By: Nadav Heller  | 

My Watercolor God

When I was in kindergarten, our teacher, Morah Rachel, read an illustrated account of Bereishit to the class. The book’s glossy cover featured a benign old man with a poofy white beard painted in warm, cozy, outside-the-lines watercolor. His arms were spread wide to invite me into his home or firmly envelop my little body in a hug. This man, of course, was God. That image stuck with me for years. When I aced a hard test, I thanked my watercolor God. When I prayed extra hard to win my seventh grade davening raffle, I prayed to my watercolor God. When I didn’t win that raffle (I never did) I found space in my heart to forgive him, and I knew he forgave me when I needed it.

As I got older, I began to scrutinize that God. I mean, he was a fine God for a child, but he simply didn’t get the complex, totally unique angst of a fourteen year old. But even when we weren’t on speaking terms, the God I was mad at had the same docile smile, poofy beard, and blurry silhouette.

When I first studied Rambam, I became aware of the transcendent, apophatic God that he believed in. I was stunned. Nobody had ever told me that I wasn’t allowed to be friends with God. I felt betrayed! Who was the God I thought I knew? Despite my reservations, the Maimonidean God made sense to me — an all-powerful timeless creator just shouldn’t look like he was made in Clip Art.

And yet, to this day, no matter how much philosophy I read, in my heart of hearts I haven’t outgrown that cozy old watercolor God. I’ve matured and grown and developed complex theological positions — but when I really need to open my heart and pray, he’s still the God I turn to. When I’m up late at night asking myself ‘what does the Lord, your God, demand from you?’ I see him, magnanimous and familiar, in my mind’s eye.

What am I meant to do with that? Why hasn’t my emotional conception of God graduated kindergarten?

I often reflect on a parable that I first heard in the name of Rabbi Yaakov Kaminetzky. A young child had a “tzitzis party” and received his first pair of tzitzit (ritual fringes), most probably decorated with an acrylic choo-choo train or a garish Elmo print. On a young child, this is very endearing. We get to watch their introduction to a new chapter of observance in a way that speaks to them. It is no longer endearing, however, when he wears the same tiny choo-choo train tzitzit at 22 years old. His great-aunts nervously cluck at one another when he leaves the room, wondering why he hasn’t grown up yet. His ratty remnant no longer constitutes a garment appropriate for the mitzvah. It’s one thing for a child to have a watercolor God, and another thing entirely for an adult (nevermind a Jewish studies major at YU) to have one.

While preparing for Yom Kippur, I encountered this tension over and over. The Yom Kippur liturgy is rife with analogies that embrace apprehendable and anthropomorphic conceptions of God. The popular piyyutKi Hine kaChomer,” recited on the evening of Yom Kippur according to the Ashkenazic liturgy, compares God to a potter, a blacksmith, a sailor, a glassblower etc. to illustrate our relationship with him. Is this not the same “heresy” I’d been stressing over?

I began to think that maybe I’m not supposed to banish him from my prayers. Maybe I need to embrace my younger self and see the value in his vision.

In several places, Rambam notes that the Torah uses corporeal terms for the benefit of its audience. He writes in Book 1, Chapter 46 of Moreh haNevuchim that the rabbis spoke of God in corporeal terms as a form of educational parable. If we really know it’s not true, it can be okay to imagine God. Rambam admits a long history of adapting the enormity of God to fit human understanding and even recognizes that the Torah itself is wont to do so (dibber torah k’lashon b’nei adam). This is not a fluke — Rambam echoes this thinking in 1:57, 1:29, 3:51 and again in his introduction to the tenth chapter of Sanhedrin (“hayesod hashelishi”).

Innocence and sincerity are expensive commodities that sometimes only children can afford. Even (and maybe especially) if I know it’s not true, isn’t that worth something anyway? Is it not worth returning to a version of myself that hasn’t learned scoffing cynicism or pretentious doubt? Do our child-selves have nothing to teach us? Wasn’t prophecy taken from the prophets and given to children? Did not God hear the cries of the young Yishma’el “ba’asher hu sham–as he was”?

I have no way of knowing exactly what the actual, “capital G” God wants from me, but I imagine that he does not want us to shy away from engaging with him like a child, or like an adult for that matter. Like a watercolor painting, my relationship with God contains many hues, the products of absorbing and repelling different kinds of light, which when combined, yield totally new colors. The dark roiling shade of celestial infinitude sits on the palette right next to the bright innocence of divine immanence. The points where they diverge and combine and diverge again are what create artistic beauty. I’m still learning how to mix those colors, but for the first time I’m learning to accept that they can in fact share a canvas.


Photo Caption: While I couldn’t track down the original book, this painting has a similar tranquil energy.

Photo Credit: Maritess Sulcer / Wikimedia Commons