September 15, 2021
Playing God (Yom Kippur 5782)
Rabbi Ari Lorge, Yom Kippur 5782
“Are you a god?”
The question is posed by Gozer the Gozerian, to Ray Stantz, one of the Ghostbusters.
It is an iconic moment in the classic 1980’s comedy.
At the top of a building on the upper-west-side of Manhattan, Gozer is ready to destroy New York City. But standing in the demigod’s way are the Ghostbusters. Ray has just issued a demand that Gozer leave the city. Uncertain of who they are, Gozer asks Ray, “Are you a god?”
Ray, confused and unsure replies, “No?”
Gozer cries out, “Then Die,” and bolts of lightning shoot from her fingers sending the Ghost Busters hurling away.
When they land, Winston, a fellow Ghostbuster, shares sage advice with Ray; words that have stood the test of time; quoted by philosophers and poets alike:
“Ray, when someone asks you if you’re a god, you say YES!”
The question, though it comes from an unlikely source, is one I would like to take seriously tonight/today.
Are you a god?
Viscerally, we bristle at the question’s very premise. Judaism forbids us from making any image of God. God is formless and transcends all of time and space.
Judaism is unequivocal: God is not human; God is not at all like humanity.
And yet, I want us to ask, can humanity be like God? Are we like God?
Despite what you may be feeling in your kishkes, the question is not as heretical as it sounds. The idea that humanity could be godlike is implied in the Torah itself. At the beginning of all things, in the garden of Eden, the serpent explained to Eve that should she eat the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge, “יֹדְעֵ֖י ט֥וֹב וָרָֽע וִהְיִיתֶם֙ כֵּֽאלֹהִ֔ים” “ye [humans] shall be like God who knows good from bad.”1 The serpent was speaking the truth.
In the garden of Eden, God created two paths to become like God, each embodied by a tree. Eat from the Tree of Life, and live forever here in the garden, or eat from the Tree of Knowledge, learn the difference between good and evil, and enter the world.
We had to choose which way to become godlike. We chose morality rather than immortality. Humans became like God– not by living forever, but by gaining the ability to distinguish between good and evil. While Christianity views this as the great fall from paradise, Judaism maintains a wider interpretation of the expulsion. Eating the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge was not a sin. It was what God hoped we would do. God wished, more than anything, that humanity would choose moral understanding and, with God, seek to create a good world.2
What God wants, what Judaism expects, is that we will use our godlike power of morality to imitate or play God.
Now the phrase “play god” has some baggage we need to address. In the modern Western World, the idea of “playing god” is an accusation, it has a negative connotation. “Who are you to play god?” we say. Because, in our society, to play god, is to misuse power we have no business wielding.
Judaism’s concept of playing God is radically different.3 For Jews, playing God is not an accusation. It is an aspiration. “ללֶ֤כֶת בְּכָל־דְּרָכָיו – walk in God’s ways,” declares the Torah.4 We are commanded to play God in the world; to make use of our godlike power. If ever there was a mission statement for the Jewish people, one accepted by all streams of Judaism across all time, this is it: Play God!5
There is a little more baggage we need to address. Frequently someone meets with me, and sheepishly or stridently shares that they do not believe in God. I assure them that they are not alone. But more importantly, you do not need to believe in God to play God. The actions are what are powerful. The Jewish philosopher Martin Buber said it this way: “God does not want to be believed in, to be debated and defended by us, but simply to be realized through us.”6 Regardless of what we believe, we can still act godlike. The first step is getting to know God. After all, you can’t imitate what you don’t know.
Who is God? Was there ever a more terrifying question posed by a rabbi halfway through a sermon?
Luckily, this will be quick because Moses asked that question in the Torah. Here is God’s response.
יְהוָ֣ה׀ יְהוָ֔ה אֵ֥ל רַח֖וּם וְחַנּ֑וּן אֶ֥רֶךְ אַפַּ֖יִם וְרַב־חֶ֥סֶד וֶאֱמֶֽת׃
7נֹצֵ֥ר חֶ֙סֶד֙ לָאֲלָפִ֔ים נֹשֵׂ֥א עָוֹ֛ן וָפֶ֖שַׁע וְחַטָּאָ֑ה וְנַקֵּה֙
This Torah text is called the 13 Attributes of God’s Goodness. It is the basis for Judaism’s understanding of who God is, and how God acts. It is one of the main tools we can use to help us play God. Every Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we sing these verses before the open ark as if to say, “this is the essence of God’s goodness. Therefore, this is how we must walk in the world.”
The rabbis of antiquity made this point clearly in the midrash. “How do we walk in God’s ways?” they asked. And because they were rabbis, they answered their own question. “[In the 13 attributes,] God is called merciful and gracious, therefore you too, must be merciful and gracious... Adonai is called righteous; you must be righteous.”8 Lily Montagu, a leader of Liberal Judaism, summarized it simply: “if we want to commune with God, we should seek to imitate God’s goodness.”9
So, what are God’s 13 good attributes?
The first attribute is that God is all-powerful. Oh well that’s easy to emulate! How do we embody that? By playing God. In a time when the Almighty doesn’t split seas, God is only as powerful as our actions on God’s behalf. If Adonai is to be all-powerful, then we must act on these attributes powerfully. God is counting on us.
If the first attribute is a summons to play God, attributes 2-13 are the playbook.
2 and 3 go together, God shows compassion before and after we make mistakes. We should strive to prevent those around us from making mistakes and have empathy for folks who have done wrong and are trying to rectify it.
4 is that God provides for those in need. We should look around and ask, “Who is struggling?” Their needs are our responsibility.
The fifth attribute is that God is kind. Can we take the feeling of fellowship for those in our tribe and extend it to ever widening circles of concern?
The sixth attribute is that God cares for future generations. To imitate this, we must adopt a God’s-eye-view; and think not in terms of today or tomorrow, or even our lifespan, but focus on the impact of our choices on generations not yet born.
The seventh attribute is that God acts with grace. Jews don’t talk enough about grace. To embody grace is to stop asking whether someone deserves our help. Our default assumption is that everyone is worthy of our care.
The eighth attribute is that God is slow to anger. We should work to embody patience, even in line at the DMV or UPS store.
Ninth, God is truthful. Honesty and truth telling, while countercultural, are godly.
10, 11, and 12 all have to do with forgiveness. If we repent, God forgives us when we accidently sin, when we disobey God, and even if we rebel against God. Therefore, if someone repents, we should strive to forgive those who slight us unintentionally, who purposefully wrong us, and who cast themselves as our enemies, most likely the teenagers in your home.
The Thirteenth attribute is that God not only forgives, but also pardons. Therefore, we should try to restart relationships with those who come to us seeking sincere forgiveness.
None of these attributes are revolutionary. We all strive to inhabit these good qualities. But the more we learn about the human mind, the more we know that while they run in concert with our hearts, they run counter to our inclinations. And our impulses are powerful. Therefore, it requires discipline to take what we know is right and turn it into a habitual -- yes, Godly -- practice.
Judaism and Jewish living provide the discipline we need to make playing God routine. For instance, once we accept that one of the 13 attributes of God’s Goodness is to Play God, we are left with 12 attributes to pursue. That is a convenient number. We can make one trait our focus each month. If we work intensely month after month, year after year, we will become better and better at playing God.
But that is not quite enough. Adonai doesn’t want us to learn to be saints in solitude. It is not only about changing who we are, but also about changing who we are when we show up. God shows up all throughout our stories; but most remarkably, when help is neither expected nor sought. On Rosh Hashanah, we read about how Hagar and Ishmael were in trouble. They called out. Not to the Ghost Busters. Not even to God. Just cried out in despair. Even though God wasn’t addressed, God showed up. At the beginning of Exodus, the Israelites in Egypt were suffering. They cried out. Not to anyone specific. But God heard it and showed up to help; to do good.
In order to play God, we must do the same. We can’t hesitate. We can’t say it isn’t our business. We can’t say someone else more proximate will intercede. The person in pain shouldn’t have to make an appeal to us. The grieving mourner shouldn’t have to invite us to their door. The hungry who roam our streets shouldn’t need to beg. Jews play God by extending goodness without being asked.
Rabbi Adam Kligfeld once put it: “Listen with your ear close, and your heart closer, to the voices of goodness in your tradition, identify those voices of goodness as godliness and go make it more real and visible in the world.”10
We know more than ever that communities are sustained by the actions of individuals playing God. During Covid our fellow members gathered groceries for elder neighbors, sewed masks for strangers when they couldn’t be purchased, and tracked down vaccination slots for those most at risk. Throughout the year, fellow members play God by feeding hungry New Yorkers, mentoring underserved high school seniors, and by working with Central’s efforts to reform the criminal justice system and meet the challenges of food insecurity. Our teens play God. They formed the Central Climate Initiative and work to sustain the world for future generations.
Torah tells us, “We are like God,” so we might as well get good at it.
Perhaps you’re thinking, “Rabbi, I don’t have time to focus on a Godly attribute every month.” Or, “In the messy world in which I live, it is not always clear how to play God.” I hear you. But this commandment is too essential to ignore.
When I need a shorthand, I rely on advice that my grandfather, Rabbi Ernst Lorge, zichrono livrachah, used to share when someone came to him with a dilemma. He would ask, “What is the loving thing to do?” It is akin to asking, what is the Godly thing to do? 9 times out of 10, it will lead us to walk in God’s ways.
At the turning of the year, we once again face Judaism’s grand command to each of us: Go play God. Be like God. Take God outside the confines of these walls; not by preaching about God’s goodness, but by embodying it.
Next year, when we meet again, and I ask, “Are you a god?” be ready to say, “No. but I play God. In reality, not on TV. Each and every day by doing tangible, physical, practical good for our neighbors, for strangers, and most especially for those who aren’t expecting it.”
1 Genesis 3:5
2 Erich Fromm traces the many strands of Jewish tradition in relationship to these ideas in his book, You Shall Be as Gods. In the second chapter, in particular, one can find the many textual supports gathered together.
3 See the second brachah of the Amida. As we extol God’s might and power, we raise up examples of mercy, compassion, kindness, and morality. Our God shows might, not through strength of arms, not through violence or destruction, but rather through goodness.
4 Deuteronomy 10:12; 11:22.
5 Buber, Martin. “Imitatio Dei” Israel & the World: Essays in a Time of Crisis. New York: Schocken Books, 1963. pp. 66-77.
Kreisel, Howard. “Imitatio Dei in Maimonides Guide of the Perplexed.” AJS Review, 1994 Vol. 19, No.2 (1994). pp. 169-211.
Lamm, Norman. “Notes on the Concept of Imitatio Dei.” Rabbi Joseph H. Lookstein Memorial Volume. Leo Landman ed. New York: Ktav Publishing House Inc.,1980. pp 217-230.
6 Buber, Martin. “Jewish Religiosity,” On Judaism. Nahum Glatzer ed. New York: Schocken Books: 1967.
7 Exodus 34:6-7; also see Central Synagogue’s 2020 printing of Open Our Hearts pp. 60, 98, 149, 161.
8 Sifre Devarim, Parashat Eikev, Chapter 11, paragraph 49.
See also Mekhilta, Shirata, ch. III, ed. Lauterbach, Vol. II, p.25.
See also Talmud Bavli, Sotah 14a.
9 Umansky, Ellen M. Lily Montagu: Sermons, addresses, letters and prayers. Toronto: The Edwin Mellen Press, 1985.
10 Pogrebin, Abby. Is God good? – The Forward. 9/3/2020.