There is a telling scene in Joseph Heller’s great American classic Catch 22 where the idiosyncratic Colonel Cathcart asks his chaplain to come up with a prayer to recite before sending the men on bombing missions. The chaplain suggests a number of somber psalms which the colonel angrily rejects saying “Haven’t you got anything humorous that stays away from waters and valleys and God? I’d like to keep away from the subject of religion altogether if we can.”
I confess that as a communal rabbi I often felt a little like that hapless chaplain. While I was certainly encouraged to discuss religion I was not expected to talk about God. My congregations were not unique in this regard. If someone were to survey the content of rabbinical sermons over any length of time they would undoubtedly discover a dearth of theological reference and reflection. Why this is so is not entirely clear but theological inhibitions are not restricted to the pulpit. Traditional Yeshivot do not devote any serious time to the study of theology and an Amazon search with that word will bring up less than twenty titles by Jewish thinkers in contrast to the hundreds of similar works by Christian scholars. One of the effects of this lack of a developed and sophisticated theology is that many otherwise educated and knowledgeable Jews bear archaic and simplistic notions of God that do little to sustain serious religious commitment in an increasingly complex post modern world.
Yet it wasn’t always this way. Judaism has a rich tradition of theological reflection. Rabbis from the Talmudic era through to the nineteenth century Hasidic masters constructed the most compelling and bold theologies that helped to under-gird Jewish life and ritual through some of the most trying periods in history.
The thing about theology is that perceptions of God are, by their very definition, intensely subjective and prone to change from individual to individual and certainly over time. The Midrashic sources are particularly alive to this idea and one of the finest illustrations of such thinking is found in Pesikta Rabbati (Piska 21) commenting on the revelation at Sinai:
Rabbi Levi said that God appeared in many guises, to this one [He appeared] standing, to that one [He appeared] sitting, to this one [He appeared] as a youngster and to that one [He appeared] as an elder. How so? When God appeared at the Red Sea to wage war against the Egyptians He appeared as a young [Warrior] because it is only proper that a battle be waged by a [strapping] youth, yet when He revealed Himself at Sinai to give the Torah to Israel he appeared as an elder for it is only proper that the Torah is taught by a [wise] elder.
Rabbi Levi is not for a moment suggesting that God objectively changes but rather that our perceptions and experiences of Him change depending on circumstance. The God our ancestors conjured up in their minds as they watched Pharaoh’s mighty army cast into the sea was undoubtedly a young vigorous warrior God whereas the God they experienced at Sinai was a hoary headed law giver imparting words of timeless wisdom.
On the surface this sounds strikingly similar to the pre-Socratic philosopher Xenophanes who argues that our anthropomorphic conceptions of God are culturally relativistic:
But mortals consider that the gods are born, and that they have clothes and speech and bodies like their own. The Ethiopians say their gods are snub-nosed and black; the Thracians that theirs have light blue eyes and red hair. But if cattle and horses or lions had hands, or were able to draw with their hands and do the work that men do, horses would draw the forms of the gods like horses, and cattle like cattle, and they would make their bodies such as they each had themselves.
Yet unlike Xenophanes, Rabbi Levi is not suggesting that God’s appearance was merely an illusion and that objectively speaking He was not apparent at the Exodus or at Sinai. What he appears to be saying is that God qua God is inscrutable and that they only way humans can perceive him, if at all, is through the experiences in which we feel His presence. God’s presence was indeed felt at the Red sea and at Sinai it is just that one’s experience of His presence is culturally relativistic. Since such encounters are essentially human experiences they are perceived in human context. God himself however transcends all definition and is in no way limited by our finite perceptions.
This fluid approach to the human perception of God helps explain His many different appearances in The Bible. Isaiah the aristocrat beholds God upon a throne, Amos a rural sycamore farmer perceives God as having a deep sense of empathy with the poor and Hosea understands God’s complicated relationship with Israel in the context of his own dysfunctional marriage.
Sometimes the Talmudic rabbis were nothing less than daring in the way they chose to perceive God as the following passage in Talmud Berachot (7a) demonstrates:
It was taught: Rabbi Yishmael Ben Elisha related, one time I entered the Holy of Holies to place incense in the innermost place and I saw God, the Lord of Hosts, sitting on a throne exalted and high. And God said: ‘Yishmael, my son bless me.’ And I responded, may it be Your will that Your capacity for mercy overwhelm your capacity for anger, that Your capacity for mercy overshadow Your attributes [of Judgement,] that You behave mercifully towards all Your children, and that, for their benefit, You go beyond the boundaries of judgement.’ And God responded by nodding His head in assent.
The notion of a needy God requesting a blessing from a mere mortal is extraordinarily counter-intuitive if not subversive. Human beings normally request God’s blessing, not the other way around. Yet the context in which this story is first told is crucial. Its intended audience lived through the Roman destruction of the temple. These broken refugees would not have experienced God as the mighty warrior who rescued his persecuted people in the book of exodus but rather as an angry God who abandoned his people to the cruel Romans. Rabbi Yishmael’s story emerges against this backdrop and conjures up a God full of pathos in need of his children’s love and blessing, a God who listens when his children urge Him to control His anger.
A generation later Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, student of the martyred Rabbi Akiva, invokes a similar theology by asserting that when the Jewish people are in exile, God too, so to speak, is in exile ( a motif that is given much attention by the nineteenth century Hasidic masters.)
Nowhere is this theological plasticity more apparent than in the Selichot liturgy recited on High Holidays as well as on fast days. The central prayer in the Selichot is a passage from Exodus (34: 6-7) in which Moses seeks atonement for his people for the sin of the golden calf. The original text in the bible reads:
The Lord, the Lord, A compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, and abounding in kindness and good faith, keeping kindness for the thousandth generation, bearing crime, trespass, and offense, yet he does not wholly acquit, reckoning the crime of the fathers with sons and sons of sons, to the third generation and the fourth.
However in the liturgy the last verse is cut short so as to read: ‘Yet he does wholly acquit’ so that instead of conveying the message that God does not wholly acquit the sins of the fathers it conveys the exact opposite. Here is a striking example of a verse whose original depiction of a vengeful God no longer resonates with those responsible for constructing the liturgy and so they adjust it accordingly.
Theology does not just impact liturgy it also influences the development of Jewish Law.
The Talmud (Bava Metsia 59b) describes a heated debate between Rabbi Eliezer and his colleagues over the status of a particular oven which he deemed kosher and they disagreed. After failing to convince his colleagues through logical debate Rabbi Eliezer resorted to invoking the supernatural:
Said he to them: ‘If the halachah (Jewish Law) agrees with me, let this carob-tree prove it!’ Thereupon the carob-tree was torn a hundred cubits out of its place [….] ‘No proof can be brought from a carob-tree,’ they retorted. Again he said to them: ‘If the halachah agrees with me, let the stream of water prove it!’ Whereupon the stream of water flowed backwards — ‘No proof can be brought from a stream of water,’ they rejoined. Again he urged: ‘If the halachah agrees with me, let the walls of the schoolhouse prove it,’ whereupon the walls inclined to fall. But R. Joshua rebuked them, saying: ‘When scholars are engaged in a halachic dispute, what have ye to interfere?’ [….] Again he said to them: ‘If the halachah agrees with me, let it be proved from Heaven!’ Whereupon a Heavenly Voice cried out: ‘Why do ye dispute with R. Eliezer, seeing that in all matters the halachah agrees with him!’ But R. Joshua arose and exclaimed: ‘It is not in heaven.’ What did he mean by this? — Said R. Jeremiah: That the Torah had already been given at Mount Sinai; we pay no attention to a Heavenly Voice, because Thou hast long since written in the Torah at Mount Sinai, After the majority must one incline. R. Nathan met Elijah the Prophet and asked him: What did the Holy One, Blessed be He, do in that hour? — He laughed [with joy], he replied, saying, ‘My sons have defeated Me, My sons have defeated Me.’
The point of this tale is that God does not get a veto in the halachic process. He is, so to speak defeated in contest with his children. This is quite extraordinary given the fact that halachah purports to be God’s will. In this paradoxical story God’s will is actually to be overruled by his children so that what they end up deciding de facto becomes God’s will. This theology has had an enormous impact on the way Jewish law has developed. Using this story as a backdrop successive generations of rabbis freely subjected Jewish law to rigorous intellectual analysis knowing full well that the outcome of their endeavors would be God’s will.
Theology therefore is central to Jewish religious life. Our concept of God has a direct impact on the way we practice Judaism and on how Judaism develops. Jewish law never develops in a vacuum. It always plays out against a theological backdrop. A theology that conjures up a stern, demanding God will invariably give rise to a stringent interpretation of Jewish law. A theology that understands God as compassionate and tolerant will give rise to more flexible interpretations of Jewish law. Similarly in prayer, a particularistic God will invoke prayers exclusively for the Jewish people whereas a universalistic God will elicit prayers for humanity as well.
I was always amazed that in all the rabbinic interviews I have had in my career I was never once asked what God I worshiped. I was asked many questions about specific halachic positions I might take; on women’s issues, on Zionism, on inter-faith and on intra-faith matters and yet the simple question of ‘who is your God?’ would have obviated the need for most of these questions. That is provided those asking the questions had a developed sense of theology which sadly few have.
If we are to advance a Judaism that is compelling and relevant to the majority of thinking Jewish adults today we need to move beyond the simplistic and uni-dimensional concept of God that is taught to children and to develop a theology that captures our experience of God in an increasingly complex world. We need a theology that takes account of such issues as evolution, biblical criticism, feminism, universalism and pluralism. We need a theology that reflects the reality of the State of Israel and Jewish power rather than one that echoes Jewish victimhood. The cost of not continuously renewing our theology is to allow a growing rift to develop between God and our lived experience, rendering God irrelevant.
Judaism gave the world the gift of monotheism. We owe it to ourselves and to the world to ensure that it remains more than a cultural artifact. We need our rabbis, educators and thinkers to engage deeply in questions about God and His place in our world so as to shape a powerful, relevant and compelling God-Conscious Judaism for the 21st century.