The term “personal God” is used in reference to the personal relationship between God and man that we often find in the Bible (Torah). God walks with Noah, communicates with the Patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob), and speaks “face-to-face” with Moses (not literally face to face because, as it says in the Bible (Torah) “no man can see me and live”). In these moments of relation, God would sometimes take the prophet by surprise and visit at unexpected times; other times, we see people like Abraham, Moses, of Job (to take only three examples) arguing or pleaing with God. We also see, from time to time, the call for the Jews in the Bible to pray in hope of a response from the “personal God.”
The notion of a personal God is the opposite of a notion of an “impersonal” God. This is the God that the Medieval Jewish Philosopher Yehuda HaLevi – and the famed mathematician and author of the classic Pensees, Blaise Pascal – associated with the “God of Aristotle.” This “impersonal” God can only be contemplated. And by contemplating “Him,” the “cause of causes” one will, eventually, gain true wisdom and happiness. Nonetheless, the impersonal God cannot “save” or “redeem anything” – the impersonal God has no “personal” relationship with humanity. And the “impersonal” God cannot be the God of history and cannot act in history.
When, as an undergraduate in university, I first came across the term “personal God” the first thought that came to my head was a God I could hang out with and talk to “personally.” Immediately after having this thought, I recall how ridiculous it seemed to me. The term didn’t seem to work. After spending more time studying Torah, the Talmud, Kabbalah, the Midrash, and Jewish mysticism, I learned that the term didn’t account for the fact that, in Judaism at least, God is in the world but not of the world. The “personal” aspect, I learned, is not to be understood as a God one can just hang out with. To be sure, as the Midrash, the Talmud, and books like the Megillat Esther (Book of Esther) explain, God’s “personal” relationship to humanity was severed after the destruction of the Second Temple and the attendant “Diaspora.” In fact, the meaning of exile can be found in the distance from God’s “presence” in history and in the life of the Jewish people.
The Guide to the Perplexed, written by Moses Maimonides (the RAMBAM) in the 12th century, would take major account with the use of a term like “personal” God. To be sure, the book does all it can to de-anthropomorphize the representation of God in the Bible (Torah), the Prophets, the Psalms, etc. It does this, quite simply, because such antropomorphisms would subject God to the whim of our imaginations. Nonetheless, Maimonides still held that God communicated with the patriarachs, the prophets, and the Jewish people. The question, for him (and for us), is how do we characterize God’s relationship to man?
To be sure, Yiddish literature has characters like Tevye who are constantly speaking (as it were) to God. Though he doesn’t reply, this doesn’t stop Tevye from talking. And Jewish comedians from Mel Brooks to Woody Allen love playing on the notion of a personal God. Here’s a classic moment with Mel Brooks doing exactly this:
Woody Allen also stages a hilarious conversation between Abraham and God over the “binding of Isaac.” In this conversation, God scolds Abraham for “taking him seriously.” His call to Abraham to sacrifice Isaac was, in Allen’s version, a “joke.”
Following a long line of comics and writers who have played on the “personal” God relation, Sarah Silverman has also included the personal God in her comic routine. However, this inclusion is really personal. She doesn’t simply speak to God, who is represented as a middle aged African-American gentleman, she sleeps with him.
In the clip, entitled the “morning after,” God tries to work out what happened the night before and how it led to this. Regardless, Silverman asks him to leave. But before he leaves, he notes that she won’t get back to him (that she probably won’t “call” on him in the future – an obvious pun on the call to a personal god).
The clip obviously led to some controversy, but this didn’t keep Silverman from coming back to it; but not in her show so much as in the “Afterword” to her book The Bedwetter. To be sure, Silverman personally communicates with God and gives him the opportunity to write the “Afterword.” To be sure, God includes Sarah’s personal plea to “Him” to write the Afterword. Here is an excerpt:
Dear God, I know I have denied your existence my entire life, and have only spoken you name at crucial moments of jokes and orgasms, but I really need you now. I need you so much, in fact, that I want to accept you right now as my lord and savior, and renounce any negative things I’ve said about those who worship you. Please make this book be finished. I’ll be honest: I find of blew it off….I know I don’t deserve your help, but I’m asking anyway. (234)
But, then, she tells us that while writing this letter she was stoned. And she needs God’s personal help because the high she is experiencing is too much for her to handle:
Holy crap, I am realizing…I am incredibly stoned. I ate half a brownie just to ease my anxiety, but I think I went to far. This is way too intense. I’m really scared. I don’t want to be alone right now.
Following this citation from her letter, God says “at this point, she began to sob, and since I am not completely heartless, I agreed to help her with her book.” What follows this is God’s mundane, personal nature. To be sure, he sounds just like one of us. He watches TV, porn, has TiVo, iTunes, etc. Here are a few of his personal confessions:
I follow Top Chef. I’m totally interested, it’s edge-of-your seat stuff, but I forget to TiVo it, I probably won’t bother buying it on iTunes. For me, it’s pretty much out-of-sight-out-of-mind-ish…Wait, one more thing. I saw a video on YouPorn where two men managed to position themselves in such a manner that they could both penetrate the woman’s vagina simultaneously. Regardless of what they think, let me just tell you were I stand on it: Let’s not touch balls in a situation where we’re working up to a cum. But that’s just me. I’m not gay. (235).
God also says he is “proud” of Cancer and HIV and notes: “I don’t say that to provoke anyone, either. It’s just that at a basic scientific level, both of these inventions are really cool”(234).
Silverman ends God’s Afterword with God giving praise for Silverman’s work to get Obama in office:
And she was, for the record, the deciding factor in Barack Obama’s victorious campaign for president of the United States. That alone makes her existence a net gain for the universe.
The final image of God we are left with is him sitting next to President Obama with a “raging boner”: “I’m sitting five feet from Obama right now, and to be perfectly frank, I have a raging boner”(237).
As you can see, Silverman reduces the notion of a “personal god” to an absurdity. But instead of reading this as a stupid, heretical gesture as some have, I suggest we look at it as a practice that actually resonates with Maimonides’s wariness of anthropomorphisms. Moreover, it can actually spur us to think about how god could be “personal.” How does God relate to the world and to me? And how, in fact, can we imagine a personal god today in a world which is thoroughly secular and “everyday?” These are all good questions that, I think, are spurred by Silverman’s comical representations of God.
But what makes me smile is to know that, within the Jewish tradition, there is a space to imagine and re-imagine (comically and seriously) what kind of relationship the Jewish people have with God. Violating the prohibition of representing God with this or that image is allayed, I think, by Silverman’s comical approach. To see it as blasphemous would be to miss the fact that, ultimately, there is a desire to relate to a personal God in her work and this, ultimately, is one of the most Jewish things about her work. Her desire to relate to a personal God challenges the sense of Jewishness that is based on this or that physical trait or habit.
Regardless of how much she parodies this desire, it is still there. And even though the image of God with a “raging boner” – because he is sitting next to President Obama – is the last image of God we are left with and seems to be “too personal.” It still discloses her desire for a “personal god.” Perhaps this is the real punch line.
(Note: Imagining this personal relationship may, in fact, bring her closer to Yehuda HaLevi than to Moses Maimonides – which we don’t have enough space to discuss here.)