The God of Israel

Eikev By :  Arnold M. Eisen Chancellor Emeritus; Professor of Jewish Thought Posted On Aug 8, 2009 / 5769 | Torah Commentary | Interreligious

Again and again in this week’s portion the Torah commands us, reminds us, pleads with us, to hear the words that it comes to teach . . . “If/because [eikev] you hear and obey these rules and observe them faithfully,” Moses promises Israel in the very first verse of the parashah, God will favor you, bless you, multiply you (Deut. 7:12–13). If/because [eikev] you do not hear and obey the voice of the Lord your God, Moses warns the people at the close of the following chapter, “you shall certainly perish like the nations the Lord will cause to perish before you” (8:20). “Hear, O Israel!” Moses declares immediately thereafter (9:1). You are about to cross the Jordan and begin a life unlike any the world has ever known. “If you hear well the commandments which I command you this day—to love the Lord your God and serve Him with all your heart and soul,” there will be rain in its season, new grain, wine, oil. Fail to hear, serve other god, bow to them, and there will be no rain; “you will soon perish from the good land that the Lord is providing to you” (11:13–17).

Everything depends on the quality of Israel’s hearing.

My personal hearing of Deuteronomy this year has been greatly affected by the fact that I listened to the book’s opening parashah in Mumbai. Nothing so focuses a Jew (or, at least, this Jew) on what art historian David Freedberg called “the power of images” as the experience of visiting temple after solemn temple (Hindu or Jain), each devoted to primary worship of a different god, all of them overflowing with carved images of that god and other gods in the form of cow, lion, horse, elephant, or other creatures, including those that are half-man/half-animal; all of them—whether gleaming white marble or graying stone—overflowing too with barefoot worshippers who have momentarily left the teeming streets of cities or villages to say prayers, chant hymns, burn incense, find peace, pay homage.

Deuteronomy seems to have exactly such worship in mind in its repeated prohibitions of images. This above all is what it wants Israelites to hear and obey. Indeed, from the vantage point of India, the Torah’s ceaseless repetition of those prohibitions seems in part an attempt to match the endless profusion, variety, and repetition of the images that it wants Israelites to avoid. “For your own sake, therefore, be most careful,” the Torah says in one especially crucial passage (4:15). You saw no shape of God at Sinai, so make no sculptured image of God, picture God in your minds using no such image, worship none—not in the form of a man or a woman, or any beast of the earth (behemah) or bird of the sky.

I crossed paths with one beast in particular on multiple occasions almost every day that I spent in India. Cows. They seemed to be everywhere, at least in the parts of the country that we visited (Gujarat, Rajasthan, Mumbai). They were always treated with remarkable patience and veneration. I have never seen anything like it. Cows are not pets, exactly, though they do have owners, who leave the animals free to roam as they like during the day, confident that they will return home faithfully and unharmed each night. No matter how much the cows are in the way—and to my eyes, at least, they seem a major nuisance—they are never struck, rarely even disturbed. The creatures are rather accepted as a fact of daily life, inevitable and unimpeachable, like rain or drought, crowds or hunger.

This is perhaps the very definition of sacredness. Consider: you might be driving sixty miles an hour on the highway, weaving among the usual assortment of cars, trucks, motorcycles, mopeds, bicycles, and pedestrians (the roads are often lined with villages, stores, masses of people on the move), and you must suddenly change lanes, slow to a stop, or swerve off the road entirely—to avoid a cow. The driver is unflustered. The occurrence is routine. Or you might be leaving a house or walking on the way, and a cow or group of cows blocks your path: standing or sitting, lying down or rising up, ever quiet, seeming nothing if not timeless, godlike, the very image of the nonhuman world personified. So you walk around it.

One cannot but think about cows in India. They give milk. They ruminate. They represent and incarnate deities. Furthermore, they make the plenitude of images that adorn every temple from top to bottom, earth to sky, seem not only comprehensible but a matter of course. One cannot imagine life—or divinity—without them.

The reader of Parashat Eikev too cannot but pay attention to cows. Moses takes pains (9:8–21) to remind the Israelites of their most terrible transgression against God to date: the construction at Sinai of a “molten calf.” God was furious at them because of that cow, threatening to destroy the entire people as punishment. Moses too was furious when he descended the mountain—bearing the tablets on which the Ten Commandments were inscribed, including the one forbidding worship of sculpted images—and saw that cow. He nonetheless pleaded successfully with God to let the people live. Now Israel has the chance, Moses tells them in Parashat Eikev, to inherit the Land promised by God to their ancestors. What does God demand of them? Only this: love and revere YHWH your God, worship only Him, hold fast only to Him, swear only by His Name (10:12–20). Leave behind the plenitude of images that you can see, picture, and make. Worship only the oneness that you cannot see—and must struggle patiently to conceive. Do this and the new Life that God has vouchsafed for Israel can be yours.

This is not the place for a full-scale consideration of the Torah’s reasons for unrelenting opposition to the form of worship that temples in India take for granted. Let me note just one apparent element of the Torah’s case versus images, an element suggested by the temples and images with which India abounds: the motif of one versus many.

The one true God, Creator of Heaven and Earth, is set apart from the innumerable gods that are worshipped by the diverse array of human peoples in the form of images of the many divine creations that fill the heavens and the earth. This One, Unique God has set apart this one people, Israel, and bound them in covenant to set God and themselves apart by worshipping only the God who cannot be imaged. They are to walk the unique path of mitzvah that God has set for them, straying neither right nor left to the limitless paths that already exist or will be created by human devising (5:30, 8:2). Indeed, only if Israel walks this path will it exist in the world. Paths in the wilderness, unlike paved roads, must be traveled continually in order to be created and maintained. God needs covenant partners to preserve and remember the new possibility for human life and society that Moses declares, one that defies the great variety of religions, societies, and laws developed in the world thus far.

Next week’s portion, detailing the laws that comprise the covenant, takes the theme of one versus many one step further. Its very first command is the destruction of the many sites at which the many gods were being worshipped in the land of Canaan before the Israelites’ arrival. The One God is to be worshipped only at one site—the one that God will choose rather than the many that human beings have chosen. Indeed, the Torah seems to recognize that Israelites too had been worshipping at multiple sites, under the direction of local priests. It rejects this previously authorized form of devotion. “You shall not act as we all now act here, every man as he pleases” (12:8), worshipping gods as we please, where we please. Deuteronomy strikes down not only worship of many gods but worship at many temples.

What is the reasoning behind all this? The Torah does not engage in philosophy. It does not pause to argue for the positive and negative commandments it prescribes (though it often gives good reasons for them). Deuteronomy does not make the case against worship via images. Nor does it attempt to do justice to pagan worship. Our parashah, like most others, seems to assume that when human beings bow down before statues, they do so in the belief that those images in some sense are the gods that they represent. Might worshippers not see the statues rather as symbolic reminders of those gods, or vehicles through which the gods become present in worship, or aspects of a more generalized divinity, or—as many contemporary Hindus would assert—aspects of the One God? The great Jewish thinker Moses Mendelssohn argued over two centuries ago that Hindus were not polytheists but monotheists who worship God through a polytheist system of symbols. It is hard to say whether he was right; I imagine that Hindu worshippers, if pressed to explain their faith and able to do so, would give a variety of answers. For some of them, the images of Siva in the temple at Udaipur really would be Siva; for others those images would make present a deity more unified and lofty than any they could imagine.

The God of Israel has other things in mind for Israelite worshippers—not just a form of worship, but a kind of society, a vision of justice, a concept of truth. All of these are bound up in that form of worship and precluded by the worship of images. The creation of one human family, united by one vision of truth and justice (or by cooperation among diverse visions) depends, in the Torah’s view, on recognition of the one true God. That God cannot be conceived, let alone manipulated, by human beings. God cannot be captured in symbols, brought close on demand, kept distant at our will. Hearing the words of Deuteronomy, amid the vivid scenes of Indian temples, makes the opposition clearer.

How one wishes, sometimes, that one could see this God. How one hopes that all of us—Jews, Hindus, Christians, Jains—could hear what needs hearing, and—together, for once—do it faithfully.

The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.