Category Archives: God

Underground Genesis

R__Crumb_-_Abraham_and_Isaac

OK, I’ll weigh in: I really, really like the new R. Crumb new version of Genesis.

When it was announced that the legendary underground comic book artist was going to take a crack at the Book of Genesis,  I’m sure that many expected it to be an exercise in post-modern Biblical irony. They needn’t have worried. Crumb has reimagined Genesis like nothing I’ve read/seen in a long, long time.

Some might quibble with his rendering of certain episodes (and I do), but I don’t think anyone can reasonably call this a novelty version. Crumb has definitely done his homework – and while he admits in his introduction that he does not regard the Bible as the word of God, he clearly has a healthy respect for its mythic power:

(The Bible) is a powerful text with layers of meaning that reach deep into our collective unconsciousness, our historical consciousness, if you will. It seems indeed to be an inspired work, but I believe that its power derives from its having been a collective endeavor that evolved and condensed over many generations before reaching the final fixed form as we know it during the “Babylonian Exile,” circa 600 BCE…

If my visual, literal interpretation of the Book if Genesis offends or outrages some readers, which seems inevitable considering that the text is revered by many people, all I can say in my defense is that I approached this as a straight illustration job, with no intention to ridicule or make visual jokes. That said, I know that you can’t please everybody.

Though it seems like an unlikely project for him, Crumb’s earthy, hyper-realistic style actually serves the Biblical narrative quite well. Many will undoubtedly regard his graphic representation to be reductionist or even idolatrous (the most obvious example being God rendered as a stern, old bearded man). I personally experienced his effort as “visual midrash” that has intellectual and emotional impact in virtually every panel.

There have been a number of worthwhile reviews of the Crumb Genesis. If you are interested in reading up on the critical reaction, I highly recommend Biblical scholar Robert Alter’s recent piece in The New Republic.

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:

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Beginning Again In God’s Image

Rabbi Akiva says: “‘Love your fellow as yourself'” (Leviticus 19:18), is the greatest principle of the Torah.

Ben Azzai says, “‘When God created man, He made him in the likeness of God’ (Genesis 5:1) is the greatest principle in the Torah. You should not say: Because I have been dishonored, let my fellow be dishonored along with me…”

Rabbi Tanhuma explained: “If you do so, know whom you are dishonoring – ‘He made him in the likeness of God.'” (Genesis Rabbah 24)

In this classic Midrash, Rabbis Akiba and Ben Azzai are doing what Talmudic rabbis do best: playing a lively game of spiritual oneupsmanship. In this case, they are debating the central value of Torah: according to Akiba it is the famous verse from Leviticus, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Ben Azzai counters with the insight from this week’s Torah portion: humanity was created in God’s image.

Rabbi Tanhuma’s final statement reinforces the weakness of Akiba’s claim: though it is certainly praiseworthy to love your fellow as yourself, this might imply that you only need to treat your fellow as well (or as badly) as you yourself are treated. Ben Azzai points out that if we truly understand that all people are made in the image of God, we must accept that any time we shame, insult or abuse another, we do the same to God.

I am particularly struck that Akiba’s statement expresses an essentially humanist point of view, while Ben Azzai’s is an inherently theological assertion. In a sense, Ben Azzai raises the moral stakes of the equation. As the saying (often misattributed to Dostoevsky) goes: “where there is no God, all is permitted.” This drives home the radical imperative in Genesis: if all people are made in the divine image, all people are of infinite worth; all people are deserving of dignity, respect and fair treatment.

The Torah thus begins with this foundational principle, which has both interpersonal/ethical as well as global/moral implications. As we start Torah anew yet again, we return to its central question: how can we find the wherewithal to treat everyone we meet as a fellow child of God? How can we, as Americans, as Jews, as global citizens find dignity and respect for all who dwell on earth?

Postscript: One powerful way you can honor Torah’s central principle: consider attending the Second North American Conference on Judaism and Human Rights on December 7-9 in Washington DC.

The God of Boundlessness

Do you ever find yourself reading the Torah and thinking to yourself, “That’s not the God I believe in!?” If so, then you should know that the Biblical God – the rewarding/punishing, supernatural God that exists apart from Creation – is not the sum total of Jewish theology.

If you are interested in a decidedly different Jewish God concept, check out this wonderful article in the current issue of Parabola Magazine by one of my favorite rabbis, David Cooper. Rabbi Cooper is one of the world’s greatest teachers of Jewish contemplative practice and is particularly adept at teaching Jewish mysticism to laypeople in an eminently accessible but non-trivializing way.

Here’s what he has to say about the traditional Biblical belief system:

Belief in the biblical God has benefited many people with great comfort, good deeds, charity, loving-kindness, ethics, compassion, devotion, and so forth. It has also led to inquisitions, wars, intolerance, hypocrisy, triumphalism, witch hunts, terrorism, and holocausts. We must be circumspect when engaging any belief systems, especially concerning thoughts that are rooted in fear, greed, self-aggrandizement, and any other identities that tend to lock us in a sense of separation and isolation.

In the article, he offers the Jewish mystical concept of the Ein Sof (“Infinite” or “Boundless”) as an alternative to the problems of the traditional Jewish dualistic God concept. If this sounds like your cup of tea (or even if it doesn’t) you should read Rabbi Cooper’s article.

Speaking, personally, Kabbalistic theology – and in particular the conception of Ein Sof – gave me my first meaningful entry into Jewish belief and spirituality. Rabbi Cooper’s article offers a great introduction this powerful stream of Jewish thought that is fast becoming a hallmark of the new Jewish spirituality. (BTW: if you DO find this article to be your cup of tea, I recommend moving on to his book, “God is a Verb.”)