Friday, June 23, 2017

Random Musing Before Shabbat–Korach 5777–Revisiting B’tzelem Anashim

In 2004, I first wrote a musing on a subject which I had been contemplating and had even mentioned in some of my writings before. It’s time to revisit it again.

Parashat Korach presents some of G”d's worst (and best) behaviors.  Why are we presented with an image of G”d acting in ways that we ourselves struggle to overcome?

There's a theory I and others have advanced before. If we are made in G”d's image or likeness, then those traits and behaviors we exhibit are perforce traits and behaviors that G”d might exhibit as well. "That's overly anthropomorphic!" I hear the hecklers crying from the back of the room. "G”d is not like people," one says. "G”d is above all that, G”d is so much more, even more than we can understand or comprehend."

Still, for me, the logic holds. If there is a little bit of G”d in each of us, then there is a little bit of each of us in G”d. And, at least in my reading of the texts, the Torah supports me in my viewpoint. Why else give us example after example of a G”d who is petulant, pedantic, sophomoric, rash, vengeful, angry, jealous, vain, bored in addition to being a G”d who is loving, caring, nurturing, compassionate, exciting? Perhaps it is simply to make us feel better about our own shortcomings and weaknesses. If G”d sometimes cannot control these urges, how much more so must if be difficult for us to do so, and how much more vigilant we must ever be at guarding ourselves from engaging in negative behaviors.

It could be a way to keep us a little scared and in awe. Knowing that G”d can be vengeful, angry, jealous, etc. is a device for keeping us on our toes as well. It used to be quite an effective technique, and even into our own times this technique is practiced. Sadly, the concept can be perversely utilized, as in calling AIDS a vengeful act of G”d, or even the events of 9/11 as punishment for arrogance and hubris. So I tend to keep this particular concept at a distance, and like to steer us a bit more into the "awe" category rather than the "fear" category. Of course, we have the joy of the Hebrew not being entirely clear on this, allowing for a little fear to appropriately be part of awe.

There is the "this is all for human understanding" school of thought. It's like trying to communicate with an inferior species. So G”d's actions are portrayed using metaphors of human behavior that we can understand. This is all well and good when we're talking about human-alien contact. I question its usefulness in explaining a relationship between a Deity and its creations. If we really are that inferior to G”d, then how can we enter into a covenant with G”d? We would be, as a species, under the legal age to make a contract!

Modern scholarship is contributing another approach – G”d as realistic. G”d reflects for us the realities we experience in our daily lives (or, put another way, G”d experiences the realities we experience daily, thus we too experience them – for G”d models the Universe after G”d’s experiences. Is that any less plausible a concept than we modeling G”d from our reality?)

Much of Greek thought and theology sought and modeled a perfect Divinity. Those thoughts and theologies made their way far deeper into what became Christianity than they did in what became Judaism. One view of the Trinity concept is that it creates a place for both G”d’s perfection and imperfection (and a place to be above even those concepts.) Judaism’s G”d is dynamic, living, adapting. Judaism’s G”d has moments of truly transcendent love and compassion, combined with fits of pique, temper tantrums, etc. Just as life is for human beings.

For me, given that we do have a covenant with G”d, and a mission to be G”d's partners in the work of repairing and completing the universe, it only makes sense that both G”d and G”d's creations learn together, side by side.

The Israelites are given a tough time (mostly by their own descendants-us) for being so stubborn and obstinate. For just not "getting it." For seeing miracles and wonders and still kvetching, whining and complaining.

Well folks, guess what? At times G”d is a slow learner too. Perhaps, before the story of creation in B'reishit as we know it, G”d made other attempts to forge a universe. (My favorite idea is that G”d made a universe in which everything was perfect, and creations did not have free will. But G”d got bored with it after five minutes because nothing exciting ever happened, so G”d wiped it out and tried again.) Then G”d made this current attempt, and is trying this little free-will experiment. And I suspect it had some unanticipated results for G”d. So G”d has had to adjust, compensate, change, learn, grow and account for the effects of free will.

But let's look at the record. G”d puts Adam and Chava in a perfect garden, but gives them free will. So they go ahead and screw things up right away. Still, G”d decides to give it a little more time. After a while, G”d appears to get impatient and decides to wipe it all out again,. Only this time G”d decides to save a lot of extra work, and only kills off most of the creations. Sort of like a neutron bomb--destroying people but not nature and property. Then Noah's descendants get all prideful and decide to build this tower thingy and here we see a little jealousy, perhaps even fear on G”d's part. Hmmm--these creations might actually get to me. Time to get out the fly swatter and the speech-confounder.

And on and on the cycles goes. We mess up or do something unexpected. G”d is unhappy and lashes out. Yet G”d does seem to learn over time that wiping everyone out isn't always the best idea. But when G”d gets really angry, well, it takes Moses to talk G”d out of rashly destroying the people (and notice how Moses appeals to G”d's vanity to do this--how would it look to the Egyptians, Moses asks.)

At first G”d is going to wipe us all out for Korach's sins. But Moses talks G”d into just venting on the people who actually rebelled (though G”d still can't resist also zotzing their wives and children as well.) G”d wipes out Korach's followers, and turns the 250 with the firepans into toast. And the very next day, here we go again. G”d's ready to wipe us all out, and Moses talks G”d out of it. The first time, Moses was able to stop G”d in time to prevent total annihilation. This time, G”d starts acting before Moses and Aaron can stop it. G”d has already initiated the plague.  So they go and make expiation for the people and G”d heeds their sacrifice.

And then,. As if nothing major had transpired at all, G”d goes on to cheerfully give a re-elaboration of the support system for the priests and Levites.

Sounds awfully human-like to me.

I guess I can sort of round this up by saying that perhaps it’s better that G”d isn't perfect. If G”d could easily be bored creating a perfect universe, then how much more so might we get bored if we had a truly perfect G”d? Nope, I'll take G”d as portrayed in Torah, warts and all. And thank G”d for that!

Though I’ve edited and added to what you’ve just read, that’s how I ended the original version of this musing in 2004. There is another approach to this that I neglected to include. It’s all about how we define and understand the concept of perfection. What is perfect?  Perfect implies that something has achieved a state which cannot be, either in reality or theory, improved. For millennia people have dreamed of such a place, ascribed such qualities to the olam haba, heaven, the other world, the world to come, etc. C’mon folks – we’ve talked about this before. I already accept that a perfect universe would be the most boring place ever. Had G”d created perfection, G”d’s creations would have gone crazy, and G”d would have quickly moved on to something else. It’s the tension between (unachievable) perfection and imperfection that makes the world an interesting place to live. Our mission in life is to try and leave the world a better place than we found it. What purpose would our lives have in a world in which we could never make real or theoretical improvements?

Perfection need not be the absence or impossibility of improvement. There’s another way to define it. Some readers may recall a twenty-year-old musing whose anniversary I highlighted a few months back, for parashat Sh’mini, about GEFTS, the “good enough for this show” philosophy that I learned from a wise old colleague. By having each element of a show in balance, striving for a coherent whole, with no one area outshining the others, one can create a truly “perfect” experience. This is perfection being about balance. In my view, balance, perforce, requires give and take from the constituent parts of that perfection. You can’t have it all – everything can’t be fully maximized. (Even G”d had to engage in “tzimtzum” to make a space for the universe.)

In his controversial 2012 op-ed piece in the NY Times,  An Imperfect G”d, Yoram Hazony described perfection as balance, and then went on to say:

What would we say if some philosopher told us that a perfect bottle would be one that can contain a perfectly great amount of liquid, while being perfectly easy to pour from at the same time? Or that a perfect horse would bear an infinitely heavy rider, while at the same time being able to run with perfectly great speed? I should think we’d say he’s made a fundamental mistake here: You can’t perfect something by maximizing all its constituent principles simultaneously. All this will get you is contradictions and absurdities. This is not less true of God than it is of anything else.

A few weeks later, responding to Hazony in the Times of Israel, writer/blogger Gil Reich pointed out an almost inherent contradiction in viewing G”d as imperfect in this manner, that, Purim-like, turns things upside-down:

If our definition of perfect involves a trade-off of conflicting principles, then God and the world may be perfect despite the existence of pain and injustice.

If we define perfect as something that cannot be improved, then the world isn’t perfect. It’s better. Precisely because we can improve it.

Hazony is suggesting we allow G”d to be imperfect. Perhaps theodicy is not an issue, but a logical extension of the balancing of realities that our understanding of perfection requires.  Reich is suggesting that our static view of perfection  is what holds us back. Perhaps G”d’s perfection is in G”d’s imperfection.

I’m not sure which camp I’m on this. How does this play into b’tzelem/El”him/b’tzelem anashim? Was G”d perfect before creating the universe and humanity, and did the very act of creation cause G”d to have some imperfections? Is it free will, randomness, entropy, that are the root causes of what imperfection there is?  Is the universe perfect in its imperfection? Is G”d perfect in G”d’s imperfection? Is a universe in which we (and G”d) have to partner to keep improving things perfection, or beyond perfection? Is a universe in which imperfection is perfection itself perfect or illusionary? Did G”d make the universe perfect? Did G”d make the universe imperfect? Did making the universe make G”d perfect or imperfect? (If this were a classic sci-fi trope, this would be the point where the perfect thinking machine starts to fizzle and go haywire.)

So, to paraphrase the old “can G”d create a stone too heavy for G”d to lift,” I ask these questions:

  • Can an imperfect G”d create a perfect universe?
  • Can a perfect G”d create an imperfect universe?
  • Can G”d create a universe so imperfect that it is sheer perfection?

Shabbat Shalom,

©2017 (portions ©2004) by Adrian A. Durlester

Other musings on this parasha:

Korakh 5775 - Purposeful Unpleasant Reminder?
Korach 5774 - Still a Loose End
Korakh 5773 - B'tzelem Anashim (Redux 5764)
Korakh 5772 - B'nei Miri
Korakh 5771 - Supporting Our Priests and Levites
Korakh 5770 (Redux 5758/62) Camp Rebellion
Korakh 5769 - And who Put G"d In Charge (or 2009: A Space Odyssey)
Korakh 5768-If Korakh Had Guns
Korach 5767-Who's Afraid of the Big, Bad, Tabernacle?
Korach 5766 - Investment
Korah 5765 - Stones and Pitchers and Glass Houses
Korach 5764-B'tzelem Anashim
Korach 5763-Taken
Korach 5761-Loose Ends

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