of that woman. One is always obsessed with her; when one sits, when one sits and when one gets up, when one eats and drinks. With an even greater [love than this], the love for God should be within the hearts of those who love Him and are obsessed with Him at all times as we are commanded “[Love God…] with all your heart and with all soul.” Maimonides, (“Laws of Repentance”, 10:3).

In the soul of the “shogeh”, a condition bordering on madness, the world contracts until there is room enough only for the object of desire. Not just in your mind or in your heart, but in your body, snaking through your skin, kaleidoscoping your dreams. But then, what is it like to be in relation to the person so afflicted/blessed, if you are not the object in question? To want to have you there, to want a you there, when you are fully present with One only, the only One. Still, if this a relationship flaw, an emotional blind spot that causes pain to the human beings in your life, then that singlemindedness also constitutes the highest religious virtue, the apex of the endless climb. This is not about “quality time”; there are no substitutes, no compromises, no working arrangements. We simply cannot do justice towards others, and also really be with Him.

At this point, I would normally take you to task, upbraid you for the abandonment of your human post, your emotional duty to the people in your life. But I cannot fully bring myself to do so, because, at the root of it, I am deeply envious of your drunken capacity. For me, God is not a felt presence, but the absence you intuit when something has gone missing or may never have existed in the first place. That is the great modern condition, where even pain would be preferable to the void, because at least you would cognize that something had once been tangible, like an ache after the tooth has been pulled.

But this does not prevent me from feeling deeply uneasy in the midst of my admiration. I do not know what to do with people like you, David, with your calling all of creation into the act, your unembarrassed shouting to anyone within earshot: “This is my God and I will glorify Him.” And so, “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they reveal knowledge.”

We both understand that this is not a scholastic argument about God’s nature and works, but something much less theoretical and hence far more important. How do we experience the planet we live in and the lives we construct? What do you see when you look out on the morning? What do you hear when the wind brushes past in the evening? I awoke today to the destruction of more young lives, dozens of them, all of whom a day earlier were walking beneath your skies and looking towards your heavens. You see God everywhere – in the streams and the valleys, the moon and the rain. The dictates of the law, the structure of the moral universe. And in finding Him, you have closed the circle with yourself. God is not your religious uniform, a fearful shield behind which to fend off reality, but the compass by which you navigate your being. As the American monk Thomas Merton once noted, “Many poets are not poets for the same reason that many religious men are not saints: they never succeed in being themselves.”

No matter how far you run to God, David, you always seem to find a way back to you.

About the Author
Dr. Elliott Malamet is a Jewish educator living in Jerusalem. He has a doctorate in English literature and teaches Jewish Ethics and Philosophy at various Israeli institutions, including Yeshivat Machanaim, Pardes, and the Schechter Institute.