MY GOD WAS REBORN WITHOUT A WHITE BEARD
April 28, 2000
I CEASED to believe in God in 1958. My mother had taken me to Cyprus, where my stepfather was trying to run a hotel during a civil war.
I went to a Catholic school and already, at 12, before my barmitzvah, I was feeling soul-lonely – the loneliness of a human being whose spirit has been exiled from its faith.
The newspapers loyal to each side fought a war of images, vying to outdo the enemy in reporting the atrocities. One sickening photograph has been imprinted on my mind ever since.
Perhaps if I saw the original now – and I know I do not want to – it would be quite different to my memory. But I doubt it.
This was an image which burned itself onto the retina like a magnesium flash.
There was a Greek-Cypriot family. They had been murdered by Turkish-Cypriot terrorists and their bodies heaped into a bath-tub. Two of the shocked, staring faces were clearly visible.
The caption said these people must have known their killers. Their village was one of many ripped to tatters by the strife, neighbours and even in-laws thrown at each others’ throats by the eruption of ancient race hatred.
To an Israeli boy, whose father had fought for a foothold on his homeland, it seemed tragically incomprehensible – families being slaughtered by former friends, because they shared an island idyll, one that had been common territory for hundreds of years.
Since 1958, of course, there have been so many more images of atrocity, via ever more vivid media. Black-and-white TV showing me the massacre in Biafra. Colour pictures of the aftermath of jungle battles in Vietnam and video images of mass starvation in Africa.
Live footage from the nosecones of guided missiles. Web cameras giving minute-by-minute coverage of the sniper alleys in Bosnia. But the picture in my mind will always be on crumpled, tattered newsprint of a father and mother, a grandmother and their children, clustered in a mass of limbs that trailed over the side of a bath tub.
It was then, at 12-years-old, that I first framed a basic charge against God: ‘If you exist, how can you permit this? If you permit this, how can I feel anything but hatred for you? And if I hate you, and you permit such meaningless atrocities, wouldn’t it be better for all the world if you did not exist?
And so God died. Many millions of others have killed him the same way. I happened to work it out for myself, but I’m certain someone would have planted the idea in my mind within a few years.
When my God was reborn, sometime in my 30s, it was not as a white-bearded patriarch with the power to overturn human actions with a snap of his thunderbolt fingers. I do powerfully believe, and have never ceased to believe, that there are creatures of a higher intelligence and more sublime spirituality which possess that power of intervention.
We sense them only as intangible flickers at the edge of reality – deja vu, premonitions, flashes of telepathy.
Perhaps the creatures are God’s angels. Maybe they are aliens. They are not God. Compared to the divine energy which suffuses all the universe, these creatures are as insignificant as we are.
For six months I have watched with growing puzzlement a debate among Bible archaeologists about Asherah, the wife of the Hebrew God. According to the Torah, Asherah must not exist – ‘You shall have no other gods besides me,’ decreed the white-bearded patriarch at the summit of Sinai. But according to all the mythology of the Middle East, Asherah did exist, in almost infinite variations. In Abyssinia she was Astar, in Arabia Athtar, in Babylonia and Assyria Istar or Ishtar.
In Rome she was Astraea and in Persia Sitarah. In Greek the word is Astarte, who among the Celts of Northern Europe was Ostare, Ostara, Ostern, Eostre, Eostur, Eastra and Eastur.
This word, of course, is also the Christian ‘Easter’.
Evidence that Asherah was worshipped alongside Yahweh, a female deity who made his male godness whole, has been uncovered by Professor Ze’ev Herzog in Tel Aviv University’s archaeology department.
He has uncovered references at sites in Judah and further south, dating back only 2,800 years, which suggest Israel prayed to Asherah centuries after Solomon and David lived.
This idea has been refuted, with rising shrillness, by devout Jews on all sides. I count myself a true Jew, if not a devout one – and my pride in my people is strengthened by the concept of a female component in the divine. This makes us stronger, not weaker.
It seems that Jews knew, almost 3,000 years ago, what we supposed was a spiritual revelation so fresh that we call it ‘New Age’. Our ancestors saw there was one God, and an all-powerful one.
They understood this divine energy was present in events that were irreconcilable – feasts and famines, murders and miracles.
They expressed this in the most natural way, ascribing to God a feminine power as well as a masculine one. It was not a question of ‘good’ and ‘evil’, just as in a human marriage one partner is not saintly and the other wicked. Our forebears knew better than that.
It seems they might have known much better than us altogether. When we investigate the findings of scholars such as Prof Herzog, we should not be wondering, ‘How does this compare to current theories?’
We should ask, more humbly, ‘What have we forgotten which our ancestors knew?’
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