Big Man, Little God?…asks Rabbi Raymond Apple

September 18, 2017 by Rabbi Raymond Apple
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A Rosh Hashanah feature.

BIG MAN, LITTLE GOD?

Rabbi Raymond Apple

The Book of Genesis has no doubt that man was made in the image of God (Gen. 1:27). Not in the sense of a photograph, since by definition God has no shape or form.

What He does have is will, wisdom, intellect, ethics, spirituality, speech and creativity, Man is in God’s image in that sense. One might say that the Almighty is Big God and man is Little God.

That sounds really good, but modern life has reversed the mixture. We have such an inflated idea of man that the only way many of us can tolerate the thought of God is to say He is made in man’s image. With rather a scandalous result.

It is all very well to say that man has a brain and mind and therefore the God he makes is himself writ small – Big Man and Little God. But the history of recent generations sees other, rather more heinous traits in man. Man is mean, man is quarrelsome, man is selfish, man is cruel.

The Midrash says that when God was contemplating creating man He asked the angels’ view, and most of them warned Him of all the ugly things that man would be likely to do. Man would twist the truth, disturb the peace, and be a brute and a bully.

God was alarmed but He still thought man could make something of himself and his world.

These days God is probably sorry. If God is made in man’s image there is little hope for either of them, or for the world.

KILLING’S PARTNER

In the Ten Commandments there is a law against killing. Killing in that sense is destroying a life.

After the Holocaust I heard a rabbi say, “Life has become so cynically cheap that its mass destruction is hardly deplored”.

If that rabbi were still alive he would add that killing has become so cynically commonplace that it is even perpetrated by those who claim to belong to religions of peace. Nothing can pardon the acts of killing that surround us.

But killing is not the only fearful deed that characterises our generation. Its partner is overkill, saying things in an extreme, aggressive, intolerant manner than removes the dignity, legitimacy, and right to life of people and philosophies that hold a different view.

Verbal overkill is a menace to civilisation. No-one is safe. If they don’t let you have your opinions and beliefs, tomorrow they won’t let you live.

Emil Fackenheim said that the first stage is “You cannot live amongst us”; the next stage is “You cannot live”.

The preface to “Thou shalt not kill” is “Thou shalt not overkill”.

FEAR & FUTURE

Blowing the shofar reminds us of the ram that Abraham offered to God in place of Isaac – the gripping theme of the second day of Rosh HaShanah.

There are Midrashic views that say that there were only two moments when father and son “went along together”, but there wasn’t a third one when Isaac got up and walked away together.

Whatever the truth of the Midrash, the crucial thing is that there was fear but also future. The fear could never be forgotten, but in the end Isaac lived.

Tragically, we have lived through times of immense fear and though the knife wrought its horrors the Jewish people lived.

This is the message of Rabbi Yitzchak Flinker of Piotrkov. He smuggled a shofar into the labour camp. Probably no-one who was there survived the Holocaust, but the symbolism of the shofar did. They can kill us but we live.

The prewar communities with their eager Jews and ancient traditions are, alas!, destroyed, but Am Yisra’el lives.

People who don’t understand tell us to forgive and forget. We can’t forget.

Can we forgive? Martin Buber (or was it Leo Baeck?) said it was up to the Germans and their henchmen to decide whether they can forgive themselves.

SHAPING OUR DESTINY

“Un’tanneh Tokef” is a well loved prayer, but it’s perplexing. It seems to leave everything to fate: “It is written on Rosh HaShanah, and sealed on Yom Kippur, who will live and who will die, who will be rich and who will be poor…”

It seems that we have no control of our destiny. Everything is decided for us. Nothing we do makes a difference. There seems little point in prayer, penitence and charity. As Omar Khayyam says, all our piety and wit can’t alter a line.

Some say that this is Islamic fatalism, but fatalism existed before Islam and was common in the ancient world, even in parts of Judaism. The Talmud says that all is decided above (Chullin 7b).

But Judaism never completely accepted fatalism. Some things are out of our hands, such as whether we will be fat or thin, tall or short, but we do have the power to decide our attitude to our traits and limitations.

If we are at risk of “an evil decree”, our attitude can remove the evil. Penitence, prayer and charity are the way we can endorse, reduce or re-shape our destiny.

CREATURE & CREATION

Rosh HaShanah is the birthday of Creation. The Bible regards man as Creation’s summit.

Everything was gradually made and set into its place, ready for man to assume the place allocated to him, just lower than the angels (Psalm 8).

The sages put into man’s mouth the words, “bish’vili nivra ha-olam”, “For my sake was the world created” (Mishnah Sanh. 4:5).

The whole process of creation led up to the making of man, who, according to Sa’adia Ga’on, is a superior being with intellectual, moral and spiritual traits and talents which no other species possesses.

Sa’adia says, “Should anyone imagine that there exists some other being outside of man that is endowed with such superior qualities, then let him show us these qualities or even some of them in some other creature. Such a being, however, he will never discover”.

Maimonides adds that this does not mean that other parts of creation lack a role. They serve man, but this is not necessarily their only or major purpose: “They have been made for their own sake, not for the sake of something else”.

Yet man must never boast. “What are we?” asks the liturgy; “What is our life, our goodness, our virtue, our strength, our might? Even if man is righteous, what does he give You? Man has no eminence over the beast, for all is vanity.”

Still he has a privilege: only he has a spiritual sense. “You chose mortal man and deemed him worthy to stand before You.”

Comments

3 Responses to “Big Man, Little God?…asks Rabbi Raymond Apple”
  1. Ary Markenstein says:

    Dear Rabbi,

    Re what you wrote , ” since by definition God has no shape or form ”

    Exodus 6:3 “I appeared unto Abraham Isaac and Jacob”

    Since He ” appeared ” What shape or form would Ha Shem have had to appear unto the patriarchs. ?

    Exodus 24 : 9-11 ? The 70 elders saw the G-d of Israel. Since they must have seen something , what do you think they saw ?

    Isaiah 6:5 “for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of Hosts ” Please Rabbi, what did Isaiah see ?

    Jacob said in Genesis 32 : 30 ” I have seen G-d face to face. Please Rabbi what did he see ?

    Psalm 80 : 17 ” Let thy hand be upon the man of thy right hand, upon the son of man whom thou madest strong for thyself . Please rabbi who is this man ? thank you so much for your answers

  2. Liat Kirby says:

    Thank you for the discussion on verbal overkill, Rabbi Apple, with which I fully agree. It’s a destructive force, without nuance, and most certainly strips away human dignity and obliterates right of reply and the possibility of other perspectives. It’s highly uncivilised and prevents finer development.

    Shanah Tovah, and may 5778 be a good year for us and for Am Yisrael.

  3. Lynne Newington says:

    “Can we forgive? Martin Buber (or was it Leo Baeck?) said it was up to the Germans and their henchmen to decide whether they can forgive themselves”.
    T
    hese day’s people have such darned thick hides they forgive themselves for anything and everything and in the name of religion…..Judge not lest you be judged is one popular get out of jail card……

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