If I had to pick my favorite Jewish superhero, it would have to be Rabbi Moses ben Maimon, aka RaMbaM, aka Maimonides. Maimonides was born in the mid-12th Century in Spain. Forced to choose between conversion, exile, or death by the fundamentalist rulers of the time, young Moses fled his home city of Cordoba. They traveled around the Mediterranean while Maimon, Moses’ father, educated him in Jewish text and philosophy as well as secular subjects like astronomy and physiology. Eventually, Maimonides settled in Egypt where he became a famous Jewish commentator, philosopher, and rabbi, a high-ranking government official, and well-respected physician. His natural intelligence, curiosity, and passion for the betterment of the world are easily seen in his prolific writings, and he never limited himself to just one realm of study. Maimonides’ scholarship of Jewish and secular subjects enhanced his own personal study and his ability to speak to the needs of the world. He was definitely a superhero.

One of Maimonides’ more famous works is titled Guide for the Perplexed in which he attempted to deepen the knowledge and challenge the assumptions of Jewish scholars and philosophers. He worked hard to explain his philosophy and theology, focusing on how faith in Torah and strength of reason need not be in conflict. In his Guide, he attempts to describe God and a human’s inability to ever truly describe the divine. He says that because God is so different than humanity and human language is so limited, we will never be able to truly answer the question “What is God?” Instead, we can only get closer and closer to the answer by stating what God is not. God does not have a body. God is not limited by time or space. God is not born, nor does God die. When we can say what God is not, whatever is left must be God, however hard to describe.

Maimonides based his argument in the theology of the Shema, as an attempt to describe God’s oneness. But oddly enough, many of the descriptions of God in the Torah don’t follow Maimonides’s theological statement. In the book of Genesis, God is often described in human terms – God feels emotions like humanity, God walks like humans, God speaks in the language of human beings, and more. Even in this week’s portion, Noach, God feels rage and disappointment about the sinful people, God smells the odor of the sacrifice Noah makes after leaving the ark, and God examines the towering architecture of the people of Babel. All divine descriptions that we humans can understand.

I think that Maimonides is right, that God is so inherently different from humanity that we can never truly understand God. I also think that the Torah is right, that God has some inherently human experiences and attributes that make God more relatable. Two seemingly oppositional theologies.

To deal with this paradox, I believe that God and humanity have one other thing in common. Like us, God is ever-changing and reconsidering God’s-self in the context of God’s environment. Though God might be a complete entity, God chooses which part of God’s self is most present in the moment. Just as we might have slightly different work personalities, friend personalities, and home personalities, God too has slightly different presentations. While we might never truly know God, we can actually know God in context. And the way we know God in context is by knowing ourselves. God as described in Noach is relatable because we could very well have the same reactions. We too would feel rage and disappointment when seeing everyone around us give in to their baser instincts. We too would appreciate the smell of a well-cooked meal. We too would feel threatened if a group of people wanted to invade our personal space.

Understanding God by understanding ourselves is a special kind of empathetic theology that encourages us to become the best versions of ourselves. Being more mindful and more predictive of our own emotional states helps us to be more mindful of God’s. When we exercise that kind of empathetic theology, we keep God close by keeping in touch with ourselves, and we find the bridge between Maimonides’s wisdom and the wisdom of Genesis.

Shabbat Shalom

PS Noach is also our celebration of the animals in our lives! Bring your pet or a stuffed animal representative to Kabbalat Shabbat this week for our pet blessing!