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Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Watching God Davening (Berakhot 7a)

The Rabbis of the Bavli make the radical claim that God prays daily. Is this “creating God in the human image”? Or are our Sages suggesting something more subtle, more nuanced, more insightful?

In Berakhot 7a, we learn about God’s prayers. The Rabbis ask the same questions we would ask: What prayers does God say? To whom does God pray?

R. Yochanan says in the name of R. Yosi: How do we know that the Holy One, blessed be God, prays? Because it says: Even them will I bring to My holy mountain and make them joyful in My house of prayer [literally: “the house of My prayer”] (Isaiah 56:7). It does not say “their prayer” but rather “My prayer”; hence [we learn] that the Holy One, blessed be God, says prayers.

What does God pray? R. Zutra b. Tobi said in the name of Rab: “May it be My will that My mercy may suppress My anger, and that My mercy may prevail over My [other] attributes, so that I may deal with My children through the attribute of mercy and, on their behalf, stop short of the limit of strict justice.”

God, the Sages inform us, prays that the middah (attribute) of divine mercy will prevail over – indeed overpower – the middah of divine justice. The Rabbis often describe justice and mercy as polar opposites in tension with one another: if God treats us with strict justice we will not survive due to our many sins; however, if God is unrelentingly merciful, evil will flourish and consume us. God therefore seeks a proper balance that will thwart evil and allow goodness to flourish – and the world to keep going.

Could there be a better – and more accessible – role model for us than this? God is struggling with opposing proclivities and must exhibit cosmic self-control. If this is true for God, how much the more so for us. And if this is how God uses prayer – to achieve self-control and direction – then it is a worthy way for us use prayer.

I passed a church in Baltimore today. The sign outside said, “Prayer Changes Things.” The message in this gemara is that “Prayer Changes Us.” Lehitpalel (“to pray” in Hebrew) is in the reflexive mood and means “to examine oneself” or “to judge oneself.” And here in our gemara God is the ultimate role model.

The gemara continues:

It was taught: R. Ishmael b. Elisha says: I once entered into the innermost part [of the Sanctuary] to offer incense and saw Akathriel Yah, the Lord of Hosts, seated upon a high and exalted throne. God said to me: Ishmael, My son, bless Me! I replied: May it be Your will that Your mercy may suppress Your anger and Your mercy may prevail over Your other attributes, so that You may deal with Your children according to the attribute of mercy and may, on their behalf, stop short of the limit of strict justice! And God nodded to me with his head. From this we learn that the blessing of an ordinary person must not be considered lightly in your eyes.

My chevruta, Rabbi Rieser, pointed out in his recent blog entry that on Berakhot daf 8a the Rabbis assert that communal prayer redeems God. Here we find that God desires (perhaps even needs) the blessing of a human being. God says, “Ishmael, My son, bless Me!” And R. Ishmael b. Elisha does just that, with precisely the blessing God is seeking: the self-control to lead with mercy rather than justice in the divine dealings with humanity.

Prof. James Kugel has written extensively on the embodiment and human qualities of God as expressed in Tanakh. It certainly doesn’t stop with Torah. Our Rabbis carried the personhood of God much father even than Tanakh. This makes many people deeply uncomfortable. Many centuries of western thinking has trained us to reject anthropomorphic expressions about God, let alone assertions that God truly thinks, acts, feels as we do and perhaps (even more radical) has a body. We can appreciate these expressions as reflecting the limitations of human expression and conception, or perhaps poetic metaphor, but could they be “real” in any sense?

Prof. Yochanan Muffs, in The Personhood of God, writes (pages 192-3):

“It is almost tragic that in order to liberate the religious from religion, the God of the common faith from the God of supernaturalism, it should be necessary to demythologize religious literature, thus draining off its poetic power, and to depersonalize religious doctrine, thus draining it of its educational power. A model of divinity that does not partake of personhood can hardly be expected to cultivate personhood in man. Further more, a boring and unevocative model, no matter how correct philosophically, is certainly of little “world-creating” value. The problem, therefore, of the modern religious humanist is how to demythologize the model without sapping its poetic force and psychological profundity.
“I believe that many of these pitfalls could be avoided if we remythologized our theology rather than demythologized it. Fully realizing that the anthropomorphic God is to a very great degree a projection of man’s understanding of his own psyche (not merely of his own intellectualized and abstracted ideals), we must turn up the mythical decibels of the old personal God.”

Our modern literalist approach to just about everything – including our sacred texts – threatens to rob of us of their magic and beauty. The human imagination is a divine gift.

(c) 2009 by Rabbi Amy Scheinerman


Unknown said...

R. Amy,
You touch on many issues in this post, but dearest to my heart is your comment about the pitfalls of demythologizing the model of the divine.

I'm not yet sure (nor to do I expect to resolve!) what I believe about supernatural versus literal models of the divine, but I do know that I experience delight in welcoming Shabbat as if it were my daughter, floating through the door of the sanctuary in white fabric, dancing in on light feet and radiating Shekhina! Lecha Dodi! I am elevated in that moment! Metaphors help us connect with the ineffable, that's fer sure!!!!
Laurie F.

Rabbi Amy Scheinerman said...

Thank you for your note, Laurie. I entirely agree and greatly appreciate your beautiful description of the image with which you welcome shabbat. We are beings for whom imagination is essential and communication without metaphor is impossible; poetry is the natural ether of our souls (even those of us who did not like the formal poetry units in high school English class -- and that would include me). Ideas -- even the most complex and abstract intellectual ideas -- are transmitted through the ether of poetry and metaphor. And certainly the deepest and most meaningful experiences could never be shared without them. Of late, it seems to me that when it comes to God, stripping all poetic imagery (including, but not limited to anthropomorphic imagery) is a kind of hubris: we are limiting what God can be in our souls, we are keeping God in a limited, controllable place in our lives, rather than opening ourselves up to new possibilities.