23 September 2007

Absent thee from felicity awhile...

There have been Many Days of No Work (2 days of Rosh Hashanah; Shabbat; Yom Kippur) and More On the Way (2 days at the start of Sukkot; Shabbat; Shemini Atzeret & Simchat Torah) -- and I have Things I Must Do. (As with the invocation of He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named, I find it wiser to omit direct reference to The Overwhelming Object...)

Hence my blog silence.
I have even sworn off visiting one of my favorite online communities, letting them know that I must absent me from felicity a while...

So in the meantime I will leave you with the words of someone else: a d'var torah given by Cantor David Lipp at Adath Jeshurun in Louisville, KY, where we celebrated the 10th anniversary of our aufruf on the 13th of Av 5767 (28 July 2007) --

They Ask: Is God, Too, Lonely?

When God scooped up a handful of dust,

And spit on it, and molded the shape of man,

And blew a breath into it and told it to walk --

That was a great day.

And did God do this because He was lonely?

Did God say to Himself he must have company

And therefore He would make man to walk the earth

And set apart churches for speech and song with God?

These are questions.

They are scrawled in old caves.

They are painted in tall cathedrals.

There are men and women so lonely they believe

God, too, is lonely.

I don’t necessarily buy into Sandburg’s vision of God but I think he has a point -- we often project onto an ultimately mysterious God a super-human version of our own desires, needs, and illusions. Sandburg also knows that there are important questions, questions we’d like to ask God if we could.

One of the ways in which we project our needs onto God is through our liturgy. We take our holy text and expropriate verses, paragraphs, even phrases and mold them into an anthology of thoughts and prayers. This parasha is rife with such excerpt material -- taking out the Torah on Simchat Torah, responding to the gabbai’s opening call for an aliyah, the end of the first paragraph of the Aleinu, the Sh’ma, the question of the wise son and the answer to the one who knows not how to ask, the song we sing when we raise the Torah.

But if the prayer book is Rorshach test of our collective theology writ large, the way we deal with Theodicy is likely to be far more revealing in our projections of ourselves onto the notion of God’s justice or lack thereof. Theodicy is the difficulty that many religious traditions face in explaining the following paradox: If God is Good, Omniscient & Omnipotent, how come there’s evil in the world, or, more succinctly, Why do bad things happen to good people?

I know that Harold Kushner has written an entire book about it and, I hate to ruin the end if you haven’t already read it, but his bottom line solution is that God isn’t really omnipotent. If you believe that, then at least your intellectual problem is solved and there is no paradox. If you disagree with Kushner on this point, then we still have a problem.

I’d like us to look at just two verses near the end of the parasha which speak to the issue of Theodicy and also explore the way some of the rabbinic commentators deal with it.

Page 1031 verse 9 and especially 10. READ. It seems on first reading quite clear that God destroys those who reject the Divine and does so immediately. From a verse like this comes such expressions as ‘Will I get struck by lightning for doing this?’

I decided to watch the first installment of Saving Grace, the new TV show with Holly Hunter as a cop with all sorts of vices and an atheistic streak. When her angel is a guy named Earl who chews tobacco, she’s more than a little skeptical. Even when he’s proven beyond much doubt that she’s experiencing the divine, giving her a chance to ‘save’ herself, she confronts him with the whole Theodicy issue. She doesn’t use such fancy language but makes her point clear. Earl says, and I paraphrase, ‘If I answered all that there’d be no room for faith.’ Again, God’s mystery rules.

I hate to say it, but Holly Hunter isn’t the only one for whom that answer just doesn’t cut it -- it didn’t cut it for the rabbis either, let alone Carl Sandburg.

The Gaon Saadia, perhaps the most laconic of the commentators tells us quite simply that God means what it seems that God says -- the evil doer will DIE. The only problem with this explanation is it leaves us with the notion that anyone who dies young does so because God was angry with them, that they deserved it. I find it highly unlikely that any who have died young have been worse than some of the animals masquerading as human beings who have lasted into old or even middle age: Robert Mugabe, Idi Amin, Adolph Hitler, to name just a few. A more sophisticated explanation will have to be found.

According to Rashbam, Rashi’s grandson, who was known as a p’shat-man, a commentator who tried to discern the contextual meaning of the text without a great amount of exegesis, understands this verse to go hand in hand with a similar statement in Exodus and repeated earlier in our parasha as part of the restatement of the Ten Commandments -- reminding us that God remembers goodness to the 1000th generation but sins only to the 4th. So we still benefit from the good things our biblical progenitors did but only suffer from the sins our great grandparents committed.

In other words, if we are suffering needlessly, it could still be left over punishment from parents, grandparents or great-grandparents and not our own bad behavior. Alternately, someone who is irretrievably evil may have had reasonably good ancestors whose good deeds helped overcome his or her horrific actions and the reward for those deeds lasts longer so it could be any combination of their ancestors over the past 40,000 years.

This seems a little easier to digest but still leaves one with a somewhat bad taste in the mouth. The notion that I should suffer because of my parents’ flaws even though I may have overcome them seems particularly unfair. Similarly, the fact that my great- great- great-grandfather was a saint shouldn’t shield me from punishment for those acts which have truly hurt others.


answers as follows: Children only suffer from the sins of the ancestors if they also continue sinning in like fashion. If they overcome those urges, they are not punished. Perhaps, if I could restate Chizkuni, someone who has had to overcome the nature and nurture of really horrific parents has already suffered in the process and will not suffer likewise being punished externally by God.

But this seems like an intellectual cop-out. If I’m only held liable for my parents’ sins if I sin too, then why bother saying it? Simply say that everyone is guilty for their own misdeeds.

That leads us to Ibn Ezra. Unlike Rashbam who equates these verses with the Exodus version, Ibn Ezra reads it as a Godly revision. Before God said: I’ll reward for 1000 generations and punish only 4; but now God says: only the guilty will suffer immediately, whereas the children will be spared any punishment -- Lo Y’acher -- no later punishment. In this, Ibn Ezra understands this Deuteronomic passage as a foreshadowing of what Ezekiel and Jeremiah will say later -- that God will no longer punish children for the sins of their fathers.

The official Aramaic translation of the Torah, Onkelos, and Rashi indicate a move away from a this-world orientation. Until now, we’ve only looked at how accounts could be settled in the land of the living. All the examples above seem to fail in some way the following test: ‘Do the evil suffer & the good prosper in this world according to their actions?’

Rashi and Onkelos enlarge the playing field of the argument -- the evil get the reward of whatever good they do in this world whereas all the punishment they deserve is saved up for the world to come. The good, on the other hand, are punished for what little evil they do in this world & the reward for their good is saved up for the world to come.

According to this view, if you’re on easy street, perhaps you’re benefiting from the one time you did something nice for someone. But wait until you die -- in the afterlife you’ll have one hell of a cleansing in purgatory for all the bad you did. If you’re suffering terribly, on the other hand, it’s probably because once you raised your voice slightly to your mother when she asked you to clear the table. All of your goodness is being stored up for a big payoff in the Monte Carlo of Olam Haba; that’s when you cash in your mitzvah chips.

It sounds ingenius except for one thing. This too doesn’t seem to meet the truth of the world. Not all prosperous people are nasty and not all poor people are saints.

Ramban, Nachmanides, has an explanation. God has patience for the evil in this world for three reasons:

They might do teshuvah.

They might perform mitzvot which will offset their evil deeds.

They may have children who will be Tzaddikim: Good children are worth the bargain of putting up with an evil person for now.

Their punishment will be performed, according to Nachmanides, as a part of the reincarnation process, similar to the view of Rashi.

Although I don’t buy into this after-life theological inverse reckoning system completely, it has the benefit of acknowledging the observed reality of the here-and-now and aims to reconcile God’s Goodness, Omnipotence & Omniscience.

Which leads me to the two final explanations which I think are as close as any to begin to explain what is clearly a mystery. Whereas Kushner paraphrases God’s speech to Job from the whirlwind as: "You think running the universe is easy? You try it sometime. How can I possibly control the evil of the world? All I can do is weep with you." In a sense he interprets the statement as one of resignation, defeat, a proverbial throwing up of the hands.

On the other hand if you accept the whirlwind speech in what seems to be its contextual meaning, that God’s actions are mysterious and incomprehensible from a human perspective, similar to Earl’s statement from Saving Grace, then you are left still wondering about that mystery.

There are those who believe it is sacrilegious to even question the mystery, to delve into it. When we hear bad news we’re supposed to say Baruch attah hashem Dayan Ha-emet -- praised are You the True Judge. Whatever happened, You allowed it and only you get the final judgment.

But even the chassidim, who said this prayer, understood kabbalistically the notion of Tzimtzum, contraction.

Because if you think the paradox of Theodicy is hard, it’s nothing compared to the battle between Omniscience and human Free Will. If God knows all, including the future, how can we really have free will? The answer of Tzimtzum is that God, in order to allow the creation of the universe and free will, intentionally contracts the Divine power and knowledge so that it can be created and our free will to act will not be a farce.

And so I’d like to share the words of a Christian writer, quoted in Louis Jacobs’ Jewish Theology, John Hick, who comes closest to articulating a modern notion of tzimtzum:

"...A world in which rewards and punishments were justly apportioned to our deeds, our moral natures could never have occasion to develop; and a world in which the ultimate constructive use of adversity was an established scientific fact would not function as a vale of soul-making."

So how do we understand this verse from Deuteronomy? I suppose the destruction that God presents in the verse for those who hate the Blessed One can be interpreted in many ways -- an inner destruction, a destruction of the ability to hook into a community of assistance in time of need, a destruction of the good which comes from connecting oneself to a stream of a tradition of depth and temporal expanse leaving us thirsty for the well of 1000 generations of good.

I started with one American poet and I’d like to conclude with another and his more pithy statement on our topic. This one might have been articulated by Holly Hunter in her new role on Saving Grace to Earl the Angel.

Robert Frost in his Cluster of Faith writes:

Forgive, O Lord, my little jokes on Thee

And I’ll forgive Thy great big one on me.

Shabbat Shalom.