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A Message from Rabbi Tilsen

Is God Made Up?

Did God create us, or did we create God? Remarkably, our sages taught that both propositions are true.

It is easy for us to see in other religions the extent to which human projection and wishful thinking is responsible for notions of God. Religion is often a response to the vicissitudes and suffering of life, as well as a tool of the powerful to retain their power. When non-Jewish people declare their leaders prophets or deities, we dismiss it as foolishness or deception.

When we realize that this happens to others, we should be able to recognize that the same process happens among the Jewish People as well and shapes our image of God. Jonah Cooper, who recently celebrated becoming a bar mitzva, described his healthy skepticism this way in his Devar Torah:

Imagine yourself sitting alone on your couch watching TV and eating your favorite snack food. You have a family, many friends and a successful job. Suddenly, you hear a voice, a powerful commanding voice [such as that attributed by the Torah to God]. Would you do it [what the voice commands]? Would you make the choice that would dictate the future of countless individuals? To tell you the truth, I don't think I would. I wouldn't believe it was God; I would think I was crazy and get myself a good therapist ASAP.

Our sages knew that such “voices” in our day are usually either chicanery or the sign of mental illness. People create God, that is, make up what God says. For that reason, the sages ruled that we do not listen to heavenly voices (Bava Metsia 59ab and elsewhere) even if we hear them ourselves; certainly we do not listen to those that others claim to hear. With all of the false prophets and false messiahs about, the rabbis had to take a stand. They essentially banned prophecy, or more precisely, prohibited us from adhering to contemporary purported prophecy.

Our sages recognized that God, in our tradition, is experienced partly as a literary character. This recognition emerges from a study of Midrash, in which the sages felt free to create dialog for God for educational or inspirational purposes. While Midrash expresses profound truth, no one other than the fundamentalist or ignoramus would claim it to be an actual record of Divine dialog or veritable history.

More than that, our sages recognized that any literary presentation of God is inherently limited by human experience and intelligence. Rabbi Saadia Gaon, who lived one thousand years ago, explained this notion by saying (as did others before and after him) that “the Torah is given in human language.” That is, the Torah is composed in a way that is comprehensible to us given our limitations. It uses anthropomorphism and is limited to words and ideas already comprehensible to its readers.

When we view a movie in a theatre, we are actually seeing a projection of numerous still photos or images, which change rapidly. Typically, about 24 frames (that is, still photos) are projected each second. But our minds “connect the dots,” as it were, and we perceive a motion picture. Our minds create a movie from a series of still photo projections.

An ant looking at a wall sees what to him or her must be the entire universe. Little does that ant know about what there is beyond.

In the same way, we create, in our own minds, an image of God from the writings of Scripture and the teachings of our sages, as well as from our own life experiences.

A dog's ability to understand — its level of consciousness — is great compared to that of a worm. A worm can discern only a few things: Up, down, warm, cold, wet, dry, light, dark, hard, soft. That's all. In comparison, a dog has a much higher level of consciousness. It is aware of itself and others, experiences playfulness, kindness, loyalty, or at least something analogous to that. But a dog cannot plan for its retirement, protest global warming, or give a really good Devar Torah.

Most adults consider children's understanding of the world to be limited much the same way. We go through a process of emerging and advancing consciousness.

Our ability to understand our world is great compared to that of a dog, and incomparably vast compared to that of a worm. It is said that 500 million years ago, the most advanced life form on Earth was a multicellular worm. As humanity continues to evolve, someday people will reach new levels of consciousness and understanding, such that they will look back at us as primitive and limited. As Rabbi Levitas of Yavne says, “Be very very humble, for a human's future is to be a worm – תקות אנוש רמה” (Avot 4:4). Perhaps our destiny is to be seen by our distant descendants as being as significant and advanced as worms.

The Torah can only stretch the minds of its readers and followers, but cannot try to vastly exceed our capacity for understanding. For that reason, every representation of God in Torah is limited by what the human mind can comprehend. The limitations are partly biological and partly cultural. If the God of Torah is not created by the human mind, that God is perceived and thereby shaped and edited by the human mind. It could not be otherwise.

At the same time, there are certain experiences that cause some people to suppose that there must be a great Force in the universe. For me, contemplating the wonders of the cosmos and the quantum, the miracle of life and love, and my own consciousness (not to mention yours), provides an inescapable intuition that there is something big going on that I do not comprehend. For lack of a better name, I call that force, that repository of meaning, “Creator,” “Merciful One,” “Holy One,” “Powerful One,” “Almighty” or simply “God.” Whatever that Force was that made the miracle of my life and consciousness (not to mention the rest of the universe), I call “Creator.” God created Man (me for sure, you probably).

Three things there are, together in my eye
That keep the thought of Thee forever nigh.
I think about Thy great and holy name
Whenever I look up and see the sky.
My thoughts are roused to know how I was made,
Seeing the earth's expanse, where I abide.
The musings of my mind, when I look inside –
At all times, “O my soul, bless Adonai.”
Solomon Ibn Gabirol (11th century)
translated by Raymond P. Scheindlin in The Gazelle

©Jon-Jay Tilsen, February 2004


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