Right after Yom Kippur I received a frantic telephone call. As I arrived at the home, it was already filled with family and friends. I knew the family very well: serious Jews.
They had been at services during Neilah. Their son, Kenny, whom I also knew from confirmation classes, had suggested that he start out early and break the Yom Kippur fast with friends in Malibu. The parents had insisted that he wait until the end of Neilah. As soon as the shofar was blown, he rushed off in his car, and somewhere on a winding road a drunk driver plowed into his car. Kenny was instantly killed.
I walked into the bedroom where Kenny’s father was sitting with his head buried in his hands. He looked up at me, his face grew pale, his fist clenched, and he greeted me with a torrent of curses: cursing me, cursing God, cursing the synagogue, cursing himself. Why in the world had he insisted that Kenny wait until the end of services, he said, when the whole thing was stupid and foolish!
The room was filled with stunned people as Kenny’s father continued his curses. Then he told me to leave. “Get him out of my sight,” he said.
On my way out, his wife grabbed hold of me. “Rabbi,” she said, “don’t take it personally.” But I did take it personally. Kenny’s father felt he was cursed by God, and I, his rabbi, represented that God of malediction.
He didn’t want comfort from me. He threw my arm off his shoulders. He didn’t want psychology from me. He wanted theology — a mature, ethical, credible theology. His response was extreme, but not unique.
The parents who are sobbing over the infant’s crib death, the husband of a young woman afflicted with cancer, the children moaning over the death of a father in an airplane accident — all of them are left with guilt, shame, blame, and anger. Do I not bear some responsibility? Somehow or other, my people have inherited a theology that insinuates that nothing happens by accident; that nothing happens without someone being guilty of some transgression; that catastrophe is bashert, fated and decreed. Don’t I bear a responsibility as a rabbi? When I officiated at the High Holy Days, we read on Rosh Hashanah that “the decree is inscribed,” and on the Day of Atonement that “the decree is sealed, who shall live, who shall die, who by fire, who by water” — and then the conclusion: “Repentance, prayer and righteousness avert the decree.” Do I believe that Kenny’s death was a decree?
What was I going to say at Kenny’s funeral? “Baruch dayam emet — blessed is the Truthful Judge”? Was Kenny’s death the sentence of a Truthful Judge? Would I read the suggested Psalm 90, which reads: “In Your eyes, we are consumed, O God, in Your wrath, we are overcome, You set our sins before You . . . our lives expire like a sigh”?
I know I am far from the first to be engaged with the problem of theodicy, the justification of God in the face of evil. But this is my time and these are my people. I studied the conventional defenses of God by many of the sages in the Talmud, but the justification fails in my eyes. The arguments are predicated on the belief that suffering implies some fault in human beings, that sufferings are sent by God to test a human being, much as Abraham was tested by God — called to sacrifice his son — or as Job was tested by God through the instigation of the satanic adversary. Do I believe that this kind of suffering is to be explained either as chastisements of love or chastisements of punishment? Was I to tell this to Kenny’s parents? It’s one thing to look into a sacred text and another to look deep into the eyes of anguished members of the family. Would I tell Kenny’s parents that sufferings are meant to test their mettle, that sufferings in this world are really hidden blessings enabling them to inherit the treasures of the world to come? Would I use the classic medieval arguments of the “silver lining,” that without poverty there would be no charity, without illness there would be no motivation to heal, without the accident there would be no test of human resistance — that without the Holocaust there would be no State of Israel? Conscience and common sense weigh against these arguments. It is an odd thinking that would justify every tragedy, aberration, deformity, as proper in the eyes of God. This makes of God a wretched sadist and of the victim a sorry masochist.
I could claim theological modesty. I could say to Kenny’s father, “I don’t understand these things. Who am I with my limited reason to penetrate into the inscrutable ways of God?” But I hear Kenny’s father’s sarcastic response: Now, Rabbi, that I have some real questions, are you going turn agnostic on me?
So I took the anger of Kenny’s father to heart. I was not bothered by his curses. I was troubled by the theological hole, the spiritual vacuum left in him that I could not fill. Human nature abhors a vacuum, and when that emptiness remains, it is filled with superstition and theurgy.
I believe that the theological muteness among us in our days is one of the profound internal threats to Judaism. As C. S. Lewis observed: “People who cease to believe in something do not believe in nothing, they believe in anything.” My teacher Mordecai M. Kaplan personified theological courage. He invited his students and readers to ask hard questions and to use their moral intelligence to find decent answers. Where are the creative juices to reconstruct Jewish theology?
Let me share a portion of my personal theological quest in answering Kenny’s father.
In Judaism there is One God. There is no devil to scapegoat, no anti-Christ on whom to blame evil. Judaism is an ethical monotheism — but I take note that even though we speak about one God, there appears in our liturgy two names that complement each other: Adonai and Elohim. One God with two names that appear side by side. Shema Yisrael Adonai Eloheynu Adonai echad. If the emphasis is on one God, why not simply recite Shema Yisrael, Adonai echad?
The duality in the traditional prayer formula suggests a deeper meaning and is helpful in dealing with the question of suffering. The one term, Elohim, normally translated as “God,” is found exclusively in the first chapter of the first book of the Bible. There is no mention of Adonai in that opening chapter, only Elohim. What is the character of Elohim? Elohim is the God of nature, the Creator of the plenitude in nature. Elohim is the Creator of mountains and valleys, sunshine and darkness, earthquakes and droughts, lions and lambs — the God who creates a morally neutral universe.
Traditionally we are taught by the rabbis that the acts of God belong either to middat ha-din, the way of justice, or to middat ha-rahamim, the way of compassion. This implies that everything that happens in the world is either a judgment of justice or a judgment of mercy. In this view there appears to be no room for events of moral neutrality, no place for what I call middat ha-teva, the way of nature.
Is this the way of the universe? Is every event in history or nature traceable to a divine judgment? I am taken by a number of rabbinic passages in which our sages suggest another view of the world. In a remarkable passage in the Talmud (Avodah Zara 54b), the rabbis argue: If a man should steal a measure of wheat and sow it on his own property, by virtue of the law of justice this stolen seed should not flourish. But the sages observe: Olam k'minhago nohaig, nature pursues its own course.
They offer other illustrations: If a man rapes his neighbor’s wife, by virtue of the law of justice the woman should not bear a child. But again the rabbis declare: Olam k'minhago nohaig, nature pursues its own course.
What does this mean? There are many things that happen in this world that are amoral facts. DNA is not din; the DNA we inherit is not praiseworthy or blameworthy. DNA is not a moral judgment. The shifting platelets beneath the earth that produce earthquakes are not moral judgments. They are consequences of the course of nature that are morally neutral.
When the plane crashed, did we ask to see the passenger list to determine the ratio between “good” passengers and “bad” passengers in order to explain the crash? No, we asked for the “black box.” Newton’s Law of Gravitation is not Moses’ Law of Revelation. They are different kinds of law. As one philosopher put it, “In one case you find out how the heavens go, in the other you find out how to go to heaven.” Gravitation refers to what “is” and revelation refers to what “ought to be.” Elohim as the ground of what is expresses the Jewish reality principle. Nature pursues its own course. There is accident, there are natural laws in the universe that have causes and consequences. But importantly, causes are not judgments, and consequences are not curses or blessings.
Elohim is one part of divinity. Elohim is not the whole of divinity. With Elohim alone, we live in the world of “is” and ignore the world of “ought.” When Elohim is taken for the whole of divinity, we worship a part as if it were the whole. To worship a part as if it were the whole is the essence of idolatry.
Elohim is found alone in the opening chapter of Genesis. Where do we first find Adonai in the Bible? It is introduced in the second chapter of the book of Genesis: “No shrub of the field was yet on earth, and no grasses of the field had yet sprung up, because Adonai Elohim had not sent rain upon the earth, and there was no human being to till the soil.” For there to be vegetation, we acknowledge that which is given: sun, water, seed, earth, none of which we humans create. Elohim is the ground of the universe that is given, and Adonai is the energy that transforms. Both are indispensable to sustain the earth and make it flourish. Adonai Elohim marks the cooperation, the transaction, between the human and the divine. For example, the motzi benediction we recite over the bread is not recited over the raw grain. The kiddush benediction over the wine is not recited over the grapes. The benedictions include both the powers of Adonai and Elohim, which bring forth bread from the earth and create the fruit of the vine. Elohim is revealed in the raw materials, Adonai in the transformation that is enabled through the collaboration of the human. The benediction celebrates the divine-human partnership in creation: Shutaf la kadosh baruh hu b’maasay breshith.
In confronting the challenge and adversities in life, the duality, not dualism, of God is reflected in the religious wisdom of acceptance and transformation.
The world was created incomplete, full of given potentialities that require human actualization. Divinity is both real and ideal. And when we recite the Shema, we pray that Elohim and Adonai shall become one. The aim of ehad is to unify the world of “is” and the world of “ought” — a unification that sanctifies the name of God.
To live in the world of “is” without the world of “ought” is to live in a universe without dreams, sacredness, or possibility. To live in the world of “ought” without the world of “is” means to live in a world of fantasy and pretense.
If I could speak to Kenny’s father, I would tell him: “I understand your anguish and grieving. But do not be angry at me, at yourself, or at God. What happened is a terrible tragedy but not a deliberate, planned design, not divinely intended to reward or punish. I know that this theological approach does not erase your pain. I cannot erase your pain. I cannot override the reality principle. The sages teach that if we pray for something that has already happened, that petition is a vain prayer. Time is irreversible. If you lose your limb, I cannot say, “Grow!” I can ask you to search out prosthetics, I can ask you to appeal to Adonai, the Source of the recuperative powers within you and between your family and your community. I cannot erase the pain, but I can help to erase the guilt, the blame, the terror of a punishing, wrathful God. I understand your anger and resentment. But that response results from a theology that does not speak to me or my experience or my Jewish moral sensibility. God does not create theology. God creates in us the capacity to understand and to find explanations that will enable us to cope with life’s challenges without the paralysis of irrational guilt and self-recrimination. The world pursues its own course. That we can accept but with resignation. We can use the memory and energies in you and your community to lift up those who are bowed down, to mend the torn fabric of the universe, to comfort the bereaved and to lift up those who are fallen.” Elohim and Adonai. Accept and transform.
The Jewish community is hungry for spirituality, but not the spirituality of red strings around the wrist, or magical amulets, or subservience to a guru, or surrender of our moral intelligence. Jews are a thinking people, and Judaism demands an honest theology from us. The first petitionary prayer in our daily service declares, “You grace human beings with understanding and with wisdom.” Understanding and wisdom are gifts to be used. We must honor the question and we must have the courage to discover a Jewish theology from the depths of our tradition.
Mordecai Kaplan venerated the question because it opened the future to old-new answers that would not deny reality and would not despair that there are no answers. My zayde (grandfather) would say, “Fun a kasher, ken men nisht shtarbn” — you cannot die from a question. He was only half right. With a question, we can begin to live, to rebuild, to reaffirm, to reconstruct our lives.
This article is adapted from Rabbi Harold Schulweis' keynote address to the JRF West Coast Regional Conference on “Tikkun Olam: Repairing the World One Person at a Time,” on April 2, 2000, at Kehillat Israel, Pacific Palisades, California.