Guest Column by Rabbi Jeffery Feinstein
Recently, while I was watching television, I saw an advertisement for a new show starring one of my favorite personalities, Morgan Freeman. The show asks the question “Who is G-d?”
I was intrigued and thought I should probably watch.
Then, abruptly, a light bulb went off in my head, and I realized that this was the wrong question. I think the correct question should be “What is G-d?”
When we ask who, we are automatically envisioning a personified being. In more academic terms, we are anthropomorphizing G-d. We are seeing G-d in human terms.
In Western civilizations, governed by the Judeo-Christian rules and regulations, we follow the Ten Commandments. One of the big 10 is “Thou shalt have no other gods before me.”
We have interpreted this to mean there is a prohibition against making idols or any rendition of what G-d looks like. Even though we know that this is forbidden, we do it all the time. All one has to do is look at the great works of art created during the Renaissance or for that matter even today.
In Judaism, the most egregious occurrence of creating a tangible god was the golden calf incident at the foot of Mount Sinai. Many Orthodox and even some not-so-observant Jews think we are still atoning for that one even today.
Let’s take a brief look at how this plays out in some other Western and some not-so-Western religions.
Christianity has developed an earthly human representation of at least part of G-d: Jesus Christ. Christianity has divided G-d into three parts: G-d the father, who is unseen, although the use of the term father certainly is anthropomorphizing; G-d the son, Jesus, certainly human in form; and G-d the holy spirit, the only part not in human form.
Although many Christian segments wear or display a bare cross, some, including Catholics, actually display the figure of Christ on the cross in both their places of worship and when worn around their necks as a crucifix. If not actual idolatry, that is certainly bordering on it.
Although not specifically a Western religion, Islam has given human aspects to G-d through the veneration of the prophet Mohammed. Although Allah remains unseen, there is the father connotation.
The major Eastern religions — Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism — all have a plethora of deity shapes and forms. Eastern Orthodox actually venerates paintings and statuary.
Why do we do this? One major reason may be that our minds are incapable of coming to terms with something that isn’t there. So we create gods that are recognizable and easy to comprehend.
When we stop asking who and begin asking what, we are challenged to dig deeper into our own personal belief system. If you take away the old man with the flowing beard sitting on the golden throne in heaven (another mythical construct), what are we left with?
We are left with the two basic constructs we find in Judaism:
- Echye asher echye, I will be who I will be. It’s the statement given to Moses at the burning bush.
- I will make all My goodness pass before you, but you cannot see My face and live. This statement is given to Moses when he asks to see G-d and instead is placed in a crevice in the rock and allowed to gaze on G-d’s creations — past tense.
When we buy into a depiction of G-d, we are all, as a group, buying into a common conception of G-d. G-d becomes communal. When we accept the notion that G-d cannot be defined or depicted, G-d must remain personal.
So as we approach Rosh Hashanah, let us remember that the question “Who is G-d?” is irrelevant. The question “What is G-d?” allows us to have a special, private relationship with “echye asher echye,” I will be who I will be.
Rabbi Jeffery Feinstein leads Kehillat HaShem.