The Fear of God and the Guru Principle (Parashat Vaetchanan)

The author discusses the concept of fearing God in this Torah portion, arguing that particularly those of us who are queer, who have believed or have been told that we are “going against God’s will,” may not be able to relate to a God who demands that we conform to His confining mandates. The author posits that because God is scary, we are reminded how valuable it is for us to seek out human teachers—something that we might otherwise neglect. Perhaps God is scary to remind us to surrender, to let go of our attachment to control.

July 31, 2009

By Ri J. Turner

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Parashat Va’etchanan
The Fear of God and the Guru Principle
by Ri J. Turner on Friday July 31, 2009
10 Av 5769
Deuteronomy 3:23 – 7:11

 

In this week’s parasha, Va’etchanan, Moses continues to prepare the Israelites to cross over the Jordan River into the Promised Land. He reminds them what God has demanded from them, and warns them about the consequences of failing to meet those demands.

Over and over again in this parasha, Moses warns the Israelites that they must fear God: “You shall fear the Lord your God….lest the wrath of the Lord your God be kindled against you, and destroy you off the face of the earth” (Deuteronomy 6: 13, 15). The Hebrew word that is translated as “fear” here is tira (“you shall fear”). It could also be translated as “be in awe of,” “respect,” or “devote yourself to.” However, throughout the parasha, Moses (or God, via Moses) threatens the Israelites with dire consequences should they fail to follow God’s dicta. Thus, I think one can make a good case that the translation of tira as “fear” is appropriate.

Now, the idea of “fearing God” may be disturbing to many of us. The so-called “modern,” individualist perspective likes to imagine that we “cleave to God” (Deuteronomy 4:4) out of personal choice, because we’ve decided that God merits our allegiance, not because we’ve been threatened and browbeaten into it. (To be fair, the idea that personal choice is an important component of devotion—the idea that devotion has more value when undertaken on the basis of personal commitment rather than out of fear of retribution—is anything but modern, although we like to forget this.)

Many of us don’t want to follow a God who tries to extract our allegiance through retribution and violence. Particularly those of us who are queer, who have believed or have been told that we are “going against God’s will,” may not be able to relate to a God who demands that we conform to His confining mandates. (I use the male pronoun for God here because this aspect of God is often associated with the patriarchal, male view of God.) Perhaps we have given up on the Jewish God for this very reason—or perhaps we believe the Jewish God has given up on us. Some of us have only come back to Judaism on the condition that we reject this punitive, authoritarian aspect of God, instead taking on a vision of God as our friend—even our peer.

I include myself here. My personal relationship with God almost never deals with the scary God in the cloud of darkness and flame on the mountain (Deuteronomy 4:11). I stay well away from that Face of God in order to preserve my ability to maintain a relationship with other Faces of God.

However, I want to take a moment to imagine that it is in fact possible—even desirable—to reintegrate the Fearful Face into our “modern,” more benign, more laissezfaire, queer-friendly God. While we may not necessarily want to “reclaim” some of the more patriarchal, xenophobic, militaristic values that the Fearful Face espoused, I argue that we may want to investigate how to reimagine a God possessing these aspects—power, ability to inspire terror, ability to destroy.

The Haftarah that accompanies this parasha further complicates the question of how to understand the Fearful Face of God. This week’s Haftarah is Isaiah 40:1-26, and it begins with the words “‘Console, console My people,’ says your God” (Nachamu, nachamu ami, yomar Eloheichem). This Shabbat, in fact, is called Shabbat Nachamu, the Sabbath of Consolation. Interestingly, the Haftarah attempts to be consoling through lines such as “The grass shall dry out, the blossom shall wilt, for a wind from the Lord has blown upon it; behold, the people is grass” (Isaiah 40:7), and “Behold the nations are like a drop from a bucket, and like dust on a balance are they counted; behold the islands are like fine [dust] that blows away” (Isaiah 40:15). In other words, “Be comforted in the fact that your God can easily wipe you all out.” Wait, what?? (OK, yeah, these verses also remind us that God is permanent and unchanging, even though we are evanescent, which might be kind of reassuring. However, why the emphasis on the fact that God’s staying power can easily be used to destroy us in our frailty?)

I believe the parasha itself gives us a key into this mystery (albeit a key that, like all good keys, brings us closer to understanding by bringing us further into complexity). In Deuteronomy 5, Moses relates the story of how the Israelites asked him to be an intermediary between them and God. They heard the voice of God once, and lived, but they don’t want to risk the possible consequences of hearing it again. Hence, they ask Moses to listen to God directly and then relay the messages to them. Is this a copout? Apparently God doesn’t think so: “‘…They have done well in all that they have spoken. Would that their hearts be like this, to fear [l’yirah] Me and to keep all My commandments all the days, that it might be well with them and with their children forever!’” (5: 28-29).

This is a very interesting moment. What it suggests to me is that one of the good things about God being scary (and perhaps a reason why God’s destructive power is imagined to be a source of consolation in the Haftarah) is that Zir very scariness inspires us to seek guidance, intercession, leadership from our fellow humans in the course of our spiritual search. In other words, because God is scary, we are reminded how valuable it is for us to seek out human teachers—something that we might otherwise neglect.

Anyone who knows me knows (ad nauseam, probably) how much I care about teachers and how central teachers are to my human and spiritual path. However, I have teachers on the brain even more than usual right now. Through an organization called Art of Living, I spent last week in Chicago for a celebration called Guru Poornima. It’s a Hindu holiday dedicated to the celebration and worship of the guru, and the sanctification of the relationship between disciple and teacher. As a person who has always been a devotee by nature (chasid / chasida in Hebrew, by the way), I felt very fortunate to have an opportunity to express that aspect of myself, in an environment in which there was no shame or stigma attached to devotion—even devotion to another human being, to a teacher.

Maybe God is scary to remind us to surrender, to let go of our attachment to control. Maybe God is scary to remind us to surrender to other human beings, to acknowledge that others may in fact have more expertise than we do, may be capable of interceding for us, of leading us down spiritual (or, if you like, sexual) routes that we could never find on our own.

Many of us belong to a community and an era that is often obsessed (although perhaps not as obsessed as the radical-feminist ‘70s) with non-hierarchy, with independence from those with power, with direct access to God. As important as it is to find our individual and communal dignities, to learn to relate to others as peers, to protect ourselves from the abuse of authority figures and authoritative versions of “truth,” maybe it’s also important to remember sometimes that God, World, Life can be scary. Maybe it’s good to remember that there is no shame in permitting other people to be our guides.

Keshet

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