Shabbat candles: 5:00 p.m.
Torah: Exodus 21:1-24:18 p.m.
Haftorah: Jeremiah 34:8-22; 33:25-26
Havdalah: 6:01 p.m.
You can’t see God — or can you? The Torah actually thinks you can. Way back at the Burning Bush, Moses averts his eyes, “for he was afraid to look at God.” Not just Moses, but Aaron, Nadav and Abihu as well, “saw the God of Israel,” after which, “they ate and drank,” probably implying their amazement at remaining alive and functioning after such a harrowing experience. Indeed, Bachya and Sforno think they held a feast of celebration on account of seeing God but not being struck dead on that account.
Later on, when Moses climbs Sinai a second time, he asks to see God’s face, but learns that mortals cannot do so without dying. They can do it, that is — but at a cost.
The Rabbis feel no need to read the Torah literally, however, and by the Middle Ages, they were increasingly uncomfortable with the idea of a visible God. By the 10th century, philosophers like Sa’adiah were busy denying Divine anthropomorphisms. A couple of centuries later, German pietists held that God is indeed beyond our vision, but to make things easier for us, God projects an image of the Divine self into the world for us to see. God is “two faced,” so to speak, not in the moral sense, but in the sense that one side of God’s face (God’s actuality) can never be seen, but the other side of that face, God’s projected presence, does manifest itself somehow.
Most famously, Maimonides denied all corporeality to God: God has no body, does not hear, see or talk. All such descriptions merely liken God to the best we know about ourselves. But nothing more. Traditionalists judged Maimonides a heretic.
Mordecai Kaplan, just last century, took the next step, emboldened, he said, by Maimonides. Maimonides had divested God of a body. Kaplan now stripped God of even being supernatural. God, he held, is a natural force, a part of the universe — like gravity and electromagnetism. He called God the power that makes for salvation, a word we might better translate (for our time) as “meaning.” God is the power in ourselves, our relationships, even in our projects that make life meaningful. Traditionalists called Kaplan a heretic, too.
The fact that we cannot apprehend God via any of our senses does not mean that God isn’t real, however. No one actually “sees” gravity either, but we apprehend its effects. So maybe the question ought to be what Godly effects we ought to look for as our sign of something Divine within the world. Rashbam seems to have that in mind when he says that whenever a covenant is made, God’s presence is somehow manifest. If we want to know God, look, then, for covenants. Not just any covenants, of course, but the most distinctively Jewish contribution to understanding God may be that mysterious word: “covenant.”
No word has greater Jewish currency than “covenant” — brit, in Hebrew, meaning a combination of “pact,” “agreement,” and “promise of mutuality.” The ability to make covenants rather than to fight or quarrel, to find common cause rather than acting selfishly without regard for a future beyond ourselves; this, says Judaism, is what God has most profoundly taught us. When we rise to the level of negotiating peace, standing firm by our promises, we observe what Jews mean by evidence of God.
Our sedra contains the famous promise, “We will do and we will listen.” Why do we “do” the mitzvot and only then “listen”? Perhaps the idea is that we first act in covenant with God, living up to our higher selves, and then we listen for signs of God’s applause. As Elijah taught us, God is not in earthquakes, thunder and lightning; God is in the still small voice of knowing we have transcended selfishness and made “covenant” the guiding principle of our lives.
Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman is professor of Liturgy, Worship and Ritual at the Hebrew Union College. He lectures widely around the country and is the author of “We Have Sinned: Sin and Confession in Judaism” (Jewish Lights Publishing).