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What Does It Mean to Call God Holy?

C. Gourgey, Ph.D.

Holy, holy, holy!
The LORD of Hosts!
His presence fills all the earth!
Isaiah 6:3 (JPS 1985)

Before I retired I worked as a music therapist at Cabrini Hospice in New York City. I was stationed on the inpatient unit, a floor of sixteen beds housed in Cabrini Hospital. I would make my rounds from room to room, considering whether it would be appropriate to approach the patient and present an offering of music. I developed a sense that the space inside each room was sacred, to be approached with reverence. As we near the very end of life, we become closer to the eternal, and sometimes that eternal presence can be felt.

One night I was with a man at the beside of his dying wife. Right at the moment she died, an orderly entered the room unannounced, pushing a bed past the dying woman to fill a vacant slot by the window. This upset her husband extremely. He felt it as a violation of a sacred moment. He was right.

I had gotten used to seeing hospital staff enter and exit patient rooms without knocking or announcing themselves. They did not feel what I felt. They did not see what I saw.

“Remove your sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground” (Exodus 3:5, JPS 1985). Holiness is not something we can see with the naked eye. But it can be felt, if we turn our attention toward it. It is the presence of something greater than the visible chaos of the natural world.

This is a pretty good description of God, isn’t it? We can’t see God with the naked eye. It may usually seem God is not even present - especially given the shape of the world. And yet we continue to offer prayers, praising God, declaring God’s holiness. Does that even make sense?

To many people it does not. The question always arises: how can a good God even exist in a world of so much suffering and so many unpunished atrocities? This is a mystery for which we do not have a complete answer in our state of separation from the eternal. Yet it is possible to find a perspective that preserves the existence of God even in such a world.

Most people think of God as a person. It is really hard for us as people to conceive of anything else. We address God in prayer as if talking to a person. We tell God what we need and we ask God for things. If we get what we ask for, we think that our prayer has been answered. But if we don’t get it - which may happen far more often - it can become a challenge to our faith.

For me, thinking of God as a person does not work. As long as we think of God as a person, the problem of theodicy will always be a serious challenge to faith. What kind of a person, who has the power to create a world, would then ignore the plight of its creatures and allow unfettered mayhem and disaster and pain? Is such a person even worthy of praise and worship? One may be forgiven for having doubts.

What then is God? I can’t answer that. But I can suggest that God is expressed through the moral structure of the world. The animal world is completely amoral. Predation is commonplace. Yet we don’t expect any different; that is just the way it is. There is no point in trying to convince a coyote to act morally toward a wildebeest. With human beings it is different. There is a sense, unfortunately not universal but still common enough, that some behavior is right and some behavior is wrong. That is why we have laws, and courts, and judgment. There is a moral structure to this world, to which we are trying to conform. Even amoral people use the language of morality to justify their actions (the previous US President will serve as an example), showing at least the recognition of a moral sense to which they try to appeal.

There are many views of morality. One might take a Nietzschean view that morality is an invention of the weak to tyrannize the strong. Or one might say that morality is a value intended by creation, and a part of the divine life. To be sure, the consequences of immoral behavior are often not visible in this world. Yet we do see at least the beginning of judgment. Bad behavior is self-destructive; karma seems practically built into it. People who put self above every other value often end by destroying themselves. This happens with nations too. Empires rise, then eventually and inevitably fall.

It is this question that religion, at least Jewish and Christian tradition, confronts most directly. The principal question to which the Bible in its entirety responds is: Is creation totally amoral, or does it have a moral underpinning?

This is the most important question we can ask about God: Not whether God exists, but whether God is good, whether God is moral. Or is humanity subject to the same lack of moral structure that defines the rest of the animal kingdom? The latter might very well seem to be true. For most of history not only people, but nations as well, have conducted themselves as if moral rules did not exist. Over and over stronger nations have invaded weaker ones just because they could. It has been called the “law of the jungle,” which means no laws at all. In modern times we do have international law and even an International Court of Justice, which are routinely ignored if a predatory nation does not see them in its self-interest.

Against this backdrop the Hebrew prophets arose with a different message. They have often been dismissed for being simplistic, preaching that the conquest and subjugation of the people was punishment for their sins, in a way blaming the victims. But what they actually taught was more profound. The core of their message was that the created world does indeed have an underlying moral structure, and that violations of this moral structure bring consequences. In particular, systemic and widespread corruption weakens a society and makes it susceptible to foreign invasion. This was the lesson they emphasized repeatedly. They focused mostly on their own people, Israel in the north and Judah in the south, but they did not spare other nations. They had a message for all the regional powers: your time will come, you who trampled the moral structure of the world will be destroyed.

We see this prophetic message often at work in modern times: nations that become too ambitious and aggressive tend to overreach, suffering severe repercussions. Hitler’s Germany was the prime example of the last century. Russia may be the prime example of this one. There is something about the way the world is built that does not like such behavior.

Of course, the process never completes itself. There is always further work to be done, and another self-serving predatory force to take over where the last one left off. But there is always a price to be paid for violating the moral order. At the very least, the choice of self over love leaves one shut out of love and alienated from God.

There is a famous Passover song about a man who bought for his son a little goat with just two small coins. Then a cat appeared and ate the goat. A dog followed and bit the cat. Then came a stick to beat the dog. Right after that a fire burned the stick. Then water poured and quenched the fire. An ox came by and drank the water. But then a butcher slaughtered the ox. The Angel of Death arrived and killed the butcher. Finally the Holy One, Blessed Be He slew the Angel of Death.

This song delights children every year, but it is also an allegory. The various animals and objects represent hegemonic regimes, who seem powerful for a time but inevitably decline with other powers taking over, eventually to meet the same fate. The song symbolizes the moral structure of the world.

The song, Chad Gadya, encapsulates the message of the prophets. Against the grain of their own time (and ours), in which nations recognized no moral rules, they preached that not only is this wrong, it is contrary to the divinely established order. Systemic immorality weakens a society and hastens its collapse. This, and not a simplistic message about God intervening from nowhere to punish sinful people, is the essence of the prophetic message.

But as we know, the work in this world will always remain incomplete. We are not given the reason why. We can make educated guesses: Love begins with compassion, which literally means being “with the pain” of others. In a world without pain there could be no love, for we would have no incentive to reach beyond ourselves and feel for others. While better than nothing, and even perhaps enough for us to keep moving forward, this is only a partial explanation. The depth of human misery will always remain a mystery in the temporal world. We do not yet inhabit the kingdom of heaven.

Starting from this point, the prophetic message can help us approach God, especially in a world where God appears to be silent or even absent. If God is a person, the Person who established the present order, then it is irrational to thank God for our good things and not blame God for the bad. A moral response to a God who is a person must hold God responsible for God’s creation, as Elie Wiesel’s concentration campmates did when they put God on trial and found God guilty. Such a God cannot be defended. If we invoke free will as a defense, human free will is a poor excuse for justifying the extremity of our suffering at the hands of both nature and human cruelty. If we invoke God’s powerlessness, a common modern response, then God’s creation is stronger even than God, and God is of no more value to the human race than an impotent bystander who can only watch us while we suffer. But if God is the reality underneath the moral structure of this world, then prayer begins to make sense.

Sensing the presence of this reality, like the sacred presence one might sense in the room of a dying person, gives us an impression of the reality of the divine. The proper response is awe, and it is not a response we make ourselves, but one stirred within us by our awareness of the moral underpinning of this world. A victim’s cry can drive this response inside us. “Your brother’s blood cries out to Me from the ground!” (Genesis 4:10, NJPS): this is a call to pay attention to a different reality when people are suffering.

This different reality is beyond the natural world and infuses it with meaning. It is called eternal life. Eternal life is divine life, the realm in which God dwells. Prayer is the endeavor to bring ourselves into the awareness of eternal life. The moral structure of the world comes from eternal life. In our earthly existence we can be in or out of harmony with this moral structure, and when we are not in harmony with it we suffer. Prayer rightfully understood is an approach to correcting that imbalance, by coming into the awareness of a reality beyond the natural, animal world, a reality we experience as sacred.

And so Moses was directed to remove his shoes, out of his awareness he was standing on holy ground. That awareness of the holy is the answer to prayer. It means we have found God’s presence. This may not eliminate our pain, but it can give it meaning: even if that meaning only consists in using our pain to extend love to others more effectively. We may also receive from this sacred presence a sense of vocation, or at the very least a sense of direction. This, I believe, is how God answers prayer: not by granting us items on a wish list, but by arranging the events in our lives, especially the painful ones, in ways that aid us to use them for the greater good.

The work of correction that the moral structure demands is completed only in eternal life. How exactly we do not know. There may be a judgment, or it may just be that those who enter with little love to show will have an impoverished existence in eternity, if they have one at all. The answer is not given to us, I believe, because God wants us to cherish the good for its own sake, and not because it will win us points in heaven. People of true spirituality act the same way whether or not they believe there is a God. And many who profess belief in God, especially in the United States today, behave as if God did not matter at all. They are shown up completely by the atheists they despise.

So what about our traditional prayer language? We so naturally address God as “You.” Can that still make any sense? It can, if we understand the “You” as a symbol for the eternal and our intimate connection with it. If we come close enough to the awareness of the eternal, which, for example, we do when we become aware of the demands placed upon us by the moral structure of the world, then we can address it as “You.”

The reader will notice that I have not yet said what God is. It’s because I can’t. “You will see My back; but My face must not be seen” (or “will not appear”) (Exodus 33:23, NJPS). Moses wanted to know what God was. He could not; he could only sense when God’s presence grasped him. And so it is with us.

The fact that God is both unapproachable and yet intimately with us makes the ground on which we meet God holy. The “holy” refers to the boundary between time and eternity, the state or circumstance in which we sense a higher presence, which includes but also transcends the moral demand. A prophet is one so grasped by the holy that he must give voice to its message, warning others of the dangers of avoiding it. And so the prophetic message: the structure of the world is not amoral; amorality is self-destructive and self-defeating, and without the moral treatment of others God will remain inaccessible.

To sum up: the pain we (hopefully) feel witnessing the suffering of others, the felt demand to take corrective action, and the impulse to respond: these are all clues to the moral order and the presence of God. We can respond to the intense suffering of the world in one of three ways:

  1. We can remain indifferent to it.

  2. We can become cynical, giving up on God and resigning ourselves to the world’s perceived amorality and meaninglessness.

  3. We can appreciate the pain, which pierces our hearts when we witness extreme suffering, as the voice of God within us.

The same pain that may destroy our faith and belief in God can actually confirm our faith and support that belief. In a truly Godless world, the suffering of others would not matter. If it matters to us, it is God’s nearness to us that makes it matter.

The innocent blood that cries out to God and cuts through our hearts like a knife forces us to feel. If we let it, it takes us out of ourselves and beyond ourselves. It takes us to a place where we can sense a higher order. It makes us see the limits of our understanding, and the greatness of what is beyond it. Our proper response upon approaching this place is awe. This place in the heart that aches for another’s pain is where God dwells. And the sharp contrast between this place and the life that we normally know is what drives us to call God holy.

May 2023