Psychology, as you know, studies the “psyche.” Depth psychology insists that the psyche is DEEP. Something lies behind or beneath our conscious experience. For convenience, this something is called the UNconscious.
The most famous depth psychologists are Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung. Both used ideas of Depth Psychology to talk about our experiences of God. Even though Freud was an atheist and Jung was a theist, they came to the same conclusion. Our conscious experience of God is not God. The image we have of God is not God.
Freud says something like this: Every human being is born with unconscious needs that manifest in different ways across the life cycle. In infancy, our simple needs for food, sleep, and comfort can overwhelm us. So much so that the fulfillment of needs is a cosmic experience. Freud calls this all-consuming experience of comfort an “oceanic feeling.” As we mature, many of us identify this feeling with the concept of God. Because our needs in infancy are often fulfilled by parent figures, many of us speak of “God the Father” or the “Mother Goddess.” Our early experience of our parent-figures — nurturing, authoritarian, positive, negative, present, absent — becomes part of our experience of God.
Jung says something like this: Let’s set aside Freud’s focus on infant development. Instead, we can focus on the adult psyche. Throughout life, a person’s relationship with religion changes. One may suddenly realize everything they learned as a child is empty. Or that everything they thought was empty is deeply meaningful. Or that God us not “out there” and but is “in here.” Or vice verse. When this happens, God Itself has not changed. God still exists or doesn’t — whatever It is or isn’t. Actually, a person’s image of God has changed.
Dear readers, this is the BIG esoteric secret of Kabbalah. The one that you can only appreciate if you are over 40 years old and religiously learned. God is NOT the God-image. Not the old man in the sky. Not the giant heart. Not the conscience. Not the all-knowing intelligence who designed the world. Maybe all of these, maybe none of these.
Actually, according to Torah, the BIG SECRET is revealed to everyone at Mt. Sinai. God says, “I’m God, representations aren’t.” But, by its very nature, this secret about God keeps going underground and re-emerging. Because a deep spiritual experience is a glimpse of something greater, a challenge to our previous God-image.
The story of the Golden Calf explores this secret. Moses is on Mt. Sinai communing with God. The people, anxious that Moses may have died, ask Aaron to make them a god to lead them. Aaron takes their gold, forms it into a calf, and says, “Look, Israel, there’s your god!” Moses comes down from the mountain, sees people dancing around the idol, and orders the execution of 3,000 leaders. God decides to kill the entire nation and begin anew with Moses, but Moses calms God down. Moses asks to see God’s true nature and God says, “I will show you my after affects.” As God passes by, someone names the effects: Ineffable, Compassionate, Gracious, Patient, Loving, Truthful, Remembering, Forgiving, and Holding Accountable. After this encounter, Moses’s face glows with an unbearable light.
The former Israelite slaves find ecstasy in the presence of a golden sculpture of a calf, used in Egypt to represent the deity Apis. One could speculate: Gold expresses financial security. A calf expresses fertility and food. Hints of Egypt represent a familiar, even if flawed, home. Each symbol helps an anxious Israelite feel held in safety. God, they feel, is a provider who has prepared a place of inexhaustible abundance, a niche of stability in a rapidly changing world of scarcity. This image of God frees them from the fear that fills their consciousness; thus it appears as the higher power.
Moshe finds ecstasy in spiritual qualities, in facets of love. The people he leads gave up on him and his anger drives him to violence. Even the inspiring Presence that pushed him to social action is giving up. He needs a radical shift of perspective to escape the prison of despair that drives his thoughts and feelings. All at once, he remembers the mission, he forgives the people, he is patient with his feelings. He realizes he can hold others accountable in helpful ways that further the mission instead of destroy it. His constricted consciousness bursts open and in a rush of hope he sees possible futures. This image of God as love frees him; it appears as the higher power.
Each of these experiences is profound, and life-changing. But life is always changing. Eventually, new insights and resolutions also become a prison for consciousness. Moses’ experience of God as forward-looking love may be healthier than the people’s experience of God as backward-looking security. But Moses, too, struggles when he reaches old age and cannot move forward into a new land.
One could also read the story of the contest between Elijah and the priests of Baal as a parallel psychological allegory. Which is more like genuine spiritual experience, familiar rituals of consciousness or unknown blast of change? All day long, Baal’s followers repeat familiar rituals for invoking their God Baal, but Baal does not show up to light his altar. Elijah sets up YHWH’s altar, prays for whatever may come, and a blast of fire lights it up. Everyone present is immediately changed. As the story continues, religious radical Elijah goes into hiding, is fed by ravens, and learns that God doesn’t always appear in fire – sometimes just in a still small voice.
This brings us back to the BIG SECRET of Kabbalah. We know God through our experience in the world. And we say that the world as we know it emanates continuously from God. Creation is always in process. Thus, the more we know God, the stable source, the more God changes.
Take that paradox and grow.
A dvar Torah for Parshat Ki Tisa. Image: Three visual representations of God as Wisdom (Athena, Owl, Tree of Life). Is God a woman, a bird, or a tree? Is God wisdom? Think on these things. Artist: Thaliatook.com