As a child, James McBride, author of “The Color of Water,” struggled to understand God. His Jewish mother tried to help him, saying, “God’s not black. He’s not white. He’s a spirit.”
But that description did not satisfy young James, who persisted: “What’s a spirit?”
She fumbled for a definition, “A spirit’s a spirit.”
“What color is God’s spirit?” the boy persevered.
“It doesn’t have a color,” she said. “God is the color of water. Water doesn’t have a color.'”
Jews have always struggled to depict an incomprehensible and unknowable God in a concrete way. Vaera, this week’s Torah portion, embodies this tension: “God spoke to Moses and said to him, ‘I am Adonai. I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as El Shaddai, but I did not make Myself known to them by My name yad, hay, vav hay.'” (Exodus 6:2-3)
Although Jewish tradition frowns on concrete depictions of God, Jews have attempted to describe God. For example, Moses, Aaron and the 70 elders “saw the God of Israel: [and] under His feet there was the likeness of a pavement of sapphire, like the very sky for purity.” (Ex. 24:10) Furthermore, Moses implored: “Oh, let me behold Your Presence.” (Ex. 33:18) But God offered only a hint of His form: “I will make all my goodness pass before you … and you will see My back; but My face must not be seen … you cannot see My face, for man may not see Me and live.” (Ex. 33:18-23)
Although the case might appear to be closed, several additional narratives are at odds with the notion that God cannot be seen. For example, “The Lord spoke to Moses face to face, as an individual would speak to a friend.” (Ex. 33:11) Although the book of Deuteronomy reports: “… you [Moses] saw no shape when the Lord your God spoke to you at Horeb out of the fire” (4:15), it offers a contradictory report: “Face to face the Lord spoke to you [Moses] at that time to convey the Lord’s words to you …” (Deut. 5:4)
Furthermore, the conclusion of the Book of Deuteronomy offers further evidence that Moses was, in fact, able to see God: “Never again did there arise in Israel a prophet like Moses, whom the Lord singled out, face to face …” (Deut. 34:10)
The difficulty of seeing God is highlighted by a talmudic account saying that when the Temple was being destroyed, Titus, the Roman general who led the assault, forced his way into the Holy of Holies, the innermost chamber of the Temple, thought to be the place that the High Priest had access to God. He thought that there he could see the impalpable God of the Jews. When all he found was an empty room, he declared the God of the Jews to be impotent. (Gittin 55b)
Like Moses, Jews who have never countenanced icons and graven images feel the tension between the abstract and the concrete, because those most comfortable with the abstract do not sanction concrete images, while individuals who require concrete images cannot tolerate abstractions. Nevertheless, most Jews would be satisfied with a fleeting hint of what the biblical author described as God’s back, fingerprint or the faint sound of a still, small voice.
As Moses stood before the burning bush, listening to the instructions of the sacred mission for which God had chosen him, he was terrified that the Israelites would not believe that he had been empowered by an ambiguous, illusive, unseen God. Moses inquired, “When I come to the Israelites and say to them ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is His name?’ what shall I say to them?” (Exodus 3:13)
God’s puzzling response, “Tell them that Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh sent me to you,” an obscure Hebrew phrase literally translated as “I will be what I will be.” The Hebrew descriptives for God — Ehyeh and yad, hay, vav, hay — come from the Hebrew root letters that mean “being.” They are words with no consonants. They are most like the pure sound of breathing, leading a Torah student to conclude that God is almost never seen; nevertheless, God is the divine breath that once breathed life into the first human being.
Stephen S. Pearce is senior rabbi at the Reform Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco.