Haftarah Parshat Bereishit (Isaiah 42:5-21)
October 29, 2016 / 27 Tishre 5777
Modern day religious people, influenced in part by philosophers and scientists, often veer from using concrete language in reference God since describing God anthropomorphically seems the farthest thing from a “true” representation of the deity. This dilemma is not lost on the Torah itself. On the one hand, the Aseret Hadibrot (the Ten Commandments) clearly prohibits physical representations of God: “You shall not make for yourself any statue or the image of anything that is in the sky above or on the earth below or in the waters beneath the earth… for I am a jealous God.” (Exodus 20:4) while, on the other hand, God is often represented verbally in very concrete terms, including in this week’s haftarah: “The Lord goes forth like a warrior, like a fighter He whips up His rage. He yells. He roars aloud. He charges upon His enemies” (Isaiah 42:13)
Was the reason for prohibiting concrete representation because the gods of other peoples were described in a manner similar to that of the Jews, providing potential for people to be lead astray? Actually, the problem is more complicated. All peoples sought to explain the connection between their needs and the forces which provided them. People needed ways to describe these powers. It was not a far-fetched proposition for people to move from the description of how the deity worked to the concrete representations. To describe the deity as a warrior led to a physical representation of the warrior which in turn led to the belief that the physical representation was the actual deity.
The biblical tradition had an appreciation of the necessity to use language to make God understandable, but early on realized the real danger of taking these descriptions to the next step – physical representation and, in due course, multiple physical representations and multiple interests, like their neighbors. Physical representation brought with it a sense of substance and a reality beyond the mere representation. The biblical tradition rejected this so called “sophisticated” chain of understanding of the divine, opting instead for a simpler understanding.
But why? Was it simply for what seemed a truer idea of what God was like or were there sociological and anthropological considerations as well? Professor James Kugel, in his book, The God of Old, argues that the idea of being separate and different from these other cultures may have played a role. The idea of being different and distinctive has always been as integral to being Jewish as its idea of God. Consequently, it should not be surprising that the Jewish idea of God and God’s people should both reflect this distinctiveness.