Conservatism's incredible shrinking deity
by Jonathan Rosenblum
September 6, 2002
Our primary task on Rosh Hashanah is to crown God as King over us. The Chazan begins his prayers by calling out dramatically, ``O King," and throughout the prayers we implore G-d to reveal Himself in His full glory as King over all that He has created.
Clearly the King to whom we refer is not a constitutional monarch – a vestigal remembrance of a bygone era when kings wielded the power of life and death, but lacking any real power today. The King Whom we are addressing holds the power of life and death, as we acknowledge repeatedly in our prayers.
Rosh Hashanah is not a day for deists, who believe that God created the world -- as an interesting experiment perhaps -- and then departed the scene to see how things would turn out. Nor is it even for Jewish deists, who acknowledge that He provided us a few rules for living – rules which He does not mind if we fiddle with as needed -- before abandoning the world to its own devices.
A letter to the editor this week by Reuven Hammer, President of the International Rabbinical Assembly (Conservative), provides a good example of Jewish Deism. Hammer, it seems, was perplexed by my article last week, which he ``read and reread . . . over and over." (I don’t know whether to be flattered or insulted that he required four readings.) ``Did Rosenblum really mean that the Palestinian declaration of war on Rosh Hashanah and the slaughter of thousands in the Twin Towers were messages sent to us from G-d?" Hammer wants to know. ``Has Rosenblum joined those rabbinical authorities who tell us to check our mezuzot when children are killed in accidents . . .?"
I suspect that Hammer knows the answer to the second question, particularly as I have written many times on the vulgarity of presuming that we know the Divine mind. (See e.g., "Not G-d’s Scorekeepers," June 15, 2001). As Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzato, one of the greatest of modern Jewish thinkers writes, we can at best know the general rules of Divine Providence, but never how they apply in a particular case.
On the other hand, as I have also written many times, I do believe that we are required to respond spiritually to cataclysmic events, and not treat them as random happenstance. Hammer, the would-be spiritual leader, can find only one lesson in the event mentioned: we need a strong army to defend us against evil men.
One presumes, or at least hopes, that Hammer recognizes that his approach is not that of the Torah. The Torah reading Be’Chukotai begins, ``If you will follow My decrees and observe My commandments and study them," followed by a long series of blessing including, ``not a sword will cross your land." After that idyllic description, follows a long series of curses, ``if you will not listen to Me and will not perform all of these commandments . . ." The same pattern of well-being as a reward for faithfulness to G-d and national catastrophe for abandoning the commandments is found again in the Torah reading ,Ki Tavo. Twice every day in Shema, we repeat the same message of reward and punishment.
The horrendous national tragedies predicted in these Torah readings include many performed against us by Hammer’s ``evil men." Neither Nebuchanezzar, the destroyer of the First Temple, whose destruction is foretold in Be’Chukotai, or the Roman legions under Vespasian, the oppressors from afar, described in Ki Tavo, were models for emulation. And yet the Torah explicitly links their success in realizing their evil designs to the Jewish people’s own spiritual failures.
Surely, it has occurred to Hammer that even when evil men exercise their free will in defiance of G-d that they are only able to do so successfully because He allows them to. True, G-d often appears to be hiding His face, but that too, is a response to our actions: "I will surely conceal My face on that day because of all the evil that [the nation] did" (Deuteronomy 31: 18.)
The obligation not to treat tragedy as the product of chance, without any rhyme or reason, is codified by Maimonides at the very beginning of the Laws of Fasts: "It is a positive mitzvah from the Torah to cry out . . . on every tragedy that befalls the public. . . But if one says these things are the way of the world and that this tragedy has befallen us by chance, this is called the path of cruelty, for it will cause them to become attached to their wicked ways, and as a consequence further tragedies will follow. . ."
Hammer’s desire to shrink G-d from the ruler of the Universe to a non-player in history pervades Conservative theology. Consider Harold Kushner’s Why Bad Things Happen to Good People by far the best-known work of Conservative theology. Forced by a terrible personal tragedy to seek an explanation for human suffering, Kushner, a Conservative rabbi, felt the need to choose between his belief in G-d’s benevolence and His omnipotence.
He chose the former. God, Kushner concludes, sympathizes with our suffering, but He is essentially powerless to do anything about it. Arrayed against a good God are forces of randomness.
Kushner’s resolution is more pagan than Jewish, resembling Persian Manicheanism, in which the forces of good and evil are constantly warring with one another. The Shema’s proclamation of God’s absolute unity explicitly rebuts that view by affirming God as the source of both what we experience as good and what we perceive as bad.
Nor has Kushner succeeded either in preserving God’s benevolence or providing solace to the sufferer. If God cannot prevent evil neither can He be credited with the good in life. Nothing can be more devastating to one suffering than to be told that there is no purpose or meaning to his suffering.
Kushner has projected human limitation onto God. We forget things; certain details, including much human suffering, somehow elude G-d’s attention. Our lives are out of control; God cannot control the world He created. Kushner relates to God as part of Creation – a bigger, stronger part to be sure – rather than as the self-sufficient Creator of all that exists.
But God is not like us. We shape the raw materials provided us, but He brought those materials into existence. He imbued every created thing with all its potential, and it is therefore impossible for those materials to act in a manner contrary to His will.
Those who would sever God’s connection to the events of human history deny that there is any purpose to the world and that history is moving toward a goal. Far from crowning God as King, they would reduce Him to irrelevance.
That view is in sharp contrast to the classic Jewish belief in Mashiach and a redeemed world described so beautifully in our Rosh Hashanah prayers:
"The righteous will see and be glad, the upright will exult, and the devout will be mirthful with glad song. Iniquity will close its mouth and all wickedness will evaporate like smoke, when You will remove evil’s domination from the earth."
May we all be inscribed for a life filled with meaning and purpose.
Related Topics: Jewish Ethics, Pluralism
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