God Has Seventy Faces


I have come to praise God, the handiwork of man. Let me state from the start that my subject is not the believer’s “The Holy One, Blessed Be He.” Of a God, Creator of Heaven and Earth, I know nothing, nor do I have the authority to discuss what is exalted beyond the powers of human apprehension. That I leave to prophets, poets, and philosophers. My subject matter is elsewhere, in the meanings men and women create when they talk about God. In the ideas they develop when they try to set down what man may do in relation to God. What are they driving at? Let us go back to the beginning, not in our time but, say 4,000 years ago. Around that time there was a group of people in Egypt who had been enslaved. As they saw it, or at least as one of them saw it, God revealed Himself to him and told him something heard by no man before. He instilled in his mind the concept of a marvelous transmutation—from the arbitrary restrictions of human slavery to the promise embodied in choosing God: “From slaves to free men.” And further: “A man acting under divine inspiration commands the power to make slaves into free men.” Were it only for this one single idea, the idea on which our peoplehood is founded, it has been worth having a God and people who make Him the author of the idea that men and women can take themselves from slavery into freedom. There was not a single society in the ancient world that thought it possible to alter an inherited or acquired social structure, with the exception of the Jews, with their faith in the power of the divine promise to make slaves into free men.

What is a Divine Idea?

The ideas deriving from God are the best human spirit has conceived. The fundamentals of justice, of equality, of truth, of law, of authority—all of those things deserve to be considered the inheritance of every man. What is the test of a divine idea? It is an idea whose span of validity is infinite, embracing every person on the planet. Wisdom, justice, truth, knowledge, peace, equality: these are divine ideas. The moment you say an idea belongs to group A or group B, then at once you know you have a problem. The moment you take an idea and make it and its divine authority the basis for doing someone harm, then you know you have gone wrong, because all the ideas which in antiquity were bound up with the image of God were all universals—human obligations, human rights, human wisdom, memory and eternality, knowledge and liberty—except, of course, that we, in our stupidity, have ourselves excelled at corrupting and belittling them as far as was humanly possible.

We must not exchange the great conceptions that were part of the covenant with God for man’s petty substitutes. No one, it must be remembered, owns these great ideas. No one owns language, holiness, justice, knowledge, freedom, wisdom, equality, or peace. These are all names of God and they are, every one, ideas that we all need in equal measure. No one says that there is too much peace, and no one will be found to say that there is too much equality. There is only one voice: we need peace, equality, justice, truth, knowledge, and freedom, and in limitless quantity.

What Did Man Create God For?

There has never been unanimity as to the nature of God. There has never been a single answer to the question: What does God want of us? On the contrary. Every century, every decade has brought new envisionings of God’s image, of what He wants from us, and how we should respond. In other words, man is constantly recreating God in his own image and likeness. But what does he need God for at all? Answer: to always remind him that there are longitudes and space and horizons beyond the limits of his body, beyond the limits of his experience, surpassing the limits of his puny size and his time and location, longitudes and horizons that came before and will be after. It does not matter if this reality is a person or an idea. It is an abstraction, the spirit of God. It is the place where the spirit of man encounters the spirit of God and the human spirit is dynamic and learns and changes, just as the spirit of God is also never still and unchanging. In that place of meeting where the human spirit is constantly recreating and refashioning God in its own image and likeness, there it is entitled to re-examine and revise the meaning of the divine discourse.

Those who take an interest in the changes that have occurred in man’s conceptualization of God will come to the conclusion that Maimonides’ God is not the God of Abraham and neither is it the God of the covenant as written. The Vilna Gaon’s God is not the God of the Hekhalot texts. The God of the Talmud Sages is not the God of the men who composed the Book of Enoch and the Sefer Ha Yetzira. Century by century, the definition of God, the content of the nature of the divine, the concepts that God represents or which humankind represents in relation to Him, are all and always have been in a state of flux. The matter we are dealing with is totally dynamic, totally alive and, to prove that this is how it always will be, Jewish tradition has evolved two equally wonderful modes of thought. One is called the “Seventy Faces of Torah” and the second “Infinitude” or “Endless” (einsof).

The meaning of Infinitude is that there are infinite ways of expressing God’s existence or being, that there is no one final definition. We are at liberty, as many times as we like, to discover a new aspect of meaning or knowing or apprehension and to actualize it in terms of a domain at some remove from it, a domain we may call science, art, the authority of the law, inspiration, halakha, the commandments. Every century we can apply new terms, new concepts. But one thing needs to be remembered: the test remains that what has universal value and benefit is divine and what can do harm is human.

The second idea, that the Torah has seventy faces, is the idea that no one can say that there is only one correct version, one truth, one teaching, and one viewpoint. The opposite is true: there are infinite viewpoints, for in this context to say seventy is to say seven hundred or seven thousand. The moment you say that Torah has more than one face, more than one aspect, then there is more than just pshatt (literal) meaning, there are seventy meanings; there is a pshatt for pragmatic purposes but there are infinite other aspects, too.

What are these infinite other facets? They are the infinite number of doors by which the human spirit can enter into the text and recreate it: take each sentence and each word and breathe new life into it, new insights, new relevances, questions troubling our own generation, new definitions of good and evil. God has said what is good and what is evil, but that is only one possibility. We also have the right to fashion and widen and deepen the concepts of good and evil according to the insights and experience our own generation has won.

What Has God Contributed To The Human Spirit?

As a people that has lived in exile 2,500 years—the exile must be reckoned from the destruction of the First Temple in the 6th century B.C.E.—it behooves us to remember that we have always put our trust in God, even though we each time created Him anew many times and each time refashioned Him. And had we not had that anchor for our hope and vision, and for our dream of redemption and of the freedom kept for us somewhere, then we would not have succeeded in bringing it all to reality. The question, therefore, is not whether I believe in God but what God has contributed to the human spirit. What has the human spirit accomplished in these thousands of years by virtue of its affinity with the divine idea? What has been the source of knowledge, law, authority and justice bound up with the image of God and what freedom of thought and action has this way of thinking bequeathed to us? We should also take note that the same vast domain, containing thought and creativity and spirituality and culture and art, all of which take their rise in religious thinking, is also the inheritance and property and right of all of us, provided only that no one forces anything on anyone, that everything proceeds from choice, freedom, will, and knowledge. And if that is so then everything is possible.

This essay is reprinted with permission from Contemplate: The International Journal of Cultural Jewish Thought (Center for Cultural Judaism, 2001), and with permission from the author.