Shakespeare, famously, created a whole play around it: Othello. And a character, Iago, who sets up Othello to feel jealousy in relation to his wife Desdemona - and then (and we are appalled and fascinated by the cynicism and irony of it) has the chutzpah to warn the Moor: ‘Oh beware my lord, of jealousy. It is the green-eyed monster that doth mock the meat it feeds on’ : i.e. jealousy is a monster that makes vicious sport with the victims it devours...Of course it is Iago, as well as jealousy itself, that is such a monster.
And we see Othello tearing himself apart with jealousy, creating such murderous feelings in him that he ends up killing the woman he loves. It’s a terrifying play, but one that we are drawn to and relate to because jealousy is a universal emotion, one we all can recognise has been at some stage roused in us, even if it isn’t a constant companion (though it might be).
Jealousy of course often comes up in couples, between partners about other relationships – jealousy is always about triangles. But it can be between siblings over who is a parent’s favourite, real or imagined. The Torah is full of those kind of stories of sibling jealousy, Genesis in particular. And feelings like this can last a lifetime.
Or jealousy can be between friends - who is closer to who. In all sets of relationships jealousy is waiting , green-eyed monster that it is, to rear its ugly head. We so much want to be special, to be chosen, to be the one and only one – for someone, for anyone – it’s a desire of the heart from our earliest months and years, and the frustrations around this basic human instinct are always available to be stirred up in us, to ‘make our bones rot’ – to make us feel rotten, as we might say.
We are just built that way, it seems – some people feel it stronger than others, some people are more haunted by it than others, but for some it can feel unshakeable, well nigh unbearable, once we are in the grip of it. Because it is omnipresent in our natures, you can feel – should feel – very blessed if that monster is only a rare visitor to your heart and soul.
The fantasy of not having competitors for our love interest’s affections - a mother’s love, or a father’s love, or a partner’s love – is very powerful. We might profoundly wish that jealousy could be exorcised from our emotional lives – but ‘dream on’, as they say, because jealousy is here to stay, it’s part of our humanity. And it’s so powerful a psychic reality that – and this might surprise us – God also feels it, it seems. According to the Torah it is fully present as a divine reality as well as a human one.
But what on earth – or in heaven – does that mean? what are our Biblical storytellers getting at when they describe even God, the Holy One of Israel, as being consumed by this bone-rotting, dementing emotion? Not just consumed by it but, as we read in our Torah portion today (Exodus 34), defined by this emotion of jealousy. It couldn’t be stated more clearly: ‘Don’t worship another god’, says the Holy One, ‘ki Adonai kana sh’mo, for the eternal One, his essence, his name, is Jealousy’ – and then as if you haven’t got the point already, it repeats it: ‘he is a jealous God’ - el kana hu (Exodus 34:14).
This isn’t the first time we find God’s jealousy spoken about in the Torah. It’s there at the very beginning of the Ten Commandments. God gets straight down to business: ‘I am the God who brought you out of the land of Egypt – you shall have no other gods but me, you shouldn’t make any graven images of them...’ And He goes on about this at some length – no images, no likenesses, nothing should remind you that I, Adonai, am in competition for your affection. It’s all slightly obsessive, as if there’s some kind of insecurity in God that keeps bursting through: ‘...don’t worship other gods, or serve them, for...’ – and then it’s said straight out, ki anochi Adonai Eloheycha el kana’ (Exodus 20:5): ‘...for I the Eternal your God am a jealous God’. This scene is set at Sinai, where God reveals Himself – but perhaps reveals more about Himself than He is consciously aware of, so to speak. (Does God have an unconscious?).
So by the time we get to our sedrah, we shouldn’t be that surprised to hear this repeated - about God’s jealous nature – though here it’s spelled out even more starkly. This jealousy is part of his very essence. So what are we to make of this? We rabbis in our sermons usually prefer to talk about those other qualities, earlier in the chapter: the God of compassion and lovingkindness, long-suffering and merciful – Adonai, Adonai, el rachum v’chanun...(34: 6-7), all those emotions which we are encouraged to find within ourselves and live out from within ourselves, all those divine qualities that reside within the human heart.
But jealousy – what are we supposed to do with that divine quality? Can jealousy ever be benign? Something to cultivate in ourselves, like those other qualities? Bible translators are sometimes uncomfortable with this theme of jealousy: the one we use in our synagogue fudges it: ‘...you must not worship any other god, because the Lord (Adonai), whose name is Impassioned, is an impassioned God.’ (Etz Hayim p.542).
It’s true that kana can mean ‘zealous, ardent, passionately involved’ – but it’s main meaning is jealousy, the kind of jealousy that attaches itself to sexual possessiveness. And you can see that association in the text when three times in the next verses the narrators introduce the image of ‘whoring’: it’s a nakedly provocative image, metaphor. ‘You have a covenant - brit - with Me, Adonai’, the text says (34:10), so when you enter your promised land you have to destroy all the altars and pillars and reminders of other gods and goddesses - otherwise you will form a relationship, a covenant – brit – with them, and whore after their gods (v.15); and it spells out the process whereby Israel’s God will be betrayed: your men will lust after the women of the land of Canaan who will be ‘whoring’ after the deities they know, who will make you Israelite men ‘whore’ after those local, pagan deities. (The casual misogyny of the text - the power of women to lead men astray – we just note in passing).
But this text shows what it means to have a jealous God: possessive, insecure, anxious that in His invisibility and His essentially enigmatic nature, He just isn’t going to have the presence, the reality, the attractiveness of all these other competing deities for His people’s affections. “You must have eyes only for Me. You must have ears only for Me. You must have hearts dedicated only to Me” – this is the lonely, demanding Voice we hear in this text. “I have chosen you. Now you have to choose Me, be faithful only to Me”. The God of Israel implicitly presents Himself – the narrators present Him – as if God were Israel’s husband and lover : it’s a metaphor picked up and made explicit by both Hosea and Jeremiah later in the tradition.
The more you think about it, the more painful this relationship seems. This green-eyed monster within God torturing him with images and fantasies of betrayal. But I suppose we need to ask: is it only fantasies, imaginings, as it was with Othello? Or is God’s jealousy necessary? Is it understandable? Is it congruent with what goes on in the psyche of the people of Israel? Does the construction of and worship of the Golden Calf while Moses is away from the people on Sinai suggest that the Holy One of Israel has good cause to feel that He isn’t that special in the eyes of His people? That they have other gods they have their eyes on, other sources of authority they’d rather dedicate themselves to, prostrate themselves in front of? What other gods might the Israelite people prefer to follow, the Jewish people prefer to listen to, than their difficult, demanding, elusive God?
We know the idols we follow very well. We might not think of them as idols, but they are the modern equivalents of those old gods with their altars and pillars and sacred groves: what do we value, where do we put our faith, our belief? We’ll each have our own anthology of idols, and causes where idolatry is in play: we believe that money will make us feel secure, or the stock market, or a political party, or nationalism, or the State of Israel; we believe that science or technology will sort out the environment; that more CCTV cameras will make us safer, or more GCHQ hoovering up of communications data will protect us; that better laws on health and safety will help us to lead happier lives; that nuclear weapons make us able to sleep safely at night; we believe in inevitable social progress, or put our faith in medical advances, or ethnic identity, or the civilising value of the arts, or the practice of religious traditions – so many gods we put our faith in, though we never think of them as gods, they seem real and here and this-wordly.
Whatever mix we construct for ourselves, we each have our pantheon that is in competition with Adonai – The One Who was, is, will be: the animating spirit of the universe. No wonder Adonai is so jealous: His people are always chasing after security and meaning in one place or another - the names of the gods and idols change but the process is as old as the hills.
For those who attend to the Torah’s challenging message, we hear how the Jewish people are bound into a covenant with a demanding, peripatetic, unseen divine Presence who won’t let them go, but who then has to suffer dementing levels of frustration, jealousy, at His beloved people’s inability to stay focused on that special relationship. We are so easily seduced, the other gods are so present, so attractive, they make emotional and rational and psychological claims on us. How can we resist? We can’t resist – they have colonised our minds, our thinking, our believing. Who has the energy, the will-power, to say no to the easy truths and easy lies-masquerading-as-truths that we are daily bombarded with?
There are many, many wondrous and beautiful and uplifting and life-enhancing things in our world, that we can enjoy, that we can nurture, that we can help create – the godly is around us and within us. But we have to sort out which of the aspects of our world are godly, are fragments of Adonai incarnated in our world – and which aspects of our world are the old idols and other gods in new names and in new disguises. Does it matter whether we can do this work, be engaged in this never-ending spiritual and psychological work, of sorting out which is which? We intuit that it does matter, somehow, to the well-being of our own lives to be involved in this spiritual journey; and, as our Torah, shows, it seems too to matter to God, the Holy One of Israel, that we keep Him in mind.
God needs to feel special, just like we need to feel special. So maybe our spiritual work is to give Him a bit more attention; the Torah’s promise is that it will probably do us good to do that; and it will do God good too, as it were, so that his jealousy doesn’t end up destroying the ones he loves - out of a mistaken Othello-like belief that we are no longer faithful.
[based on a sermon given at Finchley Reform Synagogue, March 7th 2015]