My 8-year-old daughter and I are having a little bit of a God problem lately.
It’s not that we’re unsure whether or not to believe in him; I’m satisfied with leaving it unresolved by being agnostic, and Ellie’s OK with that as well.
It’s not even the “why do bad things happen to good people” issue, because, while the world is outrageously unfair, I don’t think God, if he exists, is micro-managing the daily lives of the world’s almost seven billion people.
The problem is, we just don’t like God very much, at least not as he is presented in the Bible. He’s spiteful, bullying and violent — and he plays favorites. (Note to pious, all-faithful believers reading this: you’d better stop right now, before you are consumed in a burning bush of righteous rage.)
For months, Ellie has been demanding to know why God hardened Pharaoh’s heart, why he visited plagues upon all the Egyptians and not just Pharaoh, why he had to kill the first-born, why he waited 300 years before intervening and freeing the Hebrew slaves. All I’ve been able to come up with, in response, is that God — or the humans writing it all down — thought these details made for a more dramatic and suspenseful story.
This weekend though, our annoyance with God came to a head. On Friday afternoon, we watched the new G-dcast episode about Moses and his siblings. When we got to the part about Miriam complaining to Aaron about Moses’s new wife and then being punished with a terrible skin condition, Ellie thought this was quite unfair. We wondered whether Miriam might have a valid critique of Moses, and also whether she might (with some justification) envy the way Moses seems to be given all the credit for the Exodus, even as she and Aaron made major contributions and had to endure childhoods of slavery while young Moses lolled about the Pharaoh’s palace.
On Saturday, at my niece’s bat mitzvah, the irritation with God bubbled up again. The Torah portion was about the 12 spies, 10 of whom greatly anger God by reporting back on the dangers they anticipate in conquering the Promised Land. Yes, they’re doubters and naysayers, but one can certainly understand why they’d be cautious and might not relish the idea of a pre-emptive strike against the current inhabitants of the Land of Milk and Honey. And why, even if God wants the Israelites to reclaim the land, does he have to urge them to violently conquer it? Couldn’t he figure out a nicer way to turn over the land to his chosen people?
As Ellie plaintively asked, in a question eerily resonating with the current situation in Israel: “Can’t they just share the land with the other people?”
Now, we’re hardly the only Jews who feel uncomfortable with the biblical God. A friend referred me to cartoonist Eli Valley’s highly irreverent and graphic (yet, I think, quite astute) take on Him. Similarly, novelist/memoirist Shalom Auslander famously opens his “Foreskin’s Lament” with several paragraphs about why he’s still terrified of God.
It was important to keep the man happy. When we obeyed what the man commanded, he liked us. He liked us so much, that he killed anyone who didn’t like us. But when we didn’t obey what he had commanded, he didn’t like us. He hated us. Some days he hated us so much, he killed us; other days, he let other people kill us. We call these days “holidays.”
At the bat mitzvah party, I was assigned to a table with several other Jews — some single, some in-married — who shared my ambivalence. My brother-in-law, who had much more of a religious upbringing than I did, referenced the Elie Wiesel play about the Jews putting God on trial after the Holocaust. My cousin-in-law said she’s equally attracted to and repelled by the tribal/peoplehood aspects of Judaism, and just can’t relate at all to the religious aspects, even as she’s tried. (Her husband’s parents, while not Orthodox, are religiously observant.)
Now, dear readers, I acknowledge the limitations of my Jewish education and I realize we’re hardly the first be disconcerted by God’s numerous antics (and we haven’t even touched on the Book of Job yet). I’m not looking for a facile excuse to opt out. I know the Talmud and commentaries and midrash struggle with various aspects of the Bible, and I invite suggestions of specific reading material — modern and within Judaism’s vast canon of texts on this topic. I want Ellie and I to grapple with these questions in a way that will, hopefully, strengthen our commitment to and appreciation of Judaism rather than make us wonder if we’re playing on the wrong team. (Say what you will about Jesus, but he’s a nice guy for the most part.)
I know this post will anger many people, particularly those already inclined to dismiss me for being intermarried and not Orthodox, but annoying people is not my goal: rather, I’m looking for intelligent, thoughtful answers. And I’m also trying to pinpoint one of the reasons for non-Orthodox American Jews’ increasing disengagement (according to the latest studies) with organized Judaism. Until the Jewish community openly and forcefully addresses these Big Questions, I doubt we’ll be able to compete with the many other community and lifestyle options available to American Jews.