Category Archives: theology

We Have Sinned — Even for People Who Think They Haven’t

Of all the prayers people ask me about, none is quite so fascinating as Ashamnu and Al chet, the two confessions that highlight our annual Yom Kippur worship. Most synagogue goers recognize them — and are confused by them! The standard Ashkenazi version of Al chet, after all, is a double alphabetic acrostic listing two sins for every letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Do we really think we are guilty of all that?

Indeed, most of us think we are guilty of very little in the “sin” department. We hardly credit the antiquated word “sin” with any currency whatever. Even Evangelical Christians have softened their traditional message of fire and brimstone in favor of emphasizing the therapeutic side of human nature. We err; we fail; we make mistakes; but do we really sin?

We Have Sinned:  Sin and Confession in Judaism, Edited by Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman, PhD.

We Have Sinned: Sin and Confession in Judaism

To figure this all out, I just edited a new book, We Have Sinned: Sin and Confession in Judaism (Jewish Lights Publishing). Here are some of the things I found out, things that make me take sin very very seriously — albeit with a modern twist.

To begin with, it is not just Christians who took sin seriously in antiquity; the Rabbis too believed that sin is part and parcel of human nature. If not “original,” sin is certainly “primal” in the rabbinic view. But sin is just a word, until we clothe it in telling metaphors; and Jews have used many metaphors to express what sin “exactly” is. The usual metaphor by which it is explained today, “missing the mark,” is hardly the best or even the most common. Sin is a whole lot more burdensome than that!

I use the word “burdensome” because for biblical Jews, sin was exactly that: a burden that weighs us down. God lifts the burden off our shoulders. I find that useful. Don’t we, today, still feel the burden of a guilty conscience? Don’t we too strive to relieve ourselves of the burden of guilt? On Yom Kippur we discover the healing presence of God who relieves us of whatever it is that weighs us down, preventing us from moving forward.

By rabbinic times, the favored metaphor became “sin as a debt.” The more we sin, the more we go into debt. “Punishment” in Hebrew is puranut, from the Hebrew root para, “to pay off what we owe.” The Lord’s Prayer of Jesus asks God to “forgive us our trespasses,” but also, in a more modern translation, “forgive us our debts.” Here too is a metaphor that works as well now as it did 2,000 years ago. Debt grows exponentially if we do not pay it back; so too, sin begets sin until lying, cheating, and faking our way through every passing day becomes the normal thing to do. Atonement for the moral debts we owe wipes the slate clean that we may start again.

Modern thinking denies credence to the word sin, because the nineteenth century taught us all what paragons of virtue we human beings can be. Reason and science demonstrated, we thought, that all things are possible. To be sure, the world wars of the twentieth century gave some of us pause in that regard; but all in all, our faith in human promise has remained. We still believe in the eventual victory of dignity, decency, and nobility.

Are we not, then, guilty of at least this one sin: neglecting the ongoing struggle for dignity, decency, and nobility. Hence the third metaphor for our time: t’shuvah, “turning.” as the realization that we have lost our way, are heading in the wrong direction, and must reverse our path. Look around! Whether we take our stand on the left or on the right, can any of us find much nobility in politics, advertising, business ethics, government, or anywhere else at all?

I have not let the twentieth century’s horrors erase my faith in human nobility. If all of us rise from Yom Kippur committed to furthering human dignity and rewarding the decency of those who feel similarly, I believe we can have it once again.

Why Faith Matters

Abraham’s centrality for Western civilization has been debated ever since the earliest Christians described him as the paradigmatic “man of faith.” Salvation, they concluded, arises through “faith” (what we believe) not through “works” (what we do). The Rabbis, by contrast, emphasized works over faith.

But Abraham as a paragon of faith is part of Jewish tradition too. Only through faith in a God who summons him does Abraham leaves home and family altogether. Rav Soloveitchik has provided an entire treatise entitled ”The Lonely Man of Faith.” Faith matters in Judaism.

How could it not — faith is inherent to being human! It takes faith to imagine that anything we do at all has importance in the long run. We have little or no control over our personal fate; we cannot predict what will happen to those we love; when we die, we take nothing with us; and, frankly, how much do we remember about even our grandparents, not to mention their grandparents? The entropy of time washes memories away.

It is also not clear that what we do has any long-term impact on history, which we wish we could control but, obviously, cannot. It takes faith to act as if life is worthwhile despite regular personal setbacks and in the face of traumatic global events we never expected and have trouble controlling now that they are here.

Soloveitchik traces the human experience of faith to the Bible’s very beginning. He links the Bible’s two separate accounts of creation (Genesis 1:1-2:4; and 2:5-2:24) to parallel aspects of human nature. The first story addresses the need to be creative. “Fill the earth and master it,” God says (1:28) — in other words, “Be productive; do something.” The second narrative, however, focuses on God’s giving us “the breath of life” (2:7). Its concern is life itself: not what we fill our lives with doing but what the point of all that “doing” really is. This deeper question addresses what we mean by redemption, or (as Christians prefer saying) salvation. Story One highlights accomplishment; Story Two underscores redemption.

From childhood on we are trained to value accomplishments but, eventually, accomplishments pale. That is the message of Ecclesiastes: “Utter futility! All is futile. What real value is there in all the gains we make beneath the sun?” If that sounds jaded, just consider how history is filled with accomplishments that do not matter anymore. We go to school to get a job, get a job to build a career, build a career to get ahead, get ahead to get further ahead, and so on. But to what end? “Accomplishment” is simply what we do; “redemption“ is the certain sense of why we do it. Redemption derives from faith in a transcendent purpose, a higher ideal to which we owe allegiance. Judaism calls that God.

We are back to asking whether we are saved by works or by faith — by accomplishments, that is, or by redemption. Accomplishments satisfy the human thirst for creativity, but will not suffice at moments when we are forced to wonder why creativity matters in the first place. Faith alone can tell us we amount to something, even when we feel like failures; when devastating illness interrupts our plans; and when we die so poor as to have little sense of material accomplishment or so young as to be unable even to conceive of a lifelong project, let alone to see it through. Only faith provides the redemptive certainty that we matter regardless of how our accomplishments turn out. And only faith can measure our accomplishments in the first place.

The Bible introduces Abraham as someone of no accomplishments at all; we get no biography of him whatsoever (the Rabbis have to make all that up). Abraham’s single claim to fame is that he responds to God’s call to undertake a journey in faith. He will face disappointment after disappointment; struggle with the land to which he is summoned; lose the battle to save Lot; banish his first son Ishmael; prematurely bury his beloved wife Sarah; and die virtually alone, far away from Isaac whom he once almost sacrificed. But his faith in a God whom he never sees will not flag.

Why are Jews so heavily invested in accomplishment, but not redemption or faith? Why are we so ready to dismiss the possibility of God, of being called, and of measuring ourselves without accomplishment as our center? The challenge is hardly to be like Abraham the great accomplisher. It is to face the possibility that we are called, like Abraham, to have faith in redemption, no matter what we manage to accomplish.

One Hundred Great Jewish Books is now available.

One Hundred Great Jewish Books: Three Millennia of Jewish Conversation

One Hundred Great Jewish Books: Three Millennia of Jewish Conversation

I’m happy to announce that my latest book, One Hundred Great Jewish Books, is now available. The full title, One Hundred Great Jewish Books: Three Millennia of Jewish Conversation, reflects an idea I have been playing with for about a decade now. What is Judaism, if not an identity that is portrayed through a rolling conversation across the centuries! The book is a running record of the conversation as portrayed through every variety of Jewish book: classical texts and medieval responsa, but also modern fiction, short stories, histories, biographies, and even comic books, encyclopedias, and cook books. I read over 200 books to make the selection, but here it is at last: my running guide to the Jewish conversational record.

I hope you enjoy it, so we can continue the conversation here.

Kol Nidre: A Sneak Preview

It seems a long way off, but before we know it, summer swelter will give way to autumn cool, and we will be back in synagogue listening to Kol Nidre. The roots of Kol Nidre lie in this week’s parashah, where Moses cautions the people, “If a man makes a vow to the Lord or takes an oath imposing an obligation on himself, he may not break his pledge.”  We find two categories here: “vow” (neder) and “oath” (sh’vu’ah). Both are ways of forbidding something to oneself: saying, for example (by neder), “I vow never to give you a gift again”; or (by sh’vu’ah), “I swear, by God, never to give you a gift again.”

But the Hebrew for obligation (issar) was taken as yet a third category, and others too were eventually added to the lexicon of sacred promises that must be honored.  Kol Nidre is a prayer from the ninth century (or so) that effects the annulment of them all. Its various terms (nidrei, konamei, kinusei, etc.) denote the legal niceties of these various classes of oaths and vows.

Buried in this legal nitpicking are a number of lessons that touch the halakhic understanding of human nature and our relationship to God.

Take, for example, the interesting possibility of a person pledging (by vow or by oath) not to fulfill a mitzvah.  A husband dies, let us say, and the grieving widow is so devastated that she vows (or swears) never to light Shabbat candles again. We saw above how a person might vow (or swear) never to give someone a gift.  Gift-giving is optional: a woman may indeed decide never to give her recalcitrant son any more presents. But candle-lighting is commanded; may she promise never to light Shabbat candles?

The answer is that she may, but only through a neder (a vow), not a sh’vu’ah (an oath). That is because the prohibition of a neder is considered as falling upon the thing being forbidden, while the prohibition of a sh’vu’ah (an oath) is seen as devolving on the person doing the forbidding. In our case, then, the woman is allowed to define a particularly difficult mitzvah as beyond her psychological ken (through a neder), even though she may not define herself as beyond the doing of it (through a sh’vu’ah).

But why is that? Don’t these amount to the same thing, in the long run?

Rabbi Daniel Landes explains the difference with theological sensitivity. In an essay on the halakhah of vows composed for a book I am editing on Kol Nidre (All These Vows, Jewish Lights Publishing, August, 2011), he explains that in general, the obligation to do mitzvot goes back to an oath (a sh’vu’ah)  that our ancestors made at Sinai. Halakhah does not permit us to break that oath, which we, as Jews, inherit as our mandate. “It is the person who is obliged at Sinai,” however, “not the objects of halakhah to which the person relates,” and a vow (a neder), as we have seen, falls on the object, not the person.

Even more interesting than the halakhah itself, I think, is the idea that seems to lie behind it.  Under the force of trauma, we may find this or that mitzvah too much to bear, to the point where we may vow not to do it. Even without being traumatized, we may find ourselves questioning a particular halakhic act, to the point where we pledge to abandon it. And God, as it were, understands all this; God appreciates the dilemmas that life deals us. But the focus must remain the traumatizing or alienating activity that we would otherwise gladly do, not we, the doers of it, for no matter how estranged halakhic acts may appear, we are not permitted to assume that we are personally estranged from the comforting presence of God.

It is hoped that we will return to doing the mitzvah, of course – our hypothetical woman may annul her rash vow not to light Shabbat candles. And until she does, she may indeed abandon it. She should know, however, that God never abandons her.

Judaism is about obligations; but obligations are about relationships. Halakhic theory accepts the fact that for a time, at least, this or that obligation may seem painfully beyond us. It does not, however, countenance our imagining that we are painfully removed from God. The divine-human relationship is sacrosanct.

What we see here in Judaism’s insistence on the love of God. Churches regularly proclaim God’s love. Synagogues don’t, but should. A loving God is central to everything Judaism holds dear.

God’s Second Book: The Most Valuable Jewish Value

Why be Jewish – other than the fact that you like it, of course? The most common answer is, “For its values.” But what exactly are Jewish values? I don’t mean grand generalizations like an affinity for justice and an insistence on learning – although these are not irrelevant. I have in mind something very specific, some single teaching that elucidates the Jewish outlook on the world.

My choice for today is ein mukdam um’uchar batorah, “There is no chronological order to Torah,” a teaching used to explain the fact that some things in Torah seem out of order. Implicit in this principle is an insightful understanding of the role of sacred scripture.

Scripture has become problematic in the modern world. On the one hand, acknowledging something as sacred writ is enormously enriching. That is why so many people insist on it even though they no longer believe that it was dictated by God. Scripture provides us with spiritual ballast, connection to times past, a text around which to ritualize a community’s present, a vocabulary for intergenerational discussion, and a sacred story that becomes the center of conversational gravity generation after generation.

But Scripture can also be a problem. Much like a national constitution, it serves its believers as a foundational document, but unlike a national constitution, it cannot be emended. It is, by definition, canonical, and, therefore, unalterable through time. It easily becomes a rival to such other sources of truth as science and reason.

The Rabbis, moreover, believed scripture came from God, making it all the more unalterable by mere human beings. Yet they knew also that some of its claims couldn’t possibly reflect the divine will. Stoning a “stubborn and rebellious son”? Extracting “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth”? Impossible. So they erected the legal fiction of an oral law, a commentary that had come down from Sinai alongside the written Torah and been passed along as an interpretive guide to each successive generation. Jews could now read Scripture selectively.

The Bible’s most morally reprehensible elements, they held, had never actually been acted upon — they were there for other lessons they contained. Even the chronological sequence of the Bible was not actually the way it presented itself: ein mukdam um’uchar batorah.

I understand that as (among other things) a subtle recognition that Scripture cannot collide with science, not even the soft science of history, let alone the hard sciences like geology, chemistry, physics and astronomy. Maimonides (among others) affirmed that understanding. Accepting the consequences of ein mukdam um’uchar batorah allows me to lead my life with the certainty that nothing science finds can conflict with what Judaism has to say.

Galileo said, of his own scientific curiosity, that he was simply investigating God’s second book, nature; the first book, of course, was the Bible. I, similarly, see Torah (my Scripture) as God’s first book, and the universe as the second one — each of them created and revealed in its own way. It seems, at the moment, that the universe was formed from a cosmological singularity that brought time into being; it seems also that the Bible evolved from a historical process conditioned by that very flow of time. If opinions change on either of these realities, so be it. Since both “books” are by the very same author, they cannot contradict one another. I can rest secure that as new scientific findings arrive, my reading of Torah need not conflict with those findings.

In no way does that make Scripture irrelevant. Scripture was never intended to define scientific reality. It provides other benefits, like the ones outlined above. When I want to know how the world works, I go to science. When I want to know what the world means, I go to Torah. We need them both, and ein mukdam um’uchar batorah prevents my having to choose one at the expense of the other.

This insistence on a dual source of truth has been a Jewish hallmark through the ages. In an age of renewed insistence on Scriptural inerrancy, and a time when reasonable people can easily find religion antediluvian, I nominate ein mukdam um’uchar batorah as the most valuable value in the Jewish lexicon.

Verbal Stretching, Word Rustling, and the Fate of Religion

Words live in fields, where they stretch, grow, and expand with the reach of human inquisitiveness. Take “fishing,” a word some ancestor must have coined many eons back, upon successfully spearing a swimming thing in the water. When fishing became a leisure-time activity instead of a means to procure food, “goin’ fishing” came to mean the blissful inactivity of watching a fishing line bob in the water – fish or no fish on the other end.

The New York Times of June 5 testifies to the freedom with which “fishing” still circulates in its verbal field. A stock broker accused of insider trading proclaims his innocence by calling the investigation “a fishing expedition.” That’s a verbal and a metaphoric stretch, or, at least, it was once. Now it’s too commonplace to count; it is, if anything, a dead metaphor. So too is the idea of “stretch” in “metaphoric stretch,” but “stretch” is a good word, because calling the FBI’s actions “fishing” stretches linguistic use, and, therefore, the imagination, as well as the world itself. The world now comes with potential “catches”: the “little fish” who get thrown back into the street, and the “big fish” whom the little fish help the FBI to hook.

A second article describes the scam by which emails from seemingly reputable corporations, like our banks or employers, request personal information that can be manipulated for identity theft. It’s called “phishing,” another stretch of the imagination, not just conceptually this time, but visually too, because of the clever substitution of “ph” for “f” – like the rock group PHISH.  It turns out also that China has been phishing for American diplomats. This is not just a mass email going out randomly to millions. Its targeted nature earns it the name “spear phishing.” The high profile of the would-be targets may even make it a case of “whaling.”

Words and the world work in tandem. Simply by opening our senses to the changing world around us, we stretch it into more than what it was. Like an animal hide stretched out to dry, this expanding world requires pegs – verbal pegs — to stake out the new territory. It is easier to use old words than to make up new ones, because old ones come with meanings we can borrow. So metaphors become the very best pegs with which we stretch our consciousness of what the world is newly made of.

Words aren’t allowed to roam completely wild, however. Technical language is guarded by linguistic police who fence off the field where the words have grown up and demand they be used properly. Biologists, for example, mean something specific by a virus. Still, viruses attack computers and web messages can go viral; so even technical vocabulary can be hijacked for general use.

It’s a good sign when linguistic rustlers multiply; it means your words are prolific, doing well enough to be desired for the light they can shed on someone else’s corner of the universe. When linguistic rustlers no longer care enough to carry off stray words from their technical holding pens, the words in question may as well be dead.

That seems to be the trouble with religion. Nobody wants to carry its words away captive any more. We still have echoes of when they did: “revelatory finds” once harked back to revelation from Sinai; “redemptive moments” recalled the parting of the Red Sea. But nowadays, the religious verbal police can relax: no one wants our words any more.

Words are also like currency. When no one wants them, their value goes down. Ours is an era of theological currency debasement. Take even the word “God.” People use it all the time, but, God knows, it doesn’t buy the serious attention it used to.

The easy theological answer is for religious personnel to hunker down in their theological verbal fields and continue making sentences to each other about things that no one else cares about. I imagine the alchemists did that at some point or other. Religion too can aspire to becoming alchemy. A better course is to head out into the world, riding our theological verbiage with wild abandon, and showing people how poetically our religious vocabulary can get at the very heart of things. We can even do a little rustling of our own, showing the theological implications of such secular words as “pattern,” “purpose” and “promise” (see “Ya Gotta Believe – Something [Part 2],” May 15, 2011).

The world will go on no matter what, stretched by whatever verbal pegs people find useful. Whether it gets stretched religiously depends on how well the keepers of religious language provide powerful religious metaphors to do the stretching. The alternative is to retire from the task and go fishing.

“Clearing God’s Bad Name”: Did I Go Too Far?

Did I go too far in my recent post entitled “Clearing God’s Bad Name”? I was discussing the way we read Torah portions in which God threatens dire punishment for human disobedience. It was time, I said, to “dispense with the childish belief in a God of simplistic reward and punishment.”  The God in whom we ought to believe can hardly be vengeful, I argued. It is time we cleared God’s name.

I published the piece separately in a couple of newspapers to which I submit regular articles on Torah, and received a thoughtful critique from a reader who took me to task for going too far. We may not, he cautioned, “excise portions of the Torah because our timid intelligence has deduced that we are so much more ‘enlightened’ than previous generations.” The letter arrived privately, so I will not divulge the author’s name – suffice it to say that his objection is that I was “preaching against the text,” the “sin” of sermonizing contrary to what the sacred text actually says.

Preachers do it all the time, of course, but use midrash, Talmud, or commentaries from somewhere else in the tradition as their justification — as if to say, “The Torah looks like it says such and such, but it really doesn’t; it really means something else (even the opposite of what its surface meaning appears to be).”

To some extent, I did that. But I went farther and did indeed leave the bounds of normal interpretation by denying a basic understanding of God that we find in most of rabbinic literature.

My critic finds that too much to take, and as I say, I take him seriously enough to want to think the matter through here as an instance of a machloket l’shem shamayim, what the Rabbis call “an argument for the sale of heaven.” Why don’t I think I went too far?

For starters, let us ask how Jews read Torah.

We read it so closely that every word and letter counts – but we do not read it literally. And we read it interpretively, the whole point being to come up with a chiddush, a novel insight that speaks to the situation of the reader seeking meaning in the text.

It is generally presupposed that whatever meaning we find is drawn out from the text, not read into it. The idea is to be properly objective in interpreting a passage so as to arrive at what the text really means. Now, it is not 100% clear that we can ever be absolutely objective about any text; sophisticated theorists know there is always some degree of subjectivity in the way we read. But in any event, sermonic interpretation, for sure, doesn’t work that way. “Meaning” here is always subjective, dependent on both the text and the reader, a sort of pincer movement back and forth between the two.  It is not so much “what the text means” as “how the text becomes meaningful to the person reading it.”

There are some limits of course – as there are for interpreting every piece of literature. If I say that Hamlet, for example, is about indecision, or moral outrage, or the oedipal complex, you will at least entertain the possibility that I am right. But suppose I say it is a Marxist spoof on capitalism. For lots of reasons that is utter nonsense. In making that claim, I lose all credibility. If no one even thinks my claim is sensible, I get read out of the reading community as a crackpot.

What, then, counts as the limits to sermonic interpretation? We would like to imagine that the interpreter always interprets Torah by citing other pieces of Torah – quoting the Talmud to elucidate the Bible, a medieval authority to interpret the Talmud, and so on. But it is never that clean. The twelfth-century Spanish commentator Ibn Ezra doubted that Moses had written the entire Torah. Afraid to come right out and question his received chain of tradition, he used allusion: hamevin yavin, he said, “The discerning reader will understand what I am getting at.” He got away with it.  Spinoza came right out and said roughly the same thing and was excommunicated. Spinoza had no readers willing to go as far as he did.

Ibn Ezra was more careful; but even he risked going over the line. He knew most readers would not follow his half-heretical suggestion. But he knew also that he was not the only reader who lost sleep over a traditional claim that no longer made sense to his growing historical consciousness. Rather than  risk positioning the Bible so that no one would respect it altogether, he went out on a limb and argued against the text.

I am no Ibn Ezra, and certainly no Spinoza, but in our time too, we dare not shy from confronting the real questions that people have – especially about God. Otherwise, we risk speaking to a shrinking audience of people who are already insiders in the Torah game we play – but alienating everyone else. Especially when it comes to hurtful images of God we too must sometimes preach against the text.

Escaping May 21 — Big Bang to No Bang with No End in Sight

If you are reading this, you somehow escaped the predicted end of the world yesterday. It was not the first of its kind. In 1956, sociologists Leon Festinger, Henry Riecken, and Stanley Schachter infiltrated an end-of-the-world cult to see what would happen when the doomsday date came and went (When Prophecy Fails, University of Minnesota Press). The prophet (“Mrs. Keech”) and her hard-core loyalists did not despair; they just returned to the books to calculate better.

This week’s prophet is Harold Camping. His specific May 21 date may be idiosyncratic, but millions of Americans expect the world to end with a “rapture” that will transport believers to everlasting salvation and leave everyone else behind for a cataclysmic war to the end. The idea goes back to nineteenth-century Nelson Darby (1800-1882), who divided world history into eras of special divine dispensation, the last of which is in process now. Believers differ in details, but if you doubt that this is, in general, mainstream doctrine all over the United States, check out the best-selling “Left Behind” novels that portray the rapture and the cataclysmic “tribulation” (the accompanying wars) that follow, to see what everyone else is reading while you are reading this.  As of this writing, they have sold over eleven million copies!

Ironically, Christian fundamentalists like Camping deny a big bang at the beginning of time and affirm it at the end: they have the big bang backward.

Belief in a sudden and violent end to history is not just a consequence of biblical literalism – in fact, it is anything but literalism. The May 20 full-page warning in USA Today placed by “Timehasanend. org” cites I Corinthians to the effect that,  “No man… not the angels… nor the son” knows “that [final] day and that hour.” It then takes great pains to disprove the literalism of that.  “The son” cannot mean Christ because I Corinthians  also tells us, “The spirit of God knows all things.” Surely Christ is coterminous with the Son. But Satan is widely called “son [of perdition]”; hence “the son” who does not know the final day and hour must be Satan!  That’s not literalism; we Jews call it midrash.

So biblical inerrancy alone cannot explain the attractiveness of big-bang endings. More significant is the psychological discomfort people have with the alternative: no end in sight. It takes courage to persevere in the drudgery of history. Until modern times, Jews too universally expected God to bring time to an end with a passion. Rabbis warned against reckoning the end.

Modernity funneled messianic expectations into faith in human progress. God wouldn’t end it all, but humans might. Triumphalist Reform rabbis like David Einhorn (1809-1879) suspected that history was finally cranking down to its end, with a messianic era right around the corner. Rationalists today are less sanguine, but they apply the kabbalistic doctrine of tikkun olam to social justice, with the faith that we just need to work harder at moving history along: that’s all.

I am all for social justice, but do we really think a thousand or even a million social action projects will some day break the back of evil?  Even this contemporary form of historicist hopefulness seems hard to hold. And it is dangerous, since unreal expectations are easily dashed and dashed expectations produce apathy. Recall the lessons of When Prophecy Fails. The real insiders to the cause, the true believers (as it were) went back to the books to revise predictions. But the movement rank and file abandoned the whole enterprise. And that is what will happen to social justice, if we promise more than it can deliver.

There is no big bang ending: not by God and not by us. If scientists are right, entropy is going to win: some tens of billions of years from now the stars will burn out but a darkened lifeless cosmos will continue, as galaxies go on endlessly expanding into the void anyway — without us in it.

That does not mean we should give up making life better in the meanwhile. It does mean that we should revise our theology to make the personal good we do sufficient satisfaction in and of itself. There may indeed be moral progress even within the entropy, but it doesn’t matter. All we need to know is that we have been thrust into a world where people are tortured, starved, and suffering, and we have the capacity to relieve their anguish: one by one.

This is no world-altering messiah waiting in the wings to save us. It is not even a messianic movement of the masses taking to the streets or to the ballot boxes. But it is all we’ve got; and it is enough.

The day after May 21, the world is still spinning; we are still on it; and there is no big bang in sight. There is just you and me, armed with goodness and the ability to help. It is “little-bang messianism.” And we are the messiahs.

Clearing God’s Bad Name

This week’s Torah portion (B’chukota’i)  is the kind of thing that gives God a bad name. It is one of two sections in Torah known as “curses” (k’lalot). The better known one arrives at the end of Deuteronomy. This one is smaller, but it does the trick. So frightening was it for Jews of times past that they named it, euphemistically, parashat b’rakhot “the reading of blessings,” just the opposite of what it actually is. People read it quietly, barely loud enough to be heard. The Chofetz Chayyim knew places where congregants left the room rather than have to contemplate the terror of God’s wrath that the sedra warns against.

It starts off positively enough: if we follow God’s mitzvot, we will get abundant crops, peace in our land, and God’s presence among us.

But it quickly shifts to the opposite pole of possibility. In return for disobedience, says God, “I will wreak misery among you. Consumption and fever.” We will have “skies like iron and earth like copper,” so that no rain falls and nothing grows. Wild beasts will eat our children, enemies will ravage us. Our cities will fall and we will be carried off captive. God mitigates the punishment in the end. Enslaved in exile, we will repent and, humbled by chastisement, we will find God returning to us again.

But that is poor comfort. We finish this final sedra in Leviticus as we do the other four books of Torah, by shouting together, chazak chazak v’nitchazek, “Be strong, be strong; let us be strengthened.” We hardly need that cry elsewhere, but here we do. We’d better be strong if parashat b’chukota’i has its way.

The objection that we can avoid punishment by being obedient to God misses the deeper point, namely, the very idea that we ought to believe in a God who rewards and punishes like a petulant parent. Insisting on that childish view should be a sin because it only encourages atheists among us. On occasion, tradition itself wondered about this view – asking, for example, why God promises reward for mitzvot which ought to be considered sufficient reward in and of themselves. The reverse should be true as well: if the mitzvot  are good for us, then failure to do them should be punishment enough.

But by and large, critique of the biblical notion of such a zealous God is the result of modern temperament. To begin with, the world patently does not work the way the sedra assumes. Good people are not universally rewarded and bad people are not always punished. More important, modern sensibilities reject this ancient notion of human beings as perpetually backsliding children and God as all-powerful disciplinarian.

If we read it in a whisper, it ought not to be because we fear the curses coming true, but because we find the reading an embarrassment to God, who must surely be objecting, “I don’t work that way.  That’s how they understood Me 2000 years ago, perhaps, but it’s time to abandon this fourth-grade picture of Me.”

We still read it anyway, I know. As with any sedra, there are lessons to be learned from individual verses within it. But here is the global lesson from the reading as a whole: it reminds us of how far we have come from our mistaken beliefs of years gone by.

We generally recall our less-than-lofty past to prevent our easily returning there – when, for example, we thought mental illness was madness, or hysteria a women’s disease that could be cured by hosing the victim down with ice-cold water. Similarly, we remember slavery in America or Nazism in Europe to make sure neither ever happens again. Remembering old theologies is no different.

I know it is unfashionable in academic circles that call themselves post-modern, but I still believe in a steady march of progress toward a more enlightened day. I read our sedra to recall our childhood beliefs and see how far that march has taken us in the way we look at God. As the species created to be at the cutting edge of the evolutionary spiral, we are responsible for standing in the long line of philosophers from Saadiah and Maimonides to Martin Buber and Mordecai Kaplan, and re-conceiving God as a live possibility among us.

Chazak chazak v’nitchazek. We need strength — not to get through the curses without them happening, but to emerge from the reading committed to dispensing with the childish belief in a God of simplistic reward and punishment. The issue isn’t God’s dispensing justice to us, but our doing justice to God.

Ya Gotta Believe — Something (Part 2)

The most familiar statement of Jewish belief is the section of prayer we call the Sh’ma and its Blessings. The Sh’ma affirms the absolute oneness of God. But most major religions affirm monotheism, so accompanying the Sh’ma are three surrounding blessings that delineate the nature of this one God whom Jews affirm. We believe in a God who a) creates all things, b) reveals Torah to Israel, and c) promises redemption.

So far so good. But here’s the problem. The minute we make those statements, we are in danger of evoking an image of some old man who creates the universe the way Geppetto created Pinocchio; who dictated Torah to Moses the way Donald Trump instructs his executive assistant to “take a letter”; and a military genius who foiled the Egyptians at the Red Sea the way the Duke of Wellington beat Napoleon at Waterloo.

These are exactly the “humanized” versions of God that most moderns reject as childish. Is God some super combination of Geppetto, Trump and Wellington? Is creation like Pinocchio? The Torah like an executive memo? And the Red Sea like Waterloo?

Of course not. What we have is a liturgical set of metaphors for God, the rabbinic attempt to envision God in a way that would stretch people’s imagination. Ever since then, Jews have struggled with these metaphors, making them over into new ones of their own, if need be, so as to express the inexpressible essence of the Divine.

The best-known modern effort to do so avoids saying anything about God at all. Instead it names the processes in which God seems here to be engaged. God, we have been taught to say, is a God of creation, revelation, and redemption.

Again, so far so good. But literalists then try to translate process back into person. God, they conclude, is a creator, revealer and redeemer — which puts us back at square one, likening God to Geppetto, Trump and Wellington again. Besides, creation, revelation and redemption do not resonate for us the way they did for the nineteenth-century philosophers who came up with them. No one these days is likely to encounter a discussion on any one of them.

If we are to believe in anything sustainable, we require more up-to-date metaphors that capture best this three-fold insistence on creation, revelation and redemption; which are, therefore, equally true to the original intent of the prayers; but which speak to our time. I suggest a metaphor that combines time, space and history.

What astounds about the universe is the aesthetic and scientific miracle by which the finely-tuned network of natural law accords so beautifully with mathematics. For modern Jews, therefore, the doctrine of creation is best translated as the affirmation that the universe has pattern. It runs by an amazingly small set of universal laws that never ever fail.

Revelation describes our faith that this cosmic order is not without human purpose. We humans can matter in a grand scheme of which we know almost nothing but into which we have been thrust.

Redemption is the realization that over the long run, purpose within pattern gives us the right to hope.

Pattern, purpose and hope are the contemporary equivalents of creation, revelation and redemption. They sustain us on the tiny bridge of time called history.

If the age of the universe were a line in space equal to the distance from New York to Los Angeles, Jewish history since Abraham and Sarah would cover only ten feet, and human existence, prehistory and all, would encompass only part of a single span of the Golden Gate or George Washington Bridge. The Holocaust, therefore, in all its unspeakable horror, is insufficient to shatter optimism. The State of Israel is a similar, albeit positive, tiny step in time, an outpost of hope we must defend, but hardly a sign of imminent messianic victory, as some extremists imagine. Life is lived in the narrowness of bridge spans. Faith is the insistence that the bridge goes somewhere, connecting past and future in a present that has meaning.

For the bridge is not without direction. Creation pulses forward toward ever-increasing freedom. If God is the power behind universal pattern, the guarantor of purpose and the ground for hope, we can say, in short, that God (as it were) wants human freedom; has designed a universe that invites it; and summons Jews to champion it. The Jewish People’s moral purpose is to tell our story of servitude and freedom; to act it out in ritual that revives our vision and steels our nerve; and then, in all we do, to demonstrate our faith in freedom as the redemptive end of history.