May 18, 2022

God as Holy Fool: Embracing the Chaos of Creation

By Adina Allen & Pat B. Allen

Maia Brown, embers, 2022

God is infinite and contains all possibilities. What we see of God in the world, and what we see of God in ourselves, is limited by what we can imagine. Furthermore, what we call God influences which qualities we call forth in ourselves.  

For millennia, we’ve mostly imagined the Divine in terms of domination and control: God as Lord, Master of the Universe, King of Kings. At this moment of peril and possibility in our world, we are sensing the limits of this shallow pool of metaphors. We are seeing what happens when we believe that power over others is necessary to our survival; we see it in the extreme inequities of our carceral system, our foreign policy, our schools, our workplaces—the list goes on. When we imagine that God is a master and we’re here to carry out God’s authoritative plan, we unconsciously take on the role of favored subject and see ourselves as the pinnacle of creation. 

Not only does such a perspective blind us to our own limits, it makes us see the world as nothing more than a machine, something we can control and master. Thus, we become not just God’s chosen advocates, but God’s engineers, tinkerers in a mechanical universe. 

Such mechanistic, power-driven images give permission to plunder, making us indifferent to the enormous damage and destruction left in their wake. We might think of ourselves as God’s “experts on the ground,” but our tightly controlled plans and diagrams simply aren’t providing the answers or directions we need; a glance at the daily news will show you as much. As we stand on what appears to be the brink of annihilation, we are just beginning to recognize what our metaphors for God occlude. And so we ask: Is there an image of God that can serve us now? Or, put another way: What image of the Divine do we want to serve?

What if, rather than calling on a King or Lord or Master, we instead called forth from the infinitude of God the aspect of the Holy Fool? 

In societies throughout history, it was the role of a Fool—often in the form of court jester—to sharply but humorously undermine the hubris of the powerful. The Fool had no fear and no attachment to tradition. And this role wasn’t just social, but archetypal: the Fool is a representative of anarchic creativity, rebirth, and possibility. In the Thoth Tarot deck, the Fool appears as Card Zero, an image of pure potential. He’s depicted with an umbilical cord connected to the infinite energy of the universe, and is understood, according to anthropologist Angeles Arrien, as one who “commits himself to bringing creativity into solid usable matter.”1 In this terrifying time, as so much around us collapses, burns, floods, and fails, we must call forth this Fool, within God and within ourselves, in order to create anew. 

With this intention in mind, let’s look back to the beginning of beginnings: the story of creation. 

The biblical creation story is often imagined as the tale of God’s orderly, efficient, step-by-step plan for shaping the universe (see Ramban on Genesis 1:3). But right from its first word, this story offers the possibility of an intuitive, associative, childlike Creator God: a Holy Fool improvising the cosmos. 

The creation story begins with the words b’reisheit bara Elohim, often translated as: “In the beginning, God created” or “in the beginning of God’s creating.” But b’reisheit is an unusual construction. In addition to “in,” the prefix “b” can also mean “with,” “by means of,” or “through,” and the word reisheit means “first.” 

Classical rabbinical scholars have traditionally solved this puzzle by looking to other places in scripture where the word reisheit is used. In Proverbs, in a chapter written in the voice of chochmah, we find a verse in which wisdom speaks, saying, “God created me at the beginning (reisheit) of God’s course.”2 Reading this back into the opening line of the creation story, the rabbis of Genesis Rabbah suggest that b’reisheit is to be read as: “[It is] by means of wisdom [that] God created.”3 They take this line of reasoning even further—relating “wisdom” to “Torah,” saying that it is by means of Torah that God created the world. But what does this mean? Rabbi Hoshaya elucidates: just as an architect looks into their diagram to construct a building, so too did God look into the Torah to construct the world.4 In this interpretation, we are once again given an image of God as schematizer.

But what if there’s another possibility here? As our teacher and colleague Rabbi Benay Lappe once suggested, perhaps b’reisheit can be translated as follows: “By means of the first way of seeing things”—that is, with “beginner’s mind”—God created the world. 

Beginner’s mind, also known as shoshin, is a concept from Zen Buddhism; it suggests openness, eagerness, and a lack of preconceptions. In his book Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, Zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki describes this approach: “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.”5 When read into Genesis, this concept flips our usual understanding of God on its head. It is not that God knew ahead of time that there would be waters and land, animals and plants, planets and stars. Rather than being an expert architect, God, with beginner’s mind, shaped the world with curiosity, openness, and playfulness. In this vision, the world arises from a Holy Fool’s exploration, experimentation, and delight in the act of creation.

The Zohar—the foundational thirteenth-century Kabbalistic text—offers another angle on this radically liberating perspective based on a reinterpretation of chochmah, the word that the classical rabbis read as “wisdom” and “Torah.” In a deft poetic maneuver, the rabbis of the Zohar suggest another possible meaning for chochmah, breaking apart its two syllables into koach—meaning “power”—and mah—meaning “what.”6 Chochmah, then, is not a diagram that lays out step-by-step instructions. Instead, it is the power of the question “what?” As in, “What is this? What else could this be?”

With similar creative energy, the Zohar derives another perspective on chochmah in a  reinterpretation of a verse from Job. In the traditional reading, the verse says chochmah, me’ayin timatzeh—in other words, “And wisdom, from where can it be found?”7 The Zohar, however, reads this verse as follows: “And wisdom, from nothingness [ayin], is found.”8 Wisdom, in this reading, arises from a place of fertile nothingness, fearless openness, and a sense of infinite possibility. Here, God becomes a being who can enter the ayin and ask “what?”—tolerating wild multiplicity and swirling simultaneity, able to sit with the mystery long enough for an intuition about what comes next to emerge.

It is no wonder, then, that in the second verse of Genesis we read that the Earth was tohu vavohu, “chaos and void.” In rabbinic commentary, chaos and void are seen as elements to be cleared away and cleaned up so that the order and beauty of creation can come forth. In Genesis Rabbah, tohu and vohu are compared to “sewers, dunghills and garbage.”9 Certainly, God the architect would need to clean up toxic chaos in order to lay a strong foundation for the construction of the world. But God as Holy Fool has no need to vanquish these raw materials. For the Holy Fool is “the alchemist who holds fire in one hand and the upside-down cup in the other . . . [unifying] feelings (water) with energy and vision (fire) to create original and innovative ideas.”10 This version of God relishes the clutter, mess, and fecundity that accompany chaos and void. It is from here that starlight and starlings, redwoods and rivers emerge: from the generative mess and confusion of creation, the place of everything and nothing. 

From chaos and void, then, God begins by creating light. This creation (like all that follow until the creation of humanity) is brought forth through speech. “God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light.”11 Traditionally, these verses are read as God manifesting a vision, creating light from nothing according to a preconceived plan. As Rabbeinu Bachya puts it, God “wills” or “decrees” the world into being.12 In his commentary on this verse, Ibn Ezra connects God’s speech act to two verses from Psalms: “By the word of God were the heavens made . . .”13 and “for God commanded and they were created.”14 “Emphasizing God’s power,” he says, “we may compare this to a king assigning certain tasks to his servants.”15 Each of these rabbinic commentaries rely on the image of God as all-powerful master, one who doesn’t deign to get messy in the creative process. 

Instead, we might consider that, rather than commanding creation to emerge from nothingness, God is noticing what is already emerging on its own and delighting in it. Notably, the first verb used to describe God in the story of creation is not vayomer (and God spoke). Rather, it is merachefet (and God hovered): “And God hovered over the surface of the deep.”16 What is God doing fluttering above that darkness, chaos, and void? Without further details, we, like our rabbinic ancestors before us, are invited to imagine. Perhaps as our Holy Fool God comes into contact with the swirl of chaos and void amidst the vast darkness, God begins to notice sparks of light flickering here and there—more and more the longer God looks. In response, God says, “Let there be light!” In this case, “let there be” can be read as inviting and affirming—a playful recognition of what is rather than a command. Embedded in this call-and-response relationship is the understanding that the universe, too, is alive. God as Holy Fool acts as improv partner with the elements, their play together causing a co-arising of creation.

Reading God as Holy Fool offers us enlivening and destabilizing possibilities for understanding and relating to the Divine, the world, each other, and ourselves. As Arrien tells us, to embrace the Fool is to trust the process and to release our fear: “The Fool is the state of ecstasy and wonder experienced by all humankind. It is an inherent resource we all have that is waiting to be remembered and utilized.”17 

We are all created, Torah teaches, b’tzelem Elohim—in the image of God. Which image of God do we want that to be? 

In these dark and fertile times, let us create as the Holy Fool creates. Let us release our fear of the darkness and chaos, remembering that this is the ground of being for all creation. Let us slow down our frenzied activity long enough to hover in proximity to what is, so that we may begin to notice the sparks of what might be. Let us have the courage to call forth, in delight and wonder, what we see emerging. And let us remember that we are always attached to the primal energy of creation.

Footnotes

  1. Angeles Arrien, The Tarot Handbook: Practical Applications of Ancient Visual Symbols (Sonoma, CA: Arcus Publishing Company, 1987), 25.
  2. Proverbs 8:22.
  3. Genesis Rabbah 1:1.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Shunryu Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, ed. Trudy Dixon (Boston: Shambhala, 2006), 1.
  6. Zohar 3, 28a and 235b.
  7. Job 28:12.
  8. Asher ben David, quoted in Daniel C. Matt, The Essential Kabbalah: The Heart of Jewish Mysticism (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1995), 66.
  9. Genesis Rabbah 1:5.
  10. Arrien, 25.
  11. Genesis 1:3.
  12. Rabbeinu Bachya on Genesis 1:3.
  13. Psalms 33:6.
  14. Psalms 148:5.
  15. Ibn Ezra on Genesis 1:3.
  16. Genesis 1:2.
  17. Arrien, 26.

Rabbi Adina Allen, cofounder & creative director of Jewish Studio Project (JSP), is a spiritual leader, artist, writer, and educator whose work is dedicated to helping people reclaim their creativity as a powerful tool for spiritual connection and social transformation. A recipient of the Covenant Foundation’s 2018 Pomegranate Prize for emerging educators, Adina has pioneered a methodology for integrating Jewish learning, spiritual reflection, and creative expression that she has brought to thousands of Jewish educators, clergy, professionals, and lay leaders across the country. Her writing has appeared in the CCAR Journal, Kveller, Lilith, The Forward, My Jewish Learning, and the Huffington Post, among others, and her chapter “What Else Could This Be?” will be published in the forthcoming book Creative Provocations: Speculations on the Future of Creativity, Technology and Learning (Springer Press). Adina grew up in the studio, learning from and creating art alongside her mother, and was blessed to collaborate with her on the writing of this piece.

Pat B. Allen (PhD, ATR) is an author, artist, art therapist, and teacher who connects to the Creative Source through art and writing. Her books—Art Is a Way of Knowing (Shambhala, 1995) and Art Is a Spiritual Path (Shambhala, 2005)—explore the borders between art, psychology, spirituality, and social action, and are considered classics in the field of expressive arts therapy. Dr. Allen cofounded the Open Studio Project in Chicago and Studio Pardes in Oak Park, IL, and she is currently on the faculty of the Jewish Studio Project in Berkeley, CA. She identifies with the archetype of the Holy Fool.