Sunday, May 06, 2007

G-d In search of Man

Over the many years I have worked online I have made the 'virtual acquaintance' of many people from many different beliefs. One of these correspondents is a devout Christian with whom I once agreed to agree to disagree and have maintained a loose connection with since our business dealings ended. Recently I received an interesting email from her which I have responded to in the following post. If you have anything to add, please post a comment to our open discussion.
Yoel, I hope you don't mind me emailing you and I hope you remember who I am. Anyway,I have some hard questions and as I thought them over, I realized that you're the only person I know who could answer them, if you will, please? I am very sincere in wanting to hear your answers, but I will understand if you don't answer at all.
Dear Pat,

I'm always interested in "hard questions". Perhaps that is why you thought of me? There is a very good reason for that. As one of Judaism's many sages once asserted, the essence of Judaism is the question - not the answers. In fact he went so far as to demonstrate that so many aspects of Judaism are linked with the "Commemoration of the Leaving of Egypt" (The Exodus). Fascinatingly, when we explore the heart of the ritual which is focused exclusively on this event, Pesach (Passover) we discover that the heart of this annual celebration is - the four questions. Jewish parents are proud of their children, not when they can repeat some Jewish version of the catechism by heart, but when their precious child raises a question that challenges their teacher's ability to explain! So yes, bring on the questions, maybe together we will learn something.
To set the scene, the Creator of the New Testament that we Christians read, seems to be different from that of the Old Testament.
Okay, before we continue you must understand that although Christianity apparently respects the so-called 'Old Testament', Judaism (and by extension myself) see the so-called 'new Testament' as a collection of documents written by men driven by religious polemics. It is at best an attempt to provide a basis for a religion based not upon divinely revealed truths, but a religion of accommodation which on one hand borrowed truths from other religions (like Judaism) but attempted to mold and present these truths in a fashion most likely to attract believers of other believers of other religions. I think you call this proselytizing. In short I will respond to questions directed toward so-called 'Old Testament' issues only, we call this the Tanach (first letters of Torah, Navim & Ketuvim) but have absolutely nothing to say about the other text.
Anyway, there are many instances where the Lord seems harsh and even subject to human emotions like a quick anger (against the Israelites when they were tired of manna, for instance). Some of His actions seem extreme in the light of... something. The love taught in the New Testament or humanism, maybe, I don't know.
One of our sages summarized his understanding of scripture by saying: "Torah speaks in the language of men!" What he appears to be saying is that in order for men to understand G-d's message, that message had to be communicated in terms and in a fashion that men could understand. Let me go further. The Rambam explained that Moshe Rabbenu merited a level of prophecy similar to the level of a man speaking face-to-face with his neighbour. Later prophets merited a more distant prophetic experience, akin more to visions requiring interpretation and finally toward the end of the prophetic period (scripture), the level of prophetic inspiration was described as "ruach hakodesh" - the breeze of holiness.

In a sense you might described this evolution of prophetic experience as a form of education. The initial reality of taking a people out of bondage and molding them into a nation capable of receiving G-d's instructions for living required an over whelming face-to-face experience - like that experienced by the Jewish People at Mount Sinai. As the message gradually absorbed, over generations, the reminders and amplifications provided were more subtle, less over powering. HaShem doesn't want man to do the right thing because he is afraid of not doing it, but because he desires to do the right thing. Man's role in the world requires that he exercise his free will. Again, I am not relating to how so call Christian scriptures supposedly portray G-d, but definitely in Tanach there is a gradual transformation of how HaShem's message is delivered and perceived, all reinforcing the idea that man's great gift is his ability to choose.

More over, the prophets included in 'scripture' are only those our sages understood were necessary for future generations. There were many many more prophets than those included in the 24 books of the Tanach. And those prophets prophesied many more times than the few prophecies recorded and transmitted in our tradition.
The law contains extreme consequences for behaviors, like stoning a rebellious son. Today, this wouldn't even be heard of.
Jewish sages had a difficult time with this one. The consensus opinion is that some laws, such as this one, were not given in order that they might be enforced, but more that the learning and debate surrounding the law might have an educational effect on the people. If you were looking for what would be today considered an "unjust" law, you could have chosen the law of Mamzarut. A child conceived by a married woman from a man not her husband is considered a mamzer (I'm not certain that this is the equivalent of a bastard). Such a child cannot marry a Jew.

Why does Torah punish the child? It was the parents who sinned! Yet the Torah in the case of mamzer, in the same way as the rebellious son, sees not the direct cause and effect of the actions as the determinant but looks beyond the current situation to the far reaching effects of these actions in subsequent decades and generations. I call these kind of laws "drawing the line". If you do not "draw the line" here, the very essence of the purity and holiness of the union between and man and a woman become debased. HaShem made the value judgment that if there is a man and a woman so lust full and egocentric as to ignore the possible consequences of their actions to their own offspring, these must be an end to this before it corrupts the rest of the Jewish People.

If you'd like to question HaShem's perspective, He has already answered you in Isaiah 55:8 : "For My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways My ways, says HaShem"
Another time ... the man (don't remember his name) were killed immediately because he steadied the Ark of the Covenant?
What I found interesting in this comment was that you ignored the next verse. It says that David was distressed that HaShem had "lashed out" at Uzza and called the location of that incident "Peretz Uzza" from that day forward. In David's understanding of the incident, HaShem's "lashing out" was apparently not justified. It disturbed or distressed him. Yet there can be no question that an all-knowing deity must have known something David didn't know. This is an important point. Our relationship with HaShem is relative. How we perceive HaShem's actions is a function of who we are and what we understand and believe. There is no indication that David stopped believing in HaShem after the incident with Uzza, yet it is very clearly expressed in scripture that he was "disturbed" (or "distressed") by the event. These things are not contradictory. Torah deals with real life and real living people. People are complex and often times contradictory.
As I thought about these things, I remembered David, who, while he was apparently chastised for his affair with Bathsheba and murder of her husband, yet lived a long life as King of Israel - no bolts of lightening for him. Other times that don't add up: Abraham lying about Sarah being his wife, yet the sin was with the man who wanted her unknowing of the lie, not with Abraham.
Our sages say that the entire story of David & Batsheva was written as a lesson we can all learn - the repentance of an individual over mistakes can be accepted if they are truly contrite. Yet at the same time you must see Torah as dealing with the real world! A world where sometimes the righteous are persecuted and the evil have the upper hand. Avraham by-the-way didn't completely lie about Sarah being his sister. We learn from him when he explained to the King of Gerrar (Genesis 20:12) that Sarah was his half-sister, but in the verse before he explains why the deception was necessary: "Because there was no fear of G-d in this place". Finally I suggest that sometimes we can learn from the mistakes of others, not only from their successes?
Part of my question is this: How much of the scriptures can we take literally, and how much of them are told for the sake of the lesson? I have read that the story of Jonah and the great fish was just a story.
I don't know about being swallowed by a whale (or whatever it was), but it is my firm belief that truth is true. Scripture cannot teach you a truth using a falsehood as the vehicle. If Joshua actually led the People of Israel into the Land of Israel, then Jericho actually exists and the city was destroyed. Having said that, you must understand that scripture (read Tanach) is neither a history book nor some sort of physics primer. The narrative has one objective, to teach us how to live our lives. The stories, incidents and teachings that support and assist in achieving that objective are the one's included in the text. The endless minutiae of life are ignored. A classic point in case is the trip Elezar, Avraham's servant took from Canaan to Aram Haharaim. It was easily a six week trip by camel, yet the Biblical Narrative compresses these six weeks or arduous travel through probably dangerous territory into one short phrase (Genesis 24:10). Another aspect of this same story is that the narrative totally ignores all the people that probably assisted Elezar in his journey with ten camels laden with the precious gifts his master sent with him. As my teacher once said, if they didn't have legs ( see Genesis 24:32) we wouldn't know they existed.

Having made my point, don't confuse the vehicle for the message. Some of our understandings of what is spoken of are based upon very terse and obscure terms. Whether we truly understand them correctly or not is often secondary importance, rather is moral or ethical lesson they communicate is none-the-less understood.
Do you see my confusion? If you could shed some light on it and help me understand the nature of this Creator, I would be so very much grateful.
Yes I see your confusion. Do you understand my response? You ask about understanding the nature of the 'creator' and I spend my entire essay trying to help you understand the nature of man. HaShem is unknowable, except in a kind of after-the-fact kind of way. HaShem's message is "dressed" in clothing that make it possible for flesh and blood creators to grasp, relate to and identify with. If sometimes that "clothing" comes across in your appreciation as crude or even brutish, that has far more to do with the nature of the people the message was directed at than the source of the message itself.

There is so much more I could add, but unfortunately time is not something I have a lot of. If you'd like to respond to this, ask for greater clarification or bring up another point please feel free to do so. I'll try to find the time to write you a reply.

In Friendship,
Yoel Ben-Avraham
Shilo, Benyamin

After the publication of the above another Christian correspondent of mine, a student of theology from Canada jumped into the fray to share his insights into the above discussion. You can find Jeremiah's response in its entirety on his blog The Evolution of Jeremiah.