I have been an avid reader of books about the psychology of religion since I was an adolescent. I remember going to the local public library and systematically taking out every book on the shelves that related to the topic of the human phenomenon of religious behavior.
Until relatively recently, I had been convinced that no book on this subject had anything new to say. The various theories about the origins of religious faith had all been presented in detail. They ranged, of course, from those who believed, like Sigmund Freud, that religion was a neurotic illusion, to those who were sure that the Bible was literally correct, and that God Himself breathed life into man, and in that breath was religious faith.
About six years ago, however, several books began to come to my attention that seemed to be saying something substantially new. These books maintained that religious belief is genetically determined, and that faith has evolutionary benefits which explain its persistence over the course of human history. The authors of these books introduced such concepts as the "God gene" and the "faith instinct."
If these theories are correct, then we are programmed, or hardwired, to believe in a divine being. I have been contemplating this possibility and have found myself asking many questions. Here are some of them:
Granted that a belief in a god is built into our genetic structure. But what kind of a god do we believe in? And how does the kind of god we believe in influence our understanding of the nature of man? It is precisely over such questions that religions have differed, and religious wars have been waged over the millennia.
In antiquity, a mythological understanding of god-figures prevailed. Simply put, the notion of a god from this perspective was that of a being very much like man. As Homer, among other ancients, makes abundantly clear, the gods competed with each other, fought with each other, and fell in love with one another.
Christianity promoted a very different view. Man, or at least one specific man, could be God.
Distinct from such approaches, Judaism insists on a sharp and unbridgeable differentiation between man and God. Nowhere in our sacred texts is this point emphasized as clearly as in the Torah portion that we read at this time of year on the holiday of Simchat Torah. For it is on this holiday that we read the last portion in the entire Torah, Vezot HaBeracha, and in it we learn of the death of Moses.
Jewish thinkers have long pointed to the last eight verses of the Torah as the source for that principle which distinguishes our faith from that of Christianity: Moses was a man, a mortal man, and not God. He may have been buried by God himself, but he was not God.
It is apparent that the Bible insists that Moses was not immortal, and that he certainly was not divine. It is, therefore, fascinating to consult some of the rabbinical texts in which matters are not quite so clear.
Take, for example, the first verse of this parsha: "This is the blessing with which Moses, the man of God, bade the Israelites farewell before he died." (Deuteronomy 33:1) The verse stresses that Moses died. But it also calls him "a man of God." What does that term mean?
How shocking to the novice student of rabbinic literature is the answer provided by the Midrash: "From his midsection and below, he was a man; from his midsection and above, he was a God!"
I will refrain from quoting here other rabbinic texts which indicate that, at least in some way, Moses was indeed immortal. Suffice it to say that that supreme rabbinic rationalist Maimonides wrote: "Relative to us humans, his absence could be termed 'death,' but relative to Moses himself, who was elevated in the process, it must be termed 'life.' "
How are we to resolve this paradox? Was Moses a mortal man, or was he in some partial sense godlike?
For me, the resolution to this question is to be found in the Talmudic injunction: "Just as He is compassionate, so must you be compassionate; and as He is merciful, so must you be merciful."
Man is merely man. He is limited both physically and intellectually by his mortality. But he has within him, perhaps as a gene and perhaps as an instinct, the ability to strive toward godlike behavior. Moses was the perfect example of a mortal being who acted in a godlike fashion from the moment he sought out his enslaved brethren in Egypt. But even Moses could not get more than halfway to God's perfection.
This lesson is a fitting one for all of us as we close this year's cycle of The Person in the Parsha weekly columns. I have tried my utmost to convey two major lessons to you with each of these columns: One, a lesson in theology; in this case, an appreciation for the great divide between the human and the divine. And, two, a lesson in ethics; in this case, the need to set for oneself the goal of emulating God's compassion and God's mercy.
I look forward to the privilege of initiating the next yearly cycle next week and to attempt again to convey those lessons.