To What is God Similar?

Rabbinic parables explicitly compare God to a variety of human analogues, reflecting the rabbis' subtle, complex, and diverse images of God.

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A simple application of this image imagines God as a kohen who is very careful about purity law and who gives a loaf of bread (the soul) to another kohen (a person). The second kohen must return the loaf in a state of purity, or the careful kohen will "throw it away in front of [his] face" (Leviticus Rabbah 18:1).

But in another example, despite God's distaste for that which is impure, God tolerates exposure to impurity in order to prevent shame to Moses.

"For whose sake did God reveal God's self in Egypt? For the sake of Moses. R. Nissim compared this to a kohen who had a fig orchard in which there was a ritually impure field. When he wanted some of the figs, he told one of his men to go and get some from the tenant farmer; but the tenant farmer refused. So the kohen said: 'I will go to the orchard myself!' His men said: 'Will you go to an impure place?' He responded, 'Even if there are a hundred different kinds of impurity, I will go, so that my messenger may not be put to shame.'"

"So when Israel was in Egypt, God said to Moses: 'Come now and I will send you to Pharaoh' (Exodus 3:10), so Moses went. [But Pharoah] asked:

'Who is the Lord, that I should obey him?…I don't know the Lord' (Exodus 5:2)…Then God said: 'I will go to Egypt Myself.'…God's angels said: 'Will you go to an impure place?' God replied, 'Yes, so that My messenger Moses may not be put to shame'" (Exodus Rabbah 15:19).

It is striking that this parable presents God as a kohen who willingly encounters ritual impurity. This particular example is yet another example in which the typical assumptions about the human image of God are reversed or given a twist. Other parables present God as a teacher who does not practice what he preaches or as a judge who breaks the rules of judicial procedure.

By couching the image of God in familiar or predictable characters, the rabbinic preachers who created these parables sought to draw their audience in; by transcending the obvious and typical characterizations, perhaps they sought to make their audience think about God a little more carefully.

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Jeffrey Spitzer is Chair of the Department of Talmud and Rabbinics at Gann Academy, The New Jewish High School, Waltham, Mass., and a member of the Institute's Tichon Fellows Program.