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Thursday, September 3, 2009

Intention and mitzvot: what might this say about God? (Plus an excursion into Ki Anu Amecha)

In my previous post, I discussed the question of whether or not one requires intention to fulfill a mitzvah. How can we determine another’s intention? Focusing on behavior is far more objective, and avoids the messy judgmentalism of trying to analyze another person’s inner states. That said, using behavior as a religious metric for piety has its own limitations.

There are many ways to conceive God and our relationship with God. By and large, however, the predominant metaphor is that God is Creator/Ruler/Law-giver and we are bound to God in a covenantal relationship that entails legal obligations: 613 of them, to be precise. As I said, it’s not the only metaphor, but it is the dominant one, and serves as the foundation of the entire mitzvah system.

This emphasis is consistent with Judaism’s emphasis on human behavior, above and beyond theology, philosophy, and many other religious concerns. We are what we do and say, whether or not we wish to believe that is the case. The quality of our communities and societies depends upon the limits on human behavior and our ability to abide by those limits, as well as our willingness to extend ourselves to others in the directions of chesed (kindness) and tzedek (justice), which is also a matter of behavior. Certainly ideas and beliefs inform behavior, but in the last analysis, what affects us and what we can regulate and judge, is behavior.

At the same time, the dominant metaphor is limiting and, indeed, theologically stifling for many people. It lends itself to a black-and-white view of religious practice – acts are either “right” or “wrong” – and a hierarchical view of the world.

On Yom Kippur we sing Ki Anu Amekha four times, just prior to each Vidui (confessional). This beautiful prayer offers us a menu of ways to envision our relationship with God:
We are Your People, You are our God.
We are Your children; You are our parent.
We are Your servants; You are our master.
We are Your congregation; You are our portion.
We are Your heritage; You are our destiny.
We are Your flock; You are our shepherd.
We are Your vineyard; You are our vineyard-keeper.
We are Your creatures; You are our creator.
We are Your beloved; You are our lover.
We are Your treasure; You are our best friend.
We are the ones who speak up for You; You are the One who speaks up for us.
Most of the metaphorical offerings in Ki Anu Amekha are, not surprisingly, hierarchical and as we have come to expect, God is in the superior and powerful position. The two exceptions are, “We are Your beloved; You are our lover.” This is not the translation you’re likely to find in a machzor (High Holy Day prayerbook), but the Hebrew is clear (see Song of Songs, undoubtedly the inspiration for this verse). Lovers are (or ought to be) equals in a relationship. The other exception to what are unambiguously hierarchical relationships is the last verse: “We are the ones who speak up for You; You are the One who speaks up for us.” The use of the root aleph-mem-resh, which means speak or utter carries connotations of the utterances that created the universe, suggesting another interpretation to me:
We are Your utterances; God is the one who speaks us.
God, Torah tells us, created the world with words. Barukh she-amar v’haya ha-olam. Blessed is the One Who spoke and the world came into being. Creation is ongoing. The entire world is continually in the process of becoming, of creating itself each and every moment. We are words of God – we are vehicles of creation. Our choices, which fuel our actions and deeds, affect the ongoing creation (process) of the universe. When we are in relationship with God – cognizant of the Covenant, considering our choices and how our actions will affect others – God speaks us, God reaches into the world through us. Being God’s utterances suggests a partnership with God, a working relationship of ongoing connection on the deepest level.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman, 2009

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