The 70 Images of God
What is God?
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Everyone knows that Judaism is a monotheistic religion. Monotheism, of course, means a belief in one God. One and only one – there is simply no room for a second or third god in this uncompromising belief system. Jews would be much more likely to agree to zero gods than two or more gods if it came down to negotiating a deal. They have this gut reaction to any belief system that reveres more than one god, a reaction that blurs lines of rationality and logic. It’s a throwback to all the persecution and forced conversions associated with centuries of Christian domination. Whether fictional or real, there is only one deity.
But how do Jews see this one God? Is this God a He, a She, or an It? Is this God to be taken as a real thing, like the bagel one eats for breakfast or the sun rising in the sky, or is God nothing more than a concept, akin to such nebulous ideas as meaning of life or unity of all things? Either side has theological problems that must be dealt with. If God is ‘real’ than in what sense is God as ‘real’ than the sun or the bagel? If God is not ‘real’ than in what sense is the belief in one deity ‘truer’ than the belief in no deity?
These are questions that Jews have wrestled with over the centuries. It wasn’t until Judaism was already over two millennia old that questions like these really surfaced in the minds of Jewish thinkers. But questions were there all along, taking on different forms and addressing different but related issues, as the Israelites and then the Jews struggled to concretize their belief and make it fit into their national and individual lives. How these questions were answered produced the many different ways that Jews have viewed their complex and multifaceted conception of God. These ways are the various ‘images’ of God – the manner in which Jews imagined their God to be.
Before we go any further, we must clarify what an image is and what it isn’t. The common impression conveyed by the word, at least when used in association with God, is that it isn’t real. It is a product of the imagination, that bottomless pit of random thoughts lying right smack in the middle of the mind. Imaginary things, by definition, are not real.
But there is another use of the imagination that is just as real as the ‘real’ world. In fact, it may be more real. Take for instance the concept of color. When we think of the color blue we have a certain ‘picture’ in our minds which matches what we associate with blue. Blue, however, in the ‘real’ world is anything but that image. Blue is some wavelength of light that happens to be that color to us, but we certainly don’t think that we are looking at or perceiving a wavelength of light. The wavelength, a product of the ‘real’ world, does something through our eyes and the visual cortex of the brain to produce the ‘image’ of blue. The image is more real to us than the ‘real’ wavelength. Similarly, the various images of God are the mental conceptions of something that exists outside of the mind that must be ‘imagined’ in the mind. The images are real in the same sense that a color is real.
The great theological debate of Biblical time was a contest between the polytheistic pagan systems of belief which seemed to give powerful results and fulfilled some inner need to directly participate in the lives of their gods, versus the higher calling of monotheism. The latter, while promising and providing a harmonizing unity to all things, demanded belief in a deity that couldn’t be seen or touched, and certainly not bribed with paltry gifts or tempted by human desires. Of the need for divine powers there was no doubt, for how the world could have come into being without them? How could the grasses grow, or the animals know how to propagate? How could the life-giving rains and the devastating power of nature possibly be explained without some divine force to make it all happen? Of this there was no debate. But whether those forces actually competed with each other for power or whether they were really just the many faces of one all-powerful force was a matter that occupied the greatest minds of Biblical times. Those faces, whether they were many or really just one, were the earliest of God’s many images.
As the Jews emerged from the glorious and tragic centuries of the Bible and entered into the political world of the ancient Greeks and Persians, they encountered new systems of belief. They first came upon the Zoroastrian religion of Persia with its dual gods – one good and one evil – battling eternally for the control of the world and for the feeble minds of human beings. From the Greeks the challenge was not so much moral/spiritual as intellectual. Greek paganism probably was only a veneer to satisfy the masses who needed such easy answers. The great minds of ancient Greece were occupied with discovering higher truths. They examined the physical world to find hidden patterns of nature. They systemized human wisdom and organized the principals of ethics. For them, the power of the ancient gods was slowly fading as the power of the human mind was rising. The Jews would deal with this new challenge from two opposite angles, both adopting it and rejecting it. Divine unity was both strengthened and weakened, and still more images emerged.
The Greek period reached its crescendo, at least as far as the Jews were concerned, with the birth of Christianity. This new religion was a mixture of Greek philosophy and Jewish ethical monotheism, with some elements of paganism thrown in at some point for good measure. For the staunchly traditional Jews, there was no possibility of a pagan god reborn as a man, however Jewish he may have been. No matter how Jewish his moral advice sounded, and no matter how monotheistic his teachings, he was a Jewish false messiah at best, and a pagan god at worst.
For the Jews, the challenge was not so much to resist this last pagan attempt to crash through the ever-growing walls of monotheism, but to formulate a Jewish answer to the immediacy of this God-incarnate. To meet this challenge, the early Rabbis created and/or recreated other images of God. The Heavenly Father and the dwelling Presence (the Shechina) - two of the three persona of the Christian trinity - gained vital importance during this time. There were others, but these two played the biggest part in dressing the Biblical images with rabbinic faces.
All through the rabbinic period these two images dominated the theological spectrum. The others lurked in the background, exposed to only a few cognoscenti and occasionally condemned by mainstream authorities. Mystical images surfaced during this period, possibly as a result of interaction with shadowy groups known as the Gnostics that infiltrated the Eastern Mediterranean. They could come in any combination of Greek, Persian, Jewish, and Christian beliefs, but they tended to stress the mysterious nature of their wisdom rather than the revealed that was emphasized by their mainstream parent bodies. Jews had their own mystical circles and the images that they created would border on the heretical in attempting to make God’s image more palpable than the distant rabbinic Father and King, and yet not as flesh and blood as the Christian son. These mystics went so far as to measure God’s size and to gaze on His divinity through mystical meditation.
With the flourishing of the theological systems of Jewish philosophy and mysticism during the Middle Ages, the actual questions about God’s true nature first made their appearance. We finally read the complete process by which Jewish thinkers went about discerning the limitations of what God could and could not be. We see these thinkers struggling with the very idea of an image of God, despite whatever images came out of the Bible and the early rabbinic writings. We witness them almost reluctantly conclude that the ‘real’ God is 'imageless', and whatever images may have been imparted earlier were only methods to enable human beings to grasp the ungraspable. God is simultaneously becoming better defined and murkier.
Early modern times saw the mystical images reach their climax as the philosophical images faded into obscurity. The early Hasidic masters brought the mystical image of God into the very midst of nature, combining pantheism with monotheism. Earlier images of God began to lose their relevance during the 19th century, as science replaced the imagination in framing man’s picture of his world. By the turn of the 20th century it wasn’t at all clear that any image of God would survive into the modern world.
Surprisingly, God never really died, though God’s image went through considerable transformation. New images had to be constructed that either accommodated the scientific view of the universe or rejected it. Their resemblance to the images represented in the Bible was anything but obvious. Very traditional Jews did what they could to maintain the old images, but it became an increasingly uphill battle. New Age images began to make their way into Jewish circles, competing with the parallel drive to reject God altogether. As Judaism entered the 21st century, God had become little more than a buzz word to most Jews, including many ‘believers’. God’s centrality to Jewish belief and relevance to the daily life of Jews has probably never been more on the ropes than at the present time. A new image is needed.
This project will attempt to describe no less than 70 images of God. Fully 35 of them will be from the Bible – still the primary source for Jewish images of God. The other 35 will come from progressively later periods of Jewish history. We have divided the evolution of Jewish images of God into 14 sections or periods of time, with each section containing 5 distinct images. This project will trace the development of these images through the millennia, watching some emerge and then fade away, and others remain unchanged, while still others morph into some more relevant form. Some of these images may disturb certain people, who may prefer their own image of God and have trouble acknowledging that Judaism ever had anything different. We expect that this exploration will generate controversy. We hope that it perks interest among both Jews and non-Jews about the development of the Jewish understanding of God. We genuinely believe that God should not be allowed to fade away into obscurity or allowed to become just one more ancient tradition that is given little more than lip service. Uncovering the Jewish history of God is a laborious and demanding task. But the reward is nothing less than the deepest understanding of Judaism.
It won’t be an easy journey. At times it will probably feel hopeless and pointless. But there may come moments of clarity when a sudden realization of something that was known all along but couldn’t be verbalized is brought to the surface. Those are the insights that we seek, and when we find them we will know. Isn’t this a question that everyone should be pondering? Hasn’t God, in some form or another always been a fixture of the human understanding of our place in the universe? Isn’t God, in spite of the temptations of atheism and the mechanistic view of the world, still a persistent suggestion of a higher dimension to our lives that we simply cannot ignore or sweep under the rug? These are the reasons we have chosen to pursue this search. We need to search. We need a quest.
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