Let us make humankind: being God’s image

Welcome
Welcome
Welcome
To this great arena
Durham, North Carolina
In the heart of the research triangle

We’ve come to this particular place tonight,
Because we gotta look at things from every angle
We need some answers to some complicated questions
If we’re going to get it right.

With those words does Randy Newman kick off his current release, Dark Matter. And if I’d commissioned the Grammy- and Oscar-winning composer to craft a song for Judea Reform Congregation on kol nidrei night, I couldn’t have asked for a better beginning.

That is my hope for this night of nights, and for the day of days that follows: that we come together in our diversity and complexity, ask the right questions, and come, with humility and grace, to “getting it right.”

The song is called “The Great Debate.” In it, the narrator takes on the role of master of ceremonies at a symposium that has brought together eminent scientists from various fields, as well as religious folks from a number of denominations. It’s all very funny, and the conceit of the whole thing is this: the scientists attempt to offer nuanced observations in the areas of astronomy, biology, and meteorology, but they can’t get in a word because the narrator is captivated by the really good music that the religious folks bring. In the face of that Old-Time Religion, Science never stands a chance.

Newman, as always, has his tongue firmly planted in cheek. He even calls himself out mid-song, introducing a character called The True Believer who interrupts the proceedings to address the crowd:  

You see, the author of this little vignette, Mr. Newman,
A self-described atheist and commonist (sic)
Creates characters like you
As objects of ridicule
He doesn’t believe anything he has you say
Nor does he want us to believe
Anything that you say.
It makes it easy for him to knock you down
Hence, a straw man

Now sure, it was “Durham” and “great arena” and “complicated questions,” that caused my ears to perk up and my “2017 Sermon Thoughts.gdoc” to be opened up. But it’s uncanny how the meat of “The Great Debate” really does work at this synagogue during this holiday season. On Rosh Hashanah morning, we thought together about letting science – evolutionary biology, in particular – teach us Torah. We thought about the virtue of a little humility, about not placing ourselves so precisely at the center of all creation. An acknowledgement of the interdependence of all things is a more nuanced and more humble stance than one that sees all creation as subservient to humanity. I think it’s a more satisfying stance, as well.

Because to be comfortable with uncertainty and complexity is a virtue, not a vice. It can also be a joy. An accomplished scientist once said, “I’m sorry I know so little. I’m sorry we all know so little. But that’s kind of the fun, isn’t it?” The scientist’s name was Vera Rubin and she died last December at 88, after a long and fruitful career in astrophysics. As it so happens, she’s actually the scientist credited with uncovering the presence of the unseeable stuff of the universe, stuff greater in mass than all the stuff we can see. The stuff called “dark matter.”

———

So let’s delve into the matter at hand, and into the verse we’ve been exploring this holiday season: vayomer elohim na’aseh adam b’tzalmeinu kidmuteinu – “God said, let us make humankind in our image, after our likeness.” As promised last week, tonight we’ll consider the nature of God’s image and likeness, starting (of course) where Jews always begin this conversation: with the affirmation that God has no physical body, no visual image. That being the case, great Jewish thinkers have, over the years, understood the God-like part of us to be, variously: our intellect; our capacity for morality; our free will; our compassion; and more (tomorrow morning, we’ll think about imagination as the divine quality within us).

Tonight’s teacher, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, insists that more is going on here. The lesson was taught as part of a talk Heschel gave at the First International Congress on Sudden Death. Strange, perhaps, for a theologian to speak at what was primarily a medical convention, but I guess if you live in New York City and someone invites you to Florence in January to give a paper, you say grazzi and find something to say. Heschel spoke on “Death as Homecoming.” In his talk he noted that many cultures and faiths, both ancient and modern, had as their focus the goal of escaping death. Ancient Israel and contemporary Judaism alike are more interested in ennobling and sanctifying life. It is in life that we are able to fulfill our role not as mere “parts of the universe,” but as “partners with God,” created in God’s image and likeness.

He goes on to say:

The intention is not to identify “image and likeness” with a particular human quality or attribute, such as reason, speech, power, or skill. It does not refer to something which in later systems was called “the best in us,” “the divine spark,” “the eternal spirit,” or “the immortal element” within us. It is the whole of us, and each of us, who was made in the image and likeness of God. It is both body and soul, sage and fool, saint and sinner, humanity in our joy and grief, our righteousness and wickedness. The image is not in us. It is us.

The basic dignity of humankind is not made up of our achievements, virtues, or special talents. It is inherent in our very being. The commandment “Love thy neighbor as thyself” (Lev 19:18) calls upon us to love not only the  virtuous and wise but also the vicious and the stupid person. The rabbis have, indeed, interpreted the commandment to imply that even a criminal remains our neighbor.

I don’t know if it can be much clearer than that, but it can be more pointed and more topical. At the national, political level, it sounds like this: People of color die after being shot by law enforcement at rates far greater than white people. Videographic evidence shows us that, time and again, it matters not if their hands are visible, it matters not if they are compliant, it matters not if they “just show respect.” Time and again they die, and time and again the people who kill them are acquitted (if they are even tried at all). Under these circumstances, I believe it be be nothing less than idolatrous to reserve our righteous indignation for the horrible “disrespect” being shown to a flag or a song. In my heart I know that it’s God on the pavement in St. Louis, in Cleveland, in Minneapolis, in Charlotte, in Durham. To fail to see that, while being offended on behalf of a flag or a song, or a statue, seems to me to miss the point entirely.

Some fifteen years prior to his visit to Italy, Heschel gave a talk at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, a talk that eventually made its way into his Man’s Quest for God: Studies in Prayer and Symbolism. Here, after making the point that Jewish ritual objects are only religiously significant inasmuch as they assist us in performing the commandments, having no inherent sanctity, he asserts that there is one created thing that is the symbol of God:

It is not a temple nor a tree, it not a statue or a star. The symbol of God is us, each of us. God created each of us in the Divine image, or tzelem, in the divine likeness, or d’mut…Human life is holy, holier even than the Scrolls of the Torah….Reverence for God is shown in our reverence for humankind. The fear you must feel of offending or hurting a human being must be as ultimate as your fear of God. An act of violence is an act of desecration. To be arrogant toward humankind is to be blasphemous toward God.

———

Heschel was an activist who partnered across lines of faith and race to protest injustice. He was also a mystic, the descendant of Hasidic masters, standing squarely within their understanding of God as present, dynamic, knowable. Indeed, when those mystics are teaching most clearly, it is evident that they understand God less as separate being than as process. God’s name, pronounced “Adonai” but spelled Y-H-W-H, is a conflation of the Hebrew verb “to be” in all tenses. “Is-Was-Will Be.” Another mystically-oriented teacher, Rabbi Arthur Green, has it as

[n]ot really a noun at all, but a verb artificially arrested in motion and made to serve as though it were a noun. A noun that is really a verb is one you can never hold to tightly. As soon as you think you’ve “got it,” that you understand God as some clearly defined “entity,” that noun slips away and becomes a verb again.

So God is ever in motion, in everyone and everything around us, always becoming.

A classic teaching of this idea comes down to us from the Ba’al Shem Tov, founder of the Hasidic movement in Judaism. The words from Psalm 121, adonai tzilcha, “God is your shade,” are conventionally understood to mean that God above provides protection.  The Ba’al Shem Tov flips the image on its head, and reads the verse as “God is your shadow.” Just as a shadow tracks the movements of the one who casts it, so are God’s actions driven by our actions.

No, God’s actions are our actions. “God” manifests in the world to the extent that we make it so, and in the way that we make it so. When we manifest the attributes of justice, mercy, kindness, and love, we bring the divine image into the world. We and God are interdependent, bringing each other into being, finding our way to each other, again and again.

But here’s the thing: the opposite is also true. To understand God as process rather than person is to accept that we don’t get to bifurcate our experience of the world into “God” and “not God.” Remember what Heschel said about the divine image: it encompasses not only our sagacity but our foolishness, not only our saintliness but also our sinfulness, not only our joy but our grief, not only our righteousness but also our wickedness. For the mystic, the very categories fade away in the Oneness. Seeing the divine presence in my friend is easy. What about in the person with whom I share less, or share nothing, or even that person who opposes with every fiber of their being all that I hold dear with every fiber of mine? That’s hard work!

In his book Everything is God, Jay Michaelson (who, I am pleased to say, will be with us in November as the 2017 Levin-Moscovitz Scholar) teaches about the Yom Kippur implications of this way of understanding God. If it’s all God, what is teshuvah (“repentance”) anyway? If God is everpresent, then what does “coming home” even mean. Here’s how he says it:

Nondual teshuvah is where mind and heart meet in healing. It is not a breast-beating shame, but an all-allowing forgiveness. And I find this perspective opens my heart. Yes, relationships and joys and hurts continue as before. But…what we take to be a world of people who please or displease, whom we regard or disregard, is really a great play of life, filled with actors who don’t know they are acting. Including me. This is the real return to Who You are: knowing clearly that there is only God, pretending to be wronged, pretending to be evil, pretending to forgive, pretending to be you.

And where there is suffering – on the planetary scale, or in the political world, or in your own life – there the work begins.

———

These are complicated questions, worth exploring from every angle. I feel so blessed to be a part of a community that takes them seriously, and understands what’s at stake as we arrive, haltingly and humbly, and joyfully, at the answers. May each of us – all of us – with God – as God – bring into the darkness our awareness our compassion, and our light. Together, let us build this world from love.

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