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.

It’s hard­ly peek­ing if there’s noth­ing in the way. 

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.

Relat­ed Content:

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.”