My dad and I have been learning Torah once a week since the start of the pandemic. I had tried before then, but sooner or later we stumbled upon what I’d call “problem concepts.” Something along the lines of; separations between men and women, prohibitions of attending some reform ceremonies, anything he’d consider viewing others as “less than.” Said topic would dominate the learning session as I would do my best to explain nuance and deeper ideas I felt the Torah was trying to get at, while he would double down on his perspective until we’d reach a boiling point. That would be the end of our learning for a short while.
During the pandemic we decided to give it another go, and for some reason, he seemed more receptive to my explanations. Or, at least, more willing to hear them as we’ve not had a sabbatical since. But there was one “problem concept” that not only did I get him to listen to, I may have changed his mind (though I can’t be sure, you’ll have to ask him.)
Who created Whom?
“It just seems to me that God was the one created in the image of man,” my father confesses. It’s as if it was a heretical notion, and my virgin ears will bleed as the shelter of Orthodox dogma shatters. But what he perhaps doesn’t realize is that I’m his son. His notions of how the world works from a theological perspective were my starting point. I believed them for most of my life, championing them during my high school and college years. It is through my skeptical mind that I’ve come to my newer understanding.
Yes, man has to deal with the unanswerable question of “where exactly did we come from?” in some way. It makes total sense that mankind needs to find a way to explain the unexplainable (a question that has narrowed since the growth of science). We yearn for comfort when bad things happen to good people and tragedies emerge. And most of all, we can’t fathom not existing after we die. So why not put a face on all of the above? Something that is both authoritative but comforting. Hence why Morgan Freeman was such a great casting choice.
The book that is the Bible appears so clearly a product of a different time. So many details about agricultural laws, animal sacrifices, don’t even get me started on a levirate marriage. And the clincher for my father, the 10th Commandment, “You shall not covet your fellow’s house. You shall not covet your fellow’s wife, his manservant, his maidservant, his ox, his donkey, nor anything that belongs to your fellow.” What, women don’t covet husbands? Why would an eternal document meant for all of mankind necessarily be written from the male perspective?
It Doesn’t Make Sense.
Hearing these questions, I wondered if my father asked from a place of mocking, or from a place of genuinely wanting an understanding. Not that he was mocking the Torah before. But perhaps the Observant approach to it. Either way, he seemed open to listening now, so I pointed out the following.
If you look at the Greek/Roman gods, those were clearly made in man’s image. Bacchus’s frivolity, Zeus’s anger, Aphrodite’s beauty, these are human aspects to be made magnificent. There are countless paintings, sculptures, even video games depicting their super human form and qualities. And if one wished to justify their physical/emotional attributes, they could be found among the pantheon. But in Judaism we have a paramount commandment forbidding a depiction of Hashem. Why?
We have the Torah which, on a superficial read, seems like a book of copious laws. Some are appropriate to today, but many appear outdated. But then there are laws that are utterly baffling and don’t seem like they would have worked for any society at any point in history. Sure, don’t work on the Sabbath because people need rest. But Shemittah, a law that demands you let the entire land lie unworked for a year! If actually practiced would demand that one year’s crops would have to support you for three! Then in the Yovel year, (every 50 years) all debts disappear and all land ownership returns to the original owners. What man would write that? What society could live with that?
Then there are the character traits we’re supposed to follow. Love your neighbor as your self. Great! Who actually does that? Don’t speak Lashon Hara (meaning almost never talk about any person ever!) Don’t get angry. Read the Torah in Hebrew publicly, without vowels and sing it in a special way. These are all extraordinarily difficult tasks that take a lifetime’s work. But they all fall under the mitzvah of emulating God, where it says “to love the Lord, your God, to walk in all His ways, and to cleave to Him.” (Devarim 11:22)
Bringing it Down or Rising Up.
If God was an invention of man, the Torah would be a tool to help us find solace with who we are and would help us to satisfy our desires. But that’s not what the Torah does. It asks us to be more. It offers us the chance to overcome human frailty. It’s human to get angry and take revenge, like we see Zeus do. But instead we have, “Do not take vengeance or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am Hashem.” (Vayikra 19:18)
The last words, I am Hashem, are a signature to tell us the hard things are the most God-like. So we don’t depict God because… well I don’t know for sure… it’s beyond me. But I suspect it’s because we aren’t supposed to bring the Divine down to us. We’re supposed to rise to the Divine. That process is abstract, as intellectual as it is emotional. Though we should have role models to get there, it’s not the physical image that we should associate with this goal. It’s the hardest work imaginable. But by doing so, we realize our potential, accomplish things we wouldn’t think humanly possible, and thereby start to resemble the image of our Creator. Not from paintings, and not from statues, but through toil, growth, and acts of loving kindness.
I think my father saw my point.