Much of contemporary theological discussion is marred by the coerciveness of its participants.  Few people discuss theology in order to account for the broadest number of facts and perceptions.  Instead, theology is characterized by a two-fold attempt to coerce others to believe as does the theologian and to compare the selected best of one's own tradition against the less (subjectively) palatable aspects of another's.  Both efforts prevent an understanding of other people's perceptions of the world and inhibit one's own religious growth.  I wish to avoid both blemishes.

So, at the outset, I must confess that I have no desire to persuade a belief in God the way I do or for the reasons I do.  I offer my own perceptions of God, hoping that you will do the same, and that through our mutual attempts to internalize or even to reject (after careful thought) each other's theology, we will emerge somewhat wiser, more sophisticated, and better servants of God.

I have an additional confession to make.  I cannot adhere exclusively to a single theological approach to God.  To reduce God to one philosophical system (ontological, experiential, or existential) is to miss the full extent of God's majesty.  This reduction is no less belittling to God than is the attempt to claim that God's complete revelation can be contained in mere words.  This caveat is not intended as an excuse for sloppy thinking or unjustifiable conclusions, simply to assert that God is experienced on many levels, that people are complex creatures, and that any theology which ignores that multi-facetedness and that complexity cannot do justice to its subject.

Living in Southern California, we are frequent visitors to Disneyland, my children, my wife and I love the section called “Toontown,” the neighborhood of some of Disneyland’s most famous celebrities. Here it is possible to actually see the home of Minnie Mouse, as well as to meet her. Even more thrilling is the home of her lifelong companion, Mickey, which is just next door.

After touring each room of the house, examining Mickey’s reading chair, television, and washing machine, we are finally led to Mickey’s private theater, where his classic films were showing. Visitors wait there so they can be ushered in to Mickey’s presence in small numbers, allowing greater intimacy when the anticipated moment comes. Finally, when our turn comes, we are led down a corridor, a door opens, and there he is. I will never forget how Jacob, my then two-year-old son, ran to Mickey’s feet and wouldn’t let go. The look on his face was one of complete rapture, and I have never seen him happier or more absorbed.

The Religious Issue at Stake

I am a rabbi, and my life is devoted to the service of God and Torah, which means that everything I do gets filtered through the peculiar lenses of my ancient craft. Jacob’s enchantment in the presence of this cartoon character led me to think about the power of fantasy. What is it about the human mind that leads us to imagine beings we cannot see, creatures of our own fantasies, and then to love them with such overpowering force? Children are simply the most visible practitioners of loving their own imagined images. But we all do it—we know that Romeo and Juliet is a fantasy, yet we cry at the lover’s demise, we watch Casablanca (for the thousandth time, yet!) and are deeply touched by Rick’s selfless love. Something about the way people are built impels us to create stories and invent characters who then are allowed entry into the most private chambers of our souls. We rejoice at their triumphs and their ingenuity, we mourn their tragedies and failings, all the while aware that they “exist” only as a product of our creative energy.

What can we learn from our drive to imagine? What does our need to empathize with fictional figures tell us about ourselves and about the world? What does my son’s passion for Mickey Mouse reveal about the human condition?

The reason this issue is particularly pressing to me is that I am a lover of God. Fully aware that God has been portrayed in a staggering variety of ways throughout the ages, I know that my own inner response to God is not very different from my son’s response to a Disney cartoon. Understanding Jacob’s relationship to Mickey Mouse can help us to formulate a clearer notion of how we relate to God, and just what that relationship entails.

Of course, classical analytical interpretation would assert that this love of Mickey Mouse (or of God) is simply a delusion, my own inner projection of insecurities and the need to be sheltered onto some external fallacy. There is no Mickey Mouse, but our fears of finitude, helplessness, and abandonment impel us to create these falsehoods to create a artificial sense of security. We coat a harsh world in the gentle blanket of a lie. The lie may be serviceable in the short term—it does make the universe less frightening. But in the long-term, this fantasy, like all falsehoods, is crippling, requiring more and more psychic energy to maintain in the face of life’s harsh disappointments and cruel reality. The key to health, in this worldview, is to face the world unadorned, to move beyond the reliance on myths, however comforting or venerable. Mickey Mouse, for this school of thought, is no different than God. Just as we expect a child to outgrow the cartoon, so too a healthy adult ought to transcend the transcendent.

There is a great deal of power and coherence to this explanation of fantasy, and it reflects a direct challenge to the entire enterprise of religion — both in it fundamentalist and its more liberal modes. Seeking solace, order, and purpose through faith and ritual, regardless of whether the sacred stories are understood as historically true or as metaphorically true is simple delusion, a pathology to eradicate. Religion, for Freud and his classical followers, is the enemy. And so is Mickey Mouse.

Is Mickey Mouse the Enemy? Is God?

There are some problems with Freud’s confidant dismissal of religion as delusion, not least of which is the testimony of religious people throughout the ages, who associate their faith with great joy, resilience, and profundity. Even in our age of technological sophistication and scientific skepticism, religious faith continues to exercise a tremendous attraction, transcending all educational and financial divisions. Indeed, even among psychoanalysts there is a strong representation of the faithful, forcing a reevaluation of what religion represents even within the field that Freud built.

Indeed, one needn’t look so far for the positive role of faith. Merely look, with me, at my son’s joyous glee in the presence of his beloved mouse. Mickey, for him, allows him to connect with the world, to feel a sense of belonging and of reciprocal caring that deepens his humanity and makes him feel more alive. Mickey is clearly a force for good in his life, just as God is for the millions who believe.

But whether or not something “works” does not establish its veracity. One can use the belief that the earth is flat to calm an irrational fear of falling off, but the functionality of a claim doesn’t make it true. As a rabbi, I’m not willing to devote my life to something that functions through a lie. I don’t want a mere delusion of holiness to help build community, I want God to be real.

In what way, then, is God real?

The Reality of Mickey Mouse

In considering the ways in which God is real, Mickey Mouse can provide some insight too.
When a child falls in love with Mickey Mouse, what the child loves is the image of caring, warmth, and joy that Mickey represents. In the sense of being a discrete character, Mickey doesn’t really exist. But in the sense of embodying certain values and characteristics, what Mickey represents is very real indeed. Mickey is merely one possible representation of that reality. There is no way to give unmediated form to love and fidelity, but it is possible to cloth those virtues in the garment of a character or the vehicle of a story. Love can never appear in the abstract, it must always be a specific love that is felt by someone for something else. So, too, faith, hope, or truth.

Fantasy, it seems, is how human beings make visible the invisible realities of life. Not less real, but moreso, these intangible passions and commitments are at the very core of life, making life worth living and society possible. Without the concretization of fiction and art, we would remain unable to transmit or articulate the realities that undergird meaningful living. Fantasy gives us access to the most significant truths—loyalty, compassion, morality, passion, and trust. What Jacob responds to in Mickey Mouse is absolutely true, and is embodied in that cartoon character, even as it transcends Mickey’s limits . The cartoon doesn’t have an independent existence, but what it points to does, and is more real than most of the tangible delusions people glorify and pursue.

God as A Cosmic Mickey Mouse

God shares a lot in common with Mickey Mouse, representing that part of reality which eludes measurement or analysis, but which makes life worth the effort. What we learn from Mickey Mouse is that the character is but the embodiment of a reality that ultimately eludes being encompassed. God, too, is the concrete image of values and truths that can never be fully articulated or represented. But where God differs from Mickey Mouse is that God is not only the metaphor that makes those virtues visible to us, but that deeper reality itself. As Maimonides notes so presciently, “God is the knower, the subject of knowledge, and the knowledge itself — all in one (Hilkhot Yesodei ha-Torah 2:10).”

If the virtues and truths that God represents are impossible to contain, then ultimately it is impossible to speak about God in any meaningful way. God is not some tangible truth to be dissected, scrutinized, or analyzed. Just as one cannot explain what love feels like to someone who has never felt it, it is impossible to talk about God, we can only affirm God. Similarly, we use language to allude to a particular emotion, hoping to provide enough guidance and signposts so the listener can more successfully experience love itself. Love cannot be described, once and for all, it can only be alluded to and celebrated. Perhaps it is for this reason that the greatest words about love are to be found in poetry, which attempts to evoke, rather than to inform. All God talk is ultimately poetry.

Just as poems can use different metaphors to describe the same emotion or virtue, so too religion can employ different images to describe the same transcendent unity that we call God. The rabbis recognized this irreducible theological pluralism when they write that “God is like an icon which never changes, yet everyone who looks into it sees a different face (Pesikta de Rav Kahana 110a)” or yet again when they relate that “God was revealed at the Red Sea as a hero waging war, and at Sinai as an elder full of compassion, … [yet] it is the same God in Egypt, the same God at the Red Sea, the same God in the past, the same God in the future (Mekhilta, Shirata, Beshallah 4).” The reality that our perception points to is always greater than our ability to express in words. The very limitations of our own finite perspective, our cultural embeddedness, and our personal histories profoundly shape how we see and relate to that underlying reality. Perhaps the greatest biblical theologian, then, is Hagar, who recognized that inevitably how she knew God was a reflection of her own vision: “And she [Hagar] called the Holy One who spoke to her, “God of My Seeing (Genesis 16:13).”

How we see God is all we can talk about, and is the outer wrapping that religion uses to attempt to communicate what can only be experienced directly. God is perceived “according to the power of each individual, according to the individual power of the young, the old, and the very small ones (Sh’mot Rabbah 29:1).” Just as Mickey Mouse is an embodiment of certain wonderful emotions and values that can only make their appearance in the form of specific characters, so the values that God embodies—of holiness, righteousness, wisdom and compassion—can only be made tangible through specific religious forms. Each religion, then, offers a culturally based filter to make those infinite truths apparent to its believers. Since we can only be receptive to something that speaks our own language, the task of each religious tradition is to take these cosmic profundities and to garb them in the clothing of speech that can be heard. “The Torah speaks in human language,” the rabbis assert, because otherwise we would be incapable of hearing its wisdom.

So God is, at one level, a culturally-bound metaphor. Inescapably, since we must rely on language to communicate, and language (including art) always develops among a concrete community sharing a particular history, how we speak of the Sacred and the Good will assume contextual form—through the stories, rituals, and prayers of our own faith traditions. As the Zohar recognizes, “all this is said only from our point of view, and it is relative to our knowledge (2:176a).”
Yet the matter doesn’t end there. These expressions of elusive truths do point to something real, something that each human being experiences with overwhelming power. During those peak moments in our lives — when we are married, at the birth of a child or the death of a loved one — that inexpressible reality is so real that all else pales in its presence. That our descriptions of God are culturally bound cannot eclipse the God beyond the metaphors, the Holy One to whom those metaphors point. Even while recognizing that the perception of God is “according to the power of each individual,” that same midrash asserts “Do not believe that there are many deities in heaven because you have heard many voices, but know that I alone am the Holy One your God (Sh’mot Rabbah 29:1).”

For there are eternal verities that have enriched life through the ages. There are grand truths and values more wondrous than life itself that lift us up and strengthen our resolve. Our metaphors, the way we speak about God, help to remind us of the truths buried deep in our hearts and shining at us from the brightest stars. Judged from this perspective, religion is true when it helps us to shape our lives by those timeless profundities and helps us to experience those elevating sentiments. Religion works when it plugs us into the reality of being connected with all that is and all that ever was, when it infuses our lives with purpose and our communities with a zeal for justice and compassion. Religion is true, in short, when it can produce Godliness among its practitioners, justice among its disciples, and a deep sense of belonging and peace.

As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel notes: “A Jew is asked to take a leap of action rather than a leap of thought; to surpass his needs, to do more than he understands in order to understand more than he does.” We demonstrate the validity of our understanding of God—its power to serve as a vehicle for truths otherwise inexpressible yet profoundly real—by the way we live our lives, by the way we fashion a sacred community, by the way we are true of our ancient covenant. “There is no Monarch without a nation,” the medieval Jewish philosopher Bahya ben Asher admitted. We make our God (as metaphor) reflect God (the reality) by our willingness to live as God’s people, by our willingness to make the values and mitzvot of Judaism live through our deeds. Perhaps that’s what we mean when we say the Shema: Adonai, our understanding of God, is ultimately a reflection of the Ein Sof, the One beyond all description.

And that is no Mickey Mouse.

• • • • •

As an atheist, I was unable to justify even the simplest moral claims.  For many years, I had no theoretical grounding for assertions as clear as "raping my sister is wrong" or "murdering the Jews in Nazi Germany was wrong."  If there is no external, non-human source of morality, than the most I could assert was that I think raping my sister is wrong.  But the rapist thinks it is right and the matter must rest there.  Teku.  Even more upsetting, if morality is based on human or social need, a Nazi could make an irrefutable argument that Germany's need required the execution of millions of Jews--not that Jews were really a threat, but that the German people needed a scapegoat.  And, if consensus is our basis of morality, there certainly were more Germans than there were Jews.

For me, the only way to ground morality into a system which didn't collapse was to place moral authority beyond human judgment.  God is the source of morality.  We may understand God's moral imperative imperfectly, but that does not make the imperative or its Source any less real than an imperfectly transmitted letter would render its author's existence false.  God has planted in each person a moral force, akin to our drive for food, sleep, and sex.  Just as with those other drives, they can be denied, perverted, or rationalized away.  But they are real nonetheless.  God is the reason why raping my sister is not simply wrong in my opinion but wrong, why murdering Jews cannot be justified on grounds of social utility.

It might be argued that moral treatment of people derives from human equality.  Such an assertion cannot be demonstrated exclusively through reason, and I must treat it as a dogma of faith (one which I share).  People are clearly not equal unless we have something perfect with which to compare them--some are brighter than others, some stronger, some richer, some better looking.  And some are weak, stupid, poor, or ugly.  There must be an outside point of comparison, One whose nature is so radically different from that of any person, however wonderful, that in face of that Other all people are essentially equal, despite their distinctions.  People are equalized in comparison to the Holy Eternal One.  It is through God that the moral argument that all people are equal ("created equal", in fact) gains force.

My intuitive insistence on morality nurtures my intellectual recognition of God.

• • • • •

One cannot consider the existence of God from a neutral position.  One can act as a believer and see if the promises made to a believer are true, or one can act as a non-believer and judge the merit of non-belief.  Experience is rich and divergent enough, filled with wonders and horrors to the point that it's testimony is eloquent in both directions--regardless of one's religious assertions.

But when I say the Aleinu, I know that I stand before the Ruler of space and time and that we have a shared relationship.  When my wife lights Shabbat candles, I know that we are enjoying a gift from the Holy One and are enjoying God's company and love.  When I spend a night in a shelter for the homeless I know that I am God's ally, and when I speak about a Jewish response to the possibility of nuclear holocaust, I am caring for creation and thereby serving the Creator.
So many experiences in my life point to God's reality.  No, that is too pale.  Many of my experiences point to God's love and involvement.  I have been richly blessed, and the very ability to perceive those blessings is itself another pointer to God.
These experiences and perceptions are the everyday miracles in which I sustain my relationship with God.

• • • • •

The third leg of my perception of God stems from two enormous miracles.  The first is that of life itself, the second is the continuing vitality of the Jewish People.

I have no explanation for the fact that I, a composite of carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphate, and sulfur, can think, feel, and behave.  I find this fact staggering and silencing.  One minute alive and able to laugh or cry, the next second a body lies lifeless, simply a pile of elements like any other.  In our ability to maintain our own health (to renew creation every day), to impose our will on our environment--including our ability to reproduce (again, acting as creators), and to make moral judgments (distinguishing between good and evil), I perceive a God-like ability.  It testifies to me of God.

Finally, I look at the Jewish People.  History knows of no other example of a people who were separated from their land for most of their history, who lacked the power to govern themselves or the stability to control their destiny who nonetheless retained a strong and continuous identity.  Yet we did just that.  There are no weekly meetings of Edomites in Brooklyn, or of Hittites in Los Angeles.  But not a day goes by in which the descendants of ancient Israel do not meet with the express purpose of participating in, and strengthening, that unbroken identity.  We not only know we are Jews, we care about it.  Jewish creativity continues unabated.

That Jewish creativity began when we viewed our role as being God's People.  Our earliest memories focus on the quest for God.  We are not unique in the quality of our art, our cuisine, our architecture, or our music.  Only in our spirituality.  So I link our unique trait of spirit with our unique ability to survive.  The fact is that the people who claim to be God's chosen have survived despite all the overwhelming odds to the contrary.  We testify, as the medieval Catholic church understood so well, to God's concern and involvement in the world.

I am driven, by the fact of Jewish survival, to davven.


Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson (http://www.bradartson.com) is the Dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at American Jewish University, where he is Vice President. He is the author of 6 books, most recently Gift of Soul, Gift of Wisdom: Spiritual Resources for Leadership and Mentoring.