My three-year-old son was watching me pray one day, trying to imitate my movements, pretending he was also praying. Then out of the blue, he blurted out, “Daddy! I just saw God’s feet.”
I didn’t know what my response should be to this, but quickly I decided that truth was my best option. “Yehuda,” I said, “You couldn’t have seen God’s feet. God doesn’t have feet.”
He seemed startled by that, but all he said was, “Oh.”
A couple of minutes went by, and then he tugged at my sleeve. He looked at me with his big brown eyes and, smiling sweetly, said with total conviction, “But I saw them.”
There was nothing I could do to persuade him otherwise. So I decided to let it ride. After all, he is only three-years-old. Hopefully, by the time he reaches adulthood he will have learned that God doesn’t have feet. If he still harbors that concept, it will get in the way of his truly seeing God.
This is a problem I often encounter in the people who come to the Isralight Institute in Jerusalem, yearning to see God, but frustrated because in childhood they picked up concepts that in adulthood act as spiritual blindfolds.
People today truly want to meet God. They are looking less for an understanding of God than for an introduction to God. They want a personal audience. They want to see God. And surprising as it may sound, it is possible. God can be seen and wants to be seen.
But the sad fact is that most people don’t see God, can’t see God, even when they want to.
So before we begin to describe how God can be seen, we will address why we can’t see Him. Hopefully, in so doing, we will unmask and remove the major obstacles that stand in our way.
Most of the people I have met during my years as a rabbi are wearing spiritual blindfolds. This causes them a lot of suffering, because these blindfolds block the eyes of the soul and they are never free to see God.
Some people are aware of the fact that they are walking blindly through life, but most are not. And that’s a lot worse because if you don’t know what’s hurting you, it’s harder to heal.
In my seminars I often ask people to write their definitions of God. Typical answers are intellectual, philosophical, and abstract. Then I ask the participants to write a letter to God, starting with “Dear God, I always wanted to ask you…” I request that they write with the nondominant hand to simulate the experience of writing as a child, because the object of the exercise is to get at the earliest point in their lives, when they acquired their image of God.
And this is where the blindfolds reveal themselves. No matter what the person’s intellectual understanding of God, their childlike emotional vision is revealed by letters like:
- “Dear God … why did you take my grandfather?”
- “Dear God … why do you allow wars to happen?”
- “Dear God … why there are so many bad people in the world?”
All negative associations, suggesting an unfair, merciless, punitive image of God.
Imagine if the way you dealt with money today were based on the way you understood money when you were five-years-old. What would you be spending your money on? Or, if your present diet were based on your understanding of nutrition when you were a child, how would you be eating today? So you can imagine that if your spiritual life is based on a childhood understanding of God, you might find your present search severely handicapped.
Purple Guy in the Sky
From time to time my wife and I sit with the kids and take a look at their latest drawings. Generally the pictures are pretty consistent—Daddy has the orange curly hair, the flowers are bigger than the people, and the shining sun has a big happy grin. But one day my five-year-old daughter Ne’ema brought us a drawing that in addition to the usual stuff featured a bizarre purple-green figure floating in the sky.
“Ne’ema,” I asked, “who is this?”
She pretended not to hear my question and began talking about something else in the picture.
I was persistent until finally she couldn’t escape identifying Mister X.
She motioned to me to come close, so she could whisper in my ear and protect her secret from her brothers and sisters close by. “It’s God.”
Of course my other kids would not stand for any secrets. They pushed forward to listen in. When my son Yehuda heard what she said, he burst out, “You drew God? You can’t draw God!”
Ne’ema grabbed the picture and darted for her room crying, “I can draw God if I want to!”
Now imagine that at age twenty-five Ne’ema continued to think that God is a purple-green guy-in-the-sky. Surely if someone were to ask her whether she believed in God she would respond, “What? Of course not.” She would probably consider herself an atheist. (One of my colleagues’ standard response to an atheist is, “The God you don’t believe in I don’t believe in either.”)
Most of us retain some sort of image of God from our childhood, and if we think for a moment, we might recall when the idea first registered on our juvenile consciousness. Many of us have been influenced by the Greek and Roman images of Zeus, others by Michaelangelo’s version in the Sistine Chapel, which looks every bit like old Zeus himself. It is no wonder that so many children (and adults too) imagine God as a powerful, aged man with a flowing white beard. Children need to give God a physical form, otherwise they cannot comprehend the idea. For them an invisible, incorporeal God is simply not there.
In a child’s mind, according to his or her level of comprehension, God has to have a body, an imaginable form of some kind, to exist. But as the child grows up, as he matures intellectually and spiritually, he or she needs to find a new paradigm—a new framework for understanding God, for seeing God.
The problem is that most of us don’t.
The Idol Smasher
Humanity has been struggling with this problem since the dawn of civilization. This was the genius and earthshaking contribution of Abraham. Four thousand years ago, he told a world that worshiped a panoply of idols representing every imaginable aspect of nature that there is only one unimaginable source of all creation. Can you imagine what a shock it must have been to hear that back then? God is imageless? How could that be?
The irony of it was that Abraham’s father, Terach, was an idol-maker by profession. Jewish Oral Tradition tells us that as a child Abraham smashed all the idols in his father’s shop. Responding to his father’s fury, he boldly claimed that the biggest of the idols was responsible for the destruction. “But,” countered his father, “he is just a statue; he can’t do anything.” And to that Abraham said simply, “Let your ears hear what your mouth has spoken.”
God, who is responsible for the vastness and intricacy of creation, cannot be limited to any form, and especially not to an inanimate graven image. A mature and healthy soul must deny such childish imaginings.
As Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, great Kabbalist and philosopher living at the turn of the century put it, “There is faith that is actually denial, and there is denial that is actually faith.” When a person says that he believes in God, but in fact, the God he believes in is really a conceptual spiritual idol, an image of God that he has conjured up, then his faith is actually denial of truth, heresy. However, when a person professes atheism because he just can’t believe in some almighty king with a white flowing beard floating somewhere in outer space, in a sense he is expressing true faith, because there is no such God.
The challenge is how to clean out such false imagery from one’s mind—imagery that has grown thick, hard, and solid over time and, like a hard wall of cement blocks, is now presenting a very serious obstruction to really seeing God.
The place to start is with the big word: G-O-D.
Today people talk a great deal about God. It is fashionable to bring up spiritual matters at cocktail parties, but what are people really talking about when they say “God”?
A couple of years ago when a major publisher agreed to put out my last book, Endless Light, my editor, who was also the vice-president of the company, said to me, “You know, Rabbi, quite frankly, five years ago we wouldn’t even look at a book like this, a book about God. It would never sell. But today . . . what can I tell you? God is in.”
It’s a whole new age. God now sells. It’s fashionable to believe in God. Not too long ago, it was not fashionable to believe in God. In fact, it was decidedly politically incorrect. Not so long ago, I remember a woman student, the head of a philosophy department at an important American college, who came to one of my seminars. She called herself a “closet believer.” She actually believed in God, but she said that if she were to admit such a thing in academic circles she would be laughed out of the room and might even lose her job. Intelligent people simply didn’t believe in God, faith was considered something primitive, passé, decidedly not academic. Therefore, she had to be a closet believer. Today, she can come out of the closet. How times have changed! But what concerns me about this trendiness of God is that trends come and go. Two hundred years ago God was fashionable—the founding fathers of America put God in the Declaration of Independence and “In God We Trust” on all American money. Fifty years ago, God was not fashionable—the founders of the State of Israel, after much argument, only cryptically referred to God as “Rock of Israel” when they wrote their Declaration of Independence. Now God is fashionable again.
To make sure that God isn’t just fashionable and will not fall out of fashion next year along with platform shoes, we have to take great care. To make sure that God really becomes part of our lives and has a profound and healthy effect in improving the way we live and relate to each other, we have to pay attention to what we mean when we say “God.”
The Death of God
Quite frankly, the word “God” does nothing for me. If anything, it interferes with my true faith. Personally, I don’t believe in “God.” It’s an English word of German derivation and is not found in the Bible, if you read the Hebrew original. That word “God” has been so overused, abused, and misunderstood that it actually stands in the way of our discovering that ultimate truth we are seeking.
Thinking about this problem, I begin to understand what Nietzsche must have meant when he said God is dead. The concept of “God”—what we mean when we say “God”—is a dead concept. It is not real. The male, Zeus-like avenger floating about in heaven doesn’t even come close to representing the reality.
How childish and counter-productive this concept is was brought home to me, when one day, into my seminar, walked in a fellow wearing a T-shirt depicting an exchange from the Calvin and Hobbes comic strip. Hobbes, the toy tiger, is asking Calvin, the little boy, “Calvin, do you believe in God?” Calvin’s reply is: “Well, someone is out to get me.”
Unfortunately, many people harbor an image of God as some kind of almighty heavenly bully, who is out to get them. No wonder they don’t want to believe in that God; no wonder they don’t have any idea how to connect with that God. As one woman said to me, “I just wish that He would leave me alone. I don’t bother with Him; He shouldn’t bother with me.” But down deep, such people really suffer from an intense fear of God and punishment. This is called theophobia. Often the people who suffer from theophobia describe themselves as atheists. They try to escape their mental torment by denying the God whom they actually continue to fear daily.
I understand their fears. I remember the first time I felt that kind of fear. I was a child watching The Ten Commandments, starring Charlton Heston as Moses. Only later on in my life did I realize what a negative experience that was for me. For one thing, the voice of God stayed imprinted on my consciousness for a very long time. Can you imagine the auditions for the part? Actors with a sweet, gentle voice need not apply! Only someone with a booming, loud, oppressive-sounding voice could be the voice of God.
These are the kinds of memories rambling around most people’s minds. In sum total they add up to an awful image of God. So, I believe that before real spiritual growth is possible we must get rid of God.
Just like Abraham we need to smash our own graven images, free ourselves from the conceptual idolatry obstructing the eyes of our soul. The time has come to see the One whom we seek.
The One Who Was, Is and Will Be
The name in the Bible that has unfortunately been translated as “God” is comprised of the Hebrew letters yud, hey, vav, hey and is written out in English as “Y/H/V/H.” It is important to know that “Y/H/V/H” is not a word at all, but a tetragrammaton—the tetragrammaton as there is only one—standing for “was/is/and/will be.” The tetragrammaton condenses the three Hebrew forms of the verb “to be” suggesting the timeless source and context of all being.
Jewish law prohibits the pronunciation of the tetragrammaton, and therefore in prayer religious Jews substitute a completely different word—Adonai (meaning “Lord”)—when they come to “Y/H/V/H.”
How very strange to see a word and say something else. Of course, this is done to remind the worshipper that what he/she sees cannot be said, what he/she experiences cannot really be captured in words or concepts. The sages of old, in their vast wisdom, understood that people love the crutch of images and therefore need constant reminders to humbly accept the limitations of their conceptual minds. How can a human mind grasp Y/H/V/H? How can the human mind imagine the Ultimate Timeless Reality?
This is a very difficult idea to grasp because it surpasses our minds. It’s like a drop of water in the ocean, trying to grasp the ocean. Indeed, the best we can say is that we each embody an aspect of reality, but we are not reality. Like the drop water in the ocean, we exist within reality. Because reality is Y/H/V/H.
When Jews celebrate Passover, they sing a song from the Haggadah: “Blessed is The Place.” One of the terms used to describe Y/H/V/H is the “Place.” Why the “Place”? Because it suggests Y/H/V/H is the place in which we exist, is the reality within which we exist.
If you believe in the Big Bang theory—that the world came into being as a primordial explosion with masses of hot, whirling gases that eventually condensed into stars and planets—you would still have to ask: Where did all this happen? What place was this in which the explosion took place? Who facilitated this event?
The answer is Y/H/V/H, the Ultimate Reality—the One who embraces all time, all space and all beings.
The Kabbalah warns that we should not to affix any name or letter to the Ultimate Reality. (The Kabbalah refers to the Ultimate Reality as Ein Sof—the Endless One.) We can’t stuff something as vast and abstract as that into any rigid concept or image. Even the tetragrammaton is, at best, only a hint, because the One to whom it refers is beyond names and concepts.
So what are we to do when trying to speak of Y/H/V/H without getting stuck in the dead concept that we are trying to get rid of? The Jewish answer is to avoid the problem by simply saying Hashem, which in Hebrew simply means “the name.” This avoids becoming too familiar with a name, indeed it avoids using a name. Saying “the name”—Hashem—reminds us that the Ultimate Reality is, in fact, beyond all names, all terms, all images. When we say Hashem, we realize that we only possess a simplistic, limited, inadequate understanding of the Ultimate Reality, the Source of All Being, the Place or the Context of All That Exists.
We don’t—indeed, we can’t—have an understanding of Hashem, but we can and do have a relationship with Hashem.
God is dead; it is a lifeless concept, a dead word. But Hashem is alive, the Ultimate Living Reality.
My friend Ron told me a story about how he got rid of God and discovered Hashem. He was at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, the last remnant of the Holy Temple that stood over two thousand years ago, and even though he always considered himself an atheist, he thought, “What the heck, here I am at the Wall, I should do something spiritual. So he turned to a religious fellow next to him and asked, “Well, what does one do here?”
The fellow responded, “Why don’t you recite some psalms?” And he handed him a book of psalms. Ron thought that seemed appropriate and he began to read some verses. Sure enough just within the first few words he already hit upon the “God” word. Although he felt annoyed, he decided to continue. But again the “God” word appeared. Now he was getting very frustrated. “How can I say this if I don’t believe in God?” he asked himself. “Do I have to believe in God to have a spiritual experience?”
Since Ron is a computer engineer, he decided to relate to his predicament like a computer problem. When there is computer data that he can’t use, he creates a buffer zone and puts it there. Ron decided, “I’ll put the “God” word in a mental buffer zone and simply disregard it so I can continue reading the psalms without getting aggravated.” And that’s what he did.
Ron then continued reading and suddenly felt overwhelmed by a flood of inspiration released by the moving poetic words of King David. He told me that he was struck by a profound spiritual experience, which he had never felt before. It was as if he was surrounded by light. This was the beginning of Ron’s belief in Hashem. Only when he got rid of God was he able to see Hashem.
It is interesting to note that Nietzche, besides proclaiming that God is dead, also said that unless we experience an infinite whole working through us, our lives have no meaning. Nietzche didn’t believe in “God.” And neither do I. I believe in the Infinite Whole, the One who was, is and always will be—Hashem.
Relating to Hashem requires a total paradigm shift for most people. The general way people understand God is that there’s reality, and then there’s God in reality. Within that reality God has created little you and me. And so here we are in reality, standing alongside Almighty God. With that picture before our eyes, we cannot help but feeling very small, insignificant, threatened. Everything—all creation and we along with it—looks so puny and petty compared to God. That’s why we shirk away from that God and deny His existence. We simply cannot deal with the comparison, with feeling like nothing next to God.
People have this image of a God floating somewhere in reality, who for some reason decided to create you and me. Yet that perfect being floating in reality created a bunch of imperfect beings. We can’t help but always compare ourselves to this almighty perfect being. We can’t help but always feel like nothing next to this almighty perfect being. We then ask, “Do we have to surrender to God, and just religiously accept the ideology that we are nothing?” Certain religious paths would answer, “Yes, we are nothing, and this world is nothing. And that is the highest realization to strive for—personal annihilation.”
However, for those of us who are not willing to believe that we are nothing, the alternative approach is the flip side of the coin—God is nothing—because in order to believe in myself I can’t believe in God.
The paradigm that imagines a God in reality either leads to a philosophy of absolute surrender, total effacement of the human being and life in this world, or—for those not willing to accept that—it leads to atheism. By the way, the atheist, by denying God, is actually partly right—in reality there is no God.
But the Kabbalah inspires a complete paradigm shift. It teaches that Hashem does not exist in reality—Hashem is reality. And we do not exist alongside Hashem, we exist within Hashem, within the reality that is Hashem.
Hashem is the place. Indeed, Hashem is the all-embracing context for everything. So there can’t be you and God standing alongside in reality. There is only one reality that is Hashem, and you exist in Hashem.
You exist within reality, embody an aspect of reality, participate in reality. That’s a completely different understanding. All of a sudden, you are no longer a puny insignificant creature existing alongside God, sharing the same place. In light of this perspective, you are not only not puny, not insignificant, not nothing, your existence is intensified because it is a manifestation of the Divine.
Seeing God is all about getting in touch with reality.
When I talk about reality in my seminars, sometimes my students object. They complain that “reality” sounds too impersonal. “What happened to the personal God?” they ask.
But the Ultimate Reality, Hashem, Y/H/V/H, is not impersonal. This reality embraces you and me and is the source of and context for you and me, therefore, Hashem couldn’t be any less personal than you and me. In fact, Hashem is infinitely more personal. People think that reality is dead empty space, but reality is actually conscious, alive, and loving. Therefore, we cannot speak of reality in an impersonal way. We can’t ask, for example, “What is reality?” We must ask, “Who is reality? Who is the source of all consciousness? Who is the source of all life? Who is the source of love? Who accommodates everything we see in this world?”
The answer is Hashem.
This is expressed by Rabbi Moshe Cordovero, who was a great Kabbalist living in the sixteenth century, “Hashem is found in all things. All things are found in Hashem. There is nothing devoid of Hashem’s Divinity. Everything is in Hashem. Hashem is in everything, beyond everything.”
It is important for me to clarify that this is not a statement of pantheism. Pantheism is a theory that all is God. That is not what Rabbi Cordovero means, and it is not what I am trying to get across. Pantheism depends on the equation: God equals universe. Deduct the universe and God becomes nothing. But Judaism holds that Hashem existed before the universe and in fact created the universe, and if the universe ceases to exist, Hashem will continue to exist just as whole without it. That idea is called panentheism, which means that all is included within Hashem. A dramatically different concept from pantheism. All is included within the Divine, but if I did not exist and you did not exist, Hashem wouldn’t Be diminished.
One metaphor that can be helpful for understanding our relationship to Hashem is the relationship between the thought and the thinker. If I create a man in my mind, where does that man exist? In my mind. That man exists within me, yet I’m not that man. That man is not me. He continues to exist as long as I continue to think him. If I stop thinking about him, he ceases to exist but I am no less who I was before I created him in my imagination.
Similarly, we are the product of Hashem’s creation. We exist in Hashem. But we are not Hashem and Hashem is not us. It’s a mystical idea. There is nothing devoid of Hashem. Everything is in Hashem, Hashem is in everything, but Hashem is beyond everything.
We exist within reality, we embody reality, and yet we are not reality. And if we would cease to exist, reality would continue on, no less than before or after our creation.
When I tried to explain this to my seven-year-old son, it went like this:
“Nuri, where is Hashem?”
“He’s over there,” he answers, confidently pointing to the sky. “In heaven.”
“No. Hashem isn’t over there, Hashem is everywhere.”
“Now, where are you and I?”
“Well,” he was more cautious now, expecting something tricky within the question. “We’re over here.”
“No,” I said, “You and I are actually within Hashem. Do you understand that? Hashem isn’t over there, and you and I are not over here. Hashem is everywhere and we’re in Hashem.”
My son thought about this for a few moments, trying to understand it. Then he exclaimed, “I got it! I got it! Wow! Hashem is so fat!”
Somehow he had to make a picture of Hashem, fat enough to encompass two other people, because a child’s mind cannot deal in abstractions. That’s why if a third grader is having trouble figuring out how much is fourteen minus nine, you tell him, “If you have fourteen candies, and you give away nine to your sister, how many candies will you have left?” He’ll get it right away. He’ll see the candies disappearing in his mind. But as he matures, he is expected to let go of childish, limited concrete concepts. He can’t be thinking of candy each time he adds or subtracts, nor can he be thinking of a fat balloon each time he thinks of God.
If we want an adult relationship with Hashem, then we must be willing to change the paradigm. Letting go of old concepts, however, is extremely difficult. The human mind can be like a prison and getting out of the prison of our imagination is sometimes more difficult than getting out of a prison made of stones and bars. If we become prisoners to the unhealthy concept of God, then we view all of life through a framework of God versus me. And no wonder that religion turns us off.
When we read that an omnipotent being over there gave us this or that commandment, we say in our childish minds, Oh yeah? So what? It becomes a question of who is going to win. Are we going to surrender to that being over there?
But, if we can make the jump from counting candies to the abstractions of algebra, we can also succeed in freeing our minds from unhealthy stilted images of God. Only when we remove from our mind’s eyes those blindfolds of dead concepts can we begin to open the eyes of the soul and see in a new way. But once we do, we also open up the possibility of truly seeing Hashem.