Everyone’s a critic – God, too

At an international conference of theater critics that convened recently in Toronto, colleagues from many nations all over the globe tried to trace the history of theatrical commentary in their respective cultures and countries. When it was my turn, I opted to speak about the critical impulse as is manifested in one of the earliest complete works in the Hebrew language: the Bible. Specifically, in the first weekly Torah portion of the new year, which is to be read tomorrow.

In the beginning God creates everything; indeed, he is first and foremost the first creator. Being omnipotent, he is also a multidisciplinary creator. The material he works with is his boundless imagination, and he conjures a world out of a word, displays endless prowess as a landscape architect, and has no peer in the field of son et lumiere spectacles, to say nothing about his talent as a master animator. I could quote the verses that prove all this, but I trust you to find them yourself in Genesis 1.

When the second day of Creation is over and God is still the only existent being with a "critical consciousness," he observes what he has done. He defines the phenomena he has wrought by giving them a name, and then assesses their merit. To wit: "And God called the dry land Earth; and the gathering together of the waters called he Seas: and God saw that it was good" (Gen. 1:10). He thus performs the two major tasks of a critic: description and evaluation.

Readers with a critical turn of mind will have noticed that God finds himself in a bind here: His judgment is somewhat – how shall we put it? – self-serving. He praises his own achievements. But one has to realize that at this point in space and time, there are no other (or others') achievements to refer to. In the millennia to come, God will demonstrate repeatedly that he has a very good opinion of himself and, being omniscient, that he is also infallible, which is something his would-be representatives on this earth, of all denominations, also claim to be.

As is well known and widely accepted, we mere mortals are better off if we do not delve into God's motives. I am therefore happy to remind you that God bestows certain critical faculties also on the human beings he creates, male and female, in his own image (Gen. 27). The male acts as a critic in Genesis 2. In passing I should point out that if the Bible had not been written by God – as some people of little faith claim – but rather by flesh-and-blood authors, they would have left us two different consecutive versions of the story of Creation (Gen. 1, 2), thus tempting, if not actually forcing us, to read them critically.

Man follows in his Maker's path by giving names to the creatures he sees and by comparing them to himself, only to deliver a negative verdict on each and every one: "And Adam gave names to all cattle, and to the fowl of the air, and to every beast of the field; but for Adam there was not found an help meet for him" (Gen. 2:20).

God could have lived with man judging everything by his own human standards, but is adamant that his creations should not acquire any absolute values of good and evil. When he fails in ensuring this (Gen. 3), God banishes the couple from the Garden of Eden, to prevent the absolutist human critics from living forever. Thus he creates two standards, one earthly and the other heavenly: Heavenly good is not always useful on earth, and things considered good on earth may not necessarily be seen as such in the heavens.

To be entirely sure that each "homo criticus" does not bother his fellow man too long, by the end of this week's Torah reading (Gen. 6:3), God decides to limit the human lifespan to 120 years. From that moment on, the relations between God and his human creations unfold according to a pattern that repeats itself, until reaching a certain point (as seen, for example, in Numbers 32:13): "And the Lord's anger was kindled against Israel, and he made them wander in the wilderness 40 years, until all the generation, that had done evil in the sight of the Lord, was consumed."

The text points out, lest we missed it, that "evil" is a subjective assessment, from God's point of view. And God does not deny that there is a "quid pro quo" relationship at play here: The Israelites get it good as long as he gets his dues.

The Lord is a severe critic of human actions, but at the same time is very sensitive when someone, even a gentile, dares to criticize him. Actually, the possibility of getting a bad review is one of the few things that makes him change his plans. When the Israelites cavort around the Golden Calf, for example, God is ready to annihilate them then and there. Only when Moses says, "Wherefore should the Egyptians speak, and say, For mischief did he bring them out, to slay them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth?" does it transpire that, "the Lord repented of the evil which he thought to do unto his people" (Exodus 32:12, 14).

I could go on and on with a critical reading of this week's Torah portion, but I'll make just one more point: God is very critical of those made in his own image. This is the paradox of his being – a limitation that gives him a certain advantage. He never sees himself as a "subject." He observes human actions, and it never occurs to him that those who do what he considers to be evil were made by him in his own image. The possibility that the flaw he sees is not in the image, but within himself, the being that inspired the image, does not cross his mind. This is a major fallacy, of which every critic should beware.
By Michael Handelzalts
Published in "Haaeretz", Tel Aviv

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