Avraham Burg

The Weakness of God

By Avraham Burg

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Beshalach — When He Had Let the People Go
Exodus 13:17–17:16

At the sea, after the danger of drowning has passed, after Israel has been saved and six hundred of Pharaoh’s elite charioteers has drowned in the sea, the scripture sums up the essence of the ancient faith in this fashion: “And the people feared the Lord; and they believed in the Lord, and in his servant Moses” (Exod. 14:31). There is a direct, intimate connection between what the people see and their belief in God, as though our text were quoting some sort of Israelite tag line that said, “See it, believe it; don’t see it, don’t believe it.” God has been through a great deal since then. He’s gone from babysitting and sewing underwear for his creatures in the Garden of Eden, intimate chats with his believers by the terebinths of Mamre (Gen. 18:1–15) and drowning their enemies in the sea, to the point where he has disappeared from human events and left us more mature and much more alone in our own time. I once wrote myself a note that I’ve saved:

How is it possible to understand God’s words and intentions when human beings created in his image could dress up in storm troopers’ uniforms, pin the swastika on their shirts and do the things they did? Are they part of his “likeness,” too? Right there and then God stopped being comprehensible, because those are things that can’t be understood in any human logic. His Almightiness was put to a serious test, and even his eternal goodness is in real doubt. To frame the theological dilemma of the Holocaust accurately, I need to turn to the wisdom of one of the great Jewish thinkers of the twentieth century, Hans Jonas, who was born in Germany, went to Palestine as a young Zionist and spent most of his career teaching in New York. One of his most important works for our purposes was a lecture on the significance of the idea of God after the Holocaust. Jonas frames his remarks around the classical problem of evil in the world: if there is an almighty creator who embodies absolute good, how can evil exist in the world? On this question he says: “Only a completely unintelligible God can be said to be absolutely good and absolutely powerful, yet tolerate the world as it is. Put more generally, the three attributes at stake – absolute good, absolute power and intelligibility – stand in such a logical relation to one another that the conjunction of any two of them excludes the third.… “But if God is to be intelligible in some manner and to some extent (and to this we must hold), then his goodness must be compatible with the existence of evil, and this it is only if he is not all powerful. Only then can we uphold that he is intelligible and good, and there is yet evil in the world.” (Hans Jonas, “The Concept of God after Auschwitz: A Jewish Voice,” The Journal of Religion 67, no. 1 [January 1987]:, 9–10.)

Jonas was raised in a liberal Jewish home in Germany at the beginning of the twentieth century, and continued throughout his long life to consider himself a religious Jew, though not traditionally observant. His early passion for philosophy met a shattering challenge in 1933, when his teacher Martin Heidegger joined the Nazi Party. He moved to Palestine shortly afterward, fought the Nazis in the British army’s Jewish Brigade, and then returned to Palestine only to learn that his mother had died in Auschwitz. After fighting in Israel’s war of independence he settled in New York and spent his life teaching and exploring, seeking to reconcile the ideals of philosophy and the darker realities of life. The result was one of the intellectual cornerstones of post-Holocaust theology.

In “God after Auschwitz” Jonas didn’t seek to explain God’s flawed behavior in the Holocaust. He accepted that as fact, and tried to understand the nature of a God who would allow it to happen under his watchful – or sleeping – eye. He was one of the first to read the new religious map and see the need for Jewish believers to discard the traditional way of believing in God and adopt new models of faith.

Considering how precisely Jonas’s teachings describe my feelings, I can’t escape the conclusion that God – who was so intelligible and present for my parents and teachers – has withdrawn from the world that I and my generation inhabit. As a result, the structures of religion are undergoing profound change. They will have to provide new definitions of human responsibility. The old relationship between the believer and God was like the relationship between the witness and the criminal justice system. We’re called again and again to give testimony or sit on a jury that has decided there is a God and we must serve him. Since the time of the Exodus a religion of witnesses has taken shape, seeking proof in history even as they conserve it, as the text says: “And Israel saw the great work which the Lord did upon the Egyptians, and the people feared the Lord; and they believed in the Lord, and in his servant Moses” (Exod. 14:31). That God operated in history, and his handiwork and its outcome were visible and tangible.

It’s easy to understand why an eyewitness would become a believer and willingly testify to the greatness of the divine. When the Midianite priest Jethro, Moses’s father-in-law, hurried off to a family visit with his daughter and grandchildren at his son-in-law’s camp, the text explains quite simply that he came because he “heard of all that God had done for Moses, and for Israel his people, how that the Lord had brought Israel out of Egypt” (Exod. 18:1). The commentators turn this grapevine communication into a victory for the Israelite prophecy of Moses over the Midianite faith of Jethro. “What did he hear that made him come?” Rashi asks, and answers, “The parting of the Red Sea and the war against Amalek.” The historical occurrences of “all that God had done” brought the high priest of the Midianite religion down here to the desert.

In the same spirit, Moses convinces God to reverse the death sentence he has decreed against the Israelites after the sin of the Golden Calf: “Wherefore should the Egyptians speak, saying: For evil did he bring them forth, to slay them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth? Turn from thy fierce wrath, and repent of this evil against thy people” (Exod. 32:12). He’s worried about international public opinion, about God’s place in the history books and about the negative character testimony that the Egyptians will offer, heaven forbid, if the sentence is carried out. This is the God of history.

This logic was adopted by the Christian church that emerged from the Judaism of the Second Temple era. Christianity saw the Jewish mother-faith as Judaea Capta, the defeated Jewish commonwealth. The real-world defeat and humiliation of the “old church,” meaning us, was taken as eternal proof of God’s new priorities. If the new church was flourishing and prosperous while the old Jewish one was withering in scorn, it was a sign that the God of history had spoken his peace, and the Jew was the disgraced witness to God’s preferences. We could offer countless examples to show that the religion up to the time of the Holocaust was structured as a summary of God’s appearances in history, or at least as a collection of eyewitness accounts by his believers. Their vision was proof in their eyes, and believing meant being ready to stake one’s life against the myopia and blindness of those around.

This is the origin of the mountains of rulebooks that all presume to represent the revealed will of God. As religion evolved, it taught that correctly following the rules would bring heavenly approval, which in turn would bring earthly compensation to the believer or believers. The Bible itself shows occasional glimmers of this doctrine of reward and punishment. We are commanded, for example, to “honor thy father and thy mother” (Exod. 20:12) and are immediately offered the concrete incentive, “that thy days may be long.” In time the doctrine of reward and punishment developed into a virtual barter system, a direct transaction of reward in exchange for commandment, misfortune in return for misstep. But this simplistic doctrine of God as vendor and believer as customer finds its antithesis in the model of Job.

Carl Gustav Jung, scholar of religion and disciple and opponent of Freud, wrote a marvelous monograph, Answer to Job, in which he claimed among other things that “the Book of Job serves as a paradigm for a certain experience of God which has a special significance for us today” (The Portable Jung, ed. Joseph Campbell, trans. R.F.C. Hull [New York: Penguin, 1971], 526). He tried – and partly succeeded – in his goal of understanding “why and to what purpose Job was wounded, and what consequences have grown out of this for Yahweh as well as for man.” In the midst of Job’s terrible sufferings we find the difficult conversations between Job and his wife and companions. They beg him to rebel against the divine decree. His wife and companions share an attitude common to most of humanity, whereby the believer expects a reward: I believe and God compensates me, I ask and he gives, I pray and he answers. But Job has moved far beyond that approach. He draws a complete separation between the historical reality of his physical life and the spiritual condition of his soul. He believes in God with no expectation of reward. He knows there is no connection between the righteous and the experience of good, nor between the wicked and the experience of evil. Like us, he has encountered situations in which “the way of the wicked” (Prov. 4:19) is well paved. Job is one of the first and only figures who learns to separate faith from history. In many senses Job is the model on which a new theology must be based.

I am well aware, both from first-hand experience and from conversations with friends and ideological opponents, how hard it is for religious traditionalists to accept the reality of a God who is not all good or all-powerful, or is so incomprehensible to us that observance of commandments might be beside the point, either because he meant something entirely different or we simply don’t understand. Precisely because it so difficult to connect the points of the triangle of faith – Jonas’s God of goodness, power and accessibility – a new bridge between God and man is needed, one that will allow us to act in the world as though we understand the intention of creation. Instead focusing on God’s failure at Auschwitz, Birkenau, Majdanek and Dachau, I want to place the responsibility on myself, on all of us, on humanity, and remove God from the flow of daily life and human events. I have no control over God, nor can I say for certain precisely what sort of control he has over me. But the reins of human life are in my hands. They are here and now, and I can speak, agree, accept, reject, struggle, understand or contradict whatever they do. Accordingly, I would like to build a world that rests on faith in humankind and its communities and ignore God and the things he is reported – by hearsay – to have said.

The religion of responsibility suggested here gives the believer a different status. I refrain from bearing witness to the greatness of God on earth – I myself am the testimony. If my individual conduct is proper and befitting of my humanity, then the greater humanity of which I am a part will function that much better. I am the best testimony to the condition of the world, its creator and its creatures. On the other hand, if I adopt the opposite stance – if I become malicious, indifferent, greedy and violent – then I amount to hostile testimony. From now on we need to say: Man is not witness to the greatness of God, but rather, the greatness of Man is testimony to the greatness of creation. God’s fingerprints are stamped on each one of us – his image and the shadows of his memory. If our behavior is fitting and upright, then the image that we reflect is lifted up along with us. And if not, then the image of God descends into something dark and threatening. It is as Tchernichovsky wrote in the poem quoted in our commentary on Parashat Shemot: “That I still believe in Man – As I still believe in you.”


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