What is God – Part 3: God as a Metaphor
For part 1 go to http://www.sholomchicago.org/2013/05/07/what-is-god-part-1/
How hard is it for Jews to think of God in metaphorical terms? After all, we don’t even speak a name for this entity, instead using descriptions like Adonai, Elohim, Shehechinah. Yet, does God really demand that we think of Him as Lord? Or, as one book says about our use of Adonai, “It is we humans who ascribe lordship to God, out of our need for submission. Lordship is a projection from human society onto the mysterious, unknowable, divine Being.”
Our liturgies are filled, abundantly, with efforts to express our experiences of the holy through metaphor. Says a meditation from Gates of Prayer (p. 174):
You fill the endless worlds.
Deep beyond our guess, the Deep itself,
hidden, hiding, abyss, shadow, friend, ‘Illusion’:
What shall we call you whom we do not know?
How shall we speak to You?
We are lonely, afraid to hope:
Is the ground firm under our feet?
Or do they tremble upon a precipice? . . .
Our ears hear sounds from afar –
music is it? Lifeless noise?
Is there – surely there is? – an echo of love?
We look, and listen, and struggle
to gaze upon Your world
in joy in awe in love in praise. . . .
That sounds right to me. I have experiences of holiness (a topic for future blog posts, I hope). I hear the “music” from afar. But those experiences never coalesce into faith in a God as an entity with a purpose.
The High Holy Day prayer, Ki Anu Amecha, is much more consistent with my experiences. It struggles with a series of approximations to our relationship with the Divine, each another metaphor for us to try out. We are Your children, You are the parent. We the flock, You the shepherd, We are Your people, and You are our sovereign.
A poem by Ruth Brin, A Women’s Meditation:
When men were children, they thought of God as a father;
When men were slaves, they thought of God as a master;
When men were subjects, they though of God as a king.
But I am woman, not a slave, not a subject,
not a child who longs for God as a father or mother.
God is the force of motion and light in the universe;
God is the strength of lie on our planet;
God is the power moving us to do good;
God is the source of love springing up in us.
God is far beyond what we can comprehend.
So, let us be audacious, and not follow Heschel’s advice (from Part II). Let’s explore our liturgy and literature for metaphors that help us to develop a relationship with, find meaning in, a transcendent mystery that is “far beyond what we can comprehend.”
Next time, metaphors about God as “Creator.”
Dan Swartzman has been teaching in our Adult Education program for many years. Dan is a professor at UIC, where he teaches ethics, law and nonprofit management. He and his family have been members of Temple Sholom for 23 years