Why Eric Clapton is godlike (COMMENTARY)

(RNS) “Eric Clapton is God.”

That was the slogan many of us proclaimed in the late 1960s. It was scrawled on walls in England and appeared on buttons and T-shirts. A few years before that, John Lennon infamously proclaimed that the Beatles were more popular than Jesus. So, why couldn’t Eric Clapton be God?

For many of his fans, Eric Clapton was the ultimate rock guitar god. Who could come even close to him? Pull out any old Yardbirds, Cream, Blind Faith, Derek and the Dominos, or his solo work.

Clapton admits that the earlier “Clapton is God” thing had gone to his head. And, to be fair, the intervening decades have refined and softened him.

He celebrated his 70th birthday with a concert at Madison Square Garden. According to all reports, he sounded great.

But it was at that concert that Eric Clapton proved he is, in fact, God.

Why this journey into Clapton-olatry?

Here’s what happened at the concert: Clapton played blues songs by his own heroes, including Bo Diddley, Johnny Moore, Willie Dixon and Muddy Waters. And Clapton welcomed several guests -- John Mayer, Jimmie Vaughan, Derek Trucks and Doyle Bramhall II -- inviting them all to do solos. And yet, the birthday boy chose not to take a solo himself.

According to The New York Times, Clapton “stood off to one side with a Fender Stratocaster, facing the others at times like an encouraging scout leader.”

Clapton held back.

Let’s leave Clapton for a moment, and visit the capital city of Jewish mysticism -- Safed, in the north of Israel.

In the 16th century, Safed consisted of a small community of mystical seekers who gathered around a particularly charismatic teacher, Rabbi Isaac Luria.

Luria was known to be a miracle worker and a healer of souls, a man who conversed with angels and communed with the spirit of the prophet Elijah.

But Luria's greatest contribution was his theory about how the world came into existence.

If the whole universe is filled with God’s presence, Luria reasoned, then there would be no room for the world to exist. And so, Luria imagined, God withdrew into the Divine Self, and contracted in order to make room for Creation, a mystical idea he called tzimtzum.

God had to “shrink” in order for the world to exist.

When the Bible begins, and God is “young” (or, at least, younger), God is hyperactive -- creating the world, redeeming Jews from Egypt, giving them laws.

But as the Bible continues, God is less and less active, has less to say, until it’s almost as if God has, well, disappeared -- or perhaps simply gone into eclipse.

But it does not end with God. Just as God had to withdraw and “shrink” in order for the world to come into existence, leaders must make themselves “smaller” in order for their followers to actually do the right thing.

It is true of bosses, teachers, coaches and parents.

As the contemporary Jewish thinker Eugene B. Borowitz taught, the urge to compel is irresistible, especially between parents and children.

“Yet,” he writes, “if making this decision and taking responsibility for it will help the child grow -- then the mature parent withdraws and makes it possible for the child to choose.”

Perhaps that is what Eric Clapton learned. When you’re young, you grab all the solos, eager to step up and step in. And that’s how you appear to be godlike.

But at 70, you are ready to understand that there is another way to be godlike.

You can choose to step back and let others do the creating for you.

(Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin is the spiritual leader of Temple Beth Am of Bayonne, N.J., and the author of numerous books on Jewish spirituality and ethics, published by Jewish Lights Publishing and Jewish Publication Society.)