• When G-d Becomes an Excuse for Fear

    by Rabbi YY Jacobson

     The Danger of Confusing Transcendence with Habit

    Every evening I turn my worries over to God. He's going to be up all night anyway. -- Mary C. Crowley

    God loved the birds and invented trees. Man loved the birds and invented cages. -- Jacques Deval

    Metal Gods?

    “Do not make yourselves gods out of cast metal[1],” the Torah instructs us in the portion of Kedoshim.

    How could an intelligent person believe that a piece of metal is god? We could perhaps appreciate how ancient pagan societies attributed divine qualities to powerful, transcendent forces of nature, like the Zodiac signs, the sun, the moon, various galaxies, the wind, fire, water, etc. But why would a thoughtful human being believe god could be fashioned out of cast metal? 

    Even if we can explain how in the ancient, pagan world such an idea could be entertained seriously, how does this commandment in Torah -- a timeless blueprint for human life -- apply to our lives today? 

    I once encountered a beautiful interpretation to these words[2]. What this biblical verse – “Do not make yourselves gods out of cast metal” -- is telling us is not to construct a god of a lifestyle and a weltanschauung that has become like “cast metal;” one that is cast and solidified in a fixed mold.

    A natural human tendency is to worship that which we have become comfortable with. We worship our habits, patterns, attitudes, routines and inclinations simply because we have accustomed ourselves to them and they are part of our lives. We worship the icons, the culture, the perspective, and the emotions we have been raised with and which have become the norm in our communities, schools and homes. People love that which does not surprise them; we want to enjoy a god that suits our philosophical and emotional paradigms and comfort zones. We tend to embrace the fixed and molten god.

    This is true both of religious and secular people; both of believers and self proclaimed atheists or agnostics. “Don’t rock my boat,” is the call of our psyche. “I already have an established god; do not threaten it…” I have my patterns of thought and system of life which I am used to. Do not challenge it. If you do, I will have no choice but to dismiss you as a heretic or a boor.

    Raw Truth

    Comes the Torah and declares: Do not turn your pre-established mold into your G-d. Do not turn your habits, natural patterns of thought, fears, inclinations or addictions into a deity. Allow yourself to search for the truth. Real truth—naked, raw, and authentic, even if painful. Life is about challenge, not conformity. Allow your soul to be enchanted by mystery. Never say, “This is the way I am; this is the way I do things, I cannot change.” Never think, “This is the world view I am comfortable with; any other way must be wrong.” Rather, muster the courage to challenge every instinct, temptation and convention; question every dogma, including dogmas that speak in the name of open mindedness, and are embraced simply because you fall back on that which you have been taught again and again. Let your life not become enslaved to a particular pattern just because it has been that way for many years or decades. G-d, the real G-d, is not defined by any conventions; let your soul, too, not be confined by any external conventions.

    Experience the freedom of your Creator.

    Judaism never articulated who G-d is and what G-d looks like. What it did teach us is what G-d does NOT look like: G-d ought never to be defined by any image we attribute to Him, hewn by the instruments of our conscious or subconscious needs, fears and aspirations. In Jewish philosophy, never mind in Kabbalah and Chassidic thought, we never speak of what G-d is; only of what He is not: G-d is not an extension of my being or imagination[3].

    The common Yiddish term for G-d used by some of the greatest Jewish mystics, thinkers and holy men is “Oybershter,” which means “higher.” Not Creator, not Master, not All-Powerful, etc, but “higher.” What this term represents is this idea: I do not know what He is; all I know is that whatever my definition of truth and reality, whatever my definition for G-d -- he is “higher” than that. All I know is that I do not know[4].

    Thus, to be open to the G-d of the Torah means to be open to never ending mystery, infinite grandeur, limitless sublimity and possibility; it is the profound readiness at every moment of life to open ourselves to transcendence. And what was transcendent yesterday -- can become a form of exile today. Transcendence itself must also be transcendent, for it too can become a trap.

    And that which remains of your ambitions and desires after you have faced all of your fears and challenged all of your defenses, that is where your will meets G-d’s will[5]. At that point of complete humility and sincerity, you become truly one with yourself, one with the inner core of reality. 

    In the words of the Zohar[6], “No thought, no idea, can grasp Him; yet He can be grasped with the pure desire of the heart.”

    Rabbi YY Jacobson

    To comment on this essay, please click here.

    [1] Leviticus 19:4.

    [2] Mei Hasheluach by Rabbi Mordechai Yosef Leiner, Parshas Kedoshim, p. 118. The author was a brilliant and creative 19th century Chassidic thinker and master, and is known as the Rebbe of Ishbitz. He passed away in 1854.

    [3] This is a common theme in the writings of Maimonidies in his “Guide to the Perplexed.” See at length Likkutei Torah Parshas Pekudei and references noted there

    [4] I heard this insight from the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Sichas Shabbas Parshas Toldos 5751 (1991).

    [5] See at length Mei Hasheluach ibid.

    [6] See Zohar Vol. 3 p. 289b. Hemshech 5666 (by Rabbi Sholom Dovber of Lubavitch) p. 57.


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