Our incomplete understanding of the divine
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Our incomplete understanding of the divine

Yitro — Exodus 18:1-20:23

Image by Clarissa Hamilton
Image by Clarissa Hamilton

I write this on the 75th anniversary of the liberation at Auschwitz: yes, Auschwitz, the very event that robbed so many Jews of their belief in God. It is, therefore, precisely the day to revisit the issue of God, especially in preparation for a Torah reading where the Israelites “came [to Moses] ‘lidrosh Elohim,’” literally, “to search out God,” but according to Malbim, to “investigate matters of the divine” (iyun b’inyanei Elohim).

Jews don’t do much “God-investigation” — unlike Christians, for whom theology (a doctrine of God) is central. Church fathers of the first few Christian centuries wrote copiously about God; the rabbis (their equivalent) concentrated on how to live.

To be sure, those fathers advocated proper behavior, and rabbis designated proper belief, but over time, we Jews have preferred arguing over human conduct, not the nature of God, to the point where many Jews wonder if they have to believe in God altogether.

The short answer is, “No.” You can be a Jew without it, obviously: millions are. And with Auschwitz always before us, it seems pretty clear that it takes a massive leap of faith to believe in an all-powerful God who intervenes to save the righteous.

But we are not the first to face that reality: our rabbis were never oblivious to the undeserved and cruel deaths that afflict the righteous just as much as anyone else. The Talmud itself warns against depending on miracles (Kiddushin 39b), so, failing probable miracles, it is science that has attracted Jewish attention over the years. Talmudic rabbis followed the sciences of their day; medieval rabbis were physicians as well; Jews would not have excommunicated Galileo; and today, we accept the universe as governed by inerrant laws of scientific certitude.

God does not play dice with the universe, Einstein famously proclaimed, and he was right. For the sake of such a rational universe, God has, as it were, retired from the work of massive miracle making.

For most of us, therefore, the micromanaging God who did not save the 6 million did indeed die in Auschwitz — if not before. But the God of the Jewish people, the God of all the world, was never that kind of God to start with. And the God that Judaism really does prescribe is still alive and well.

What did not die is a God demanding justice, goodness, and truth as non-negotiable ultimates, not endlessly malleable fictions. Morality is not relative. There are no conveniently alternative truths. The true, the good, and the just are absolute. The ultimate measure of them is what we call God.

Before Moses climbs Mt. Sinai to receive the Torah, he “brings the people to meet God” (19:17). It wasn’t enough for the Israelites just to receive the commandments; they had to acknowledge God as their guarantor.

So too, Yitro insists that the judges Moses appoints must be “people of strength who fear God, truthful people who won’t take bribes.” It wasn’t enough to be just “truthful and not take bribes,” says Ibn Ezra, because judges who fear no power higher than themselves will consider themselves accountable to no authority higher than other people, and will lack the moral strength to stand up to those with power over them.

Judaism has always shied away from defining God too closely. When Moses hides in the cleft of the rock he discovers the impossibility of seeing God’s face. Maimonides assures us that whatever God is, the human mind cannot encompass it.

The point is not to know all about God, therefore. It is just to know enough about God to avoid falling into the trap of believing what the Talmud calls “let din v’let dayan”: that there is neither judge nor justice in the universe, so that anything goes. God did not show up at Auschwitz. God’s presence comes instead in the laws of physics, the truths of nature and of history, and the ethics that demands goodness and justice in all that we do.

Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman is cofounder of Synagogue 3000 and a professor of liturgy, worship, and ritual at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.

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