Parashat Vayakhel: Personalizing religion

Human creative instinct is a primal echo of our innate desire to be morel like our Creator.

 SCULPTED IN the image of God we earn to create, just as He created us. (photo credit: Sharon McCutcheon/Unsplash)
SCULPTED IN the image of God we earn to create, just as He created us.
(photo credit: Sharon McCutcheon/Unsplash)

God is a creator, and man His creature. What happens when man tries to imitate his God and transform himself into a creator?

In many religions the usurping of creative ability from God is blasphemous or disrespectful to divine supremacy.

For example, in Greek mythology, man illegally snatched creativity from his gods; Prometheus ascended to heaven, embezzled fire – the universal symbol of creativity – and was severely punished by the gods. For his heist, he was eternally chained to a rock fighting off the wild birds who pecked away at his life.

Throughout Western culture there has always been an uneasy relationship between human creativity and religious reverence. This relationship became even more strained in the modern world of industry, science and technology. As man became more godlike, he had less need for gods in heaven. It was never easy to reconcile human creativity with the belief in one absolute creator.

Judaism never sensed any tension between human creativity and divine supremacy. God freely inspirited His creatures with their own creative capacity, so that we could be more like Him. He intentionally left His world incomplete, inviting us to become partners with Him in crafting perfection. He lovingly equipped us with the tools to be a partner.

 IT IS believed that about 22 million people from Christian backgrounds are expressing a new openness to Torah.  (credit: MENDY HECHTMAN/FLASH90) IT IS believed that about 22 million people from Christian backgrounds are expressing a new openness to Torah. (credit: MENDY HECHTMAN/FLASH90)

After completing six days of creation, God withdrew His creative spirit, allowing room for human life and for human creation. Shabbat marked the withdrawal of the divine creative force, and the carving out of human space. After Shabbat concluded, God handed fire to man, thereby passing the baton to His creatures who would now perfect a world He left intentionally unfinished. When we create, we express our own divine image. More so, when our creations improve this world, we partner with our own Creator. Human creativity is driven by a religious impulse.

AT NO point in history was this creative union between God and man more evident than during the construction of the house of God. Divine plans for the mishkan were implemented through human ingenuity. Celestial blueprints were applied by terrestrial ingenuity.

Months earlier, during the Exodus, God had sacked the planets and had miraculously split the riotous ocean. He could easily have fashioned His temple in heaven and “shipped” it down to the human community below. Instead, He invited His people to unleash their creative spirit in the service of God, to build a palace of splendor for His name.

Human creative instinct is a primal echo of our innate desire to be more like our Creator. We sense His divine spirit in ourselves. We alone have been granted the gift of creativity, and when we create, we become similar to our Creator. Sculpted in the image of God, we yearn to create, just as He created us. Creativity is deeply embedded within religious identity.

Additionally, when we create, we become more personally attached to our creations. As creatures of God, we sense that He is personally invested in our lives, showing us His love, care and pity. Creativity generates personal attachment and investment. Having personally crafted something, we feel “ownership” and feel more personally invested in our “product.”

The pattern is also true about our religious identity. If we personally create individual religious experience, we feel greater passion and greater commitment. By customizing religion, it feels more personal and more genuine.

THE CONCEPT of “creating” personal religious experience may sound odd or even sacrilegious. Religion is based on obedience, submission, dependence, hierarchy and reverence. There appears to be very little room for creativity in our religious lives.

Yet God invested us with creativity, and personal religious experience will always resonate with greater authenticity.

Rabbi Elijah of Vilna, the foremost leader of 18th-century Ashkenazi Jewry, depicts a bygone world in which each individual received personalized prophetic direction along with specific instructions about personal development. After this supernatural “guidance” vanished, we withdrew from specialized religious experience toward a more homogeneous religious experience based upon standardized religious “actions.” Personalized religious identity represents an ideal which was forfeited with the loss of prophetic guidance.

Interestingly, Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak Kook believed that even in a post-prophetic era, religious experience can, and should still be, customized. Of course, halachic observance must remain standard and absolute, but within the framework of universal halachic behavior, individualized religious experience is still desirable and can generate a more passionate religious experience.

Though religion often feels very standardized, many core elements should still be personalized. Creating personalized religion can potentially invigorate and intensify our religious experience.

Torah study

As the eternal word of God, Torah is immutable and unchanging. Passing societal fads and historical fluxes have no impact upon eternity.

However, that word of God isn’t one-dimensional or binary. Many truths were delivered at Sinai. Though the various strands of divine truth may seem contradictory to us, they are all part of a larger system of divine wisdom. Ideally, each person identifies their own Torah “stream.” There are different spheres of Torah study, and even within each sphere, there exist almost unlimited ways to study it. Any style or methodology that is faithful to the Torah’s foundational guidelines uncovers a part of the divine masterpiece. Torah study is meant to be dynamic and personalized, not fixed and rigidified.

Stringency adoption

As opposed to the theoretical world of Torah study, the field of practical halachic behavior leaves less room for personalization. Though God’s word at Sinai incorporated multiple truths, over the centuries Halacha has developed a consensus whose authority cannot be overturned. Ashkenazi and Sephardi cultures still present different halachic options, but within each cultural halachic stream, absolute and inflexible rules are still normative.

However, even within the rigid experience of Halacha there is room and necessity for personalization. Halacha may be relatively inflexible, but humra or halachic stringencies should be personal and flexible. Stringencies should be carefully and privately adopted, based on personal predilections and character traits. Stringencies present an opportunity to adapt our religious behavior to our personal and ever-changing lifestyles. By calibrating which stringencies to adopt and when to adopt them, a person can personalize religion into a more authentic and internal experience.

In our day, the notion of “personal humra” has waned. Halachic stringencies have become contagious – they rapidly spread from individuals to the broader community. Stringencies are meant to be very private and personal expressions of religious vigilance and zeal. The institutionalization of stringencies strips them of their “personalization” potential.

The Talmud in Hullin cites an early and high-ranking Babylonian Talmudic scholar who marveled at his father’s piety. Though the scholar himself waited six hours between meat and dairy, his father adopted the stringency of waiting 24 hours. At no point does this scholar express any interest or plans to emulate his father’s behavior. What was appropriate for his father may not have been necessary or appropriate for his own religious state. Humrot (stringencies) are not for herds.

Prayer

Our prayers are patterned after the Temple ceremony. In one of the greatest shifts of religious history, the encounter with God shifted from the national altar to our individual lips and hearts.

In addition to being patterned after sacrifices, our prayers are modeled after the prayers of our founding fathers, who each prayed differently – at different times of the day, at different stages of life, and facing extremely different personal circumstances. Their prayers remind us that our own prayers must be “human” expressions and not just ceremonies modeled after sacrifices. For our prayers to be heartfelt, they must be shaped by our ever-changing emotional inner world.

We all jointly recite the same words. Otherwise, we compromise the gravitas of “standing before God.” Standing in unison and uttering words that have been sanctified by Jewish history preserve the magnitude of the moment.

Though we recite the same words, we all feel very different emotions. Ideally, even a single person’s prayers should differ from day to day, just as one’s emotional religious world is in a constant state of flux.

Religion is based upon the absolute and the common. We all stand together before God and obey His commandments and His will. Yet, for religion to be fresh and fervent, it must be personally crafted. We must create our religious identity. This process began by creating the mishkan, and continues as each of us creates their inner religious world. 

The writer is a rabbi at Yeshivat Har Etzion/Gush, a hesder yeshiva. He has smicha and a BA in computer science from Yeshiva University as well as a master’s degree in English literature from the City University of New York.