God as an Author Is Akin to Idolatry
I was raised and educated in Orthodox institutions to believe that the Torah literally contains God’s words. I do not read them as such now. If I were to read them this way, it would be akin to an act of idol worship, which is forbidden in these very books. My concept of God is timeless and spaceless. It is Being/Life itself, and cannot be contained in letters on a page or halted in time.
In the story of Moses at the bush that would not burn, Moses asks God for God’s name. God answers (Exod 3:14): אֶהְיֶה אֲשֶׁר אֶהְיֶה “I Will Be What I Will Be.” God cannot be contained or named, because God is always happening, God is Being. This story is a wonderful expression of the paradox the Torah itself presents: Just as God is speaking from an object/image, God says that God cannot be contained in an object or an image. The bush itself contains that paradox: it is an object that is burning but is forever regenerating itself, a bush that cannot burn, life that never dies, a story that is always telling itself. And it is an image that cannot happen in our mortal understanding of things.
The Torah, on some level, is the story of God’s relationship with the Israelites. But it is only part of the story, or a certain limited reflection of the story, not the entire story and not The Story itself. The text is not God Godself, nor was it written by God. God is not even the narrator of the text. God is a character in the story but not the author. Of course, in the reading of the story, we do get a glimpse into God’s point of view, but it is filtered through the writer(s).
At times, when I myself am writing and can feel divine energy flowing through me into the text, I am certain the prophets and scribes of old, who composed the timeless Torah, felt this divine inspiration to a great extent. But this is different than saying that God actually wrote the Torah or that the words were channeled through the writer with no human filter or interaction.
Even saying that God can write is idol worship, because that notion limits God. Moreover, whatever aspect of God is contained in the books of the Torah, it only reflects a sliver of God’s total being. Even human authors cannot be contained in their books, so how much more impossible would it be for a book or collection of books to contain the infinite of Being that is God.
I do read Torah differently than I do other texts. This is the narrative of the Jewish People. It is the story generations of male authors chose to tell about the origins of my ancestors. The stories, characters, values and legal codes found in this text are the jumping off point for me to how to “be” and relate to Being. They are a jumping off point, but not the end in itself. And they are certainly not Being itself. As sacred as I think narrative is – especially this narrative that has survived and been interpreted and reinterpreted for so many generations – I think it would belittle the idea of Torah (meaning, the Wisdom of Being) to claim that these words can contain it.
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January 18, 2022
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Dr. Rabbi Haviva Ner-David is a rabbi and writer. She is the founder of Shmaya: A Mikveh for Mind, Body and Soul, where she officiates and creates immersion ceremonies, both traditional and innovative, and runs mikveh workshops for people of all ages and faiths. Haviva was the first woman to publicly receive Orthodox rabbinic ordination in 2006, but she left Orthodoxy, was ordained as an interfaith minister at the One Spirit Interfaith-Interspiritual Seminary, and is a certified spiritual companion and dreamworker. She holds a Ph.D. from Bar Ilan University, and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from the University of Maryland. Haviva is the author of three spiritual journey memoirs: Life on the Fringes: A Feminist Journey Towards Traditional Rabbinic Ordination (2000); Chanah's Voice: A Rabbi Struggles with Gender, Commandment and the Women's Rituals of Baking, Bathing and Brightening (2014), and Dreaming Against the Current: A Rabbi's Soul Journey (2021). Haviva's debut novel, Hope Valley (2021), is about the friendship between a Palestinian-Israeli and a Jewish-Israeli woman in Galilee during the leadup to the Second Intifada. She lives on Kibbutz Hannaton in northern Israel with Jacob, her life partner of the past 32 years, is the mother of seven, and lives with FSHD, a genetic degenerative muscular disorder that has been one of her greatest teachers.
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