My lifelong fascination with matters theological began on the beach. My parents, may they rest in peace, took us each summer for vacation to Rockaway Beach, NY. We rented rooms in a large house belonging to an Irish Catholic couple, the Fletchers. After spending an entire year in a totally Jewish environment, those summers exposed us to individuals of a different religious background. It was a powerful learning experience.
It was where I first began to learn not just about theology, but about comparative theology. This came about because of my introduction to the Fletchers’ granddaughter, Judith. I was then eight or nine, Judith perhaps a year or so younger.
We had long talks, and they were often about God and prayer. I remember my shock when I learned about Judith’s conception of God, which she had learned in parochial school. Through the simplistic discourse of young children, it became apparent that her God was once a man of flesh and blood. My God was very much “without a body and without any semblance of a body.”
When I brought this discovery to the teacher my parents hired each summer for some daily Torah study, he told me I had learned the basic difference between Judaism and Christianity. That episode launched my lifelong interest in the nature of the Jewish belief in God and the profound differences between that and Christian belief.
The final portion of the entire Torah, Vezot Habracha, which we read this year on Simhat Torah, has always brought back memories of that summer and my profound early learning experience. This is because the opening verse of this parsha contains the phrase “Moses, the man of God, bade the Israelites farewell before he died.”
Moses, for the first time, is called “ish haElohim,” “man of God,” provoking the question, “Was he a man, or a God? Was he different from other men, perhaps more godly? Was he in some way a deity?”
How emphatically are our possible misconceptions about Moses dispelled by the second half of the phrase, “before he died”! (Deuteronomy 33:1) Moses was utterly human: He was mortal, he died, and he was buried. Here we have the essential difference between our faith and the Christian faith. There is one God, and He is incorporeal; that is, He has no body, no physical form whatsoever. He is totally different from all his creations. God is not man and no man can be God.
The lesson that follows from this basic principle is that the Jew prays to God alone and does not pray to any human being, living or dead, however inspiring that person may be. And we do not even pray to angels. We need no intermediaries in our prayers.
For the past several weeks, we have all been engaged in teshuva: self-examination, confession, and repentance. In this process, too, we need no human intercessors. We introspect before and confess directly to God, and we return or repent to him.
How unlike our process of teshuva is from the experience that Judith told me about: the confessional of the Roman Catholic believer. She dreaded those confessionals and recounting her childish sins to another person. How different was my childhood experience of vidui, confession, before an all-forgiving God who understood and tolerated my spiritual failings.
The end of this Torah portion drives home a related lesson. Moses was buried in a grave, and yet “no one knows his burial place to this day.” (Deuteronomy 34:6) Why has Moses’ burial place remained unknown? Wouldn’t it have been fitting to have an impressive headstone that we could visit to pay tribute to our greatest leader?
It has been suggested that had we been able to visit Moses’ grave, we might very well have begun to worship the monument under which he lies buried. We may very well have yielded to the temptation to turn a man into a God.
As the long Holy Day period draws to a close, it is imperative that we call to mind this basic lesson in theology: In Judaism, all humans are mortal, all can sin, and all are subject to human shortcomings.
In the words of the composer of Yigdal:
“Great is the living God and praised.
He exists, and His existence is beyond time.
He is one, and there is no unity like His.
Unfathomable, His Oneness is infinite.
He has neither bodily form nor substance;
His holiness is beyond compare.”