We are the devout, the believers. We follow God’s laws to the best of our abilities, we center our lives around what we believe He desires, we address Him daily in our prayers. Yet, do you and I really worship the same deity?
Orthodox Judaism dictates belief in a single God—a God whose oneness transcends any unity we can conceive of; whose omniscience is undisputed; whose incorporeality puts Him beyond the scope of our imaginations. Yet we attempt to have a relationship with this God—because we wish it and because we believe that He wishes it. And so we try, futile as it may be, to figure out what He wants us to do on a daily basis, to turn to Him for answers.
The problem is this: as humans we are so limited, our perspectives so narrow—is it really God we relate to, or merely our own personal conception of Him? As limited humans, we know only ourselves. We relate to others, but we can never really enter into anyone’s consciousness but our own. As Rav Soloveitchik explains in his essay Confrontation: “Each [person] exists in a singular manner, completely absorbed in his individual awareness which is egocentric and exclusive. The sun of existence rises with the birth of one's self awareness and sets with its termination. It is beyond the experiential power of an individual to visualize an existence preceding or following his.”
Because we are so innately self-centered, it naturally follows that our view of God is affected by our own personal outlook and biases. The way I view God differs from the way you view Him, because I view the world differently than you do. Even two people within the same sub-sub-group of Orthodox Judaism will not view God in the same way, because each person is, inescapably, an individual.
I was speaking to a few friends the other day, remembering the ways in which we used to picture God when we were very young. We were all brought up with the idea of one God who knew everything, we were probably taught very similar things in school—yet the differences between the ways we conceived of Him were easily discerned. One friend remembered thinking of a tall, Rabbinic looking figure with a long white beard. Another friend simply visualized a large, magnificent throne to pray to. And yet another (slightly odd) friend imagined a giant cucumber in the sky (no, I’m not kidding). Personally, I don’t remember creating a visual image, but no doubt I had my own unique ideas nevertheless.
In children, these differences are obvious, because they conceive of God in a very physical way. We can easily recognize the contrasts between the various pictures we drew in our minds. As mature adults, though, are we so different? Perhaps we are no longer thinking of old men or thrones or cucumbers, but we do imagine a God that fits with our own personal ideas. Is He a friend to confide secrets to, or a stern taskmaster who punishes? A regal king or a familiar father? Theologically we’d probably answer “all of the above,” but when we talk to Him, who are we really talking to?
This presents a serious danger. If everyone has a tailor-made God, where is the line between God and self? When I talk to Hashem, who is to say that in reality I am not merely talking to myself? This is a frightening thought. If I have created God in my own image, then what do I have, really? I have an imagined relationship with something of my own creation, not with the true King. Yet, is this an avoidable phenomenon? It is truly a dilemma, and one that I think we all must recognize.
It occurred to me that is this issue that makes the prescribed words of tefillah so important. Many people (including myself) are often frustrated by the repetitiveness of tefillah--the same words, three times a day, over and over and over. Where is the originality? Where is the individuality? How is one supposed to feel anything when we are forced to endlessly repeat? As valid as these concerns are, individualized prayer presents a hazard that is even more pressing. Without a prescribed formula for prayer, people would simply tailor their words to their own personal God, and could very soon lose sight of the greater concept of God entirely. The words of tefillah force us to think of God in a certain way, reminding us of true ideas about God, preventing us from praying to a God wholly of our own imagination and conception. Though it does not eliminate the philosophical dilemma entirely, by any means, it is one tool that the system provides in order to help us grapple with this complex issue.