In the Torah portion, Parashat Ki Tisa (Exodus 30:11 – 34:35), we find Moses on the top of the mountain and the Israelites growing restless. They’re not sure if Moses will ever come back, so they pressure Aaron into helping them build a Golden Calf that they can worship (“that will go before us.”) God inevitably becomes infuriated and threatens to wipe all of the Israelites. Though Moses eventually talks God off the ledge, God later sends a plague upon the people as punishment.
A little later on in our portion however, God appears to have reformed completely. When God passes by Moses on the top of Mt. Sinai, God’s divine attributes are described as: “compassionate and slow to anger, abounding in kindness and faithfulness, extending kindness to the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity, transgression and sin.”
So which one is the real God? The punishing authority figure or the unconditionally loving parent? The angry warrior who demands that we dislodge and destroy the inhabitants of Canaan or the compassionate exemplar who commands us to love our neighbor as ourselves?
As I grapple with this question, myself, I’ve come to accept that whether we like it or not, both of these “Gods” are a part of our tradition. As much as we’d like to, we can’t wish away or surgically excise the nasty God from our sacred texts. On the contrary: if we really intend to be serious about incorporating Biblical tradition into our spiritual lives, we need to be prepared to own and confront the “everything” of that tradition.
For me that means asking this question openly and unflinchingly: if the Torah teaches us that human beings are made in the image of God, which image of God will we proclaim? The God of anger or the God of forgiveness? The God of hatred or the God compassion? The God of harsh judgement or the God of loving acceptance?
Needless to say, classical Jewish tradition has had a great deal to say about these questions throughout the centuries. You may be interested to know that contemporary neuroscience has been exploring these issues as well. Over the past decade or so in fact, physicians have been investigating the ways in which spirituality is rooted in the biology of the brain. By combining the fields of neuroscience and religious studies, they’re helping us to actually understand how our neurological makeup influences the ways we experience God.
Several years ago, Dr. Andrew Newberg, the founder of the Center for Spirituality and the Mind at the University of Pennsylvania, explored these issues in his book, “Why God Won’t Go Away: Brain Science and the Biology of Belief.” This was Dr. Newberg’s basic premise:
Every event that happens to us or any actions that we take can be associated with activity in one or more specific regions of the brain. This includes, necessarily, all religious and spiritual experiences. The evidence further compels us to believe that if God does indeed exist, the only place (God) can manifest (God) existence would be in the tangled neural pathways and physiological structures of the brain.
For me, the most amazing findings of this research demonstrate the way God has evolved neurologically over the centuries. In a later book, “How God Changes Your Brain,” Newberg posited that different experiences of God actually correlate to the development of the human brain. Neurologically speaking, researchers have located the angry, authoritarian God in the limbic system, which houses the oldest and most primitive structures of the brain. This includes the amygdala – the little almond-shaped organ that generates our “fight or flight” response.
The benevolent, compassionate God, on the other hand, can be found in our frontal lobes, and particularly in a structure known as the anterior cingulate. These are the parts of the brain most primarily associated with our experience of compassion and empathy. Compared to the ancient limbic system, these structures are the most recently evolved parts of our brain and they appear to be unique to human beings. This is how Newberg put it:
Something happened in the brains of our ancestors that gave us the power to tame this authoritarian God. No one knows exactly when or how it happened, but the neural structures that evolved enhanced our ability to cooperate with others. They gave us the ability to construct language and to consciously think in logical and reasonable ways…Without these new neural connections, humans would be limited in their ability to develop an inner moral code or a societal system of ethics.
To be clear: this is not an argument for doing away with our brain stems. We obviously cannot survive without them. And we cannot deny that there may well be times in our lives when anger, fear and vigilance are warranted. The problem, of course, is that we can too easily let our limbic systems run wild. Indeed, neurological research demonstrates that whenever we let our anger or fear overpower us, brain activity in our frontal lobes gets shut down. When this happens, our “fight or flight” response is generated, and it spreads rapidly throughout our brains.
We’ve long known that excessive anger or fear can cause problems like high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease. Studies also show that extreme anger can permanently disrupt structures in both our brains that control basic functions like memory storage and cognitive accuracy. In other words, when we indulge our anger, we feed the more toxic and destructive manifestations of God.
In Jewish terms, this research remindes me of the famous dynamic between the Yetzer Hara (“the bad inclination”) and the Yetzer Hatov (“the good inclination.”) The rabbis made sure to point out that the Yetzer Harah was an essential aspect of our humanity. The conventional translation of ra and tov as “good” and “evil” is not tremendously helpful in this regard. The sages, in fact take pains to point out that we need them both. Whether we like it or not, these impulses are a part of us – much like our limbic system is an essential and necessary part of our brain. The point is not to deny or repress our Yetzer Hara, but to channel and master it. As the verse from classic rabbinic text Pirke Avot teaches: “Mi hu gibor? Mi’she kovesh et yitzro” – “Who is mighty? The one who masters one’s yetzer (hara).”
So how do we do this? By consciously channelling our “fight or flight” impulses while exercising those frontal lobes. Or another way of putting it: by keeping our baser instincts in check while nurturing our capacity for kindness. And believe it or not, science itself is proving that compassion and empathy can be neurologically contagious. Studies demonstrate conclusively that there is increased activity in the compassion center of the brain whenever we perceive others as being sensitive to our needs. Scientists have also concluded through research that the more positive contact we have with members of other different religions, cultural, and ethnic groups, the less prejudice we tend to harbor in our brains.
So to return to our portion, I’m struck that it when God witnesses the Golden Calf episode, we read an all too human description of a limbic system run amok. Interestingly enough, it is Moses himself who serves as the frontal cortex in this case, keeping God from indulging the impulses toward annihilation.
I can’t help but think there is a profound neurological/ethical lesson for us in all of this. Given the precarious nature of our 21st century reality, I’d suggest we need to heed this lesson now more than ever.
According to an order from the most high
the first day of the month shall be a sacred occasion
when the shofar is sounded the gates will be sealed
and all roads will be closed to you.
You shall not you leave your homes
nor work at your occupations.
lest you and your kin be put to death.
Like fires lit on ancient mountaintops
the announcement spread throughout the land;
when the new moon came the wall was locked tight
so the people could gather in their houses of prayer
to greet another new year.
And the Chazan sang:
As a shepherd numbering his flocks
passing his sheep under his staff
thus I count you off one by one,
marking your every move, noting your every thought
writing you down in my Book of Life
that I may decree
who shall live and who shall die.
Day after day they sent out
fearful prayers into the dark dread
of a year they did not yet know,
desperately hoping their lives would be spared
by the merciful judge on high.
For today it is written
and in ten days it will be sealed
who will be taken in the dead of night
and who shall sleep until morning
who will die and who will be born
into this cruel and pitiless world
When the festival came to an end
the great shofar was sounded
and a still small voice was heard:
The gates of heaven are sealed;
they do will open to your prayers.
After Exodus 15:1-18
As the waters parted before them
they sang their songs of praise:
Some sang to the one who
shattered Pharaoh’s army
with a mighty right hand,
some sang to the god of their ancestors
who remained faithful to them
and them alone.
Others sang to the one
who redeems the oppressed
so that the world may know of his might:
who is like you god of war,
consuming the enemy like straw
incinerated with one awesome
mighty blast from on high?
Some sang a hymn of praise
to the god of vengeance
who shamed the Egyptians
hurling them all like stones
into the heart of the churning sea;
still others sang out with hope
that the peoples of the land
would now melt away
as god’s people went forth
to dispossess them.
As they marched on
their voices joined into one feverish song;
a tuneless wordless howl
echoing on through the depths
never to rise to the source
of their liberation.
A new rendering of Zechariah 2:14 – 4:7 (Prophetic reading for the Sabbath of Hanukkah)
Let loose your joy for
your prayers have
already been answered;
even in your exile
the one you seek has been
dwelling in your midst
Quiet your raging soul
and you will come to learn:
every nation is my nation
all peoples my chosen
anywhere you choose to live
will be your Holy Land,
your Zion, your Jerusalem.
Open your eyes and
look across the valley
look at this ruined land
seized and possessed
throughout the ages.
Look upon your
so-called city of peace
a place that knows
at your hand.
Turn your gaze to the heavens
and there you will find
the Jerusalem that you seek:
a city that can never be conquered,
only dreamed of, yearned for, strived for;
a Temple on high that can never be destroyed.
No more need for priestly vestments
or plots to overrun that godforsaken mount –
just walk in my ways
and you will find your way there:
a sacred pilgrimage to the Temple
in any land you call home.
Enter the gates to
this holiest of holy places,
lift up its fallen walls,
relight the branches of the lamp
so that my house will truly
become a sanctuary
for all people.
Yes, this is how you will
restore the Temple:
not by might, not by power
but by the spirit
you share with every
living, breathing soul.
when the final tekiah sounds
anyone still sleeping will have to
rise up and join the strategizers
and schemers the marchers and
rabble rousers to chant that
final neilah prayer ki fana yom
there’s no time left it’s time
to storm the gates.
when the final tekiah sounds
we’ll blow away the wasted years
the work undone the dreams denied
the lazy thinking and careless complicity
so that we may clearly see the road
leading to a world we always
knew was possible.
when the final tekiah sounds
we will finally break the insatiable
unquenchable appetites threatening
to consume everything we’ve ever known
our hunger will turn into desire
our hollow emptiness into wide open spaces
that roll on without end.
when the final tekiah sounds
the barrier walls and security fences
will come crashing down
no one will be forced to wait in line
no one turned away at the border
no unseen hands opening and closing
the gates on a whim.
so let every shofar
send forth one unbroken call
quick while the sun is setting
we’ll gather together and march forward
under cover of darkness
in the halls of the most high
we’ll make sure there’s
room for all.
Blessed is evening’s fall,
the heaven’s transformation,
the ever-changing seasons.
Blessed is the imperceptible movement
of one moment into the next,
notes in a seamless melody
you compose for us
Blessed is the light that bursts
forth gloriously out of the darkness,
showering us in the warmth of the day
we know must inevitably arrive.
Blessed is the darkness
that swaddles and bathes us
in your dark beauty,
comforting us with the sweet promise
of liberation at long last.
Blessed is evening’s fall.
tonight we raise the cup,
tomorrow we’ll breathe deeply
and dwell in a world
without borders, without limit
in space or in time,
a world beyond wealth or scarcity,
a world where there is nothing
for us to do but to be.
they said this day would never come,
yet here we are:
the surging waters have receded,
there is no oppressor, no oppressed,
no power but the one
coursing through every living
breathing satiated soul.
memories of past battles fading
like dry grass in the warm sun,
no more talk of enemies and strategies,
no more illusions, no more dreams, only
this eternal moment of victory
to celebrate and savor the world
as we always knew it could be.
see how the justice we planted in the deep
dark soil now soars impossibly skyward,
rising up like a palm tree,
like a cedar, flourishing forever
ever swaying, ever bending
but never breaking.
so tonight we raise the cup,
tomorrow we’ll breathe deeply
to savor a world recreated,
and when sun sets once again
we continue the struggle.