Finding God in covenants

Finding God in covenants

Mishpatim | Exodus 21:1-24:18

You can’t see God; or can you? The Torah thinks you can. At the burning bush, Moses averts his eyes, “for he was afraid to look at God”; and not just Moses, but Aaron, Nadav, and Abihu as well “saw the God of Israel,” after which “they ate and drank” — probably an idiom implying their amazement at remaining alive and functioning after such a harrowing experience. Indeed, Bahya and Sforno think they held a feast to celebrate seeing God but not being struck dead. 

Later, when Moses climbs Sinai a second time, he asks to see God’s face, but learns that mortals cannot do so without dying. They can do it, that is, but at a cost. 

The rabbis feel no need to read the Torah literally, and by the Middle Ages, they were increasingly uncomfortable with the idea of a visible God. By the 10th century, philosophers like Saadiah were denying divine anthropomorphisms, and a couple of centuries later, German pietists held that God, though beyond our vision, does project an image of the divine self into the world for us to see. 

Most famously, Maimonides denied all corporeality to God: God has no body, does not hear or see or talk; all such descriptions merely liken God to the best we know about ourselves. Traditionalists judged Maimonides a heretic. 

Mordecai Kaplan, just last century, took the next step. Emboldened, he said, by Maimonides, Kaplan stripped God of even being supernatural. God, he held, is a natural force, a part of the universe, like gravity and electromagnetism. He called God the power that makes for salvation — better translated (for our time) as “meaning.” God is the power in ourselves, our relationships, and our projects that makes life meaningful. Traditionalists excommunicated Kaplan too.

The fact that we cannot apprehend God via any of our senses does not mean that God isn’t real, however — no one “sees” gravity either, but we comprehend its effects. So maybe we ought to ask what Godly effects we should look for as our sign of something divine within the world. Rashbam seems to have that in mind when he says that whenever a covenant is made, God’s presence is manifest. The most distinctively Jewish contribution to understanding God may be that mysterious word, “covenant.”

No word has greater Jewish currency — brit, in Hebrew, it is a combination of “pact,” “agreement,” and “promise of mutuality.” The ability to make covenants rather than to fight or quarrel, to find common cause rather than acting selfishly without regard for a future beyond ourselves — this, says Judaism, is what God has most profoundly taught us. When we rise to the level of negotiating peace, standing firm by our promises, we observe what Jews mean by evidence of God.

Mishpatim contains the famous promise, “We will do and we will listen.” Why do we “do” the mitzvot and only then “listen”? Perhaps we first act in covenant with God, living up to our higher selves, and then we listen for signs of God’s applause. As Elijah taught, God is not in earthquakes, thunder, and lightning; God is in the still small voice of knowing we have transcended selfishness and made covenant the guiding principle of our lives. 

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