Wednesday, March 20, 2013

God's Outstreteched Arm

“And God took us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, and with great awe, and with signs and wonders.” (Deuteronomy 26:8)

This verse was made famous by the rabbis who compiled the Haggadah, the book that Jews use to recount the story of the Exodus at the Passover Seder, and who expounded upon it as follows: “Not through an angel, not through a seraph and not through a messenger, rather The Holy One Blessed be He did it in His glory by Himself.” The traditional text of the Haggadah focuses entirely on God as the Redeemer of the people of Israel. While Moses is the conduit for God’s signs and wonders in the biblical account, the rabbis removed him from the Passover narrative so that future generations would understand that Moses was merely a messenger or prophet of God.  Both texts—the Hebrew Bible and the Haggadah—contain numerous references to God’s strength, using anthropomorphic language to describe God. But these descriptions are not intended to be taken literally, as Jews believe that God has no corporeal being. Nor are we permitted to create graven images of God; we are, however, comfortable speaking metaphorically about God’s physical attributes. 

My understanding is that Christians regard Jesus as the son of God—some believe Jesus to be a physical embodiment of God—whereas Muslims do not speak, even metaphorically, of God’s physical attributes.  Although Jews appear to fall somewhere between these opposing views, Maimonides (1135-1204) cautioned against describing what God is because, by doing so, one might inadvertently imply what God is not.

Is there anything that you believe your tradition forbids you to say about God?


  1. One of the reasons I embraced Islam is that I have a really strong personal dislike of anthropomorphic versions of God found in many other religions. That being said, I really feel like trying to grasp The Divine without using ANY 'personhood' references is next to impossible. We are physical beings in a physical world and as hard as I try I can't avoid using personal pronouns when referring to God, or using human ideas/emotions to describe God's personhood. (e.g. God "Hates" This... - I don't think God really hates in the way we do, but trying to discuss God without using any of this kind of language makes the discussion cumbersome and esoteric).

    So it doesn't offend me to read or hear God being referred to in this way. I think we're all trying to understand The Divine and we're using whatever faculties we have to do so. That being said, I do honestly feel that the closer we get to understanding God, the less we need to rely on those kinds of anthropomorphic representations (either mental or physical) of God.

    1. Amanda,
      Thank you for sharing your personal perspective--I hadn't considered that anthropomorphic God-talk would be a factor in a person's choosing Islam, but it makes so much sense to me after reading your comment. As a Jew whose language of prayer is Hebrew, I also struggle DAILY with the way God is described in the Psalms and other liturgy, as well as with the use of pronouns in both Hebrew and English. Hebrew, like Arabic, has no gender-neutral nouns/pronouns, so God is almost exclusively masculine (King, Lord, Father), and in English, referring to the Holy One as "it" seems somehow wrong. It helps to know that friends in faith are confronting similar challenges as we attempt to draw nearer to God.

  2. Interesting!
    I congratulate the trio upon this achievement.

    Every tradition has something to forbid, and others to allow. That is what makes them a tradition, a distinctive faith if you like. Without those particularities, they are done.

    These are not necessarily things that God himself forbids, but the faith-group.

    That is why Jesus, in his characteristic fashion would say, "it was said", (by the various traditions), "but I say...."

    His point was clear, regarding traditions.

    Once again thank you so much for forging this partnership.

    1. Joseph, Thanks for your kind words and encouragement. We are currently 2 trios of writers, and hoping to inspire a few more circles of friends to take up this project.

      I also deeply appreciate your comment, in which you make the important distinction between what God forbids and what humans believe God forbids, the particularities established by various traditions in order to give their adherents a way to express their faith.

      Keep visiting the blog & sharing your thoughts with us!
      B'shalom, Tziporah

  3. Use of anthropomorphic language in discussing G-d points to human limitations more than anything else. Jewish concepts of G-d don't involve a body or--at their best--a gender, since to have a body or reproductive organs implies mortality. From that standpoint, G-d is not an organism that needs to breed & will eventually die. (I realize that Christians the world over disagree, but I can't discuss their theology as I'm not that learned in it.) Feminist scholars also say--with some justification--that such language also comes from a patriarchal culture. Ancient Israel was a man's world. If there's anything to be happy about it's that these days only the most dedicated black-hatters are like that. The rest of us have largely outgrown it.

    Interestingly there is a rough parallel in Far Eastern religion: "The Tao that can be told of is not the eternal Tao."

  4. Wait, I forgot to sign that. *facepalm* I'm the guy who comnented last year re the money changers in the Temple courtyard.


    1. Moebius, thanks for your comments (and for signing them!), which contain additional insights about Jewish God-language. I appreciate your inclusion of the feminist viewpoint, as well. Happy Passover, Tziporah