Is Torah an Image of God?

mirror-png-25How does God wish to be seen? Torah’s answer to the question is ambiguous.

In the book of Genesis we meet our earliest ancestors, solitary spiritual seekers. They take a walk with God, converse with God, meet God in a dream.

In Exodus, God lets Moses, the priests, and the Israelite elders gaze at the Divine Presence. But God believes most members of their disorganized fledgling nation are unprepared to handle the sight.

Leviticus shows us how the priests think of God. God is like the di-lithium crystals that power the Starship Enterprise: a delicate energy source at the centre of the camp, dis-equilibrated by human unethical behavior and psychological upset, re-set by repentance and ritual.

Numbers shows the Israelites constantly under threat from neighboring tribes. Here God appears as a “hot mess” — an emotionally volatile being, alternately angry and forgiving.

In Deuteronomy, written from a legislator’s perspective, God universally watches over the whole world, giving its peoples a helpful structure.

Biblical narratives do not describe a single essence of God. Instead, they describe some of the ways people experience God. Biblical stories do not fix a theology; they open us onto spiritual experience. Open-ended representation invites a diversity of people to connect with God. In a way, formlessness facilitates God’s manifestation in the world.

As Israeli philosophers Moshe Halbertal and Avishai Margalit say: God does not want to be precisely represented, because this would diminish God’s power.

All this is consistent with the second commandment given at Sinai. “Do not make a statue or a depiction that is in heaven above, that is in the earth below or that is in the water below the earth” (Exodus 20:4). Here God seems to say, “The dynamic heavens, earth, and water that I created should be images enough to direct your attention towards me. Please do not use raw materials from these realms to craft a particular physical image.”

And yet.

Imagine that you know little about Torah, the second commandment, or Judaism in general. You visit your first synagogue on a Shabbat. You watch as the Torah scroll is lifted out of its box. Everyone stands up, sings passionate hymns of praise, and lines up for a chance to kiss the scroll as it is carried around the room. You conclude that we venerate this object; it must be an image of God.

When you ask us about it, however, we tell you it is nothing divine. It is a beautiful, handcrafted piece of living history, reminding us how scripture was written in the first century. A skilled, attentive scribe produced it, writing Hebrew words on a cow’s skin using vegetable dyes. The scroll’s power lies wholly in those words. When read aloud, the words express the presence, mind, and will of God.

What, you ask, makes the words so special? Hebrew, we answer, is a deeply metaphorical language. It is a wonderful way to represent divine speech, which is deeper and more expressive than human speech. A single word from God, we say, can teach seventy lessons about practice, psychology, and spirituality. Our situation, our personality, our questions evoke the lesson of a particular day.

Biblical Hebrew is a perfect mirror of the narrative theology it holds. Of course the words of Torah are open-ended: they tell a kaleidoscope of open-ended stories about an open-ended God. No wonder we treat the Torah scroll as an image of God. It expresses our best guess about how God wishes to be seen.

Mirror Image: Words originally part of a response to a paper by Randall Zachman called “When Should Christians Break Stuff? Passing from the Image to the Prototype.”

Categories: God, Spiritual Growth, Torah

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2 replies

  1. Laura, Just discovered your article: “Is Torah an Image of God? Thanks for wonderful insights as usual.

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