Friday, March 28, 2008

Rami on the Second Commandment

According to the Hebrew Bible, the second of the Ten Commandments reads this way:

“You shall not recognize the gods of others in My presence. You shall not make yourself a carved image nor any likeness of that which in the heavens above or on the earth below or in the water beneath the earth. You shall not prostrate yourself to them nor worship them, for I am Hashem, your God— a jealous God, Who visits the sin of fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generations, for My enemies, but Who shows kindness for thousands [of generations] to those who love Me and observe My commandments” (Exodus 20:3-6).

This is going to require a lot of unpacking, but before we get into that, I want to offer a general comment on how I understand the entire notion of “You shall not.”

As you know I don’t believe in a self-conscious god who stands apart from the universe and directs things. I believe that God and the universe are one; the universe is God the way a wave is the ocean. So the image of a commanding God is not compelling, and I take it to reflect the limits of the author's imagination rather than any truth about God. I believe that the author of this commandment discovered something very profound, but could only express it in the language of command.
And I think we can get a better feel for what was discovered if we freely translate "You shall not" as “You are capable of living without.”

Read this way, the Second Commandment says: “You can live without any image of God whatsoever. You can stand in direct relation with What Is and not get mislead by ideas about What Is. When you stand alone, free from idols, creeds, dogmas, and beliefs, you stand in direct relation to That Which Is.”

To be with God without idols and images is to be surrendered of self. The “I” and the “Thou” are both surrendered to the infinite One Who Is All. This is what happens during meditation. As I sit in silence, the “I” that sits is silenced as well. There is no “me” sitting at all. When the “I” returns, when my egoic mind reappears, it does so lighter than before. It no longer holds as tightly to the idolatry of self. But, lightly held or not, there is still idolatry. That is to say, when the ego returns its brings its images of god with it.

What I need to do is remind myself that these idols are not God, but only ego-projected images of God. The key is not to live without idols, but to not mistake the idol for God. Look at that opening line again, “You shall not recognize the gods of others in My presence.” Why does Torah say “in My presence”? Why not just say, “You shall not recognize other gods”?

The reason is this: When we are in the presence of God, that is when we are surrendered into the One Who Is All, there is no “I” to recognize anything and no idols to be recognized. This is like a person who shines a penlight outside in the bright noonday sun. The light is on, but you cannot see it, you cannot recognize it as separate from the greater light of the sun. When I stand in the Light of God, I and all things become transparent; I and all things are revealed to be God, the One and Only Thing.

But I don’t always live transparent in the noonday light of God. Sometimes I imagine myself to be in the shadows, and there my penlight works just fine. In the darkness the lesser lights of humanity’s pantheon of gods and goddesses may be very useful, but only if we realize they are the Named and not the Eternal Tao. So when I am in the dark, I have no problem calling out to Jesus, Krishna, Ganesh, Allah, Yah, Durga, Kuan Yin, or any other image and using that image to spread a little light. I just don't want to cling to that image when the darkness has passed, and I stand again in the noonday brightness of God.

There is much more to say about this, and about what it means that God is jealous and visits the sins of the fathers upon the children, but let me stop here and get your take on things.

1 comment:

Bert said...

Wow. Thanks, Mike, for inviting me to read along. I likely won't have any comments to add, except for the occasional "Wow!" - since I am just absorbing the wonderful, refreshing nature of the conversation and the content.

Since I took World Religions with Dr. Paul Reddit at BSK, I have been fascinated by the Hindu concept of "neti; neti" and have often applied it to my search for meaning in my faith and even with God. So, thanks, Rami, for letting me know I'm not totally nuts (or, if I am, there are two of us nuts out there).

Blessings, peace, shalom, and rock on!