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God: Outside the Box – A Discussion and Study Guide
by Dr. Alan D. Bennett

A. Overview

That Judaism evolves is dramatically evident in how Jews have understood God and God's responses to human behavior. For example, you might think that monotheism is constant in the biblical tradition. After all, Abraham was the father of monotheism, wasn't he?

Not in Torah. As Louis Ginzberg notes in The Legends of the Jews, Abraham smashes idols only in Midrash. Moreover, even the Torah books following Genesis contain vestiges of a pre-monotheistic tradition. Moses sings at the Sea of Reeds: “Who is like you, Adonai, among the celestials” (Exodus 15:11). At the end of his life, Moses exclaims: “YHVH alone did guide him. No alien god at His side” (Deuteronomy 32:12). The Second Commandment (Exodus 20:3) says: “You shall have no other gods besides Me.” Solomon built sanctuaries for his wives' foreign gods. Later, the prophets chastised Israel for following other gods. The idea of one, universal God took hold only some five centuries later.

Additional evidence of changing ideas—even about God's shape and location—abounds in Torah. A few examples:

  • Adam & Eve meet a God very much like themselves, moving about the garden at the breezy time of day (Genesis 3:8).
  • Abram first hears God as a voice (Genesis 12:1). Later, God appears in a vision. (Genesis 15:1). Still later, God speaks while Abram is in a deep sleep (Genesis 15:9).
  • Moses builds a Tent of Meeting (Exodus 33:9) and a Tabernacle (Exodus 25:8) so that God can live among the Israelites. (NB. Some believe these are one and the same.)
  • The prophet Elijah looks for God in the forces of nature, only to find God in a soft murmuring sound, or still small voice (Kings 19:12-13).

Why does Torah present so many ideas about God? Because it was composed by different authors who preserved fifteen hundred years of oral tradition that expressed perspectives about the universe that changed over time. Our ancestors generally agreed that a mighty and impersonal Will governed the cosmos through intermediaries such as angels, messengers, and spirits. God acted on the universe and demanded unquestioned obedience so as not to disrupt natural forces (Kaplan, 1, pp. 1-2).

Later writers (1st - 2nd centuries BCE) agreed that God acts on the universe but disagreed about the extent to which God acts on humanity. With few exceptions, they believed that people possess moral freedom, control their own behavior, and are required to exercise kindness (Wicks).

The medieval Jewish philosopher Maimonides (1135-1204) offered a different perspective. Rejecting the idea that God works through history or has physical characteristics, he insisted that humanity can achieve the good life entirely through individual reason—views at odds with Torah and the prophets (whose words he saw as parables with obscure meanings).

The Jewish philosopher Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677) rejected supernaturalism altogether, believing that God and the world are part of one whole and not separate entities. His denial of revealed religion and insistence on a reasoned basis for moral teaching led to his excommunication by the rabbis of Amsterdam.

In modern times, such views hardly seem heretical. For example, Rabbis Mordecai Kaplan and Jack J. Cohen rejected miracles and a supernatural God. Rabbi Roland Gittelsohn believed that God, encompassing both the physical and the spiritual, is within nature and does not act on it from the outside. For additional modern, Jewish understandings about God see Finding God: Selected Responses (Revised Edition) by Rabbis Rifat Sonsino and Daniel B. Syme.

This Discussion Guide, "God: Outside the Box,” asks you to examine your ideas about God in new ways, recognizing that being outside the theological box is not new, but part of an evolution of ideas and understandings influenced by the realities of each generation's experiences.

One further note about being out of the box. The rabbis of the Middle Ages studied Torah in ever-deeper layers beyond the literal meaning of the text, a principle represented by the acronym PaRDeS. Briefly: Peshat (P) refers to the literal or plain meaning. Remez (R) hints to veiled allusions. Derash (D) points to metaphors and homiletic meanings. Sod (S) seeks the mystical and metaphysical meaning.

B. Summary and Discussion

Reform Judaism magazine offers three authors' perspectives on God. Rabbi Jack Bloom argues for accepting the text as written in order to understand God's dark side. Rabbi Mark Sameth goes further in making the case for an androgynous God. Rabbi Schulweis weighs biblical law against moral conscience when the two are in conflict. All three authors consider the implications of their views for human behavior. Discussion ideas follow each article’s brief summary.

As you read the articles, keep these ideas in mind:

  • There's no heresy in questioning, even arguing, with "tradition." It's a process embedded in Torah and in the writings of our sages from earliest times to now.
  • Modern thinkers repudiate the idea that religious truth is fixed and absolute. Like truth about the material world, religious truth changes constantly (Kaplan, 1, p. 2).
  • Jewish teaching does not emphasize a belief system. How you live in the world is more important. For example: our ancestors at Sinai promised to obey God (Exodus 20:16, Exodus 24:3). The fringes on the corners of the garments are reminders to observe the commandments (Numbers 15:40). The traditional V'ahavta prayer (Deuteronomy 6:4-9) tells us to inscribe and teach God's commandments. No mention of belief. The rabbis, almost counter-intuitively, extolled obeying God's laws even above learning and study. For example: Doing, not study, is the chief thing (Pirke Avot 1:17). In one whose deeds exceed wisdom, the wisdom will endure; whose wisdom exceeds deeds, wisdom will not endure (Pirke Avot 3:12). Who learns in order to practice will be able to learn, teach, observe, and practice (Pirke Avot 4:6).

"What God Can Learn From Us" by Rabbi Jack H. Bloom

1. Summary

Rabbi Bloom believes that by and large, Jews try to explain away descriptions in the biblical text that put God in a bad light. Though the Bible might describe God as a harsh and callous disciplinarian, many Jews brush aside the plain, peshat, meaning of the text to focus instead on the idea of a benevolent, loving God. Instead, Rabbi Bloom says, we should accept the idea that God is flawed and wounded, so that we humans, who are made in God’s image, can accept our own shortcomings.

Seeing God’s dark side, he says, allows us to model God maturely, recognizing both positive and negative behaviors in God and ourselves. This way of imagining God also reveals that the God who makes mistakes is capable of improving in response to our own, human actions. We can teach God better behavior through our own right conduct in the very world God created.

2. Discussion

a. Rabbi Bloom notes that examples of humanity's shortcomings and God's resulting anger fill the Torah. Yet, Torah teaches that God gave us the ability to choose, to use our free will (Deuteronomy 30:19-20). Why, if God gave free will, does Torah show God punishing humanity for its choices?

b. Taking Torah at its plain, Peshat, meaning, God tells Moses that God regrets creating Israel (the Jewish people) and will destroy the people (Exodus 32:9-10). Earlier, God regrets creating humanity, which is evil all the time, and vows to destroy all of creation (Genesis 6:5-7). Do you agree that in these instances the Deity comes up short of perfection? Do you believe that God could learn from humans? If so, how might you help God learn?

c. What did you learn about God as a child? Is your understanding different now? If yes, why did you change your ideas?

d. Rabbi Bloom says that God needs us mortals in order to heal. In much the same sense, Abraham Joshua Heschel says that God searches for humanity, as if God does not want to be alone. How might you show God that God is not alone? How might you help heal God?

"God's Hidden Name Revealed" by Rabbi Mark Sameth

1. Summary

Rabbi Sameth teaches that God created Adam/Eve as a single, androgynous being, which God later separated into two genders. At the same time, Torah says the human creation(s) mirrored God's image. Putting these together, it would seem that God is also androgynous. Exactly so, believes Rabbi Sameth. Other Torah texts that conflate maleness/femaleness point to the same conclusion. Even the Hebrew spelling of God's name, YHVH, when considered outside the usual readings, hints at God's dual nature, male and female. When Yud-Hay-Vov-Hay is written in reverse, the two syllables Hay Vov and Hay Yud, combined together, become He-She. Mystical readings of other biblical names support the idea of hidden, Remez, meanings in names.

The idea of an androgynous God who is the model for humanity has profound implications for sexual identity and child development: the rejection of "masculine behavior" and "feminine behavior" as mutually exclusive. Such a view also requires a reconsideration of the male-centric language of Jewish prayer and of the role of women in institutional Jewish life.

2. Discussion

a. The Genesis 1 creation account, Rabbi Sameth says, suggests an androgynous Adam. How do you reconcile this interpretation with the famous rib saga—Genesis 2:7 and 2:21-22—which does not speak of Adam and Eve as being "in God's image"?

b. Rabbi Sameth says we unify God by affirming gender equality. Do you agree? How can you affirm gender equality for those around you?

c. Our ancestors worshiped Canaan's gods, including feminine deities such as Asherah and Ashtoreth (Kaufman, 138, 269, passim) alongside worship of Adonai. Prophets and kings fought the tendency throughout Israelite history. What false gods entice you today? How can you resist them?

d. Rabbi Sameth wants Reform prayer to reflect gender neutrality. Compare how the Reform Movement’s prayer book, Mishkan T'filah: A New Reform Siddur (NY: CCAR. 2007), translates Hebrew words for God—such as Adonai (Lord) and Hu (He)—with how other prayer books do so. Does Mishkan T’filah meet this objective? Explain.

"The Duty to Disobey" by Rabbi Harold M. Schulweis

1. Summary

Rabbi Schulweis says that conscience trumps commandment: It's okay to disobey biblical laws that offend one’s conscience. Abraham and Moses questioned God when they deemed God’s intentions or rulings to be unjust or unduly harsh. So did our rabbinic sages, who (lacking the authority to alter biblical text) surrounded the "unacceptable" law with conditions making it impossible to obey, or reinterpreted the law in a conscience-approved manner.

Rabbi Schulweis points out that all faiths and cultures make room for conscientiously ignoring unjust demands, even from God. However, Judaism is unique among beliefs in that it imposes a duty to question such commands, to demur from them, to find ways to act around them so they accord with the test of conscience. The risk of sliding into moral relativism by acting according to your conscience rather than according to law is smaller than the risk of petrifying in a system that thwarts conscience by imposing demands with the potential for grave and morally questionable consequences.

Children need help in their formative years to develop moral courage, the ability to discern when conscience should prevail over law. One way to help is to validate childhood questions, the building blocks of morality, with dignified answers.

2. Discussion

a. Rabbi Schulweis condones disobeying God for the sake of conscience. Is it all right to place conscience over government, as with draftees who refused to serve in the Vietnam War? Is it acceptable for a teenager to disobey a parent for that reason? What are the implications vis-à-vis “Honor your father and mother”? How can you judge whether disobedience is motivated by conscience or something else? Did you ever refuse to follow an order by a parent or other authority because you deemed it unjust? Explain.

b. Rabbi Schulweis does not distinguish between "God told me" and "my officer ordered me" as defense for acting dishonorably towards others. The Nuremberg war crimes trials in 1945-1949 established that following orders is no excuse for bad behavior (Conot). Should you/would you risk your life to avoid carrying out an order to kill someone else? The Talmud teaches that if the king tells you to kill someone or forfeit your life, refrain from killing because you should not think your blood is redder (Mo'ed, Pesahim 25 b). What does it mean to have redder blood? Do you agree/disagree with the Talmud's position?

c. How might you strengthen your own moral conscience? Someone else's?

d. Do you agree with Rabbi Schulweis that God transcends Torah? Explain. If God is greater than Torah, does that diminish Torah's words? How would you decide which words and which laws to question or disobey, and which to preserve? How might PaRDeS (see above) help you to read Torah critically yet lovingly and respectfully?

Resources

William Foxwell Albright. Yahweh and the Gods of Canaan. NY: Doubleday, Anchor. 1969 Pp. 121ff.

Jack J. Cohen. The Case for Religious Naturalism. NY: The Reconstructionist Press. 1958.

Robert E. Conot. Justice at Nurenberg. NY: Harper & Row. 1983, p. 496.

Louis Ginzberg. The Legends of the Jews. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society. 1912. Vol. I, pp. 213-217.

Roland Gittelsohn. "A Naturalist View." In The Theological Foundations of Prayer, Jack

Bemporad, editor. NY: UAHC Press. 1967. Pp. 44ff.

Abraham Joshua Heschel. God in Search of Man.NY: World Publishing Co., Meridian Books. 1959. Pp. 136ff.

Mordecai Kaplan (1). The Meaning of God in Modern Jewish Religion. NY: Behrman's Jewish Book House. 1937.

Mordecai Kaplan (2). Judaism Without Supernaturalism. NY: Jewish Reconstructionist Press. 1958.

Yehezkel Kaufman. The Religion of Israel. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 1960.

Rifat Sonsino & Daniel B. Syme. Finding God: Selected Responses (Revised Edition). NY: URJ Press. 2002.

Henry J. Wicks. The Doctrine of God in the Jewish Apocryphal and Apocalyptic Literature. NY: KTAV Publishing. 1971. Passim. (Reprint edition of University of London, 1915.)




 


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