Tag Archives: God

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.

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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.