Wednesday, July 30, 2008

The Back of God

I'm working on a review of Alicia Ostriker's For the Love of God: The Bible as an Open Book, and am reminded of a certain passage in Exodus:
See, there is a place near me. Station yourself on the rock and as my Presence passes by, I will place you in a cleft of the rock and shield you with my hand until I have passed. Then I will take my hand away and you will see my back; but my face cannot be seen. (Exodus 33:18-23)

Ostriker writes:

"The imagery is suggestively both sexual and mystical. I believe that the 'back' of God, whose beauty and terror would destroy us at close quarters, may be apprehended through the hints, indirections, and subtleties of poetry and storytelling" (7).

Given my own never-ending fascination with Emmanuel Levinas's idea of the face-to-face encounter, and the importance of learning what it means to "see" the face of the Other, the juxtaposition here of G-d's face and back is troublesome. Are we being shielded from the literal face of G-d because it would distract us from seeing and sensing his presence? Are we not yet ready to see his face?

But maybe this is one more prophetic moment for which the Hebrew bible has become notorious. Is it possible that G-d's face, here, cannot be seen because the G-d that we have created and placed in the heavens is always already a reflection of our own failings? I wonder if the prophetic moment, here, rests not in the suggestion that G-d is hiding his face, but in the possibility that we cannot see it. And if we cannot see it, are we not responsible? Responsible for everything?

Or, perhaps there is no face--who, then, is this G-d without a face? I can almost buy into this possibility. Ostriker's reading of this passage reveals all of its human elements: sexuality, beauty, terror, ambiguity, storytelling. One wonders whether this passage is not, on some level, also an indictment of those who have lost sight of the face of the human Other, and, further, whether the pathway to repair lies solely in the art of storytelling.


Drc said...

Your post made me think of the relationship between Midrash and Levinas's idea of the face. It seems that the passage from Exodus and Ostriker's reading would be in line with the way Midrash extends the original text through the gaps, absences, etc, not a direct view. Midrash embodies the "indirections" and "subtleties" that Ostriker describes, does it not?

My question is thus, does Midrash look in the face or does it engage through an "indirect" viewpoint? Or, how does Midrash initiate the face-to-face that is the basic tennant of Levinas's thinnking?

myshkin2 said...

YES! Great post. I just finished Ostriker's book too. I love your midrash!

Monica said...


I think it's both; I would say that midrash, not in spite of but because of its "indirect" viewpoint shows us the face--whether that's the face of the Other or what we might call the face of Torah or even literature in general. I think that Midrash, and perhaps all midrashic readings/writings, allow us to get at the heart of a text, to discover all of the meanings that lay buried in each text, sacred or secular. And in many ways this is exactly what Levinas means when he discusses what it means to encounter the face of the Other--it's not about seeing what's on the surface (eyes, nose, etc); it's about seeing beyond the surface, reading between the lines so to speak.


Thanks! I pretty much devour anything Ostriker writes...she is really incredible.

Casey said...

Hm. Awesome.

I'm drawn to the movement of time in this little passage -- the figure of a walking G-d passing by, and the explicit "my face cannot be seen" make me wonder why.

As you asked, is G-d hiding his face or is it that we cannot see it?

The reason I prefer storytelling even to the most mystical and elusive theoreticians (i.e., Levinas) is that I can see myself "stationed" in this rock, and I can feel G-d's hand shielding me. I say to myself, "I've felt that."

For me, it feels like that when I approach a crisis and realize, only afterward, that there was some "higher" hand directing the whole scene. If we could see G-d's face before a crisis, there would be no nervousness, no anxiety, etc. Only after, however, do we recognize that our anxiousness was unnecessary. And that's what the back of G-d looks like in my experience.

I like this -- good stuff. You almost made me miss the beginning of "Big Brother."

Monica said...

Your idea of the back of G-d is really interesting, Casey. But, here's what troubles me: if G-d does indeed have the power to shield/protect us--and in some way reveal to us, after the fact, that he was there all along--why would he not also ease the anxiety and fear that comes before the event? Doesn't it seem like a cruel kind of power play? In some sense, I would rather think that G-d did not protect/shield me, because his ability to protect/shield me opens up the possibility that he chose to hide his face before the crisis so that I would experience the fear/anxiety/nervousness. In this way, it's as if G-d needs to feel needed, and so creates or exacerbates a sense of need within us... I guess I would rather think, even looking back, that G-d did not in fact shield me--I question him less if this is the case. Then again, I do value the process of questioning G-d. Now I feel as if I am going in circles...

Casey said...

You're probably right. My first impression there may have been a little oversimple, and probably presents a juvenile image of G-d.

But I know one thing (which is probably only half of one thing from a wider perspective):

If you're going in circles, G-d's got you right where G-d wants you.