Feeding the God of Compassion

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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.

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Songs at the Sea

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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 and on
before finally disappearing
somewhere in the deep.


Torah Retold: And Your Child Will Ask

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when you observe this seven day festival
you must explain to your children
it is because of what the lord did for us
when we were set free from the land of egypt

your child will ask
did the lord free us from the land of egypt
only that we might conquer a land inhabited by others
the canaanites the hittites the amorites
the hivites and the jebusites

and your child will ask further
did the lord free us from the land of egypt
only that we might lash out at the world
with a mighty hand
or rather to reach out with an outstretched arm
to all who seek liberation

your child will ask still further
did we mark our doorposts on that dark night
only to cower from the angel of death
or rather to announce to the world
that god stands with the oppressed and
that we have nothing to fear and nothing to hide
all who are hungry please
come and eat

(Parashat Bo, Exodus 12-13)


Torah Retold: Promise of True Liberation

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now i have heard the cry
of the israelites enslaved in egypt
you must go back and tell them
i have not forgotten my promise
i have been waiting
for precisely this moment
to liberate them
from their oppression

when you return
tell pharaoh i will strike him down
and lay waste to the land
soon all of egypt will know
who is the greater master
over heaven and earth

then you must tell the israelites
i will take them away from pharaoh
so that they may serve a new taskmaster
i will bring them into the wilderness
to possess as my very own

and as the titans clashed
and the rivers gushed with blood
the cries of the oppressed rose higher still
to the place where the promise
of true liberation
still patiently waited to unfold

(Parashat Vaera, Exodus 6:2-9)


Torah Retold: Which Voice Shall I Heed?

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venturing beyond the wilderness
he came to the mountain and
saw the sounds bursting from the flames
a blazing fire that burned insatiably
but was not consumed
voices calling to him over and
over again until he finally
opened his eyes and cried out
hineini here i am

one voice said i am the god of history
another said i am the one that is ever yet to be
another said i will keep you safe another said
i will teach you how to fear

another said i cannot bear the pain
of so many oppressed
will you free me from this suffering
another said go to them and tell them
they’ve got a new master now.

another said won’t you bring
my message of liberation to all
who are oppressed another said
you will never be free until you destroy
the people of the land i am giving you
as your inheritance

he asked which voice shall i heed and
which voice shall i say has sent me
but now there was only silence
as the fire lept higher and higher
sparks flying and twisting endlessly
then finally disappearing
into the dark night

(Parashat Shemot, Exodus 3:1-13)


jacob at the well of souls

Photo by Bart Bernardes

as soon as jacob rolled the stone
away it all came bursting forth like
the waters of a long forgotten spring he
he told her of his sorrow and
his fear his shame and
regret all the dreams
he dared not recall
in the light of day

when rachel took him to her father’s
house laban ran out and embraced him
jacob told him of his journey laban
smiled and tightened his grip
my god you’ve got your mother’s eyes
then leading him into his house he added
i believe the two of us
are going to get
along just
fine

(Genesis 29:1-14)


separation

when he felt himself being
separated he held fast to
his twin gripping tighter the
pressure slowly tearing them
apart with growing
terror he realized the presence
of a force much more powerful was
upending this exquisite balance
he heard a far off voice pleading
but if so then why do
i exist?

when he felt him pulling
away he reached out
but could only grab hold of
his heel that’s
how they came into
the world esau
howling in the blinding
light and jacob whose
name means the one
who refused
to let go

(Genesis 25: 2-26)