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May 17, 2016

The Nature of Divinity—Early Perceptions

Creation_Adam

“When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things.” —1 Corinthians 13:11

When I was a child, growing up, “God” was part of my ongoing experience. I often saw my mother talking to God, especially when my brother and I were being especially challenging. Her usual tone was one of complaint. She often wanted to know “why.” “Why are my children acting this way?” or “Why is this happening to me?” Her behavior strongly signaled to me that God was a permanent presence in our kitchen, and that she was on intimate terms with that version of God.

She also believed strongly in the concept of “bashert,” a Yiddish term (באַשערט) that loosely translates into “It was meant to be.” This was another aspect of God’s active presence in our lives, one which implied that there was a hidden hand at work in even the most mundane circumstances (see https://bashert04.com/about/ for an example of how this was perceived). There was an overarching feeling implied that our every move was monitored and guided by God, a thought that also carried over into the New Testament and became part of Christian beliefs:

“Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And yet not one of them will fall on the ground without your Father’s will. But so far as you are concerned, even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Therefore fear not; you are much more important than many sparrows.” —Matthew 10:29-31

In those early years, God was invisible, but was a presence that I could feel. God was accessible at any time that I chose to focus on Him.

For me, God was my “special friend.” I was special to God, and God was my special friend. I would ask God for things, such as “Please don’t let it rain on our picnic.” Whenever I had to take the bus, I noticed that I never got rained on. The rain would always begin after I got on the bus and it would stop before I got off the bus. That was one bit of “magical thinking” that convinced me that God was a person I could talk to and that He cared about me, watched over me, and responded to my requests.

GoldenBookBibleStories_

I was given many books to read, and one of them was the Golden Book of Bible Stories. In that book, God was shown as an old but powerfully built man, with flowing white hair, a flowing beard, and not wearing much in the way of clothing — just a length of fabric that was loosely draped around him. God was perched on a cloud and He was surrounded by small angelic beings with wings and not much clothing, either. (God looked very similar to the way Michelangelo depicted him on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in Rome, but I didn’t know about that then.)

My parents were not particularly religious. They officially kept a kosher home (among other things, meat and dairy were not eaten together. there were two separate sets of dishes and tableware — one for meat and one for dairy — and pork and shellfish were forbidden foods), so my orthodox Jewish grandmother would be able to eat there (or so they said), but there was a third set of dishes in a separate drawer that was kept for foods that my father brought home from the restaurants that were his customers for restaurant and bar equipment.

Instead of the traditional glass of wine to usher in the Sabbath on Friday evening, my father said the blessing over a shot glass of “schnaps,” usually Seagram’s 7 whiskey (and Seagram’s Crown Royal, brought in tax-free from Canada, for special occasions). I was allowed to dip a piece of Jewish rye bread in the little bit of whiskey that was left in the glass, which caused me to develop a fond association with rye whiskey in general. Rules were often bent to accommodate one’s personal preferences, and that kind of situational reasoning made a deep impression on me. God was certainly there and watching over us, but apparently certain requirements were not as fixed as others.

While my parents did not generally attend religious services except on special occasions (weddings, bar mitzvahs, etc.), they did attend all four High Holy Day services (two days of Rosh Hashanah, one evening and one day of Yom Kippur). On those days, all of us went to the Russian Orthodox synagogue where my paternal grandfather was a member. It was on such a day that I had a transcendent experience of God and our relationship to Him.

During these long days of prayers, asking for forgiveness for our sins, the cantor and choir punctuated our petitions with some of the most exquisite music I have ever heard. The choir was an a cappela quartet, and the cantor had a range that spanned almost four octaves. On one day that I can still remember, the cantor (dressed all in white to symbolize purity) knelt on the floor in front of the altar, just as a beam of light broke through the cupola at the top of the sanctuary and illuminated him as he sang as though his heart would break if his petition went unanswered. I couldn’t understand much of what was going on or why this was so important, but I took that beam of light as a direct sign that God had heard his prayers and responded positively to them.

When I was ten years old, our elementary school had expanded its four grades to six and science was added to our curriculum. As we studied the nature of things as seen through the lens of science, my response to what I was learning led me to observe a grand order that was like a magnificent clockworks and implied a clock maker that was responsible for creating all of it. Now my sense of God expanded to include the observable universe, with God as its Creator and designer.

I felt comforted by that perception for a while, but when I was 12 years old, something happened to begin to drive a wedge between what I was being taught about the nature of life and our relationship to God and what my inner director was telling me. Twelve years of age was when a Jewish girl was considered to be an adult, and to have to follow the rules that adults follow. (Boys attain religious maturity at 13, when they have their Bar Mitzvah ceremony.) That meant that I would have to do a total fast for the 24 hours (sunset to sunset) of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.

I was very obedient most of the time, and I earnestly set out to prove that I was worthy of this responsibility. However, I got so sick from fasting that I concluded I hadn’t been “that bad” and I began to question the things I had been taught about God, especially about his anger and punishments. I started to question the nature of God altogether, and when I was 13 and in the last year of Sunday School, I asked the rabbi (who was our teacher) about God, Jesus, and other things that has begun to be important to me as I prepared to enter high school and a new phase of my life.

The rabbi told me that “God was everywhere and in everything,” that “Jesus was a wonderful teacher, but no more divine than you and I,” and that “The Messianic era would come when we created it, not through some external savior.” This resonated deeply within me, as did a particular teaching I got from my father:

I was not raised with any concept of either heaven or hell, and while my superstitious grandmother was always doing things to avert the “evil eye” and did give some credence to “devils” or “evil spirits,” I never accepted her beliefs as anything that applied to me. It wasn’t until decades later, in the early years of my spiritual awakening, that I had to visit the entire question of sin, devils, evil, eternality, and the other concepts that my Christian friends had been raised and indoctrinated with. I will deal with those in the next article, when I talk about my own spiritual awakening and how I was called to this path.

As Jews, we didn’t believe in an afterlife, and my father taught me that “Living a good life was its own reward.” Immortality wasn’t even talked about, except in connection with the tradition of “carrying on a person’s memory” through naming a newborn child after a deceased relative. “From dust to dust” was a literal belief among Jews, and from my father’s perspective (and later my own), one’s own conscience was what guided one on terms of the choices they made in life. He taught me by his example that “doing the right thing instead of what was expedient” was the way to live a life that satisfied me in the longer term, and that is a core value that I have carried with me to today.

NOTE: All Biblical citations made throughout this site are taken from Holy Bible: From the Ancient Eastern Text: George M. Lamsa’s Translation From the Aramaic of the Peshitta.

Traveler
traveler@anunorthodoxview.com

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