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A Jewish perspective on GOD

Debbie Young-Somers's picture

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I often feel that trying to express things about God firstly makes me sound like a nutter (and I think this says a lot about society today itself!). Secondly, it is quite a core part of my personal engagement with God that anything we attempt to say about God will most likely limit God, because we are limited by human language and understanding. So, for example, it is quite common to refer to God as ‘He'. Now, I think most would agree that God is neither male nor female, however we are limited by human language, and in referring to God as ‘He' (‘It' can seem a little rude!) we seem to have created a masculine image of God (with a big beard sitting in a cloud?), which in fact limits or makes smaller what is the incomprehensible enormity of God.


Jews believe in one God, the God of Creation, and the God of History. In the Torah, God intervenes and is involved in the world. The God of Judaism[1] is arguably as varied as the rabbis writing about Her were. God is seen, however, as having given Jews the Torah, and left the interpretation and law-making up to the community. Throughout Jewish texts people challenge God and ask questions of God - some of them very difficult questions, coming from a place of pain. Very rarely, however, is God denied.[2]


God and the Holocaust

I struggled for a long time with this God stuff. In fact, I was 16 when someone first suggested I think about becoming a rabbi. However I didn't feel that would be the right job for me as I felt I couldn't believe in a God who allowed so many awful things to happen in the world. This struggle continued for a number of years, and for me the real problem was that I couldn't believe in God because of the Holocaust. While I wasn't there myself, the following from Eli Wiesel's Night (which is his first-hand account of his experiences in the concentration camps) summarises some of these feelings and thoughts:


I knew a rabbi from a little town in Poland, a bent old man, whose lips were always trembling. He used to pray all the time, in the block, in the yard, in the ranks. He would recite whole pages of the Talmud from memory, argue with himself, ask himself questions and answer himself. And one day he said to me: ‘It's the end. God is no longer with us.'

And, as though he had repented of having spoken such words, so clipped, so cold, he added in his faint voice: ‘I know. One has no right to say things like that. I know. Man is too small, too humble and inconsiderable to seek to understand the mysterious ways of God. But what can I do? I'm not a sage, one of the elect, nor a saint. I'm just an ordinary creature of flesh and blood. I've got eyes too, and I can see what they're doing here. Where is the divine Mercy? Where is God? How can I believe, how could anyone believe, in this merciful God?'


This question of how such murder and torture and inhuman behaviour could be permitted if God existed troubled me. I felt that if God did exist, then I couldn't offer any prayers to such a cruel or powerless deity. Then when I was 20 I had an experience of God. There you go - there's the sounding crazy bit! I know my experience isn't proof for anyone other than me, but it left me with an overwhelming sense that it is OK to not understand. It was then that I knew I could think about becoming a rabbi. But that didn't mean the struggling was over ... Even though I felt it was OK to not understand, I still ask questions all the time, and in Jewish texts I have found some answers.


God and free will

In terms of events like the Holocaust, there have been many different Jewish responses to God, from believing it to be a punishment for secularism or Zionism or religious reform to believing it indicates a new phase in Jewish history and the Covenant between God and Jews, which can no longer be held as binding after the Holocaust. For me, the Holocaust is understood in terms of human free will. Lurianic Kabbalah (a specific branch of Jewish mysticism from the sixteenth century) developed the idea of tzim tzum - this teaches that for God to create the world, God had to contract into God-self, thus creating space for us to exist. This also allowed space for free will. I believe that while this allows awful things like Darfur, Rwanda and the Holocaust to happen, this free will is actually God's greatest gift to us. We only really discover who we are when we leave home and have to make decisions (and mistakes) for ourselves. In this way God gives us human dignity, opening up the possibility of great human evil, but also of great good, if only we would choose to pursue it.


God and natural evil

But I still struggle with what I would call ‘natural evil': things like hurricanes, tsunamis and cancer. Some have tried to convince me that these things are also the result of humans - we pollute the world and poison our bodies, and these are the result. But these things have always happened (even if we are now making it worse) and it seems that while we have free will in how we act, perhaps God could have allowed a little control over nature to protect us from these terrible losses. Once again, I have to admit that I don't understand. However I do find the following from the Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth helpful, and it summarises how I feel I can best cope with the problem:


The only adequate religious response is to say: ‘God, I do not know why this terrifying disaster has happened, but I do know what You want of us: to help the afflicted, comfort the bereaved, send healing to the injured, and aid those who have lost their livelihoods and homes.' We cannot understand God, but we can strive to imitate His love and care.

(Jonathan Sacks 2005; The Times - ‘Responding to the Tsunami').

[1] I do not believe God is either a He or a She, but because we so frequently refer to God as He, we become used to thinking about God as being male or even a man. Thus I try to remind myself that this is not the case, by referring to God in the feminine.

[2] That's not to say, of course, that today and through the ages there have not been and are not Jews who practise Judaism or consider themselves Jews but do not believe in God. Being Jewish is not dependent on belief in God, but is also a function of birth, identity and sense of peoplehood or even nationality (sine the establishment of the state of Israel). Thus it is very common to find people who identify themselves as Jewish, often quite strongly, but are not interested in religious life. There are of course also a million grey areas in-between!

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