Deuteronomy 3:23 – 7:11
The Formlessness of our G-d: Not Making G-d in Our Image
I’m always fascinated by the discussion about what it means to be made in the image of G-d, as described in the creation story of Genesis. There we see the term used b’tzelem Elohim – that we are like an approximate copy or projection of the Divine; like a shadow, or a traced copy (צל; tzel). We are not exactly like G-d, say anatomically, but we are reflections of the Divine Nature. G-d is incorporeal and above any physical likeness, therefore we cannot say that we are exactly like Him. It’s very important that we remember this or else we get caught up in a simplistic way of thinking, where tzelem takes on another meaning in the depths of our minds even if we don’t know it; that of an idol. (צֶלֶם).
Here near the start of Moses’ final declarations being documented here in Deuteronomy he begins to give his final summary of their experiences in order that they reflect upon the lessons that they have learned. Right away he pauses and explicitly goes into detail regarding one notorious occurrence, that of the giving of Ten Commandments. He reminds of how G-d gave us the Torah:
“And Hashem spoke to you
from out of the fire
you heard the sound of words
but saw no form,
there was only a voice.”
| Vayedaber Hashem aleichem
| mitoch ha’esh
| kol devarim atem shom’im
| utmunah einechem ro’im
| zulati kol
Then Moses begins to talk about the paramount moment of the giving of the “Aseret haDivrot / The Ten Commandments;” or as the Torah explicitly calls them here, the “Aseret haDevarim / The Ten Words,” or the ten sayings. (v. 13). Moses defines his mission to Israel as teaching them how to follow these laws and rules for when they cross over into the Promised Land they can live by them. (v.14)
But then here he circles back to deal with one point again. Moses says:
“Watch yourself very well,
for you did not see
any type of image
on that day that Hashem spoke to you
at Horeb from out of the fire,
lest you become corrupt
and make you
an image that depicts the form of a figure,
[do not make] a form in the image of
a male or a female…”
| Venishmartem me’od
| lenafshoteichem ki lo re’item
| beyom diber Hashem aleichem
| beChorev mitoch ha’esh
| va’asitem lachem
| pesel tmunat kol-samel
| zachar o nekevah…
I like most people begin to trail off at this point because we all know where this is going. Moses explains that we are not to make any icon in the image of an animal, bird, of things that prowl and swarm on land (creeping-things), or even fish of the sea. (v.17-18). Interestingly the only thing that is left out from this type of prohibition is the making of the form of angels and cherubs; but only by means of omission. (see Parshat Chukat 2012)
Quite honestly for the most part we as modern people don’t have a problem with the latter part of this prohibition. Iconography is something that is foreign to all but the most primitive of people. Even our modern experiences of outright object veneration is considered merely symbolic and has most often been embraced as some sort of revivalism of ancient pagan ways. Modern people just don’t worship any form of animal or beast.
But us modern people should not feel less convicted by this call to pure and depiction-less worship. If anything, more so. We are so advanced in our thinking we seem to realize the role that we play in the “animal world,” but still in this respect we seem to exclude ourselves. Most of us think it foolish for a person to worship a cow for instance, or a bird. We can clearly see that is not divine, and that the concept of deity transcends any single form or representation in creation. But many of seem to have no problem with imaging the Divine in the form of humans; after our own likeness, in the form of the human animal.
I don’t want to drivel on with too much philosophy, our great teachers such as the Rambam wrote extensively on the subject of the almost iconoclastic call of Judaism, one that only sees parallels in the Islamic empire of his age. I can not do justice to his great way of describing it through his body of work. Ones in which he greatly stresses those shared beliefs that we have with Islam, that G-d is above depiction and that even the use of anthropomorphisms are a compromise of the transcendence of the Divine Nature.
Sure we often have to use mundane and human terms when trying to explain G-d, but fully with the understanding that G-d is not a person and that we are at best estimating in terms we can relate to. But that’s it. We try to be careful to keep that understanding because if we stray too far we may begin to think that we understand the mind of G-d. We can begin to think that G-d thinks and acts like us.
People want a G-d they can relate to. So we use approximations, but they are bad descriptions of G-d’s nature. He is above being mad or angry; above being pleased or happy even. G-d is transcendent above all. But in order for us to understand sometimes the scripture have to use these types of terms to get the point across, using feelings and ways of relating we all have in us.
The problem arises when we try to think that we understand the way G-d “thinks” or “feels” by reason of deduction in own mindset and sentiments. We project our likeness on to G-d. And that’s really what it is often times, people who think they have the mind of G-d just find a lot of ways saying G-d thinks like them. And that is utterly ridiculous, and we need to avoid such tendencies. Besides it’s just odd for us to do so anyhow.
For example, many years ago I worked for the Reformed Jewish movement in America. Our interim-director at the time was someone who was quite a feminist. Even though I was Orthodox, I didn’t have problems with her feminism. But what I did find odd was that when leading in the liturgy one at an event she changed the liturgy of Psalm 136; “Thank the L-rd for He is good,” then she changed the well-known response to, “for Her kindness endures forever;” exchanging the masculine of the text to the feminine back and forth. The older people looked at each other with a look of, “Oh how interesting.” Us few younger people looked at each other like, “That’s really lame.”
In a way we all could understand why she did that. We were all Americans, and we understood the statement that she was making. We all grew up in a pseudo-Christian America where G-d is understood as an old man. I emphasize man, because the image of G-d as Father to us all is not just symbolic but quite literal to people in this nation. The Almighty is the father of their god, and thus their idea of G-d is a male with all the trappings that entails. Only recently have some of the brave in their ranks begun to embrace and teach upon the female-like characteristics of the Divine. The “sacred feminine” was purposefully excluded. Not just merely for their theological convenience, but also to accommodate the sexism of the age we were raised.
However inclusive her intentions were, it showed a childish compromise of our tradition on her part. You see, her attitudes in having to utilize this unusual and almost provocative wording were reactionary to an immature concept of Deity on the part of our host society. Her way of reacting to that was with a response that was just as childish, stepping away from thousands of years of understanding G-d and the godliness of Elohim as being above gender and therefore utilizing the Hebrew masculine, plural; which is normative for things that are of genderless or in crowds of mixed genders. G-d is not man or woman, therefore we use a term that is above that, a lofty tense that holds the weight of both. Her engendering of G-d seemed to most people to fall short of that lofty concept. It seemed silly in the company of obviously dedicated religious intellectuals, in an age where embracing of Hebrew was so normative even in the far-liberal circles that the language change seemed more like a gimmick and projection of her own psychological need to have a G-d she could relate to by making it out to be like her. Mostly because such a sentiment was typical for people of her persuasion in that respect, that if G-d could not be like her then she didn’t want to have any part of it.
One should understand that why this is silly to people like me is because we have already seen this in our history. In fact going on throughout the history of the Jewish people in the Tanach we are going to see other competitive expressions of deity arising many times. One of the most infamous would be the Ashtarot; the chief goddess of the bronze age in the middle-east, her name being in the feminine, plural; as opposed to our G-d who is the masculine plural, though gender inclusive. The reason is quite clear if we understand who she was, in that she was responsible for restraining the wrath of the male god Baal who was lower in the pantheon. She was the ancients response to a harsh patriarchal system. But she, would be a female that would come with all their cultural hangups of gender in the end, and would find herself competing time and time again with male challengers for the lead of the pantheon of gods. Continuously in successive generations the battle would go back and forth between the male gods that were warlike and disciplinarian; and the female gods that were compassionate symbols of fertility, but overbearing and volatile. The people’s leanings would swing back and forth as they became tired of one extreme and would default back to the other again.
But here in this parsha Moses points out that a central purpose of this giving of Torah was to liberate us from this type of foolish constraints upon our understanding of G-d by limiting the Divine into any form. G-d is nothing, He is not one thing; and at the same time He is everything; all things in creation are reflections of G-d’s nature, but G-d is not like any one thing alone. We cannot study and try to pattern the behavior of the Divine like we are watching a subject on Animal Planet. We can’t try or claim to understand G-d’s mind and motivation like people try to with a mouse in a maze study.
We cannot not limit G-d, as the Divine is bigger and more than we can ever comprehend or describe. G-d is the Encompassing-All, everything exists in Him and through His will alone; even though “He” isn’t a complete description without qualification of its gender inclusiveness in our Hebrew language and mindset. This need of rising to this higher understanding is not just so we can have a mature idea of G-d, but also so that G-d can be more mature than the trappings of petty human characteristics in our own mind as well. If we can’t do that, the inevitable result is that we start projecting more and more of our own qualities and fickleness upon G-d. That is just as much an idol as limiting G-d in the form of a mamash beheima – an actual animal.