On Metaphors for God

On Metaphors for God

Rabbi Michael Graetz  [For RA Theology conference]

Metaphors and reality


I participated in the Yom Kippur War. My unit was on a hill overlooking the Suez Canal the night when a small Israeli force crossed the canal to the Egyptian side and established a beachhead which drove a wedge into the Egyptian Army. That was the first of a chain of events which eventually led to the end of the war. This first force to cross the canal and establish the beachhead crossed by means of amphibious boats called, in Hebrew, “timsach”. My unit witnessed the crossing. The Egyptians, who were situated in strongly fortified positions shot everything they had at the Israeli soldiers crossing the canal. You could see tracer bullets and the tails of rockets flashing over the canal. We could not really see the boats, and were slightly puzzled why the Egyptians were wasting such fire power. But, when the boats landed, the Egyptians fled their positions.


The next day a pontoon bridge was built and Israeli soldiers crossed the canal on this bridge relatively safe from any enemy fire. My unit made its way to Fuad, an Egyptian air base. We arrived Erev Shabbat and took over a building for sleeping quarters and set up for Shabbat. In the building next to us were the “timsach” drivers and their vehicles. They were still totally exhausted and were resting under the vehicles. It was from them that I heard the story of their crossing of the Canal. One of them said “I saw God’s hand push the missiles away from my timsach”. All of the others nodded in agreement indicating that they too had seen it. I asked him what he meant by that. He said simply, “I saw a hand, like a big hand, the palm of a hand, and as the shell approached my boat this hand pushed it aside”. All of us who heard this were astonished, because the man telling his story obviously meant what he said.


That night at Kabbalat Shabbat as we sang Lecha Dodi, when we came to the verse which says, “ve-hayu li-mshisa shosayich ve-rahaku kol mevalayich” I myself felt the presence of a giant hand in the room, that same hand I am sure that had removed those who wanted to swallow us up. At dinner others recounted having the same feeling; it was as if we also had been protected by the hand. From then on, I always have that feeling of protection whenever I sing lecha dodi.


How do I understand these real feelings of mine. It is a fact that the drivers did cross safely under a massive barrage of gunfire. It is also a fact that I had heard from the timsach drivers that they had seen the hand. I know shirat ha-yam, and that the poem lecha dodi describes such protection by removing danger. Then, again, I personally felt enormous gratitude for being alive after having been shot at with great firepower, i.e. I shared with the timsach drivers the feeling that I was being watched over. The language of lecha dodi quite literally described the reality that we perceived happened to us.


There is probably no adequate scientific explanation to account for the fact that so many people were shooting so much ammunition at us with intent to kill us, and yet we survived. That is, I doubt whether science can logically adequately account for the miracle of our being alive and of our avoiding all the possible disasters. In many ways I felt that God was protecting not only the drivers of the “timsachim”, but also myself and klal yisrael.


Note how the driver’s and my own use of “hand” expresses our view of reality. We are saying “it was no accident that we were saved. There was a protective force which saved us and it wanted us to get to our destination.” This use of language is metaphorical, but it accurately expresses our view of reality. When the first “timsach” driver told the story, I, and all present, understood what he was saying, and to some of them, like myself, it expressed poignantly what we also felt in a way that seemed just right. In some sense we all felt a responsibility to express our view of reality in that way, for no other way seemed appropriate.


The drivers could have all assumed it was an accident and that there is no protection in the world. We might have tried to analyze each bullet and its trajectory and the wind factors and the swaying of the boat on the water and shown that none of the bullets could have, from the point of view of physics and trajectories, hit the boat. They might have even adopted some type of chaos theory and assumed that some butterfly which flapped its wings when Israel first crossed the Red Sea had caused the trajectories to turn out the way they did. But, our perception of our reality, at that moment, was expressed by the driver’s comment about the “hand”. We all knew what he was talking about, and even though he was not using the word hand literally – for literally a human hand cannot stop a bullet – what he said was literally comprehensible. His use of “hand” accurately expressed his and our own view of reality. God’s hand was real for us. There was no other way for us to express what we both “saw” and “felt”.


Perhaps this is what lies behind the saying “there are no atheists in foxholes”. Namely, that reality for the soldier in the foxhole must be expressed by using metaphors of the Divine, particularly the Divine protector or Divine mercy. The metaphor of God’s hand protecting us or removing our enemies far from us, is the way we expressed our feelings about our gratitude for life.


In addition to merely being a way of expressing our feelings, each one of us has experienced, or heard about, the phenomenon of people in trouble who have searched for a power or force to help them cope with the trouble. We have seen these people rise above the trouble and exhibit strength and courage beyond what they and others thought they were capable of.  The perceived power or force that enables people to survive and overcome adversity is part of their reality. In the foxhole God is a part of the soldiers perceived reality.


The Biblical verse which most clearly expresses this perceived awareness of this power or force is uttered by David: “it is in Your power to make anything grow and be strengthened” (“u-beyadekha le-gadel u-le-hazayk la-kol”, I Chron. 29:12). David is aware of a power, which in Hebrew is the word “yad” or “hand” that causes people to grow and become greater overcoming feelings of lowliness. This same power is seen by David to encourage and strengthen anyone no matter how desperate their situation seems. Again, the metaphor of “hand”, expresses a sense of a helper who helps people to overcome adversity. David is associated with the book of Psalms. Many of the Psalms repeat this theme; namely, that people who find themselves in troubling and despairing situations are strengthened by a power that is described as God’s hand.


This way of speaking does answer a need we all have to be part of a larger plan. For the religious it is a need to be an essential part of God’s plan for the universe. In some situations, like the foxhole, we need to think and feel of reality as including a force which protects us. We do not want to abandon our fate to science – to unfeeling and uncaring laws of nature about bullet trajectories. Fatalistic explanations are reserved for those who were hit by the bullets. Thus, a new metaphor of “gezar din” is created to account for the parts of reality which the protective hand metaphor screens out. From this it is clear also that no one metaphor can possibly be used for expressing all our conceptions of reality. We must mix and match our metaphorical explanations.


There are events in which we partake that when we then try to describe them we are forced to use metaphors to do so. We find that literal language is inadequate to use to describe these experiences. We grope for a “like something else” to express what we experience. Some of these metaphors become accepted ways of speaking, a part of our ordinary language. These metaphors are learnt by people learning the language. Many of the metaphors we use to talk about God are like this, e.g. “God the father”. But, the use of metaphorical language is pregnant with danger. For although metaphors enable us to express how we view reality, they also to some extent distort it. In this sense metaphors perform as photographs do. In one sense photographs picture what is there, but in another sense they distort by cutting off a person’s legs, for example, or by showing her from either a flattering or unflattering angle. As we need many pictures from many angles to give an overall picture of a person, so then we need many metaphors to give a more comprehensive picture of reality.


One metaphor cannot express all that we think about all reality. No use of language can do that. Y. Lebowitz told a story about himself that he was once confronted by a woman who told him that she had prayed for a sick child and that “baruch ha-shem” the child lived. He then replied that he knew someone who had prayed for a sick child and “baruch ha-shem the child died”. Lebowitz was simply reminding the woman that she should be careful about generalizing from just one experience.


Even if we assume that he is merely applying what is written in the Mishna  (Ber. 9:3,5), namely that one must bless God for the bad as well as the good, his reading is not that of the halacha. That is, Lebowitz’s quip is based on using the same expression in two different contexts. The formal literal logic of the example looks the same in both contexts, but in fact it functions differently in each context. Underlying each context is a different metaphor of God. The halacha makes a distinction between God as provider or do-gooder, “ha-tov ve-ha-meitiv”, and God as judge “dayyan emet”. These are two different metaphors, different ways of picturing our relationship to God. It is clear that the former metaphor filters out the latter. What the Mishna is, in a sense, saying is that we cannot exclusively rely on the use of one metaphor! Experience is at once mixed and complex. Many different berachot are needed. It is true that we are praising the same God, but since our perception of God’s qualities is different in different situations, we employ different berachot. This fact needs paying attention to. In one sense idolatry is thinking that different qualities experienced imply a different god for each quality. Lebowitz apparently addressed this aspect of what he took to be the woman’s view of reality, namely that there was an idolatrous quality about her applying the Mishnaic principle only in one set of circumstances. However, the plurality of metaphors leads us to see that we do not have to relate in the same way to the quality of mercy when it is experienced as we relate to the quality of suffering, violence or punishment  when we experience it. On the contrary we are bidden to relate differently.


Modern writers have all pointed out both how our sacred texts have been aware of the perception of violence by God, and how these texts have attempted to cope with this perception while maintaining a relationship with God. Indeed, the biggest problem is in maintaining the relationship.


But, in my story of the Yom Kippur war, the metaphor clearly not only expresses but shapes our view of the reality of how my comrades and I saw the crossing of the canal. In my case, it is a concrete picture that comes into my mind whenever I hear or say the words of the saving metaphor itself. That metaphor, along with the picture of reality that it conjures up in me, still works each moment I recall the experience, and with it I reaffirm my gratitude for life. That event was real, and is still part of my reality.




Until now I have dealt with an unusual incident. War is not an everyday occurrence, and even in war an event such as the crossing of the canal is an unusual event. I will now turn to other, more common or everyday religious instances of the use of metaphors and how they express and shape reality. I will do this by examining some prayers and blessings paying close attention to the metaphorical basis of these prayers.


The metaphor of God returning a soul to a dead body, which is found in the context of the “asher yazar” prayer, ostensibly seems to be about the literal vessels of the body. If one vessel should open or close we cannot stand before God. The normal functioning of the body is somehow taken to be ordinary, but it is one of the most extraordinary things to which that metaphor points. So the metaphor of God’s keeping us alive each day in the “elohay neshama” prayer is construing the functioning of the living body as a miracle. The how of science, i.e. not enough plaque has built up in order to close the artery, is simply irrelevant. Theoretically it is possible to make a machine to monitor plaque build up and keep a watch on it, thus turning the unseen and unknown into known, and thus making the “miracle of the living body” into something less than miraculous. But understanding the workings of the phenomenon does not necessarily obviate wonderment at the complexity of its being a phenomenon altogether. Even if we had such a machine and knew exactly what the situation was, and could prevent blockage of an artery, that knowledge would in no way diminish the wonder of the fact that the human body is alive. Are we not still awed by the design and intricate functioning of the body once we know exactly what is taking place there? The metaphor expresses that perception of reality which includes the wonder.


A modern Jew might compose a prayer, expressing wonder at the fact of the human body, similar to “asher yatzar” for the personality. One can express amazement at all of the infinite experience and natural materiel that each person has coming together to make up a unified yet varied personality. If an illness were to happen (a cancer or heart attack), or death of a beloved, our own sense of who we are is impaired, and we, our former personality, cannot stand before God, exactly as before. Yet, it is still us, it is not someone else. Perhaps, God can give us the help to be a better personality.


If we examine the Rabbinic creation of Berachot, we see that many of them are based on metaphors which structure reality for the person who says them. For example, Hamotzi, when seen in the light of the midrash of Ben Zoma (Ber. 58a), can be seen as a metaphor which expresses the reality of what goes in to making a loaf of bread: namely, laws of nature, time, rain, earth, and the cooperation of a lot of different people doing different jobs. The expressed reality makes the bread a vehicle for awareness of the partnership between God and man, and the cooperative internet and intranet which exists between all of them.


When one sees crowds of Jews one recites the blessing “hacham ha-razim” (ibid.). The Talmud provides the rationale for this blessing ad loc, namely the reality that each person has different thoughts and each has a different face. The thus structured plural reality makes us aware of the greatness of God, for even though each person is in the mold of the first person each one is different (Sanh. 4:5). But, even more so, this reality is what makes Oral Torah possible. It is part of God’s creating humans and Torah in such a way that the human partnership in the making of Torah is a perceived part of its reality. Another famous metaphor spells out this part of reality by combining intelligence and wisdom as one of God’s gifts to man together with the Torah, both leading to the expectation and validation of partnership in creating Torah, namely, the Oral Torah. This is the famous parable of the wheat and flax which the wise slave turns into bread and tablecloth. (Tanna de bei Eliyahu, 2).


Another example might be the blessing on seeing new settlements in the land of Israel, “barukh metziv gevul almanah”. This blessing is not only a metaphor, but it is in some sense an ambiguous one. Who is the “widow” here, the land, the people? Who is the metziv, God or Israel who built the settlement? The reality of partnership between man and God, which is the structure of reality so strongly evident in the berachot just mentioned is also strongly present in this Berakha. Indeed, one could show that this is an underlying reality behind most of the berakhot, once we see them as metaphors whose function is to enable us to give expression to our view of reality.




Religious language about God is inherently metaphorical. Sometimes a single metaphor and other adjunct metaphors meld together to create what  Sallie McFague in her important book Metaphorical Theology (Philadelphia, Fortress, 1982) calls a “model”.


“Model”, for McFague, is a metaphor which has been widely accepted and has become a major way of structuring and ordering experience. It is by its nature complex, and is rich with supporting metaphors. The Bible contains many such “models”. For example, one of the major metaphors of the Bible used to express the relationship of Israel and God is the Marriage metaphor.


In Biblical times marriage had overtones of control and ownership by the husband of the wife. Marital fidelity is demanded only from the woman since men were allowed many wives. The problematics of the Biblical marriage metaphor are spelled out in Naomi Graetz’s book Silence is Deadly: Judaism Confronts Wifebeating, (Jason Aronson, 1998). Graetz also draws attention to the reciprocal relationship that holds between metaphor and Halacha (cf. especially chapters 2, 3, and 4), thus showing how the metaphor  structures the perception of reality of those, in this case the rabbis, making halachic rulings. Thus, the metaphor underlies the making of rules which constitute this “reality”. More specifically Graetz shows how images of God punishing or battering the “wife” Israel can be used to justify the right of the husband to beat his wife as a part of normal reality. [see Exodus R. Mishpatim 31:10; Numbers Rabbah Bamidbar 2:16]


The classical Biblical metaphor cannot automatically be used to describe our reality today. In Neil Gillman’s words it has “been broken” (cf. Sacred Fragments, pp. 79-108, cf. particularly p. 83, and p. 88 ff. on Midrash). Today our view of marriage includes partnership, mutual responsibility. We can use the process of Midrash to create new versions of the metaphor that will express this view, or we can appropriate existing Midrash which fit this view more appropriately as our way of talking about the Biblical metaphor of marriage. While Midrash does not “change” the plain meaning of the Biblical metaphor, it allows a spelling out of the meaning in specific ways so that one “reads” the plain meaning in the light of the Midrash. Thus, through the process of Midrash, the Biblical metaphor in essence becomes a “new” metaphor. As such, the “new” metaphor is able to underlie the making of “new” halachic rules which constitute the “new reality”.


There is an existing Midrash which seems to describe the man-wife metaphor in a different way. It puts the emphasis on a complementary type of man-wife relationship, where each one’s contribution leads to a more complete whole. I will call this the “ideal marriage” view. This approach is at once  non-hierarchical and non submissive, and yet retains the different roles in the marriage without having that fact imply inequality or submissiveness. The view of man-wife relationship which this metaphor structures is totally different from the view which the Biblical metaphor structures. The Biblical metaphor is solely based on the imbalance of power between man and God. Even the marriage metaphor stresses the imbalance of power. The following Midrash (Deut. R. 3:7) presents a metaphor in which the distribution of power is redressed.


“Another explanation: THAT THE LORD THY GOD SHALL KEEP FOR THEE THE COVENANT AND THE MERCY (Deut. 7,12). R. Simeon b. Halafta said: This may be compared to a king who married a noble lady, who brought with her into the house two gems, and the, king too had two corresponding gems set for her. The lady lost her gems, whereupon the king took away his. After some time she arose and set herself right with him by bringing back the two gems. Thereupon the king too restored his. The king decreed that a crown should be made of both sets of gems and that it should be placed on the head of the noble lady.”


“So you find that Abraham gave his children two gems [to guard], as it is said, “For I have known him, to the end that he may command his children and his household after him ……to do righteousness and justice” (Gen. 18,19). God too set up corresponding to them two gems, namely, loving-kindness and mercy, as it is said, “God shall keep for thee the covenant and the mercy”: and it further says, “And He will give thee mercy, and have compassion upon thee” (Deut. 13,18). Israel lost theirs, as it is said, “That ye have turned justice into gall, and the fruit of righteousness into wormwood” (Amos 6,12). God thereupon took away His, as it is said, “For I have taken away My peace from this people, saith the Lord, even mercy and compassion” (Jer. 16, 5). Israel then arose and set themselves right [with God] and restored the two gems. Whence do we know this? For so it is written, “Zion shall be redeemed with justice, and they that return of her with righteousness” (Isa. 1, 27). God too restored His. Whence this? For so it is written, “For the mountains may depart, and the hills be removed, but My kindness shall not depart from thee, neither shall My covenant of peace be removed, saith the Lord that hath compassion on thee” (ib. 54, 10). And after Israel have restored theirs and God has given back His, God will say, ‘Let both pairs be made into a crown and be placed on the head of Israel,’ as it is said, “And I will betroth thee unto Me forever, yea, I will betroth thee unto Me in righteousness and in justice, and in lovingkindness, and in compassion. And I will betroth thee unto Me in faithfulness; and thou shalt know the Lord” (Hos. 2, 21).”


The relationship pictured in this Midrash is a reciprocal one. Both humans and God bring something to the marriage. Human qualities are “charity (“tzedek”) and justice (“mishpat”)”, and Divine qualities are “lovingkindness (“hesed”) and mercy (“rahamim”)”.  The use of these terms in the Midrash leads to a difficult task of explicating what those terms mean in this context. The Midrash is using a verse which includes the word “brit”, which is usually understood as “covenant”, but is now using it in the sense of “mercy”. What is unusual is that both parties bring qualities to the marriage which are all essential for the marriage to work. When there are problems of relationship in the marriage it is because one of the sides, or both, are unfaithful to those qualities they brought to the marriage, “lose them” in the Midrash’s words. Only by being faithful to themselves, i.e. to what each one brought to the marriage, can they reconstruct the relationship that was so satisfying.


If one side loses their qualities it effects the other side. There is no absolute power here which forces the other side to accept it. Both sides need to keep up what they bring in order for each of them and their marriage to be healthy. The crown, the physical external expression of the “ideal marriage” relationship includes all of the qualities. If we act in such a way that the perceived reality of our lives includes all of those qualities, then we will have structured reality in a way which will enable anyone to see the presence of God.


In the light of all this, the first chapter of Genesis of man-women being one entity is even more remarkable. It seems to be the basis for a conception of the “ideal marriage” view, that presents a very contemporary ideal picture of the potential harmony and equality of the sexes. The classic marriage metaphors of the Bible are no longer the only way for us to express either our view of  what a real marriage is, or even of our halacha. The metaphor of marriage as a way of describing our relationship to God is valid. It is not the only possibility for a metaphor to describe relationship, but since marriage is still the most widespread form of how relationships which are taken to be in some sense “sacred” and “permanent” are contracted in our day, marriage remains potent as a major way to describe relationship to God.


But as our view of what a real marriage is becomes different, so the metaphor used to describe marriage must be different. Our view of marriage changes, and with it the metaphor we use to refer to it does. The old metaphor no longer expresses our new view of marriage. When perceived reality changes, halacha should change to keep up with it. This is the normal process in halachic development. This has happened in the past. The Midrash from Ekev shows us that when expectations from marriage changed, so did the metaphors used to refer to marriage change.




In Ex. 33 and 34 we read of Moses’ pleas with God to spare Israel which has rejected God by making a Golden Calf. God’s mercy eventually outweighs His sense of punishment. Perhaps it is this switch of moods, the seeming harshness of judgment opposed by a forgiving tenderness which causes Moses to be confused about God’s nature. He wants God to tell him, once and for all, just what His nature is. “He said, “Oh, let me behold Your Presence!” And He answered, “I will make all My goodness pass before you, and I will proclaim before you the name Lord, and the grace that I grant and the compassion that I show. But,” He said, “you cannot see My face, for man may not see Me and live.” And the Lord said, “See, there is a place near Me. Station yourself on the rock and, as My Presence passes by, I will put you in a cleft of the rock (“be-nikrat ha-tzur”) and shield you with My hand until I have passed by. Then I will take My hand away and you will see My back (“achorei”, “back”); but My face (“u-fanei”, from the word “panim”, “face”) must not be seen.” (Ex. 33:18-23)


“Panim” implies a plurality of aspects (pan) perceived openly or frontally. The reality which we perceive, God, is too complex a figure for one metaphor to capture. We cannot perceive God all at once, frontally, because of God’s complexity.  The word “achor”, however, implies perception which is not frontal but round about, indirect. Moses wants to know all of God’s aspects at once and directly, but is told that he can only “see” God indirectly. Moses requested too much. Even though he only wanted to see God’s merciful aspect. Even that aspect alone is too complex to view the whole frontally.


I see in this passage another possible metaphoric model for moderns. It starts from a desire to know directly what is literally not knowable. It includes the sense of striving to see God’s qualities of mercy, of wanting to be certain that there is mercy in the world. But we are placed in the “cleft of the rock”, (“be-nikrat ha-tzur”), a craggy overhang which prevents us from seeing it until it has passed by. Only then we can see the “back” of it. Our own impenetrable hiding in a cave prevents us from seeing God’s mercy in the world. Reality can be perceived as if I am in the cleft of a rock, surrounded by impenetrable walls with no way to touch others or be touched by them. Yet, mercy and love do somehow mysteriously penetrate the rock.


We perceive both being loved and of being lovers, and both involve forms of perception of the other. This metaphor can express both. This is the reality of God and it has, while not removing me from the cleft, penetrated and permits me to see the traces of His love, thus making it easier for me to see my love of others. This notion is also expressed in the prayers by the juxtaposition of “birkat ahavah”, the blessing in which we thank God for loving us, with the first paragraph of the Shema prayer in which we affirm a striving to “love” God. We have perceived God’s love, and are striving to return that love. The notion of God being the power which enables us to perceive others through love, i.e. the way God does, is central to Judaism as I see it, and our metaphors and halacha should be focused in that direction.


The obscurity and uncertainty expressed in the phrase of being hidden in the cleft of the rock (“be-nikrat ha-tzur”) is apparent. But, the sense of seeing even one aspect of God’s reality, despite that lonely and hidden position, is also apparent. The perception is indicated in the text by God’s invitation for Moses to find shelter “Here is place with Me” (cf. my forthcoming Hebrew treatise on these verses) This incident spells out for us that God is an objective reality, independent of the human mind. That is, the mind may be cloistered or seem to be alone, yet a presence is nonetheless perceived. The events which occur do so on a level which is not the same as the level of metaphor. Metaphor may be the way we describe or talk about them after the fact, but the events really occurred. That is, to talk about events in metaphorical language does not necessarily imply a simple deviation from reality. It merely points up the inability of literal language as a tool to convey all aspects of reality as we perceive it.



Metaphorical language is the only way to express perceived religious reality. But, it is not all cut from the same cloth, it is patchwork cloth. That is to say that we use different metaphors under different circumstances. We have to always be aware of what is being filtered out, so as not to be dogmatic. Awareness of this mechanism, i.e. how metaphors work to express reality can make us more flexible and tolerant, as long as we avoid literalness and dogmatism in our use of metaphorical language.


We cannot but use metaphorical language when what happens to us is so extraordinary. The experience of birth, death, being loved, good fortune, tragedy, falling in and out of love, all these things are extraordinary. That is why the use of religious ceremony to celebrate these experiences is pervasive. But, in using metaphors to describe these and other events in our lives, we have to recognize that metaphorical language at once throws light on reality yet distorts it. We need new metaphors to cover areas excluded before, and as an antidote to dogmatism which is, in effect, the use of metaphorical expression as if it was a literal one, e.g. replacing “God the father” or marriage metaphors of ownership, as suggested above. In this fashion we can best fulfill our responsibility to express our view of  reality in a way which is at once religiously sound and relevant to contemporary man and woman, giving expression to the perceived reality of their contemporary experience.


While Religious language is largely metaphorical, it is not all metaphor. To speak of a world in which God can be perceived is to speak metaphorically, yet one can only speak that way to begin with because such a reality is perceived. In itself the use of metaphorical expression does not imply “less” realness to the reality it is used to express. Religious language is distinctive and a life shaped by it will be distinctive in a way that only that language can adequately express.


The attempt of Judaism to create halacha, a system of actions which “act out” the perception of God in the world, is based on accepting the metaphorical description of a world that expresses the reality of God. But, this move is interactive, just as metaphor itself is interactive. The halacha is worked out in concrete terms which are based on the metaphorical language which expresses and reflects the reality of the world. Performing the actions of halacha reinforces the metaphors. The use of the metaphors and their concomitant system of discipline shapes for the participant a reality in which his or her actions are performed. The words he or she uses to describe his or her world, and his or her actions in that world, express their perceived reality in such a way that his or her actions are seen, at least by the actors, to make sense.


Compare, for example, two approaches to the beginning education of the Jewish child. In the traditional approach when I study an “historical” part of Torah, e.g. Leviticus with its laws of priests and sacrifices, this whole study is in some sense a metaphor which constructs the reality of the world for the student. Since the literal words of Leviticus do not describe anything real in the student’s experience, but uses real terms e. g. bullock, sheep slaughter etc., the reality which speaking this language expresses to the pupil is one of ritual, priests, sin, thanksgiving etc. all defined in concrete legalistic terms. It is as if the whole world and all of human life operates in a simple concrete mechanical fashion, and that God is always available to us.


The portrait of reality differs greatly from the traditional approach when pupils begin their study with Genesis. For them the world might be an orderly place where the reality of God might be felt in laws of nature. Other metaphors are primary there as well, e.g. family relationships in which God might be taken to be a kind of manipulator of peoples emotions or as a power which looks out for His chosen favorites. God is available here too, but in the forming of relationships within family and with strangers or as an overseer of historical events.




To conclude, religious language is means by which we express religious reality. It is largely metaphorical. It is thus crucial to be conscious that when we express reality in religious terms we are using metaphors. This means that we must be aware not only of the reality being expressed, but also of the reality which a particular metaphor leaves out. What is central to Jewish religious language is that it is based on Midrash, that is a methodology of reading and relating to texts. Jewish religious language is based on Midrashic reading of the Bible, and a concomitant concretization of that reading in a code of behavior known as halacha. For the Midrash the Bible is “omnisignificant”. (See the significant article by Martin Warner, “Language, Interpretation and Worship”, pp. 91 ff. in Martin Warner, ed. Religion and Philosophy, Cambridge) This means that reality and language used to describe the perceived reality of the Bible are so intertwined that they cannot be separated. And so it is with religious language generally. That language is the only language which can adequately express the perceived religious reality, and the perceived religious reality cannot be expressed, or described or talked or thought about without using that language. As that language is largely metaphorical, in some sense religious reality is always perceived and so understood in metaphorical terms. There are many metaphors in Jewish literature, but if we want to have a coherent religious system we must choose among those which best express the way we believe that reality should be. For, after all, religion includes a strong component of striving to implement what we perceive to be ideals to live up to which God asks of us.



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