What does God look like?
Can we ask such a blasphemous question? God, after all, is not tied down by a body. God is transcendent. In the prayer Yigdal, which summarizes Maimonides’ thirteen attributes of faith, we sing Ein lo d’mut haguf, v’aeinu guf – “God has no form of a body, nor is God a body.”
So what does God look like? Most of us do have some idea of what God looks like buried in the backs of our minds. That image probably goes back to childhood, before we had a chance to build up all of our intellectual, rationalistic ideas about God being formless.
When I was a little kid, I remember my father being a news junkie. So it is not a surprise that my earliest memory of God is in the form of an older man with white hair sitting behind a desk reading the news. In this image, God bears a striking resemblance to Walter Cronkite.
In Parashat Yitro, we read the Ten Commandments. But as much as we talk about the receiving of the Ten Commandments as being central to Judaism, the moment that we coalesced and joined together to form the Jewish people, there is an event that is even more significant. This event occurs just before the commandments are given.
It is the simultaneous encounter of the entire Jewish people with God. It is an experience that cannot be described in words, just like all mystical experiences.
The Torah tries to give us a sense of what it was like with nature terms: “… there was thunder, and lightning, and a dense cloud upon the mountain, and a very loud blast of the shofar; and all the people who were in the camp trembled… Now Mount Sinai was all in smoke, for the Lord had come down upon it in fire; the smoke rose like the smoke of a kiln, and the whole mountain trembled violently. The blare of the shofar grew louder and louder.” (Ex. 19:16-20)
This is the encounter of God: thunder… lightning… a dense cloud… the blast of a shofar… fire… smoke… and trembling.
What does this sound like to you? To me, it seems like a massive volcanic eruption. But is that it? Is that the essence of what they, and really all of us, experienced during that moment of revelation?
I do not think so. While this tremendous, mind blowing event did take place, there was also a moment of deep, intimate, and personal connection. A passage in the Book of Kings captures that moment.
The Prophet Elijah flees Jezebel’s wrath and eventually winds up at Mt. Sinai There, he experiences God’s Presence in a way that should sound similar.
There was a great and mighty wind, splitting mountains and shattering rocks by the power of the Lord; but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind – an earthquake; but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake – fire; but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire – a still small voice. (I Kings 19:11-12)
Wind, earthquake, fire. This sounds pretty similar to what the Israelites encounter in Parashat Terumah. But the Elijah text explicitly states that the Essence of God is not in any of phenomena. God is found in the still small voice, kol demamah dakah. It takes a true Prophet like Moses, or Elijah, to hear God’s voice within, or despite, the cacophony.
After the moment ends, it is impossible to accurately describe what just happened. So the Torah describes natural phenomena that overwhelm the senses. Too much sound, too much light, too much noise, the ground quaking. It is sensory overload.
Either that or a really loud rock concert. But who can a hear a still small voice at a rock concert? Only the Prophet.
That is why the Israelites tell Moses, “You speak to us, and we will obey; but let not God speak to us, lest we die.” The sensory overload is too much for them to handle, so they send Moses.
That is one way of looking at the Revelation at Mout Sinai.
A midrash from a medieval collection called Midrash Tanhuma takes a different approach entirely. It embraces anthropomorphism unabashedly. God is a person. And not only that, but God has wardrobe changes to suit the occasion. God appears in a different human form in each time and place in which God is needed.
At the splitting of the Red Sea, God is a heroic warrior battling on Israel’s behalf. At Sinai, when God presents the Torah to Israel, God appears as a sofer, a scribe. In the days of King Solomon, who tradition holds wrote the erotic love poetry of the Song of Songs, God takes the form of a strapping young man. In the days of the Prophet Daniel, God appears as a wise old man teaching Torah. (Tanhuma Buber, Yitro 16)
The point is that God appears to the Israelites in ways that befit the needs of the moment. Let’s extend the metaphor into the present. When we are in the hospital being treated for cancer, maybe God takes on the appearance of a doctor, dressed in scrubs and wearing a stethoscope. Or when our souls are lonely and in need of relief, God can look like a lover, who comforts us with an embrace. For a young boy who looks up to his news-watching father, God takes the form of a news anchor, conveying confidence and security.
I suspect that this midrash would make Maimonides uncomfortable. He insists throughout his writings that God cannot be described positively in any way, whatsoever. Language, which is finite, is incapable of representing the infinite. But what can we do? It is the only way we have to communicate.
Maimonides insists that any anthropomorphic language of God in the Torah must be understand as metaphor. We naturally turn to images and symbols that already carry recognizable cultural meaning when we try to convey a transformative encounter. Maimonidew is fully aware, however, that the majority of people in his own day do not understand this.
Today, it seems to me that many of us have embraced Maimonides’ rejection of the anthropomorphic descriptions of God without taking the next step, which is to embrace them anyways, knowing full well that they are metaphors.
We are understandably not comfortable embracing the notion that God takes human forms because it sounds so similar to certain other religions, or because it does not fit in to our modern, supposedly rational way of understanding the world.
But the drawback is that we lose a powerful way to experience the Divine and to subsequently express that experience. Instead, we get stuck in an intellectual head-game in which we are comfortable talking about what God is not, but never able to discuss what God is. I wish I could be more comfortable living in both worlds.
What does God look like? I know that God is distant, invisible, and unknowable. But God is also a warrior, a scribe, a doctor, and even a news anchor. The challenge is to embrace the metaphors while recognizing that they are (merely) metaphors for the Indescribable.
In enumerating the various perceptions of god, you omitted the one we invoke on YK, namely god as judge! Al
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That’s true. There are many other metaphors that our tradition uses for God, like Judge, Shepherd, etc. The 13 Attributes does not include those particular images, though.