God comes to Pico—for therapy

April 23, 2015

The presence of God can always be felt on Pico Boulevard. On Shabbat and other holidays, you can pray to God in about 40 different synagogues, and during the week, there are plenty of classes and lectures throughout the neighborhood that explore the Torah and God’s role in our Judaism and in our lives.
In fact, the whole Jewishness of the neighborhood, from the Glatt kosher markets and restaurants to the Jewish day schools, can be seen as a community’s way of honoring God and his commandments.
Here in Pico-Robertson, God is the  ultimate boss.
So, the last thing I would expect to see would be God coming down to Pico Boulevard to see a therapist.
But that’s exactly what I saw last Saturday night at the Pico Playhouse, where I went to see the American premiere of Israeli playwright Anat Gov’s “O My God.”

The chutzpah of the play was breathtaking. God (played smartly by Mike Burstyn) is furious at humanity, so he’s thinking of getting rid of us once and for all. He visits a Tel Aviv psychologist, Ella (played with high drama by Maria Spassoff), hoping she’ll convince him otherwise. Ella is a single mother of an autistic child, and a feisty skeptic who has her own issues with God. After some hesitation, she decides to take God on as a client, and they wrestle for about 80 minutes in the mother of all theological and psychological battles.
The playwright must have found every possible way of violating the commandment not to take God’s name in vain. As I sat there witnessing these violations, I couldn’t help thinking that I’m part of a people with extraordinary chutzpah.
It dawned on me, though, that the very irreverence of the play helped me connect with God in a deeper way.
The disruptive idea was to show us a God we don’t usually see in schools or synagogues, or even in books. This is an insecure, human God we can relate to. A God of doubt, a God of introspection, a vulnerable God.
If Judaism teaches us that man is created in God’s image, Anat Gov’s play had the chutzpah to show us a God created in man’s image.
For pious Jews who may abhor taking such liberties with the Almighty, rest assured that there’s a consolation prize.
By humanizing God in such dramatic fashion, the play gives us a fresh, provocative take on controversial biblical issues, such as: Why did God create such animosity between brothers? Why did he punish so severely those, like Job, who were his faithful servants? And why has he remained so silent in the 2,000 years since the wrenching episode with Job?
Through the crucible of modern therapy, we see a God that has been corrupted by power. In the case of Job, God blames a “voice of Satan” inside of him, but the therapist helps him see that it was really his own voice he was hearing— the insecure voice of someone who felt the need to test the love of his loyal servant.
God’s ultimate statement of love, the play suggests, was to relinquish his own power and transfer it to humanity, hoping we would do better than he did. This turns out to be the cause of his depression. He gave us humans the power to destroy, and we ran with it.

The crucial character in the play is surely the therapist Ella, who doesn’t settle for the old cliché that “God works in mysterious ways.” It is Ella who brings out God’s insecurities, who calls him on his excuses, and who, finally, helps God come to terms with his conflicted emotions.

But the play is not just about God; it’s also about us. By showing us how power can corrupt even the highest being, the play shows us how humans are so vulnerable to becoming bullies. What is a bully, after all, but someone who abuses his power?

It is how we use this power that determines our humanity. Anat Gov’s play shows us a conflicted God who, deep down, is rooting for us to succeed.
The study of God is primarily the domain of theologians and philosophers, but this God of scholars can be impersonal and inaccessible. The God of Anat Gov is a juicy, multifaceted character who is consumed with genuine human emotions like guilt, regret and doubt.
By bringing God down to earth in such a radical way, “O My God” ends up being a therapy session not just for God, but for God's children.

This may not be the God of synagogues or of Jewish day schools, but it is a God many skeptical Jews will be able to relate to.

David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at davids@jewishjournal.com.

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