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The God We Imagine

Rabbi Max Chaiken

Given Yom Kippur Morning 5779 - Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Shanah tovah. Do you remember how old you were when you first learned anything about God? If you’d like, you can close your eyes for a moment, because I want you to try to imagine God the way you did when you were a child. Do you remember where you were? Do you remember who it was that first taught you, or how it came up? Do you remember what you thought about God, or how you imagined God at that time?
For many, these kind of details may be fuzzy. Yet I’m willing to bet that for some of you, that God of your childhood looked something like an old-man in the sky.
It wasn’t quite the same for me. I remember having an early idea about God, maybe when I was about 4 or 5, maybe just barely in kindergarten, and this is what imagined when I would hear the term “God”.
Yes, that’s right. Instead of a bearded, old, man in the sky, for me it was a handsome, clean-shaven, green giant who protected his vegetables, and encouraged you to eat more of them on the television.
Another year or two older, and my image grew a little bit as well.
Yes, laugh away. My first kindergarten image of God as the Jolly Green Giant gave way to my second-grade image of God as “Mr. Clean.”
I know they say cleanliness is next to Godliness, but somehow I don’t think that’s what they mean. So I feel lucky that eventually I realized the tricks my imagination was playing. Still, in many ways, my imagination failed to grow with me. Sure, I may have left the Jolly Green Giant and Mr. Clean behind, but despite active participation in Jewish life throughout high school and college, I was never truly challenged to explore, imagine, and articulate the kind of God I do believe in until I went to Rabbinical school.
And I don’t think my experience is all that unique. Many adults aren’t asked to use our imagination about anything, let alone about God. But by sparking our imagination about the Divine, we can cultivate understandings that will help us cope with life’s challenges, and direct us to be Holy as we imagine God to be. Finding new ways to imagine the Divine should enable us to better understand the type of holiness that we are trying to bring into our own lives and into the world we inhabit. (imagine word cloud)
So how do we re-engage our imagination in the task of describing the Indescribable?
Judaism offers various tools for this task, but this morning I’m going to focus on the tools of language: on words, on stories, and on poetry.
From the first act creation in our Torah, we learn that words themselves have creative power. God said “let there be light,” and there was light. As being created in God’s image, moreover, we can understand ourselves to share at least some fraction of that creative power with our words. We know this to be true when it comes to our words towards one another. A single word can be shot like a bullet to wound, or used as a band-aid to heal. And the creative power of each and every word also applies when we are talking about God. The names we use for God—the very words we use—each convey different aspects. By carefully choosing different names for God, we are literally creating the possibility for us to imagine God in different ways.
And our tradition has myriad names for God: Holy One of Blessing, Almighty One, Creator, Merciful One, God of our Ancestors, Breath of Life, Spirit of the Universe—each name offers a different aspect, and igniting our imagination in new ways.
Take the four-letter name for God—yud-hay-vuv-hay. We most often use the euphemism Adonai to speak this name, because we do not actually know how it may have once been pronounced. But Adonai does not convey the meaning of those four letters in Hebrew. You see, Adonai literally means “my master.” It refers to the element of sovereignty that we often ascribe to The Almighty, especially at this time of year, in the term Melech or Malkeinu, our Ruler or our King. Yet those four letters, yud-hay-vav-hay, actually constitute a verb—they refer to that which was, hayah, which is, hoveh, and which is yet to be, yihyeh. In other words, Being itself, Existence, is another one of God’s very names.
Now imagine how this understanding of just one word—one of God’s names—might adjust the meaning of some of our deepest prayers.
Sh’ma Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Echad, “Hear, O Israel, Adonai is Our God, Adonai is One” becomes a statement about God’s Existence and the Unity of All Existence—“Hear, O Israel, Our God Exists, and All Being is One.”
What a change! Instead now of imagining a singular entity like that “old-man-in-the-sky” image, or my own childish spin of the Jolly Green Giant, by adjusting my understanding of just one word I can now imagine God-self as a Process—as a Life-Force present through all space and time. Jewish thinkers, and those of other faiths, have come to call this type of theology “Process Theology,” in part because it insists that God can be understood as a Process, rather than as an unchanging entity. What appeals to me most about this type of theology is that I do not need to assume that God is all-knowing, or all-powerful. Instead, God can be that Life-Force that pervades all space and time, guiding me to make the best choice I can in any give circumstance.
When we move from one word to many, we invite stories and poetry to help spur our theological imagination. And especially here in Hollywood, we know better than to underestimate the power of good stories.
As individuals, we are constantly in the process of telling and retelling our own stories. Sometimes we engage in this process consciously—crafting a resume to highlight the relevant experience for the job; sharing a special meal on social media. Sometimes this process takes place sub-consciously: we recall things differently as time goes on; the sting of a hurtful moment gives way to the importance of the apology.
As a people we do the same with our Great Story; learning and re-learning Torah year after year. And Even God uses stories to help us understand God. My favorite example of this can be seen in the story of Moses at the burning bush. Moses noticed that this bush was burning and not consumed, and when Moses approaches, God reveals Godself as “the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob” (Ex. 3:6). Of all the ways that God could have introduced Godself to Moses, our Torah suggests that God chooses the mode of storytelling. God places Godself into Moses’ story! The God who “appeared to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob, and established a covenant with them” (Ex. 6:3-4) is the same God who promises to “be with” Moses to give him strength to speak truth to Pharoah’s power.
As a tool for provoking our theological imagination, we can use narrative too. We can share from our own experience of the Divine Presence, and from our own struggles with Divine Absence. This works for our personal stories too. When we tell stories about our triumphs and our tragedies, and when we listen to others share their stories, we are engaging in a process of revealing ever-more Torah. If each one of us contains spark of the Divine, sharing our experiences, and being present with one another as we do so, helps to release that light of goodness into an often dark world.
One story I like to share about experiencing the Divine Presence took place during my summers at camp. One of Camp Harlam’s iconic prayer spaces is our “Chapel in the Woods” where we pray each Shabbat morning.
Before the Torah service we would sing the opening liturgy to Debbie Friedman’s S’eu Sharim… The melody would repeat and grow to a climax where some 700 people would sing at the top of their lungs “Sh’ma Yisrael Adonai eloheinu.”
In that moment, week after week and summer after summer, I felt God’s presence in two ways. First, I felt it within, in the form of the tingles down my spine, a sort of electricity pulsing through me. Yet simultaneously there was also something beyond me. An awareness of that Force, that Process far greater than myself, and greater even than the sum of the souls praying sh’ma in the woods of Pennsylvania.
Sharing that memory helps me share one of the most basic elements of my belief in God: that God is both within us and beyond us; within our world and beyond it. Both aspects are now central to my understanding of the Divine, but I don’t think I could have ever come to appreciate that without recalling a memory, and turning it into part of my story.
Poetry also helps open the gates of discourse on the Divine. Writing and reading poems draws our attention to the aesthetic, the beautiful, the artistic elements of language.
And when it comes to imagining God in new ways, metaphor represents one of poetry’s greatest gifts. Comparisons between things challenge us to think about the ways that the comparison works, and the ways it does not. One particular prayer at this season reminds me of the importance of metaphor. Ki Anu Amecha begins with the phrase “for we are your people, and you are our God”—straightforward enough. But it continues with what can be described as a list of metaphors: “we are your children, You are our Parent; we are your servants, and You are our master … flock, and Shepherd; vineyard, and Vintnor.” And so when I return to this prayer, year after year, I cannot help but think of whoever it was that first set it down on paper. I imagine the person leaning over a page on a candle-lit desk, late at night, just making a list of all the things that they imagined God to be sort-of like! “Oh, maybe God is like the Shepherd, and we’re the flock” and then immediately saying “well, you know, that’s not quite right. Maybe its more like a nation and its King…” But the resulting prayer then remains effectively a list of metaphors, all of them working in some ways, at some times, for some of us, and all of them still somewhat incomplete.
One metaphor that really works for me is that of God as breath, or air. We breathe in air—this invisible substance all around us. That air quite literally transforms us, providing our cells with oxygen and sustaining our bodies. And in never-ending cycle, we exhale. We send that breath back into the universe. In this way we are continuously linked with all creation, as the very air we breathe flows both within us and beyond us at all time. As the Breath of the Universe, then, God too is at once within us all and far greater than us.
The creative power of language may be one of the most fundamental ways that we find ourselves created in the Divine Image, and our words, stories, and poems can help us prod our theological imaginations to catch up to our rational faculties. This year, I hope to use poetry and storytelling as a community to explore what God has been throughout our lives, and to dive into the things we don’t yet know about the Divine. Because poetry helps us use words to create beauty, and telling our stories—both the sacred, and the more mundane—helps us do the same. When we use these tools, we can activate our imaginations to think about God in new ways, and this, I pray, will propel us to think differently about ourselves, about the world around us, and about the work that we must do to leave this world better off than we found it.
Yom Kippur calls our attention to Avinu Malkeinu, a name for God that brings together the image of a parent and of a ruler. But as we enter the new year, I challenge you to imagine and experiment with a new name for God. Find a story to tell about a moment when you felt God’s presence; or a moment when you wish you had. Write a poem, or even just find one metaphor that helps describe an aspect of your faith. And once you’ve done even one of these, go out and share it with others. This year, may our words, and particularly our words about God continue create worlds of meaning.
Wed, November 29 2023 16 Kislev 5784