Tag Archives: yom kippur

God is Good; Nature is Neutral; Yadda Yadda Yadda: Let’s Move On

Having just edited a book called We Have Sinned (Jewish Lights, 2012), I was interviewed last week on NPR’s “Talk of the Nation,” part of an interfaith dialogue on sin and repentance. I was struck by a segment in the show which raised the issue of God’s love. In response to a question from the host, Neal Conan, the imam assured us that Allah is merciful. The Roman Catholic priest concurred: Christians too view God as merciful. I then cited Rabbi Akiba’s guarantee, “Happy are you O Israel, for God loves you; happier still are you because you know God loves you.” As I finished, I wondered: Why this fetish with staking out claims on God’s love?

Well, for one thing, a lot of people have apparently been raised believing the opposite: a lot of clerics have spent a lot of time describing God as a pretty harsh judge. For another, religious leaders who represent this eternal God of love are often the worst spewers of violence and venom. And finally, the universe that God is supposed to manage can seem downright cruel: the world of hurricanes, droughts and tsunamis is not exactly a loving place.

Each of these difficulties deserves an answer.

1. I regret the miserable systems of religious education that have somehow managed to miss the point. Old-world religion did indeed emphasize sin and punishment more than love and pardon, but those are bygone days, and religion today is no more responsible for them than modern science is for medieval alchemy.

2. Religion’s oppressiveness comes from fundamentalists who use religious certitude for their own selfish ends. The issue, however, is not religion; it is power. Religions, nation states, individual demagogues, and corporations are alike in causing willful damage whenever they get too much power. Religious hate-mongers do abound, but so too do evil CEOs and government officials, and we should no more get rid of religion than we should business and democracy.

3. Way back in 1874, John Stuart Mill set us right about nature, saying, “It impales men, breaks them as if on the wheel, casts them to be devoured by wild beasts, burns them to death, crushes them with stones… starves them with hunger, freezes them with cold, poisons them by the quick or slow venom of her exhalations, and has hundreds of other hideous deaths in reserve…. All this Nature does with the most supercilious disregard both of mercy and of justice.” So yes, the created world is not particularly kind “by nature.” But its laws are open to human investigation, and we have the possibility of taming it for human benefit rather than abusing it by squandering its bounty or poisoning its water, earth and air. God does not micromanage the universe, but God gave us the wisdom and the wherewithal to do so.

Anxiety about God’s goodness may be personal or theoretical. The most common personal concern is our own immediate suffering: tragic death or illness, let us say. Our hearts go out to such victims and their families, who, understandably, wish God had intervened to prevent the undeserved cruelty. Unfortunately, God does not work that way, because to do so would involve playing fast and free with the laws of nature, and all of scientific promise depends precisely on the inevitability of the laws that we discover and then can use to our best benefit.

The usual theoretical concern is the question of whether religions are good or bad for the human race. If they merely foment hatred, war, and hardship, they ought indeed to be boycotted or even banned. But religious faith is no more evil than scientific curiosity or artistic imagination. All three are part of human nature, and if nature is neutral, then so too are they. At their best, science gives us knowledge to make life better; art creates beauty to make life richer; and religion provides perspective that makes life deeper.

Religion is properly the search for “perspective” — why we are here, what makes life worthwhile, what constitutes purpose, how best to live, and (when the time comes) how best to die as well. Let’s stop the childish questions about God’s mercy and religion’s beneficence. Of course God is merciful, or God is not God; and since religion is here to stay, like it or not, we may as well fashion it so that we have a good reason for liking it.

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We Stand Together: But For What?

Rosh Hashanah follows hard upon Atem Nitzavim (“You stand…”), a Torah reading so compelling that some synagogues read it again on Yom Kippur, as a reminder of what really matters in the world. It is part of Moses’ final speech, given to the Israelites as they finally reach the Promised Land. They are not all that far from where Abraham himself first set foot upon the place. Abraham was guaranteed progeny as numerous as the stars above his head and the sand beneath his feet. The progeny have returned.

“You stand” (atem nitzavim) says Moses, “all of you, to enter the covenant of Adonai your God.”

The word “stand” (nitzavim) reminds us of Psalm 82:1, where it is used similarly of God. “Adonai stands [nitzav] in the divine council (adat el) to do justice.” Medieval commentator Ibn Ezra identifies this “divine council” as Israel, God’s people who are charged with justice. God and Israel stand together then, in the pursuit of justice as the essence of the human march through history. We, Israel, stand up together, “all of us” to confirm the covenant. God stands up with us to confirm that the covenant we enact is devoted to the decency and nobility whence all justice flows.

There is no authentic Jewish existence without this commitment to decency and nobility. According to another commentator, the Maharam, it is the Jewish Land itself that guarantees united Jewish loyalty to this end. And indeed, one reads the Zionist record with pride in that regard. Almost without exception, our Zionist forebears argued vociferously, but with visionary passion for a Jewish state that stood for decency and nobility.

By contrast, passion for decency and nobility are singularly lacking today. The squabbles that make and break the Knesset coalitions are purely political: the self-serving pursuit of power, which is to say, doing what one can rather than what one should. In addition, so many Israeli politicians have abused the public trust. A 2005 study measured the extent to which people associate their government with corruption. Of the 18 countries surveyed, Israel topped the list in discontent!

It is not just politics that deepens suspicions of moral decay. We are also becoming more and more accustomed to outrageously indecent pronouncements from extremist circles in Israel. Diaspora Jews can hardly clean up Israeli politics; but we can shout to the rooftops when patent racism and inequality are preached as if they were Judaism. The Haftarah that accompanies the Torah reading of Nitzavim proclaims, “For the sake of Zion, I will not be silent; for the sake of Jerusalem, I will not be still.” The speaker of these lines is variously identified as Israel or as God — both of us stand together, after all; both of us should be standing up for decency. I suspect God is, but are we? Jews need not agree on everything, but almost universally, we all do recognize and despise blatant racism, for example. We all should be saying so.

The divine council of Psalm 82 is a virtual thing, Jewish voices everywhere protesting the need (again from Psalm 82) “to defend the weak and fatherless, vindicate the afflicted and the poor, rescue the weak and the poor from the grip of the wicked.” On Rosh Hashanah, just around the corner, say the Rabbis, “all who come into the world” (kol ba’ei olam) stand before God in judgment. We are all God’s people. We are charged with decency to all. Come Rosh Hashanah, we will stand with God at our side to ask if we are worthy of the covenant. If we do not speak up for a Judaism that values elemental human decency, the answer will be “No.”

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.