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Painting God

October 16, 2018 | by Hannah Dreyfus

My quest for answers does not preclude a simple, emotional acceptance of God’s presence in the world.

When I was in kindergarten, I painted a picture of God. I was very proud of my artistic escapade into the non-corporeal. God had long white hair, a hot pink kippah, a technicolor tallit, no nose, and rather insufficient limbs (of the stick variety). God was deep in prayer, naturally, reciting the morning blessings to sing-song perfection.

I brought my modest masterpiece to the front of class, eager to show my teacher what I’d accomplished. The God who lived in the sky, probably somewhere near Marry Poppins – the God who Mommy cried to when she found out Grandpa died, and the God who smiled down at me when I didn’t pull my sister’s hair in synagogue – that God was now mine, a creation of crayon and colored paper.

But when I tugged on my teacher’s skirt to inform her of my theological milestone, she bit back a smile and gently reprimanded my efforts. “God isn’t a person or a thing, sweetie. We’re not supposed to paint pictures of God.”

I pinpoint my interest in Judaism and Jewish thought to that moment. Who was this God to whom I said good morning every sunrise and good night, right hand covering eyes tightly squeezed as I recited the Shema every night? Who was this God who demanded that we hide all our bread in cabinets marked with yellow warning tape once a year, and camp out in the backyard, in a tabernacle strung with Christmas lights and topped with sweetly smelling evergreen braches when the summer turned to fall? Who was this God who instructed us to put fixtures over the bathroom light switches on a Friday afternoon to ensure we don’t accidently desecrate the Sabbath? Who was this God, who gave me picture books filled with Abraham and Isaac and Sarah and Rebecca, in sweeping cloaks atop slender camels, but then told me not to draw Him a portrait?

Was God scared to be found?

Was this God camera shy, like Grandma, who always skirted to the edge of frame, muttering some excuse about age, before ducking out of finders view? Was God scared to be found?

The question, for me, never was “is He there?” If God was not there, who heard my mother’s whisper when she stood for several minutes, hands covering eyes, after lighting the Shabbat candles? During my summers in the years just shy of teenagehood, smelling of crisp mountain air, chlorine, and smoldering fire pits, I saw God too, in the stillness of the lake, mist rising silently, just before daybreak. In the song of the crickets as I meandered back to my tent, head thrown back to swallow the stars. If Abraham had found God traced in the sky, so could I.

When life introduced me to pain and death, I also found God. I screamed at Him on that still, October morning when my high school friend’s sister passed away without warning. And I cried to Him when I realized things wouldn’t change, no matter how much I screamed.

During my seminary year spent in Israel, I was told what I had heard before, but with newfound conviction and zeal, by people who didn’t just believe, but lived: God was everywhere. Nature was an illusion, only to test. I read of those precious few who had pushed past nature’s persuasive veil. Sitting cross-legged on the grassy hilltops of Jerusalem, it was easy enough to imagine how.

But skepticism and doubt crept between looming Manhattan skyscrapers, shadows obscuring the skyline from view. In the pages of Hume, Wittgenstein, and Spinoza, I found many of my fearful suspicions reflected. As I walked closer towards the simple, beautiful, portrait I had painted, I began to see flaws in the trusting, non-discriminatory strokes. I began to trace cracks, with trembling fingers. Disheartened, I fell back, disillusioned by the simple picture. I was angry with those who had confirmed and even encouraged my simple portrait, even while telling me, in gently reprimanding tones, that is not our place to paint pictures of God.

For a time, I hid that initial picture from view – the picture I had found among the stars, and in my mother’s whisper. I started on a new picture: a cold, analytical sketch. This picture was based upon thesis statements and comparative readings. The subject of this portrait would be built firmly upon books and articles, dissected and analyzed to avoid misstep. I wouldn’t be fooled again by beautiful simplicity, no matter how tempting. This portrait would be sketched in unforgiving, precise pencil, not crayon.

The serene beauty of Jerusalem, hushed by snow, rendered my questions null and void.

During my mid-semester break, I headed back to Israel, to Jerusalem. My head spun with questions. The canvas of my new picture had grown weary, streaked with eraser marks. I found myself growing weary. I missed the God I had resolutely left behind, as I wandered between the crowded skyscrapers of New York City.

The gap between my skeptical and emotional self did not close consciously. The serene, modest beauty of Jerusalem, hushed by rare snow, didn’t intellectually combat my neatly contested list of questions. Rather, she rendered them null and void. Like a mother, answering a tired child’s long list of bereavements with an embrace, rather than answers. The child is left hiccupping, still indignant perhaps, but with no breath left for complaints.

Watching the sunlight glint off the white, the questions that had built up, like a wall of stone, crumbled, as if by the sounding call of Joshua’s shofar, walls of Jericho sinking into the ground. The defenses, built up like a small army, melted like a child’s breath on a frosty pane. I stood at the Western Wall and cried to a God I had never lost. It was the same God who had inspired my childish fervor and creativity. The same God who winked at me from behind evergreen trees of childhood memories. The same God I trusted while sitting, cross-legged, atop Jerusalem’s blossoming hills. 

I still have questions. I don’t regret asking, nor will I cease to do so. I am a more sophisticated thinker for the journey. The greatest Jewish thinkers of all time, after all, never desisted from intellectual inquiry.

But during my stay in Jerusalem, I realized my quest for answers does not preclude a simple, emotional acceptance of God’s presence in the world. I realized simplicity and truth never were at odds. There will always be questions, debates, and philosophical contentions enough for any willing skeptic. But they fall, like matchsticks in the wind, in those rare, privileged moments when we face a portrait so beautiful, we cannot explain.


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