Feeding the God of Compassion: A Sermon for Kol Nidre

From my Yom Kippur eve sermon last Sunday night:

If the Torah teaches us that human beings are made in the image of God, which image of God will we proclaim? The God of fear or the God of forgiveness? The God of hatred or the God of compassion? The God of xenophobia or the God of justice? And if our answer is indeed the latter, then we must affirm it. We must bear witness to this image of God in no uncertain terms. History teaches all too well what the God of hatred can do in our world. Those of us who reject this theology must be ready to do so without hesitation – to actively promote the God of compassion.

Click below to read the entire sermon:

Those who come to Torah study will know this phenomenon well: we’re reading our weekly portion, I’ll share a rabbinic insight or two, things will be going along quite nicely…

… and then we’ll read a passage where God behaves really, really badly.

It occurs almost on a weekly basis. Out of nowhere God will act like an abusive parent or a jealous crusher of other gods, or as angrily punishing authority figure. And inevitably, our discussion flies off in a very familiar direction: this is my most sacred of texts? This is the God Jews are being asked to worship? This is the God I’m supposed to teach to my children?

It’s often even more confusing because there are also times in the Torah where God appears as the epitome of tolerance and compassion: the God that liberates the enslaved, who cares for the sick, who shows kindness and loyalty throughout the generations. This God usually prompts far less discussion – except perhaps for the comment that we wish God could always appear this way in the Torah.

To make matters even more confusing, sometimes these two Gods will appear back to back within the very same Torah portion. In Parashat Ki Tisa, for instance, we read the infamous incident of the Golden Calf.  In response to this act of disloyalty, God becomes infuriated and threatens to wipe all of the Israelites. Though Moses eventually gets God to back down, God later sends a plague upon the people as punishment.

A little later on, however, God is appears to have reformed completely. When God passes by Moses on the top of Mt. Sinai, God’s essential divine attributes are described: “compassionate and slow to anger, abounding in kindness and faithfulness, extending kindness to the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity, transgression and sin.”

So which God is the real God? The punishing authority figure or the unconditionally loving parent? The angry warrior who demands that we crush the inhabitants of Canaan or the compassionate exemplar who commands us to love our neighbor as ourselves?

As I grapple with this question, myself, I’ve come to accept that whether we like it or not, both of these “Gods” represent aspects of our tradition. As much as we’d like to, we can’t wish away or surgically excise the nasty God from our sacred texts. On the contrary: if we really intend to be serious about Jewish spiritual life, I believe we need to be prepared to confront the more disturbing theologies in our tradition.

For me that means asking this question openly and unflinchingly: if the Torah teaches us that human beings are made in the image of God, which image of God will we proclaim? The God of fear or the God of forgiveness? The God of hatred or the God compassion? The God of xenophobia or the God of justice? And if our answer is indeed the latter, then we must affirm it. We must bear witness to this image of God in no uncertain terms. History teaches all too well what the God of hatred can do in our world. Those of us who reject this theology must be ready to do so without hesitation – to actively promote the God of compassion.

Of course, this is not only a Jewish problem – it’s a challenge to all people of faith. I’m often struck that Judaism is routinely stereotyped as the religion of the “intolerant Old Testament God” and Christianity as the religion of the “merciful New Testament God.” If truth be told, Christianity has been as responsible as any other faith for bringing religious intolerance into the world. No, this is not the problem of any one religion. It’s a universal challenge. At the end of the day, religion is only as redemptive or destructive as the human beings who practice it.

Last year I taught an Adult Ed series at JRC called “God Talk” – and the central premise of the class was that Jewish tradition does not have a central theological dogma.  Jewish theology has always evolved as Jewish history has evolved. The God concepts of the Bible, for instance, differ that the Rabbinic theologies of the Talmud, which in turn differs from the God of the medieval philosopher Maimonides or the Lurianic kabbalists, or modernist theologians, etc.

Any one of these theologies is important and edifying as far it goes, but in the end, I believe the continuum they represent is much more important.  We can learn a great deal by studying the tensions between these views of God, because I think ultimately these contradictory concepts reflect our own struggles to live up to our highest selves. I guess all this is my fancy way of saying that in the end, I’m not so interested in having a theologian tell me what God is. Like Jacob, I believe that God is meant to be personally wrestled with – not studied in a theology book.

In this regard, I want to share with you a taste of what I consider to be among the most exciting theological work being done today. Interestingly enough, it’s not being created by philosophers or theologians, but actually by scientists and neurologists. Over the past decade or so, physicians have been investigating the ways in which spirituality is rooted in the biology of the brain. By combining the fields of neuroscience and religious studies, they’re helping us to actually understand how the neurological makeup of our brains influences the ways we experience God.

I’ve been particularly fascinated by the research of radiologist Dr. Andrew Newberg, who is the founder of the Center for Spirituality and the Mind at the University of Pennsylvania. I first discovered his work several years ago when I read the book, “Why God Won’t Go Away: Brain Science and the Biology of Belief.”  This is Dr. Newberg’s basic premise:

Every event that happens to us or any actions that we take can be associated with activity in one or more specific regions of the brain. This includes, necessarily, all religious and spiritual experiences. The evidence further compels us to believe that if God does indeed exist, the only place he can manifest his existence would be in the tangled neural pathways and physiological structures of the brain.

Of course philosophers have held for centuries that our perception of reality is just that: our “perception.” There is no such thing as a “direct,” “objective” experience of reality.  In the field of religious studies, social scientists have been helping us understand the ways we construct our religious realities; today, physical scientists are increasingly weighing in on the God question as well.  As they are finding, the more we learn about how our brains perceive reality, the more we learn about how and why God is revealed to us.

For me, the most amazing findings of this research demonstrate the way God has evolved neurologically over the centuries. In his newest book, “How God Changes Your Brain,” Newberg makes the claim that different experiences of God actually correlate to the development of the human brain. Neurologically speaking, researchers have located the angry, authoritarian God in the limbic system, which houses the oldest and most primitive structures of the brain. This includes the amygdala – the little almond-shaped organ that generates our “fight or flight” response. The benevolent, compassionate God, on the other hand, can be found in our frontal lobes, and particularly in a structure known as the anterior cingulate. These are the parts of the brain most primarily associated with our experience of compassion and empathy. Compared to the ancient limbic system, these structures are the most recently evolved parts of our brain and they appear to be unique to human beings.

This is how Newberg puts it:

Something happened in the brains of our ancestors that gave us the power to tame this authoritarian God. No one knows exactly when or how it happened, but the neural structures that evolved enhanced our ability to cooperate with others. They gave us the ability to construct language and to consciously think in logical and reasonable ways…Without these new neural connections, humans would be limited in their ability to develop an inner moral code or a societal system of ethics.

And so the $64,000 question: does this research teach us how we can keep the more destructive God at bay?  Can we actually train our brains to favor the God of compassion?  Newberg answers this question by quoting a classic Cherokee folktale:

Once upon a time a young Indian boy received a beautiful drum as a gift. When his best friend saw it, he asked if he could play with it, but the boy felt torn. He didn’t want to share his new present, so he angrily told his friend, “No!” His friend ran away, and the boy sat down on a rock by a stream to contemplate his dilemma. He hated the fact that he had hurt his friend’s feelings, but the drum was too precious to share. In his quandary, he went to his grandfather for advice.

The elder listened quietly and then replied. “I often feel as though there are two wolves fighting inside me. One is means and greedy and full of arrogance and pride, but the other is peaceful and generous. All the time they are struggling, and you, my boy, have those same two wolves inside of you.”

“Which one will win” asked the boy.

The elder smiled and said, “The one you feed.”

Newberg suggests that much like the two wolves, there are two Gods competing with one another deep within our brains: the authoritarian, punishing God vs. the compassionate forgiving God. Which one will win? It all depends upon which one we feed.  Indeed, neurological research demonstrates that whenever we let our anger or fear overpower us, we tend to shut down the brain activity in our frontal lobes. When this happens, our “fight or flight” response is generated and it spreads rapidly throughout our brains.

We’ve long known that excessive anger or fear can cause problems like high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease. Studies also show that extreme anger can permanently disrupt structures in both our brains that control basic functions like memory storage and cognitive accuracy. In other words, when we indulge our anger, we feed the more ancient, authoritarian God.

When I read this research, I’m reminded of the central divine attributes in Torah known as “erech apayim” – being “slow to anger.” It also brings to my mind the famous dynamic between the Yetzer Hara (“the bad inclination”) and the Yetzer Hatov (“the good inclination.”) The rabbis made sure to point out that the Yetzer Harah was an essential aspect of our humanity. Whether we like it or not, these impulses are a part of us – much like our limbic system is an essential and necessary part of our brain. The point is not to deny or repress our Yetzer Hara, but to channel and master it. As the verse from Pirke Avot teaches: “Mi hu gibor? Mi’she kovesh et yitzro” – “Who is mighty? The one who masters one’s (bad) inclination.”

And how do we feed the God of compassion? At the risk of sounding too Pollyannaish, the answer is really quite simple: we need to consciously exercise our capacity for kindness. Believe it or not, science itself is proving that compassion and empathy can be neurologically contagious. Studies demonstrate conclusively that there is increased activity in the compassion center of the brain whenever we perceive others as being sensitive to our needs. Scientists have also concluded through research that the more positive contact we have with members of other different religions, cultural, and ethnic groups, the less prejudice we tend to harbor in our brains.

Another very effective way to feed the God of compassion is through the practice of meditation and contemplation. Many of you know, I’m sure that back in the 1970’s Dr. Herbert Benson of Harvard presented his first findings on what he called “The Relaxation Response,” demonstrating the power of meditation to reduce stress and lower our “fight or flight” response. More recent studies have shown that the meditation can enhance the neural functioning of the brain enough to impact its capacity for empathy, openness to different points of view, and tolerance for those who are different.

I want to say that up until now, I’ve been referring somewhat flippantly to these two different Gods.  I don’t want anyone to think that I’m a theological dualist – that I’m reducing the world essentially a battle between a force of good and a force of evil. What I am suggesting is that what we call God is something we perceive on a continuum – we experience a more ancient, primitive God concept at one end, and a more evolved, exalted form at the other. I would suggest that God isn’t really identified with either one of these poles, but rather in the forward momentum that moves us from one end of the continuum to the other.

And the way we attain this forward motion – the key to living a sacred way of life – is the same as it ever was: by mastering our baser impulses and nurturing our most exalted selves. By refusing to indulge our fear and anger and opting instead to feed our capacity for kindness and compassion. By being actively involved in the care and feeding of God’s growth in ourselves and in our world.  This is how we ultimately make God manifest in the world.

I can’t help but think that this is yet another way might understand the Torah’s concept of Tzelem Elohim – the Divine Image. Perhaps our innate neurological capacity to grow in compassion, to empathize with others, to exercise kindness, to promote fairness and justice for people we might not even know personally – maybe this is all just science’s way of saying that we’re all made in God’s image.

It seems somehow appropriate to be having this discussion on Yom Kippur: the day in which we pray openly and unabashedly for God’s compassion in the coming year.  Perhaps on a very real level, this could mean that we are praying for the strength to grow the capacity for goodness in ourselves. To find the wherewithal to feed our capacity for kindness, to make the time to calm our minds and souls so that we might become vessels for compassion in our own lives. Because then, and only then will our prayers have a chance of coming true.

On this Yom Kippur, may we all find a measure of kindness in our lives. May it make all the difference for us, for those around us, and for our world.


1 thought on “Feeding the God of Compassion: A Sermon for Kol Nidre

  1. Harold

    I like that. I see us going toward the light, but when we get there we have to bring our light back and handle the serpent, the god of darkness. It disappears in the light just as problems do with solutions. We sort of created the monsters of our nightmares by running away from the problems we created. Something like that, but what would music be without the low notes and high? He beheld and everything was very good and God is too pure to behold evil. Surely a conundrum. If you ‘are’ light you can see no darkness.


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