An ultra orthodox Jew playing violin in front of the Old City walls Jerusalem Israel
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Is God An Artist?

Perhaps creativity, not obedience, is the ideal form of divine service.

Long ago, my friend Michael Kovner, today a distinguished Israeli painter, lamented that the artist as an archetype is foreign to Jewish culture and tradition. Bezalel, the biblical figure chosen as the architect of the mishkan, the transportable wilderness sanctuary, was but an artisan, a technician. And the prophets, as Kovner put it, were mere servants of God — not autonomous agents of invention. The artist, Kovner felt, is an exotic import, at best a late transplant to Jewish life. Judaism, in this view, privileges obedience, not originality or spontaneity. 

But what if obedience, rather than the cardinal virtue of divine service, was in fact something of a strategy for dealing with the overwhelming, volcanic potency of the Divine? When the Deity rages like an abusive parent or jealous lover, compliance may be the way to save your life: If you startle a  grizzly bear, back away slowly. Consider in this light the way the great biblical victim-opponent of God, Job, battered but still standing, appears to collapse in pious remorse at the feet of the Divine. The King James Bible renders Job’s final words like this: “I abhor myself and repent in dust and ashes.”

Elie Wiesel, the distinguished Holocaust survivor and author, challenges this reading. “I was offended by Job’s surrender in the text,” he wrote. “Job’s resignation as a man was an insult to man. He should not have given in so easily. He should have continued to protest, to refuse the handouts.” In a similar vein, the contemporary Bible scholar Edward Greenstein argues that Job’s last words are more accurately translated: “I am fed up, I take pity on dust and ashes.”

Likewise, what if we have misunderstood the Bible’s archetypal tale of faith in God — the Akedah, or binding of Isaac — wherein the forefather of monotheism nearly sacrifices his son as a burnt offering to God, who had, he thought, commanded him to do it? Maybe the biblical God did not desire Abraham’s total submission, his mindless surrender of his beloved child. Or maybe God was surprised by the way Abraham pulled a rabbit out of his hat and saved his son from his own knife. Surprised, tickled and, who knows, maybe even relieved. 

We can already discern in the pre-Akedah Abraham glimmers of a negotiator, one able to stand in the presence of power and deflect the primal rage, like a matador in a bullring. Had Abraham not dared to challenge God’s intention to wipe out all of Sodom and Gomorrah, the guilty along with the innocent, by asking: “Will the judge of all the earth not act justly?” Subsequently standing atop Mount Moriah, his son bound to the pyre and knife in hand, Abraham the actor suddenly and decisively froze. The text in Genesis says he was interrupted by the voice of an angel calling his name, but whatever the cause, having stopped, Abraham could, as in slow motion, see everything in his environs and also beyond. And as time condensed into a moment, he saw and then seized a ram caught in a nearby thicket, slaughtered it, untied Isaac, placed the ram on the pyre and kindled it. And it was done, in the flash of an eye. 

Though commonly told as a tale of submission to supernal authority, the Akedah is a nimble act of improvisation, a subtle finesse, an inspired innovation. It has the signature of an artist. And the text reports, via the angel, God liked the act a lot. But if God had desired otherwise, why would God have so enjoyed the show? 

No answer to this question can be definitive, but I discern a response to it in a 2005 essay penned by Norman Mailer, the tough guy journalist, novelist and narcissist, in which he claimed that the adamant atheism of the great French existentialist, Jean Paul Sartre, had stripped Sartre’s theory of the relational passion it required. 

“He [Sartre] guillotined existentialism just when we needed most to hear its howl, its barbaric yawp that there is something in common between God and all of us,” Mailer wrote. “We, like God, are imperfect artists doing the best we can. We may succeed or fail — God as well as us. That is the implicit if undeveloped air of existentialism. We would do well to live again with the Greeks, live again with the expectation that the end remains open but human tragedy may well be our end.”

Mailer offers his reader a God who is an “imperfect artist,” a God who needs help, like any imperfect artist, from editors and critics, colleagues and readers. A God who, as the Talmud courageously imagines, can smile and declare with apparent glee, “My children have defeated me! My children have defeated me!”  

Who needs a God who is not in control, a God who is not a benevolent shepherd, a God who proclaims, “I will be who I will be”?  Perhaps someone like you or me who feels the immensity, wildness and mystery of sheer existence and who is ready to fight and play, dance and declare, sing and cry, strut and fret. Such a person, an artist of existence, a risk taker who is ready to lose but willing to win, knows that she is here not merely to survive, but to interrupt, initiate and enact something unforeseen and unpredictable. The artist of existence lives with a version of Mordechai’s mobilizing words to Esther, “Who knows if it was not for precisely this moment, now condensing, that you were brought into the world?”  

Indeed. Who knows? Maybe not even God.  

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