Reflections – Ha’azinu

Texts and beliefs By Claudia Setzer 26th Sep 2014

One of my colleagues was once talking about the “New Atheists,” people like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. He said “These atheists – I don’t believe in the God they don’t believe in!” Today’s parasha shows Israel pondering “What kind of God do we believe in?” On Shabbat Shuvah, it seems appropriate to look at the Song of Moses, which, in poetic form, presents a colorful, kaleidoscopic review of Israel’s history and metaphors for God.

The poetry’s rich language calls up moments from the Torah and Prophets, tumbling out one after another– God’s command to tell and re-tell the Exodus story (v. 7), his bearing Israel on eagles’ wings to bring them to himself (v. 11) God’s protection in the wilderness (v.10), and Sodom and Gomorrah (v. 32). The references to lush vineyards and abundant flocks (vv. 32, 33, 38) call to mind the prophets, who lamented Israel’s self-indulgence.

The images of God are equally varied. Verse 6 recalls God as father, and verse 18 God as mother, “you forgot the God who gave birth to you.” God is also the Rock, as in the Psalms. He is the warrior God who rescued Israel in the Exodus, but one who can turn his weapons against a faithless people (vv. 23-25). Verses 39-41 show a remarkable image, resonant of the prophets, of the powerful judge and warrior who finally relents and saves his people.

God is a person here, as throughout the Bible, a complex, multi-faceted, changing personality with whom Israel has a relationship. Yet we are all children of the Enlightenment, rationalists. When pressed, most of us would not say God is “out there” as a warrior, or even a mother or father. The absolute cannot be human or anthropomorphic. My friend and teacher, Yochanan Muffs, z”l, in his book, The Personhood of God, says in our time, both myth and philosophy have had their wings clipped, “Monotheistic theologians – Jewish and Muslim – are in an uncomfortable position because they feel the truth of God’s personhood, yet realise the absolute cannot be human in any real sense. They have neither the radical skepticism of philosophy or the fire of myth. What they are left with is a person, who is not much of a personality.” (p. 55-56)

Contemporary believers try to solve the problem of God in three ways: 1) by a repair to the abstract, thinking of God as essence or energy, 2) by equating religion with culture, or as we say, tradition, and 3) by identifying the longing for God with God.

None of these solutions quite work for me, or do not work perfectly. I prefer to stand within the tension between the rationalist’s God as absolute and impersonal, and the mythic God as personality. Professor Muffs suggests that, even if we recognize God as a human projection, we consider what was new and powerful in Israel’s poetic descriptions of her anthropomorphic God, and turn up the mythical decibels of the old personal God:

“The sophisticated philosopher, instead of being embarrassed by the personhood and mythic character of the old God, can delight in them as poetically formulated models of man’ humanity. He may even ponder for a moment whether or not the power that operates in man to create such humanizing images may not be somehow be associated, in fact, with what we usually call God. If the divine projections are not quite ontology [proofs of being], they may be more than mere poetry .” (p. 193)

Claudia Setzer is Professor of Religious Studies at Manhattan College and a member of Ansche Chesed and Adath Israel of Riverdale congregations in New York City.

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