Monday, March 11, 2002

Some couple thousand years after Ezekiel, Baruch Spinoza took up this great Jewish (and human) struggle in 17th century Amsterdam. How can we worship God and still follow his commandment not to make images of him? How can we relate to something whose form, whose characteristics and attributes, are by their nature beyond the grasp of our senses? How can we understand God enough to worship him and seek spiritual enrichment without making some sort of image of him?
Spinoza approached this struggle from a different side. He probably took the second commandment very seriously, for his philosophical writings on God implicitly challenge the tendency of Jewish and Christian texts to make images and visions of God.

(Exhibit one, provided by me--not Spinoza: the passover hagaddah includes a discussion of the rabbis amplifying the number of plagues that occured at the red sea. If God's finger brought the Israelites out of Egypt with ten plagues upon the Egyptian, then God's hand must have brought the Israelites accross the Red Sea with 5x10 = 50 plagues and so on and so on. My bewildered question: what? God has a hand? what? with five fingers? to what purpose ? this imagery)

Spinoza tries to prove--geometrically--that God not only exists but further is the only substance, that he is infinite and has infinite attributes. As a substance that has all and infinite attributes, God would be impossible to image because no image could have all and infinite attributes. Indeed, Spinoza seems to take the second commandment very seriously.

But I don't think his struggle is as irreconcilable with that of Ezekiel, or with the history of Jewish struggles that birthed him, as it might at first appear. Spinoza's community, who exiled him for his views, clearly didn't seem him as part of this beautiful tradition of struggle. But Ezekiel never seems to claim that his vision grasps all that is God. In fact, God comes to him in so many ways in the first few chapters that Ezekiel's revelatoins become rather dizzying...voices from within and without, the appearance of strange texts, fourfaced fourwinged creatures and so on and so on. Spinoza might agree that Ezekiel could in a way see God in all those things, because any attributes that those revelations could possess would in fact have to be attributes of God.

The struggle is thick. The human spiritual question inevitably bathes in it at one point or another. Where is God? Perhaps next time Ian and I will read Jonah's story.