Thursday, December 13, 2007

Do We Create God In Our Image?

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.


jackie said...

Oh SJ, you've gotten so philosophical lately!

So personally, I think there's a very big difference between relating to G-d in a personal way and deeming Him to be a "personal construction." Two people could daven to Hashem in very different ways and that does not imply that they're only talking to themselves C"v, or talking to their own invented G-ds.

Look, some people don't see G-d's involvement at all and have no relationship with Him; others see Him in every time the traffic light turns green. Ultimately, He's either involved or He's not. But since we never know for sure, we frequently have to make our own judgment. And I could have no good standard by which to evaluate another person's judgment in this matter. Therefore, this issue doesn't bother me terribly much.

Oh, and the Rav spelled his name 'Soloveitchik,' I think. But I always find his name very tricky, so I could be wrong. Everyone in the family had his own spelling for it....

M.R. said...

Oh, SJ. Should've guessed this was the "philosophical post".

Is the title of your blogpost inspired by that incredible line from Inherit the Wind: "G-d created man in His own image. Man, being a gentleman, returned the compliment"?

Right, but into the teeth of this discussion: I say, sometimes.
Yeah, absolutely, sometimes I think I'm talking to G-d, and then I stop mid-sentence, because I realize that I'm really just talking to myself. Oddly enough (considering things you've said regarding visualization of G-d), this is most common when I'm *not* focusing on any particular visualization of Hashem, when I'm just using prayer (whether spontaneous or what's in the siddur) to work out in my own mind what's going on, without retaining a firm focus on some concrete "Hashem-concept". But sometimes I feel very strongly that I absolutely am talking to Hashem. And yeah, it's with a visualization: no matter how much Yahadut stresses that Hashem is totally incorporeal, that He is totally and completely spiritual, at the same time it's a rare person (if any) who can relate fully and emotionally to such an abstraction. There's a reason that aggatida uses meshalim so frequently; there's a reason Hashem gave us a mishkan and Beit Hamikdash!
Right, so the times that I know most strongly that I'm really talking to Hashem, I use the Avinu Malkenu mashal. I don't have a particular visual visualization, but emotionally, it's standing before my Liege-Lord, who also happens to be my Father, and to Whom my service is pledged.

Don't know the ins and outs of Who exactly He is and all of His attributes: that's neither my job nor my place. My duty is to serve the One who released me from human bondage and took me into His Own service. What He wants, I have an obligation to do. He asks me to pray, I will stand before Him, whatever His particular nitty-grity attributes, and bare myself before the One in Whose service I am sworn.

MR on spirituality (both in the drug and expounding sense of "on"). That's happened all of what, a few handfuls of times? But I know that that's when I'm really talking to my God, my Creator, my Master, Whom I can love without really understanding, because He is my Master, my Lord, my Father, my Redeemer, and He said that He loves me.

Ezzie said...

VERY interesting post, and I've never thought of the proscribed words of tefillah that way. 'Tis an interesting thought...

We'll shmooze. :)

Northern Light said...

SJ, you have eloquently capsulized many of my own dilemmas. Sometimes when davening I think we are told to use the prescribed words as a form of brainwashing.
Other times I think the words are a brilliant means to help me focus on everything I should be concerned with.
Sometimes I get mind-boggled that everything from God's perspective is One. The brutal murderer and the cow and the tree and me...we're all just part of one thing God decided to make up.
And other times I get caught up in the things you describe.
I see it like this: What does a dog think when he sees his master sitting in an easy chair reading a newspaper? The dog can't conceive of the ink on the paper as conveying complex ideas. Maybe we're all like the dog. Arf.

G said...

On the raaaaaaaaaaaaare occasions that I think about such things...

Do the different children in a family all view/speak to/deal with their parents in the same way?
Does it matter?

M.R. said...

Wonderful analogy! I think that really puts this conversation into a very good perspective.

Also, I love the avatar!

corner point said...

Fascinating, SJ...

It's hard for me to explain how I feel about this...I don't think we create G-d in our image, but rather operate on the orders of and serve the G-d that we may try to understand with our respective experiences and views. I don't see my G-d. I don't hear Him. I don't visualize Him. I just feel His presence and power and awesomeness, and I direct my thoughts and prayers and love and fear towards that Presence. We were not created to understand Him, nor to personalize Him, but we can understand ourselves and personalize ourselves in relation to Him...

I don't know if that came out how I meant it to. Concepts this deep are difficult to put into words...

Moshe said...

A beautifully written post.
I have tried over and over again to respond but I cannot seem to put the words on paper. I think this topic is beyond blogging...there is too much to say that may be misinterpreted in a comment.

I hope you don't mind that I plan on showing it to some people (classmates).

Anonymous said...

S.J., the blog is thoughtful, beautifully written, well-organized, even profound. In a sense, the longing you describe for a single, unified visualization of the Deity is the same yearning that gave birth to Christianity. The whole idea of their adaptation (and distortion) of Judaism was to provide a clear representation (in flesh, no less) of God, to make Him more accessible and relatable to human beings. The irony is that Christians end up facing a very similar problem: do they worship a Semitic J.C., a black J.C., or a blond-haired/blue eyed Swedish J.C.? (Ron Paul's preference, no doubt). Is their Number One Guy a working class hero, a scholarly rabbi, an anti-Roman rabble rouser, or what?

The fascinating aspect of your brilliant essay is that the same confusion can apply to relationships between human beings. When a husband relates to a wife, he sees a different woman from the woman anyone else sees or knows. Subjectivity infects all human relationships--even with people we see -- so acha kama v'kama -- how much more so that subjectivity must afflict our relationship with the Creator we don't see? It's not just the different visions of different children (or adults), but different visions of the same adults (according to mood, circumstance, and so forth).

Thanks for the stimulating provocation! --

Erachet said...

So interesting. Perhaps this comes from the fact that God created us in His own image? Because if you think about it, God knows us, as His creations, so well that when we speak to ourselves, it is like we are speaking to God, and perhaps, like you say, vice versa (is that how you spell that?).

I think this is also something very compelling about God because since He is so enigmatic, He can be imagined in countless ways and therefore provides the possibility of a relationship with so many different people. Perhaps God is SUPPOSED to be this undefined Being because to be defined is, in a sense, limiting. To have personality, to be one way and not another, is an earthly, human limit, because you are then NOT other things. If God fell under such limitations, He would not be God! How could a ruler of the world be restricted by clear identity?

So perhaps yes, we do envision God the way we want to, not just in a physical sense, but in a mental, spiritual, and emotional sense. And I think this is the way it's supposed to be because it is the only way for the entire human race to be able to connect to one, singular Being, no matter how different the rest of us are from each other.

Moshe said...

I started reading "A History of God: The 4,000-year Quest of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam" by Karen Armstrong. I read it hesitantly as I am not sure of the level of apikorsus I may find. That being said, she struggles with your question of how people create an image of God and how that has changed/evolved throughout the histories of the Jews, Muslims, and Christians. Read the introduction or some reviews if you may find it insightful.

I think Erachet's remarks are accurate that "Perhaps God is SUPPOSED to be this undefined Being because to be defined is, in a sense, limiting."

SJ said...

Obviously, God cannot be completely defined. Rambam even forbids ascribing any attributes to God, as doing so negates His ultimate unity. However, neither can God be completely undefined. Does it make sense to say that He can be whatever you want Him to be? Can you say that He is physical, or experiences human emotions? That sounds dangerously like a form of avodah zara to me. Clearly, there must be some conception of what God is, or at least what He is not.

Moshe said...

Yes, but what you are asking is nearly impossible for who has met God to know what image of Him He wants us to have? How can a human being possibly have any conception of what God is?? God is precisely that: inconceivable. Perhaps that’s the image we ought to have – an image of God as something so Great that It is beyond images and our imaginations.

Erachet said...

Does it make sense to say that He can be whatever you want Him to be? Can you say that He is physical, or experiences human emotions? That sounds dangerously like a form of avodah zara to me. Clearly, there must be some conception of what God is, or at least what He is not.

No, not physical, but to view God as an entity that you can relate to. The fact that God is so undefined creates the possibility for so many different people to be able to connect to Him, even though in real life, all of us would not be connecting to the same people. But God is a Being everyone can connect to, specifically BECAUSE he is not defined in a way that limits Him to be only relatable to (yay for made up terms) for certain people. I don't think that's avoda zara at all. I think that's understanding God in a personal way.

SJ said...

To me, the bottom line is that there needs to be a balance: yes, we must create a personal relationship with God, but we must also be careful not to inject ourselves into our image of Him. Awareness is key.

Ezzie said...

Balance in everything. :) Woo!

Jew from the Desert said...

Such a wonderfully articulate post. I have a number of thoughts that I wanted to express here:

Firstly, as a student of child development, I've come to understand (and observe) how children grow and expand their own understanding in a way that radically changes how they relate to their world and how they frame and maintain their relationships. One such concept is that, around the age of four, a child acquires the ability to look at and understand a situation through another's perspective. All of a sudden their world opens up to a new way of thinking, perceiving, relating.

I postulate that these growths affect our relationship with The Almighty as well. As our eyes open up through life experience we come to relate to The Almighty in new ways, understand different aspects about Him.

A brief example: I hope to be a father someday (IY"H), and I know that becoming a father will affect every aspect of my life. To the point of how I relate to my friends, how I drive and when I go to sleep or wake up. It will also strongly impact how I see The Almighty as a Father. And through that experience, I will grow closer in my connection with him.

The difference between relating to The Almighty through my personal experience and "creating God in my own image" is that the former recognizes God as something beyond me, and thus my limitations uniquely enable me to connect with Him on a specifically personal level, while the latter takes the conception of a supreme being and tailors it to fit what I deem fit in my life.

The difference is in submitting to an obligation outside myself versus obligating myself in the name of something I conceptualize to be more than me.

Knights Templar said...

"God told me to kill Janet"
What? God wouldn't tell you that?
"How would you know? He was in my head!"
Well in my head, God said that was wrong.
"God is in all of us isn't he?"
When I hear his voice I listen. You obviously don't
"Well I guess my god is differen't from your god"
yeah I guess so.
"Let's go to war. There can only be one God"

How it all began. And that's where God said. "Fuck this"