This week’s Torah portion takes a hard line on bowing down to idols, the sun, the moon and any of the “heavenly hosts.” This anti-idolatry stance predates this Deuteronomic mandate, it even predates the 10 Commandments that outright outlaws it. The theme begins in the Book of Genesis when God creates the sun, moon and stars. The message is clear: these are physical entities that are created by and are of God, material objects that cannot possess God within them. They are simply God’s tools.
It’s an important point on the omnipresence of God: if God could be contained in a material object, or even recreated by human hands and imagination, then God’s scope and power is inherently diminished. When the ancient Israelites sought to articulate an invisible God, God as being the space in which the universe exists, rather than God residing within the universe, it was a seismic shift in perspective.
That said, while the sun, moon, stars don’t possess any God-like creative power on their own, they are powerful signs of reality unfolding - day rolls into night - the physical manifestation of the natural processes and mysteries goings-ons of the universe - also known as God.
You see, this is my God-concept. God as the invisible force in which all things exist. The Great Connectedness of reality - the Colossal Oneness of all things.
There are many God-concepts in Jewish thought - all of which are considered to be limited human snapshots, brief illuminations, half-viewed parts of the unknowable. This one, in which God is the backdrop of the ever expanding universe, is the one by which we call God “HaMakom.” HaMakom literally means “the place.”
An early rabbi, Rabban Gamliel, to elucidate this idea asked: "Why did God choose to reveal Godself to Moses in a lowly burning bush?” He answers, “It was to make the point that there is no place on earth which is devoid of God's presence." God is everything and no thing.
Rabbi Ismar Schorsch expands upon this: “Rabban Gamliel's view became concretized in a bold new name for God, perhaps my favorite, Hamakom, which we might render best as "the All-encompassing One." The term expands beyond measure the indeterminate "place," "makom," of Genesis. God is now dauntingly conceived as the space in which the universe exists. God is neither outside the world nor a resident within it; the world constitutes a part of God. Transcending both gender and image, the conception expresses the grandeur and austerity of Jewish monotheism. It has the capacity to do justice to a universe more than 15 billion years old and still expanding.”
This is an important place to pause. 15 billion years old and still expanding? Rabbi Schorsch is referencing the world of physics. Normally one would expect science and religion to diverge at the point where we start to discuss the “nature of the universe” and it’s processes.
But it doesn’t have to be that way.
I’m not a physicist, but I listen to them sometimes, particularly Brian Green of Columbia University. He was interviewed recently by Krista Tippet for On Being, her podcast on NPR.
Tippet and Green raised a classic science vs religion paradox: how can one believe that the universe has some unifying force, purpose or order when we know the second law of thermodynamics...that is, the concept of entropy, that “all things fall apart.” How can one believe in a higher order when we know all things decay and dissolve?
According to Greene, that would be too rash of a conclusion. He says, “the science itself makes clear that there can be these intermediate windows of time — in fact, we’re living in that window right now — when the universe can enjoy order. It can enjoy structure. It can be the home of beauty. It doesn’t last long, on cosmological scales, but here we are. We are these living beings whose bodies are so exquisitely ordered that we can have conscious experience. We can think and feel, and we can look out into the world, and we can figure things out, and we can puzzle about things, and we can have grief and joy and elation and pain. And all of that, collectively, is an enormous feat for a mere collection of particles governed by physical law, which is all that we are. And so to my mind, yes, ultimately it all does fall apart, but look how spectacular it is that we’re here, in this window, at this moment that the universe supports the kinds of structures — stars and planets and, on at least one such planet, living systems such as ourselves who can have these transcendent experiences.”
This isn’t about worshipping science or heavenly bodies, or even an anthropological God. This is about the sublime order of all reality and how we can marvel at that with awe. In my book, religion is the vehicle toward awe, not necessarily a submission to a dominant outside force as many often portray it.
And there’s more that unites physics and religion. Believe it or not, but a debate about “freewill” rages in both. Greene shares: “I don’t think that we have freedom of will in the traditional sense. I don’t think that we are the ultimate authors of our actions. I do fully believe that our actions come from the motion of our constituent particles that are fully governed by physical laws. So I think our brains are really good at concocting a narrative whereby our actions fit into a coherent story, but that story itself suggests that we are the author of that story, when it’s actually the laws of physics, if you will, that’s the ghostwriter behind the scenes.”
What he calls the laws of physics, I call God - the ghostwriter behind the scenes. Which helps us theological-types to work out how there can be free will with an omnipotent and omniscient God. Science tells us that reality has predetermined outcomes. Some religion tells us that too. But that doesn’t stop us from trying to act in moral ways and make choices for the better good. Even a physicist would argue that our actions matter here and now, no matter the chaotic, destructive direction nature is heading in.
Perhaps this is why, when someone dies, we say, הַמָּקוֹם יְנַחֵם אֶתְכֶם - HaMakom y’nachem etchem - May the All-encompassing One (may God) comfort you. Sure, this could be imagined as God placing a hand on our shoulder. And...it can convey something more, like “may you be comforted in knowing that life and death are part of the natural processes of existence, processes we cannot control.” And with that said, the life they lived, and the life you live now, matter.
Midrash recounts how Abraham, the first Jew, was able to first conceive of God as the All-Encompassing Space in which all things exist:
"One night, upon seeing the moon and stars, Abraham said, 'The moon must have created heaven and earth and me. The stars must be the moon's princes and courtiers.' So all night long he stood in prayer to the moon. In the morning, the moon sank in the west and the sun rose in the east. Then Abraham said, 'There is no might in either of these. There must be a higher Power over them - so to God will I pray, and before God will I prostrate myself.”
Abraham humbled himself not to a thing, but to the knowledge that something bigger lies beyond the natural world and a human’s ability to conceive of it. That humility is what drives us to act in service of one another and, in doing so, in service laMakom - the great Unity of it all.