How to Use This Section of the Portal

A portal, or a book, can be read in many ways. Some people read from the beginning to the end; others use tables of contents and indexes to search out material; still others jump around at will. That is true of this portal too: One can follow the table of contents that, itself, follows the order of the Siddur. Or, one can use the search function to seek materials that sound interesting or appealing. Or, one can browse through these Thoughts about Jewish prayer. Any method works.

To facilitate movement among the Thoughts presented and also between the various sections of the portal, I have embedded links to material that appears elsewhere. Only sustained study, however, can give one a sense of the interwoven character of the material. One must follow the links, reflect, and then go back to the various interlinked texts.

For further reference, I have embedded links to the WorldCat. This site, which has cataloged over two billion books, gives the reader a full bibliographical reference, and if one sets the WorldCat page properly, it will also identify the closest library with a copy of the book.

Finally, for those who read Hebrew, I have included a transliteration of the original texts. It is meant to be readable and does not pretend to be scientifically correct.

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Talking About God

Introduction

There are many ways to talk about God.

Sociologists and anthropologists describe how communities and individuals talk about and relate to the Divine. Mystics describe intense experiences of the Transcendent. Philosophers render our thoughts about God as coherent and consistent systems. Poets and liturgists give words to our deepest feelings as we experience the Presence. Prophets interpret the Ultimate as a call to justice and social action. Historians give us the context of individual and communal attempts to live with Divine. Legal authorities interpret for us the rules given by God. Psychologists analyze religious and spiritual feelings. Artists render the spiritual into musical, plastic, visual, and other media. Each of these attempts to talk about God is distinct, related yet different.

Religious people use all these ways of talking about God. Sometimes, we bracket our feelings and are rigorously rational with ourselves; sometimes, we put rationality aside and fully open ourselves to the experience of the Presence. Sometimes, we put aside thought and dedicate ourselves to community building or prophetic action; sometimes, we withdraw from social responsibility and devote ourselves to meditation on the spiritual. Sometimes, we analyze as objectively as we can; sometimes, we give ourselves over to the beauty and power of art. Religious people negotiate the various ways of talking about God. Through these different modes of discourse, we experience, talk about, and talk with the Divine.

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Complexity

A “universe of discourse” describes a common human understanding of reality withoutt actually defining that reality in any formal sense. The words of a universe of discourse can usually be understood as a continuum.

There five main universes of discourse that we use to describe our world.

The universe of aesthetic discourse is composed of those words that characterize acts, events, objects, or persons aesthetically. The terms of this universe of discourse include, at one end of the spectrum “beautiful, pretty, harmonious, graceful.” At the other end of the spectrum, the terms are “ugly, jarring, hideous, odious, loathsome.” In the middle of the spectrum, the terms are “homely, plain, graceless, artless, dingy.”

The universe of moral discourse is composed of those words that characterize acts, events, objects, or persons morally. The terms at one end of the spectrum include “good, just, virtuous, dutiful, morally significant.” At the other end, the terms are “evil, unjust, bad, wicked, foul, demonic.” In the middle of the spectrum, the terms are “neutral, inconsequential, unimportant.”

The universe of personal discourse is composed of those words that characterize acts, events, objects, or persons individually and subjectively. The vocabulary here, too, is familiar, as it draws upon our knowledge of human psychology. Thus, we speak of people being “loving, kind, supportive, happy,” or “aggressive, critical, constructive, productive,” or “angry, destructive, sad, uncommunicative.”

The universe of rational discourse is composed of those words that characterize acts, events, objects, or persons in terms of logic or reason. The terms at one end of the spectrum include “reason, proof, analysis, logic.” At the other end, they are “sophistry, inconsistency, unreasonableness, invalid argument.” In the middle of the spectrum, they are “probable, likely, hypothetical, plausible.” These words are derived from strictly logical thinking (e.g., mathematical proofs), but they also apply to more intuitive rational thought; the former, however, is regarded as the paradigm for the entire universe of rational discourse.

Finally, there is the universe of spiritual discourse, which includes such words as “holy, transcendent, spiritual, sacred, awe, fear of the Lord, love, ecstasy, worship, piety, saintliness.” There are such words as: “demonry, ghost, curse, unholy, weird, sacrilegious, fiendish, blasphemous.” There is also a group of words that are specific to given religious traditions and institutions: “sacrament, worship, idolatry, love, mass, sh’ma, born-again, teshuva.”

Three general observations:

These universes of discourse are used in contexts that are not theological or religious; instead, they are part of our common speech for analyzing our world and expressing ourselves in it. Here, we are particularly concerned with the use of these universes of discourse in relation to God.

These universes of discourse are largely discrete precisely because each describes a specific dimension of human experience. Thus one would normally say, “This sonata is beautiful and that one is not” (aesthetic), but one would not normally say, “The act of poisoning her husband was beautiful, or jarring” (mixture of moral and aesthetic). Thus, too, one would normally say, “Being kind is good” or “Evil deeds are wicked” (moral), but one would not normally say, “That painting is virtuous” or “That sculpture is wicked” (mixture of aesthetic and moral). The distinctness of each of these realms of human experience is reflected in the exclusivity of the words each uses.

In spite of the discreteness of these dimensions of human experience, there is a well-recognized overlap of these universes in human discourse, at least in Western culture. Thus, we say, “That is an elegant mathematical solution” (mixture of rational and aesthetic), “Goodness is holy” (mixture of moral and spiritual), and “Love is holy” (mixture of personal and spiritual).

Religious people use all these universes of discourseaesthetic, moral, personal, rational, and spiritualwhen we talk about God.

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Talking About God in the Jewish Tradition

The Jewish sources talk about the beauty of Jerusalem and of Israel, the gracefulness of God’s relationship to us, and the beauty that radiated from the face of the High Priest when he left the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur after the purification of the sanctuary and the atonement for the sins of the people. These terms come from the universe of aesthetic discourse. But, the category of the aesthetic is not a primary category in the Jewish spiritual tradition.

The sources do not talk directly about the God of reason and rationality. In Jewish tradition, this dimension of human experience appears first in the enormous effort to draw together the legal rules that guide Jewish communal life (halakha). Later, it appears among the philosopher theologians. The rational understanding of God is not wrong; on the contrary, it has a validity all of its own. Consistency of thought is a virtue, even for non-philosophers and non-legalists. But, rationality is not a central category in the Jewish spiritual tradition.

The sources talk about the God of justice and of fairness, of the Judge Who calls us to moral action. The message of the classical prophets is that ritual is not what God desires; rather, God wants us “to do fairness, to love loving-kindness, and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8). These terms come from the universe of moral discourse. Morality is central to the Jewish view of God. Righteousness is a primary category in the Jewish spiritual tradition.

The sources talk about the God of holiness. God is holy, transcendent, sublime, wondrous, the source of all being. God’s holiness abides in certain people, places, texts, and moments in time. These terms come from the universe of spiritual discourse. Holiness is central to the Jewish view of God. Spirituality is a primary category in the Jewish spiritual tradition.

The sources talk about the God Who is deeply personal. God feels, God communicates, God has compassion. And, God is demanding, God gets angry, and God even appears to act impulsively. These terms come from the universe of personal discourse. Personhood is central to the Jewish view of God. Personality is a primary category in the Jewish spiritual tradition.

In Jewish spiritual tradition, then, there are three primary categories in the language that we use to talk about God: personality, holiness, and morality. Classical theology calls these “attributes” of God. We turn now to each of these.

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Personality

Introduction

The philosophers led us astray. Philosophy emphasized rational thinking about God. That led us to question what can actually be asserted rationally about God. That question ultimately led to the conclusion that nothing can be said about God, that God simply cannot be described. And that conclusion led to the further conclusion that all language about God used in Scripture and elsewhere is metaphoric: “the Torah speaks in the language of human beings״ (Maimonides, Code of Law, Hikhot Yesodei ha-Torah, 1:12).

The nineteenth-century Romantics reasserted the value of emotions and the notion that emotions presuppose human personality. One began to speak of God’s “personhood.” This had always been the language of Scripture, and of midrash, and of the liturgy. In those sources, one uses anthropomorphic (assigning human form) and especially anthropopathic (assigning human emotions and sentiments) language. In this mode of discourse, “metaphoric” is no longer a pejorative term but a window into the world of human being. Anthropopathic theology, also known as personalist theology, came into its own.

Personalist theology rejects the line of thought that God is a projection of our personality. Rather, personalist theology starts with the assumption that God has a personality, and personhood is the primary category of the divine. This framework starts with the realization that, since God created humans in God’s image, humans have personality. Everything evolves from there; “Go and learn.”

Personality has an almost infinite number of components: intelligence, emotional insight, artistic sensitivity, moral alertness, social awareness, compassion, the need to do good, the impulse to do evil, anger, love, laughter. People also have individual histories that form their personality: moments of joy, of transcendence, of suffering, of trauma, of success, of failure, of togetherness, of isolation. Indeed, personality is the most complex model of reality that we have, much more complex than any biological or computerized model (does a computer laugh?).

In personalist theology, God must be at least as complex as we are; that is, God, too, must have all of the above, and more. God must be personhood par excellence—complex, hard to read, really loving and really angry, deeply insightful and deeply compassionate, profoundly alert and profoundly sensitive. God must have God’s own personal history, too. This, in turn, can lead to some very intense questions, some of which may be troubling: Can God change God’s own mind? Does God have a gender? Does God laugh? Does God, too, have a capacity to act wrongly? For Christians: What did God actually learn when God became human? Like personal psychology, personalist theology is the unending task of understanding the Other.

What are the main traits of human and divine personality as viewed through the sources and our own insight?

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Six Personalist Attributes of God

God must be fair. In American English, the word “just” is too strong, for it conjures up the stereotype of a God of law who punishes severely, except insofar as God’s mercy overrules the strict requirement of the law. It conjures up, too, someone compulsively pursuing the letter of the law while ignoring the spirit thereof. The word “grace” is also too strong, for it evokes a God Who has no standards of justice, Who forgives all wrongdoing, thereby undermining God’s own teaching of justice. “Fairness” has just the right connotation in American English. God must act fairly, appropriately punishing the wicked, including ourselves, and appropriately rewarding the faithful, including our enemies. “Loving justice” or “just compassion” also express God’s fairness.

Many texts support this understanding of God. The same is true of the problems. Regardless, fairness is central to the personality of God.

God addresses, and can be addressed by, humankind. Although God is totally autonomous, God can be influenced. God can be angered, or pleased, by what humans do. In the words of the medieval thinkers, God is “passible.” Ultimately, this means that God can be induced by human words and behavior to change God’s mind, to reverse a decision, to alter a judgment. This insight is sometimes formulated as “the efficacy of prayer” or “original repentance.”

Many texts supporting this understanding of God. God must be able to address us, and we must be able to address God in order for us to relate to one another in the image of God in which we are created. Communication is central to the personality of God.

God is powerful but not perfect. God makes mistakes and admits it, as after the flood of Noah (Genesis 8:21-2). God lets Godself be seduced by Satan, as in the prologue of Job. God is unnecessarily short-tempered with the Jewish people, as Moses reminds God (Exodus 32:7-14; Numbers 14:11-20). And, God repents (Genesis 6:6; Exodus 32:14; I Samuel 15:11,35; II Samuel 24:16). Some argue that all such incidents are just acting, that they are a testing of humankind, but that does not seem to be the simple meaning of the texts. Zoharic and Lurianic mysticism, too, seem to have left room for God’s imperfection.

God does have power; it is absolute. But, God cannot use it absolutely. Having created a being also capable of moral judgment, God must limit God’s own power so as to empower the being God created. Humankind, too thus, has power, though not as much as God. Power is central to the personality of God.

God is loving. There are many ways to love. There is virtuous love; ongoing, nurturing, morally rooted. There is erotic love; passionate, searing, erratic. There is parental love; protective, demanding, guiding even in its anger. There is childlike love; simple, trusting.

Sometimes love is unilateral, and sometimes it is dialogic. Sometimes love is sacrificial, and sometimes it is commanding, imperial. Sometimes love is open, articulated clearly, and sometimes it is hidden, veiled.

Because it is many and varied, love is contradictory. It is not monolithic. Love cannot be rationalized into a coherent whole, into a system or a single theology. Love is much more complex than its metaphors. In all its forms, love is central to the personality of God.

God gets angry. There is anger that is righteous indignation in the face of moral iniquity. This is God’s anger spoken by the prophets: “Woe unto the pinnacle of the crown of the drunkards of Ephraim!” (Isaiah 28:1). “Shall one steal, kill, fornicate, swear falsely, make offerings to Baal, and follow other gods whom you do not even know; and then come and stand before Me, in this house upon which My Name is called, and say ‘We are saved,’ only to go and do again those abominations?!” (Jeremiah 7:9-10). “You, are the man!” (II Samuel 12:7).

The anger of righteous indignation is rooted in covenant. Because covenant is rooted in mutuality, when human beings feel righteous indignation toward God, they speak it to God for the sake of the covenant: “Have we forgotten the Name of our God? Have we spread our hands in prayer to a foreign deity? God may probe this, for God knows the hidden things of the heart. In truth, we have been killed all day long because of You; we have been treated as sheep led to the slaughter. Awake! Why do You sleep, Lord?!” (Psalms 44:21-4). “Why do You forget us forever? Why do You desert us for days without end?” (Lamentations 5:20).

There are other kinds of anger, and verses from Scripture to illustrate them. Being angry is part of having personality and so anger, too, in all its forms, is also central to the personality of God.

God chooses; God is partisan. No one likes to hear this, but God chooses and, having chosen, God jealously guards that which is God’s; and God demands loyalty from those whom God chooses.

God chose to create the world. It is God’s possession; it belongs to God. For exactly that reason, no one may abuse it or lay absolute claim to it.

God chose the Jewish people. They too, in their flesh, are God’s possession; they belong to God. For exactly that reason, no one may abuse them or lay claim to absolute authority over them.

God chose the holy land. God resides in it. God’s people reside in it. The holy land, in its mountains and valleys, in its rocks and trees, is God’s possession; it belongs to God and to God’s people. For exactly that reason, no one may abuse the land or the people’s right to it. The people must also respect God’s land because the land is theirs, from God.

The human face is the visual point at which we encounter personality.

Personality, the first primary category, is central to the Jewish understanding of God. Holiness is the second primary category in the Jewish spiritual tradition. It is to this that we now turn.

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Holiness

What is Holiness?

Holiness is a quality. One senses it in objects, in moments, in texts, and in certain people. It is not a feeling, like joy or anger. It is not a commitment, like love or loyalty. It is not a state of mind, like happiness or gloom. It is not a thought or concept. It is an awareness of the sacred, a consciousness of the spiritual. It is a perception of otherness, an intimation of the beyond. It is an experience of the mysterium tremendum et fascinans, a contact with the numinous. It is an awareness of the Ineffable.

The holy is encountered in many places and moments: in the grandeur of nature, in the still small voice of conscience, in the silence of the soul, and in the rapture of beauty. It can be found in the creativity of the mind, in the gentleness of the heart, in the eye of a lover, and in the innocence of a child. The holy meets one in the depth of sacred texts, in moments of prayer, and in those rare moments when one truly meets an other.

Jewish tradition is replete with references to the holy: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the fullness of the universe is God’s Glory … And I said, ‘Woe unto me; I am struck dumb, for I am a man of impure lips and I live among a people of impure lips, and now my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts’” (Isaiah 6:1-8). “You are holy, God Who dwells above the praises of Israel” (Psalm 22:4). “Holy are You and awesome is Your Name; there is nothing divine other than You … Blessed are You, the holy King” (Rosh Hashana liturgy).

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Overlap

The holy need not be beautiful: “Here is Behemoth which I have made; in comparison with you…” (Job 40:15). Behemoth was ugly, yet holy as creature. However, the beautiful can be holy, and the holy can be beautiful: “Bow down to the Lord in the beauty of holiness” (Psalms 29:2; 96:9). And yet, the holy is more than the beautiful; it enfolds it.

The personal and the holy overlap: “You are my God; I search everywhere for You; my soul thirsts for You; my body yearns for You … Indeed, I have visions of You in the holy place” (Psalms 63:2-3). “You are holy and Your Name is holy … Blessed are You, the holy God” (daily liturgy). But the holy is more than the personal; it envelops it.

The moral and the holy are closely intertwined: “The holy God is made holy by righteousness” (Isaiah 5:16); “You shall be holy for I, the Lord your God, am holy” (Lev. 19:2). The holy cannot be immoral or amoral. Still, the holy is more than the moral; it encompasses it.

The holy, the beautiful, the moral, and the personal overlap and interact with one another. The beautiful may be holy but, if the beautiful is immoral or unnatural, it is not holy, no matter how beautiful it is. The personal can be holy but, if the personal is immoral or unnatural, it is not holy, no matter how intense it is. The moral must be holy but it need not be beautiful, perhaps not even personal.

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Relating to Holiness

Flight is the first response to the holy. Moses pleads inexperience (Exodus 3:11 – 4:17). Isaiah pleads impurity (Isaiah 6:5). Jeremiah pleads youth (Jeremiah 1:4-10). Ezekiel must be coerced (Ezekiel 2:8 – 3:3). Jonah takes flight.

Sin leads one away from the holy; it tempts. The forms of temptation are as many as the imagination: the tasks of daily living, sexual fantasy, ambition, despair. Purity and sin fluctuate, while hope and despair alternate. “Be generous to me, God, according to Your gracious love; in the abundance of Your compassionate love, wipe away my rebellion … Truly, I know my rebellion; my sin is before me always. I have sinned before You alone and I have done evil in Your eyes … Let me hear joy and gladness; let my bones, which You have oppressed, rejoice … Hide Your Face from my sins and wipe away my iniquities … Do not cast me away from before You, nor take Your holy presence away from me” (Psalms 51:3-14).

Happiness comes from setting goals and achieving them. Happiness is social. It is a state of well-being derived from those around us. Not everyone is happy, and no one is happy all the time; yet we all know happiness from time to time. But joy is not happiness.

Joy is an inner awareness, a moment of insight through our selves into that which is beyond. It is a connectedness between our inner being and that which transcends it. Joy can strike us at any time. But it is more likely to come to us in moments of service, at times when we see ourselves within the larger meaning that embraces reality. Joy does not derive from accomplishment, but from centeredness within the greater whole.

The holy is joy-ful, even as it is fear-ful.

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Texts of Holiness

“The spirit lifted me up and I heard a sound behind me, ‘Blessed is the Glory of the Lord from His place’” (Ezekiel 3:12, quoted in the daily liturgy).

“Where can I go away from Your spirit and where can I flee from Your Face? If I rise to heaven, You are there; if I plunge into the netherworld, You are there. If I travel on the wings of dawn or dwell at the horizon of the sea, there too Your hand will rest upon me and Your right hand will seize me. If I say, ‘Let darkness envelop me and let night be light for me,’ even darkness is not dark for You and night is as lit up as day; like darkness, like light. For You have possessed my insides; You encompassed me even in the womb of my mother” (Psalms 139:7-13).

“…one should tremble and faint when standing to pray before the great King. And it is proper that one’s limbs shake. Similarly, after praying, one should think, ‘How can I dare to bring out of my mouth useless words and enjoy them? Have I not just spoken before the great and awesome King? And will I not have to speak again before Him Whose Glory fills the universe?’” (Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev).

“… For when one meditates well on the greatness of the Creator, may He be blessed—that He is the root and principle of all worlds, that He encompasses and fills all reality, that no thought can grasp Him at all, and that all the worlds, souls, and angels are all annihilated and as nothing and emptiness before Him—then one’s soul is awakened to yearn and to be consumed in the flame of sweetness, bliss, and love. Then, one desires and has a passion to worship God at all times… one’s heart is enflamed to worship God” (Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev).

Holiness, the second primary category, is central to the Jewish understanding of God. Morality is the third primary category in the Jewish spiritual tradition. It is to this that we now turn.

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Morality

Religion and Morality

In the second half of the eighth century B.C.E., the prophet Amos from the Judean town of Tekoa crossed the border into the northern Kingdom of Israel and entered the city of Bethel to prophesy the destruction of the kingdom. Amaziah, the priest of the king’s sanctuary, told Amos to flee back to his home and never prophesy again in the king’s sanctuary. To this, Amos famously responded: “I am no prophet, nor am I the son of a prophet. I am but a herdsman and a dresser of sycamore trees. It is the Lord Who took me from among the flock and said to me, ‘Go, prophesy to My people Israel’” (Amos 7:7-15).

In his wonderful essay on this subject, “Amos versus Amaziah,” Shalom Spiegel points out that this is one of the first major confrontations between the prophetic demand for social justice and the embedded interests of the religious and the political classes. Amaziah, the chief priest, is sure that meticulous observance of the cult is the source of the blessing for the kingdom, but Amos says: “I hate, I despise your feasts, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies … Take away from Me the noise of your songs, and let Me not hear the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness as a mighty stream” (Amos 5:21-24). The king, Jeroboam, is sure that his policy of war is correct, but Amos launches into a scathing prophecy of the destruction of the state, of the cult, and of society.

The people hear this confrontation between the prophet and the institutions of society but they do nothing because they are corrupt: “Hear this word, oh cows of Bashan that inhabit the mountains of Samaria! They oppress the poor and crush the destitute! They say to their lords, ‘Bring! And we will drink!’” (Amos 4:1). The people side with the political and religious establishment against the prophet. After all, the status quo might not be good, but it is known and secure. The cult is so essential that no one would even dream of shutting it down.

Amos was not alone in challenging the religious and political establishment in the name of morality demanded by God. Nathan fearlessly confronted King David for his sin with Bathsheba (II Samuel 12). Elijah fearlessly confronted Ahab (I Kings 18). Isaiah, again and again, excoriated the people, the state, and the cult for its corruption. So did Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the other prophets. The cry for justice, for morality, is the core of the prophetic view of religion. It is the central category in the prophetic understanding of God.

Americans can understand the prophetic call if they study Martin Luther King, Jr. King’s devotion to civil rights, to worker’s rights, and later to the injustice of the war in Vietnam stemmed from his prophetic understanding of religion. God did not want only singing in the church; He wanted justice. God did not want only law and order; He wanted a just society and a moral government. I was present in 1963 when King gave his famous “I have a dream” speech. It was electric, not only in its rhetoric but in its prophetic power.

Justice, righteousness, fairness—morality—are a primary category of the biblical and rabbinic spiritual tradition. They are integral to the Jewish understanding of God.

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Overlap

The moral can be beautiful as when we speak of the beauty of an act of moral courage, or of the inner beauty of a deeply moral person. Think of Mother Theresa. That said, the beautiful is not always moral. Think of beautiful men and women who are also corrupt. The moral, however, should always be beautiful.

The moral and the holy are closely interwoven. The holy cannot, in biblical and rabbinic tradition, be immoral or amoral. The holy is committed to morality. Nonetheless, some people present themselves as holy, but are immoral. Think of clergy abuse. Further, some teachings are presented as holy, but are immoral. Think of religious coercion. The moral, however, should always be holy.

The moral is deeply personal, for better and for worse. Rabbinic thought teaches that humans are not born full of sin; humans are not “genetically” sinful. But, human beings do have a capacity to do evil (yetser ha-ra`) as well as a capacity to do good (yetser tov). Without both capacities, we could not be rewarded and we could not be punished. Without both capacities, we could not be free (have free will). Without both capacities, we could not be in the image of God. The moral is always bound up with our personhood.

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Texts of Morality

“Nathan said to David: ‘You are the man!’ Thus says the Lord, God of Israel: ‘I anointed you king over Israel. I saved you from Saul. I gave the household of your ruler to you … and the whole house of Israel and Judah….’ Why did you despise the word of the Lord to do evil in His eyes, smiting Uriah the Hittite with the sword and taking his wife as a wife … Now, the sword will never be absent from you and your descendants … Thus says the Lord: ‘I will bring evil upon you from within your own house….’” (II Samuel 12:7-12).

Hear, oh heavens, and harken, oh earth, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken: ‘I have raised and nurtured children but they have rebelled against Me. Even an ox knows its owner and an ass the trough of its master, but Israel does not know, My people do not understand.’ Oh, nation of sinners, people that is heavy with iniquity, seed of evildoers, children who destroy—they have deserted the Lord, they have incited the Holy One of Israel, they have slid backwards … Your land is desolate, your cities are burned in fire, strangers consume it … ‘Why do I need the multitude of your sacrifices?’ says the Lord, ‘I am satiated with whole offerings, rams, the fat of rich sheep, the blood of bulls, and I do not want sheep and goats. When you come before Me, who has asked this of you, to tread My courts?! Do not continue to bring hollow grain offerings; your incense offerings are an abomination to Me. On Shabbat and New Moon you read Scripture; I cannot suffer evil and corruption! … Your hands are filled with blood! Wash yourselves! Purify yourselves! Remove the evil of your deeds from before My eyes! Stop doing evil! Study well! Pursue fairness! Guide the wayward! Judge the orphan fairly! Advocate for the widow!’” (Isaiah 1: 2-17).

The story is told of a great Hasidic rabbi whose wife had a dispute with the household help. The rabbi’s wife appeared in her husband’s office to say that she was going to take the young servant girl to the rabbinic court because she had broken yet another valuable dish, and then the rabbi’s wife stormed out of the house. As she was walking rapidly toward the court, her husband came running to catch up to her. “I don’t need your help in this,” said his wife. “Yes, but she might,” replied the rabbi.

Morality, the third primary category, is central to the understanding of God. We must now turn to considering how one can use these various categories as a group, knowing that they often pull us in different directions and sometimes even contradict one another.

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Talking about God Revisited

Two Images

It is not possible to sail directly into the wind. A sail must have wind blowing across it, or into it, in order to propel a boat. Hence, if one turns a sailboat directly into the wind, the sail flutters uselessly and the boat cannot advance. If one must move in the direction from which the wind is coming, one must advance in a zig-zag fashion, always sailing at an angle to the wind. This strategy is called “tacking.” Ideally, one sails at 45 degrees to the wind in one direction and then tacks 90 degrees to sail at 45 degrees to the wind in the other direction, repeating the procedure as often as necessary to reach an up-wind destination.

So it is with life. Life is sailing into the wind. It is the pursuit of a direction, and rarely can we attain it by direct assault. Life, in its variety and complexity, is not given to simple, straightforward acquisition. We cannot sail directly into the wind of life. So, we learn to tack, to advance obliquely. In order to get where we want to go in life, we set our eyes on a goal, we test the winds, and we set off on an indirect course, perhaps one that is at 45 degrees from our goal. We continue on that course for a while, until we seem to be getting off course. Then, we tack, we “come about,” and we set off on another oblique course, always with the goal in sight—the goal that can only be reached by indirect advance. And we repeat the procedure—check the goal, check the forces we must engage, set an oblique course, and sail; then, recheck and set another course—as often as necessary. “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again”—but with method, with subtlety, with indirection.

It is not possible to see a sculpture from one point of view. A sculpture is three dimensional. To see a sculpture, one cannot stand still. One must walk around a sculpture, all the way around it. The view from one point of view is partial, fragmentary. Seeing the whole sculpture requires movement, and the capacity to image, and memory.

So it is with life. Life is trying to grasp the multidimensional, yet whole, nature of a sculpture, and rarely can we attain this in one quick look. So, we learn to walk around the sculpture of life. We learn to see life from many points of view and, in the multiplying of these points of view, we grasp what it is that life is about. Almost always, we need to walk around the sculpture more than once, adjusting our vision, adding to our perspectives. The more we walk around the sculpture of life, the more we know about it.

The Latin word is seriatim, to do things one after the other.

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How to Talk about God

Universes of discourse, or categories of understanding, are tacks, courses we set in our attempt to talk about God. They are points of view from which we attempt to see God. Our goal is to think and talk about God, but we cannot get there by charging directly ahead on only one path or by staying always on the same spot. To get to a language about God, we must tack; that is, we must use various universes of discourse, and we must use them one after another. Otherwise, we will never get there. To arrive at a means of thinking and communicating about God, we must walk around the topic and see it from many different angles. Otherwise, we will not grasp the whole and its parts. This is my advice:

First, explore the universe of personal discourse—its concepts, its tools of interpretation, its subtleties, and the areas where it overlaps with other universes of discourse. Learn about character, transference and countertransference, trauma, and healing and draw on these for an understanding of life. Tack and choose among its diverse courses. Personal psychology serves as a way to comprehend the depth and power of humanness, and of life. Personal psychology teaches us how to talk about God.

Second, explore the universe of spiritual discourse—its otherness, its comforting power, its inspiration, and the points where it overlaps with other universes of discourse. Learn about holiness, ritual, sacred time, and sacred space and draw on these insights for an understanding of life. Tack and choose among its diverse courses. The numinous, too, serves as a way to see the world, life, and our fellow human beings. Holiness teaches us how to talk about God.

Third, explore the universe of moral discourse—its terms, its varieties, its difficulties, and the points where it overlaps with other universes of discourse. Learn about goodness, evil, justice, compassion, and suffering and draw on them for an understanding of life. Tack and choose among its diverse courses. Moral judgment serves as a way to see the world, life, and our fellow human beings. Moral judgment teaches us how to talk about God.

Fourth, do the same with the aesthetic and rational universes of discourse.

The plurality of the knowledge you acquire will be disorienting, It will seem that you know much too much, even as you know that you have barely scratched the surface. It will seem as if there are so many ways to talk about God that you now have no center. Humans long for simple, direct answers. This approach to life, and to talking about God, does not generate that. It is complex, multivocal. But I think that reflects the nature of life. Life is many-sided, multi-directional, even confusing. But it is life. It is a sign of being alive to be able to see the same sculpture from many directions, and to be able to sail toward a goal by shifting directions. Life is multi-dimensional. Human beings are multi-dimensional. God is multi-dimensional. To think and talk about God, we must be multi-dimensional.

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How to be a Theologian

To be a theologian is to speak for God. It is to have a personal rapport with God, to have a sense of responsibility for God and for how God is understood, and related to, by our fellow human beings. It is to mediate between God, as one understands God, and those who listen. It is to create an echo of God in the other.

To be a theologian is to defend God, to put back together the pieces of broken awareness and shattered relationship. Great is the suffering of our fellow human beings, and deep is the estrangement between them and God. The theologian must be a healer of that relationship, a binder of wounds, one who clarifies, and comforts.

To be a theologian is to speak for one’s fellow human beings, for we are infinite in our complexity, suffering, and ecstasy. It is to listen to joy, confusion, and despair. It is to hear praise, rage, and helplessness.

To be a theologian is to be in solidarity with one’s fellow human beings before God. It is to take the heart of the other to God. To bless and to share blessing, to be angry and to share rage, to speak the despair of the other to God. It is to talk to God for the people, to address God on their behalf. It is to be angry with God, for them. It is to praise God, with them.

To be a theologian is to speak the “ought.” It is not enough to explain, to explicate, and to exegete. It is to make a prior commitment to formulating a vision, and to preaching that vision as an ideal towards which humanity should, indeed must, strive. Theology is not a value-free discipline; rather, it is a value-laden discipline and it should be so consciously, unashamedly.

To be a theologian is to be a voice for the tradition. It is to speak its words, to teach its message, and to embody its authority. However, there is no single entity one can call “the” tradition. There is no one message, no sole authoritative voice. Rather, the tradition itself is multi-vocal, multifaceted; and some of it has been repressed. Hence, no one can speak for the tradition in its entirety, but one must make the effort.

To be a theologian is to realize that personality, holiness, morality, aesthetics, rationality, and much more are the imago Dei, the selem ‘Elohim, the image of God in which humanity is created. God is that way, and God put that image into us (Gen. 1:26-7). God stamped it (Hebrew, hitbi`a) into us. It is our coin or mold (Hebrew, matbe`a), our nature (Hebrew, teva`). It is what God and we have in common. It is that which enables us to talk about, and with, God. Personality, holiness, and morality are the core of the theology of image. To do theology faithfully is to ponder and understand that image, to work with that stamp and that mold, to grasp that nature, and to speak and teach those attributes.

Having discussed talking about God, we are ready to explore the language of the Siddur, the prayerbook, for it is in liturgy that the personalist theology of image is best expressed.

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