By The Rabbi Samuel N. Gordon
The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel and say to them:
You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy. —Leviticus 19:1–2
I thought this morning that I would offer some thoughts about what Jews believe that might be in contrast to Christian belief. Our two faiths share a great deal in terms of our religious understandings. We share a sacred text, the Hebrew Bible, or Old Testament. Our core teachings are the same in terms of our values and morality. We worship the same God, but there are certain areas of belief where we differ.
First, in Christianity, God is manifest through Jesus. God’s presence on earth is represented by the figure of Jesus as Son of God. In contrast, in Judaism, God is manifest in the Torah, the Five Books of Moses as well as the Prophets and Writings. To discover God, we explore the texts in all of its detail, nuance, and subtlety.
We share the same stories, but we often read and interpret them differently. Take, for example, the story of Eden. For Christians, Eden tells the story of disobedience, sin, and fall from grace. Jews read the very same story but focus on awareness, the opening of eyes, becoming mature and fully human. As Rabbi Harold Kushner wrote, Eden is not “Paradise Lost” but Paradise Outgrown.
But the most radical statement I can make about Judaism might be shocking to you. You don’t need to believe in God to be Jewish. Judaism is more than just religious faith. It is also culture, identity, and a sense of peoplehood. You can be a great Jew and an atheist. David Ben-Gurion, Golda Meir, and many of the other early Zionists rejected the traditional concepts of God. So, too, was the case among various Jewish intellectuals and free thinkers over the ages from Spinoza to Marx, Freud, and Einstein.
In contrast, I don’t think one can be an atheist and a Lutheran or Presbyterian or Methodist.
Those are religious faith communities that assume a belief in God. When you enter a synagogue or temple sanctuary there is no creed similar to the Apostle’s Creed recited in many churches: “I believe in God, the father almighty, creator of heaven and earth….”
BUT that doesn’t mean that Judaism lacks a core belief. You don’t need to believe in God. But you cannot believe that YOU are God. We are not God. We are humans. If you think you’re God, you’re wrong. You are idolatrous. You have sinned.
hat’s really the message of the Book of Exodus and, to some extent, Numbers and Leviticus.
The narrative is all about a battle between God and Pharaoh. Pharaoh thought he was God. He was omnipotent. He was the ruler over all he saw. He was all powerful. He could order death of newborn children. He could enslave people. He acted with impunity. He, himself, was the law. Most importantly he believed he was immortal.
But we know better. Pharaoh wasn’t God, and God would prove it, not just by being more powerful, but by being more Godlike. Pharaoh was a pale substitute for the true God. God—Adonai the Eternal One—that is the real God. Here is how the true God acts: God frees the slaves, and then commands, “Thou shall observe the Sabbath—Shabbat.” Every week, one day a week, you are to have a day of rest, but not just a day off from work, rather a day on which you can be fulfilled and find spiritual meaning in your life.
What would Pharaoh say? Take a day off? Every single week? That would be the opposite of slavery. What does Pharaoh care if his slaves are spiritually fulfilled? If by chance there is a day off from labor, it would be by an act of Pharaoh’s personal capriciousness, done by whim. Pharaoh built pyramids of stone. God understood Maslow’s pyramid—humans are meant to achieve self actualization. And God wanted that for us.
The true God stated: “Bring me gifts, but only if your heart so moves you.” Pharaoh demanded tribute, as would any despot, but he had absolutely no concern about whether the slaves wanted to do so or not. The real God said: “Let them build me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them.” God wants to be near us. Pharaoh wants to be as distant as possible, living in a palace as inaccessible to ordinary folk as imaginable, far removed from the messiness of mere mortals.
God says in Leviticus 19: “You shall be Holy, for I the Eternal your God am Holy.” God wants us to aspire to be like God—Imitatio Dei—Imitation of God. Pharaoh would want nothing of the sort. It would be inconceivable that Pharaoh would say: “Try to be like me.” Unimaginable!
God says: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus and Hillel, a rabbi who lived in the time of Jesus, both stated that all of the Torah could be defined by that one line. You are equal. Each of you deserves love. Equally!
But most of all, the real God has to prove to Pharaoh—the false God—that Pharaoh is not divine. Pharaoh will die. Only the real God is immortal. Pharaoh is not God. He is simply human, imperfect, frail, and mortal. Just like us!
It is too easy for us to think that we are Pharaoh. We might presume to have power. We can live lives isolated from the nasty stuff of the real world. It is far too easy in a world of privilege and power to delude ourselves into thinking that we, like Pharaoh, are Godlike. That is the definition of the narcissist. It is all about me. I can do it all—alone. I am a great success. I am invincible.
Narcissism is idolatry. It goes against the first of the Ten Commandments, the one that is key to all the rest, I am the Lord your God. You shall have no other Gods in place of Me. YOU should not be God.
What is idol worship? In all honesty, we are not in the habit of bowing down to clay statues or tree gods or inanimate rocks. We do not build literal Golden Calves. That is not what idolatry means in our lives. Our form of idolatry is the worship of self, imagining that WE are God. Idolatry is an affront to God.
Whenever I retell the story of Pharaoh and Egypt, I say that we are commanded to remember that we were slaves in Egypt so that we know that we must protect the outcast, the stranger, and fight against slavery and oppression, wherever and whenever it might exist. But there is another lesson we must take from Egypt: Don’t become Pharaoh!
Despots, dictators, and demagogues are self indulgent and self reverential. For them, it is always about self. Narcissus gazed upon his visage in the mirror-like surface of a pond. He was too entranced by the image of himself to allow room for any other person in the reflection. He could see only himself. The person who can see only oneself is, in many ways, denying the God in the other.
Hillel, the Elder was the greatest of the rabbis and lived at the time of Jesus. He said: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?” BUT, Hillel went on to state: “But if I am only for myself, then what am I?” That lesson helps define the decent, fully ethical human being.
We are not God. God is Eternal. We aren’t! Humans are mortal. That is the ultimate proof that we are not God. We die. Only God is immortal—Eternal. And because we die—and know we will die—life is meaningful. Let us always remember that we, too, are human. None of us should be so presumptuous as to think that we are God. Anything else is idolatry. Narcissism is heresy. It is more than a psychological disorder; it is a desecration of God’s name.
Pharaoh thought he was God and that he would live forever. He forced his slaves to build tombs and pyramids to contain his riches for the afterlife. I have been to Cairo, Giza, and Siqqara. I can report back to you that the Pyramids are empty. Tomb robbers, thieves, and looters have long since taken away the riches. There is nothing left, only hollow edifices.
The poet Shelley wrote in “Ozymandias:”
I met a traveler from an ancient land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert….
….And on the pedestal these words appear:
‘My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look at my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
So too the life of a Pharaoh and his great monuments to himself, and others like him. His name might be emblazoned on the pedestal of a destroyed statue. But over the course of time, nothing remains, just barren sand. The narcissist is an idolater of the self, but time and history will eventually reduce his reputation to dust.
Yes, only God is Eternal, but there is still a form of immortality available to each of us: the good name, the wondrous works of timeless teachings, the sweet memories of moral leadership.
Let us always remember who we are and who we can strive to be. Return to Leviticus 19: “You SHALL be holy, for I, the Lord your God AM holy.” There is a difference between “shall” and “am.” God is. We are not God, but, significantly, we can aspire to be like God, in our actions, our values, and our love. Let us recognize that which is greater than ourselves, and let us always seek to discover the true greatness that is within ourselves. Then our lives will be meaningful, fulfilled and blessed.