Sunday, April 8, 2012

Problem #3: God Is "Unholy"

The Torah asserts that human beings are made in the "image of God." Much ink has been spilled to try to understand what this means. On the simple and straightforward level, "image" and "likeness" may well relate to the physical similarity between human beings and God. (Yes, ancient theology was much more corporeal than it has become acceptable to acknowledge.) But based on the context of the narrative, the phrase "image of God" can also be understood to refer to the conscious mind, and its uniquely human capacity to analyze, conceptualize, create, formulate, consider, ponder, reflect, choose, and so on. This is confirmed when the Serpent tells Eve that if she eats from the Tree of Knowledge, her eyes will be opened and she will be "as gods*," knowing good and bad. To what do eyes opening and knowledge relate, if not the mind? Thus to be "godly" is to have a mind. (Of course, the reality is in all likelihood quite the opposite; to be human is to have a mind, and it is the human being who fashioned God in her/his own image.)

Now, since the seat of the human being's godliness is in the mind, and "godliness" is correlated to "holiness," then the mind is none other than the Holy of Holies. Indeed, the mystical tradition understands the soul (neshama) as residing in the brain. Of course the very concept of "holiness" is itself a construct of the mind. Meaning, there is nothing, no place and no person, which is "holy" apart from its having been designated as such by the human being. Barring some sort of shocking discovery, there appears to be no intrinsic holiness, no mysterious and magical property buzzing within spaces such as the Temple, and any belief in such is superstitious, rather akin to belief in magic. So too, the mind is not "intrinsically" holy. Rather, to speak of the mind as such is to regard it with awe, and to imply that we must nurture and guard it with utmost care. The mind can be likened to the Garden of Eden itself, wherein Adam was placed to "work it" and to "guard it." It is hallowed ground, to be cultivated and watched over.

How does one cultivate and protect the sanctity of the mind? By considering carefully what ideas and beliefs we allow to take root and grow there. For example, we would not want to plant and nurture patently false ideas in the mind if we could possibly help it. So we would be wise therefore to reconsider belief in God, particularly the Biblical God of Orthodox Judaism.

To explain why it is that God's miracles and overt presence are conspicuously absent in our day, Orthodox theological apologetics suggest that such revelation is "no longer needed" or "merited" by post-Biblical generations. To explain, in the light of monumental human suffering and injustice, how it is that God is perfectly "just" and "kind," it is generally asserted (in Jewish and Christian apologetics alike) that God's ways are "hidden" from humankind in our lifetime, beyond any mortal's ability to understand.

But is it not obvious how terribly convenient these explanations are, that clearly they were formulated to cover up for an unworkable theology? After all, which is more likely, that the Biblical generations were uniquely privy to the "greatest show on Earth" in the form of God's direct/open communication and miracles - and that the show simply stopped one day, or... that really there was no "show," that in fact the Bible simply reflected the beliefs and storytelling style of the day? Which is more likely, that other ancient cultures just happened to have stories about their gods and their miracles - theirs being of course "myths" and ours being "literal truth," or... that in fact all such stories are myths? Which is more likely, that there is a "hidden plan" which justifies the incredible pain and suffering of humanity throughout history, that all suffering is "just," that no evil goes unpunished and no good deed goes unrewarded - only either we cannot see it, or reward and punishment are waiting in the afterlife, in the "next world", or... that, excuse the expression, "sh*t happens" and that these "next world" explanations are designed to make us feel better and to apologize for our God?

These questions are clearly rhetorical. Of course there was no "age of miracles." Of course the notion of reward and punishment in the next world (which the Torah itself does not even write about) is merely a way to help us deal psychologically with the fact of injustice, a conceptual construction which piles untruth on top of untruth in order to defend a transparently indefensible theological position. Truly it is beneath us, as an intelligent, sharp-minded people, to accept such utter falsity, and thereby sully and desecrate the mind in such a fashion.

Leviticus 20:26 adjures us: "You will be holy to Me, because I the Lord am holy." Yes, throughout history, God has occupied a central place in the Temple of the mind, in the hallowed ground of human consciousness. Belief in the Biblical God, the Just God, was holy, healthy, reasonable, reconcilable with our worldview. How so? Wasn't common sense just as readily available to previous generations as it is to us today? Shouldn't they have seen this theology likewise as being "transparently indefensible"? No doubt there were individuals who did. But when 99% of society would view such common sense as blasphemy, when the world was absolutely rife with myth and superstition, when vehicles of mass communication were not available to the everyday person, it would have been inordinately difficult for such thinking to spontaneously take root, much less spread to others on any significant scale.

Today however, we live in a different world, and frankly we have no excuse. It should now be evident that placing the Biblical/Just God in the Temple of the mind is to affix an idol therein. It is an unholy presence.

Yes, we are charged to be a "holy nation." To be as such, we must constantly be vigilant in protecting and nurturing the mind, to try to the very best of our ability to remove all traces of falsity therefrom.  We must take our inspiration from the Maccabees and purge the Temple of the mind of all its pagan remnants and superstitions, seek out that single cruse of pure oil, that most clear and untainted/unbiased thinking, that which comports with the best of our knowledge, reasoning, wisdom and common sense, and use it to light the way for human consciousness. No swords are necessary in this battle, only the desire for truth and the courage to be real.


* Not "like God" as it is usually rendered, which would have required "yod'aya" (knowing) in the singular. Rather the text says "yod'ay" (knowing) in the plural, rendering "kelohim" to be "as gods."


  1. In this post, you start to consider whether it's a good or bad idea to believe in something that does not exist. (While you briefly address God-existence given the question of miracles and the existence of evil, your discussion is SO brief -- particularly in comparison to the libraries that have been written on these topics -- that I think these references are intended as bookmarks to the arguments made by others, in order to establish the reasonableness of your proceeding on the assumption that God does not exist.)

    In other words, you are mostly assuming that God does not exist, and you are asking whether people should believe in something that does not exist. At least, that's what I think you're doing, because I don't see anything in the concept of "holiness" that argues for or against the existence of God.

    You've put forward two suggestions for defining what is holy. The first is that holiness derives from God, or more specifically, that whatever is holy in human beings derives from our being created in the image of God. But given your atheism, I think your second suggestion is operative, namely that "holiness" is what we designate as such. I gather from this that your argument about the holiness of the human mind proceeds in the first instance from your belief that the human mind is holy -- or to paraphrase, that you have designated the human mind as holy.

    OK. The next question is, assuming you have identified something (the mind) that you believe to be a repository of holiness, what do you do in response? This is one place where I cannot follow your argument. Clearly, you believe that once you understand the mind as holy, the proper response is not to allow false beliefs to take root there. But if the mind is holy only because you think it is holy, if the holiness of the mind is your subjective and artificial construct, then isn't the proper response to this holiness an equally subjective and artificial matter? In other words, your claim that God-belief is unholy is based only on your subjective construct of what is appropriate to do in a holy space.

    What if my subjective take on this matter is also to treat the mind as a holy space, but to cultivate this holy space by rejecting science and believing only in myths? So long as the concept of holiness is subjective, doesn't that mean that I am the ultimate arbiter over what does and does not profane the holy space of my mind?

    Or in simpler terms: by your own argument, God is "holy" if I think God is "holy".

    Perhaps the better argument is to appeal to the group and not the individual. Rather than saying that "holy" is what is designated as such by the human being, you might argue that "holy" is what is designated as such by a community. But that does not help you reach your ultimate point, because then God is "holy" if "we" think God is holy.

    1. Hi Larry,

      Thanks once again for your comments.

      You've put forward two suggestions for defining what is holy.

      First off, "holy" is another word I wouldn't try too hard to pin down, since like "reasonable" it's slippery and highly subjective. But I don't think "Godly = Holy" is going too far out on a limb. As far as holiness being a human construct, that's not so much a definition of the word as it is my wanting to be clear that we're not talking about an "existence".

      your claim that God-belief is unholy is based only on your subjective construct of what is appropriate to do in a holy space

      Too true, but again I don't think that "false worship = unholy" is going very far out on a limb. What IS going out on a limb is saying that "(the Biblical) God = false worship". I think I've put forth some support for this position, but I agree it's subjective.

      doesn't that mean that I am the ultimate arbiter over what does and does not profane the holy space of my mind?

      Of course you're the ultimate arbiter - it's your mind to do with what you wish. But in the world of Orthodox Judaism, no one is saying that they're rejecting science in favor of myths. They say they're rejecting falsehoods and misinformation in favor of the truth.

      Best, AJ