In his book The God of Old, author James Kugel makes a surprising observation about how the ancient Israelites saw God in their lives. God, it turns out, was something like an obvious, tangible presence. God wasn’t an abstract concept that one had theological debates over. God just was. And sometimes this God was in our space, and in our faces, in the form of miracles, prophets, angels (who were really just flesh and blood people), architecture, the weather and all sorts of things.
As the author states on his website:
The God of Old was not invisible or abstract. He appeared to people – usually unexpectedly; He was not sought out. Often, He was not even recognized. Many biblical stories thus center on a “moment of confusion,” in which an encounter with god is at first mistaken for an ordinary, human meeting. In the biblical world, Kugel shows, the spiritual and the material overlapped: everyday perception was in constant danger of sliding into something else, stark but oddly familiar. God was always standing just behind the curtain of ordinary reality.
Side note: I’ll never get over the fact that one of my favorite Bible scholars has a last name that translates to a casserole often made with noodles or potatoes. The fact that there is a genius in this world running around with a pot luck dish for a last name gives me a joy that is indescribable.
Anyway, back to God.
God, it turns out, is a bit of a disruption. Like my favorite ride sharing app.
Is it any surprise that our latest economic innovation, technology, is praised for being “disruptive”?
Silicon valley has an obsession with this word disruptive. Every app, every website, every new technology is meant to disrupt the way things are done. Uber, the ride sharing app, disrupts transportation as we know it. Kickstarter disrupts fundraising by helping people crowd fund money for new businesses, new creative ventures, and even, get this, potato salad. And of course we all know Facebook disrupted the way we keep up with our friends, and frequently disrupts those friendships when you suddenly find out that your friend has political views that are horrific and require intense debates that go no where fast.
Disruptive. Something that breaks business as usual. Life as usual. Like a ride sharing app. Like a website.
God Is Disruption
What we call God is an impulse we have. An impulse to seek Heaven. An impulse to sanctify the mundane. An impulse to act out in ways that break the rules. An impulse to create ritual spaces. All of this, I believe, is rooted in disruption.
God is disruption.
In a debate with Christopher Hitchens, Rabbi David Wolpe said that being religious was an “orientation toward life.” I agree. I’ll go a step further as well. What we call God is the force of disruption which orients us toward life.
A few examples…
God said to Abram (Abraham): “Go! Go from out of your land, and from your clan, and from your father’s house, to the land that I will show you. And I will transform out of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great…so Abram went, as the LORD had spoken to him” (Genesis 12:1-4).
Here God is doing more than telling Abram/Abraham to go get some real estate. At a time in history where land, inheritance, family, nationhood (or tribe and clan) are central to your life and to survival, leaving all of this with your wife and nephew to go somewhere that a god has told you to go is utterly insane.
The goal of any family in this time in history is to survive at best, and thrive if lucky. The best way to do this is to build up the family, clan and tribe. Marriages, business deals, sometimes ethnic identities, are forged to ensure that the bloodline will survive. This may seem barbaric, but remember that up until recently, royalty traded marriages, land, wealth and people in order to ensure that a family would continue.
For God to tell Abram that he needs to sever his connection to his land, family, and the father’s house (which is a biblical metaphor for the safety of the heredity boundary developed over generations) is heretical in this time in history. It means to give up every piece of safety possible and to be completely without protection.
And Abram goes. No worries. Not a single peep from him.
Because when you are disrupted to the point that you know you have to leave everything you have known to be true, for some kind of destiny that you are uncertain of, there is nothing that can be said. It’s sacred silence after great upheaval. It’s as the prophets wrote in 1 Kings 19:11-12, “there came an earthquake…after the earthquake came a fire…and after the fire came a voice, calm, small.”
Sometimes when things turn your whole world around, the best thing to do is just go for it. That’s disruption.
Or perhaps another case. A man named Moshe (Moses) comes to understand himself and his God in a way he never had.
A quick preface: Moshe/Moses is living amongst the Midianites and has a manual labor job working for his father in law Yitro/Jethro, who is the priest of that Midianite community. While doing his shepherding gig, Moses encounters a burning bush, can’t figure out what’s going on, and then things get really interesting.
“God called to Moses out of the midst of the bush, and said: ‘Moses, Moses.’ And Moses said: ‘Here I am.’…God said, ‘I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.’…’I have seen the affliction of My people that are in Egypt, and have heard their cry…Come now, therefore, and I will send you to Pharaoh, that you may bring forth my people the children of Israel out of Egypt.’
Freeze frame. Your father in law has you doing manual labor. You’re a stuttering stranger in the middle of nowhere. You have a good lineage, and that’s about it. Now, this God, the God of your tribe, has decided to pop up and let you know that some stuff is about to go down, and you’re the center of it. So naturally you say…
‘Who am I, that I should go to Pharaoh, and that I should bring forth the children of Israel out of Egypt?’ God said: ‘Certainly I will be with you’…And Moses said to God: ‘When I come to the children of Israel, and will say to them: The God of your fathers has sent me to you’ and they will say to me ‘What is God’s name?’ what should I say to them?’
God replied to Moses: ‘I AM THAT I AM’; and He said: ‘you shall say to the children of Israel: I AM has sent me unto you.’
And God said moreover: ‘Thus shalt you say unto the children of Israel: ‘The Lord, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you; I AM THAT I AM is My name for ever, and this is My memorial to all generations” (Exodus 3:6-15).
The key here is lost in English, but when God refers to himself/herself/itself as ‘God of your fathers’, the word El is used. El is a generic term for God, like, ‘God’ for example. Ha! That can be God the Jesus God, God the Brahma God. Actually God comes from the German word Got which means good, but whatever. You get the point. This El character, Elohei Avraham/Yitzak/Yaakov, is connected to the toldot, the generations. But God’s name here is El.
When Moses asks, “what’s your name” he’s not asking God’s name because God’s name tag is missing. The idea of names in the ancient Near East is incredibly important. For a human being, knowing a god’s name means having some kind of powerful connection to it. This power can be channeled through rituals. By saying a god’s name, you are able to force, in a sense, the good graces of this deity.
So when God says, “I am”, God is basically giving Moses the middle finger.
Really. It’s that dramatic. It’s why translators often put ‘I am’ in ALL CAPS. It’s a dramatic point. This God cannot be controlled. While this God is part of the past, and is in fact intimately connected to the past, this God is not in the past. God is not “I was”, God is “I am.”
God Challenges the Past and the Present, So We Can Have A Future
We have two great disruptions here, but they both come from the same place: what it means to connect to God is to be disrupted, to have the past challenged, and to move forward against the grain, against all reason, against the tribal/societal/cultural norm, so that the future can happen.
God pushes humanity forward, not backward.
God is disruption that orients us toward life.
A final note on disruption. At the end of the Moses narrative, Moses gives a great series of song-poem-speeches (yes, song-poem-speeches is a word). This song of Moses says something really powerful: that when the Israelites are in the promised land, they will forget God, because they will have abundance. In this abundance, they will forget God, and will assume that everything that they have comes from their own work. This arrogance leads to sin, and sin leads to some not-so-good stuff. Never the less, God says that God is with them, and it’ll all work out, even when it doesn’t.
Disruption: if you go astray from remembering the disruptions that bring you toward life, it won’t seem like a big deal…until of course, the next disruption happens that makes you realize you had it wrong the whole time.
Written by Rabbi Patrick