With the release of his debut novel, Anna and the Swallow Man, this week author and actor Gavriel Savit guest blogs for the Jewish Book Council as part of the Visiting Scribe series on The ProsenPeople.
“And He said, ‘You will not be able to see my face, for the human will not see me and live.’” (Exodus 33:20)
I was raised in Modern Orthodoxy; I have chosen to live in Modern Heterodoxy.
When I was young and living with my parents, I went to shul with my father (or about twenty minutes behind him, depending on the relative level of my adolescent pique that day) for Shabbat and holiday services. This habit has given me the surety that God smells of men’s sweaty woolen prayer shawls and the slowly disintegrating bindings of prayer books; it has also given me a tremendous bank of memories concerning traditional Judaic ritual.
One of the strongest among these is a memory that comes from a holiday service held in the basement of the University of Michigan Hillel building in Ann Arbor, where, as might be expected, the Ann Arbor Orthodox Minyan is based. No matter the season, this basement is ill-ventilated, and the hours-long occupancy of many dutifully worshipping Jewish bodies does nothing to alleviate the heat. Always, we sweat.
Nonetheless, on this particular occasion, I can clearly recall wanting to be very close to my father’s body, and, furthermore, to be covered over with a sheet of wool. It was time for the dukhening, the priestly blessing.
The tradition is such that when the Cohanim, the members of the priestly family amongst the Jews, ascend the rostrum to offer their blessing to the congregation, they are not looked upon. To this end, many men gather their children underneath their prayer shawls to receive the benediction, thus shielding their eyes from the proceedings.
For one reason or another, my father was not in this particular habit — it may be that I was too often off in the back corner with my friends to be reached in time, or it may be that his father hadn’t followed the same tradition. In any case, on this particular occasion, I sought out the barrier of my father’s talit, and I did so for a very specific reason: I wanted to peek.
The explanation I’d always been given for the habitual aversion of the eyes during this ritual — though it seems to be folk tradition, rather than rabbinic in origin — was that when the priests bless the Jewish people, the presence of God descends and is channeled out through their hands. This can be harmful, even deadly to witness.
So of course, I wanted to see it.
(Interestingly, as an aside, there are certain conditions that render a priest inadmissible as a candidate for the performance of this particular benediction, and a deformity of the hands is one of them: the hands, are, indeed, raised as a conduit of blessing in this ritual. Another of these excluding conditions is blindness.)
On this particular holiday in my childhood, the priests were summoned to wash their hands before the benediction, and I snuggled in beside my father, seeking the covering of his talit. The cantor began to prompt the cohanim, and they began to drone their melody.
I peeked out from beneath my father’s shawl. All there was to see was a row of old Jews, tented up beneath their striped woolen prayer shawls, swaying back and forth, their hands raised in the air. Surely, I thought, with the charmingly arrogant certainty of a child — surely, this is not the presence of God.
I am no longer so certain.
In Hinduism, there is a theological concept that goes by the name of darśana. It is perhaps best described as a sort of worshipful transaction, but one that is decidedly visual: the worshiper offers praise through their visual faculty by observing the beauty of the image of the deity, and in return, he receives a sort of visual spiritual enlargement.
This might seem to be a decidedly un-Jewish concept, and in some ways it is. In other ways, I’m not so sure. Of course, it’s uncontroversially the case that we, as Jews, worship no images of God, and I would never challenge that principle. I do, however think that a fair amount of our worshipful activities as Jews involve looking for God, or trying to see God. Let me explain:
As I said, we’re used to constructing our religious identity, amongst other things, upon a foundation of non-idolatry. This is practically a founding principle, and we may, from our historical vantage point, be tempted to assume that because we worship no image, our God is also possessed of no visible image.
Much of tradition would seem to support this assumption. After all, the Thirteen Principles of Jewish Faith formulated by Maimonides and sung so frequently in our religious services under the title of Yigdal state this explicitly: אֵין לוֹ דְּמוּת הַגּוּף וְאֵינוֹ גוּף — “He has no bodily image, and he has no body.”
But as is so often the case, what comes down to us as simple orthodox tradition is, in fact, far from undisputed. There was a period during which the corporeality of God was a strongly held minority opinion amongst Jewish thinkers. Some have argued that Rashi — whose interpretations are considered so unassailable that his name has become a practical synonym for the plain meaning of Biblical text — himself believed in the corporeal existence of God.
You read that correctly. It has been compellingly argued that Rashi believed in the existence of a visible body of God. Continue Reading »
Gavriel Savit is an actor and author from Ann Arbor, MI, and a graduate of the University of Michigan’s prestigious Musical Theatre program. He is the author of Anna and the Swallow Man (Knopf, 2016) and an emerging voice in Jewish literature.
Gavriel Savit holds a BFA in musical theater from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, where he grew up. As an actor and singer, Gavriel has performed in three continents, from New York to Brussels to Tokyo. He is also the author of Anna and the Swallow Man, which The New York Times called “a splendid debut.”