My God Doesn't Take
© Rabbi Menachem Creditor
I cringe every time I recite "The Lord gives, the Lord takes, blessed be the Name of God," in the Book of Job. And I recite it often, at funerals and in mourning rituals. When my mentor Rabbi Neil Gillman challenged a class of almost-rabbis to translate the Hebrew phrase "Baruch Dayan Emet" roughly "Blessed is the True Judge", also a traditional response to hearing of a death) I refused. I don't mean it. I won't mean it. But I do say it. I recite both formulae, gritting my teeth every time, at funerals and other moments of mourning.
Loss and sadness call for ritual response, but associated Jewish rituals are typically full of words that betray even the best intentions to comfort. Do I believe that God takes people's lives or that a "True Judge" would end a life mid-course? I do not. And while when during the Amidah we recite "God who takes life and resurrects" I find myself both emotionally tense and strangely committed to the traditional formula. Why? Because the words make me feel. They make me angry. They make me cry. They remind me to look at others and feel with them. I am not alone when tradition calls me to connect to community. And community creates and practices together. And because of this I am less alone in dark moments.
I recently read Cormac McCarthy's "The Road", became nauseous, and still haven't quite recovered my equilibrium. It is an apocalyptic vision of a world whose present devours its future, where a father and son can barely speak, let alone survive. But reading through this nightmare pushed me to grow, to reach out to those around me, to hold my children more tenderly. Do I agree with McCarthy's dark portrait? Not a chance. I've dedicated my life to supporting the very opposite trajectory. But I've recommended this awful book to strong-hearted students and friends because it makes one feel love all the more intensely.
Mainstream Jewish tradition has asserted Divine perfection, a claim that produces ugly religious responses when human evil or natural disaster occur. Is God to be seen as an active Source of Evil? And, more importantly in a modern spiritual conversation, what does relationship with God mean when the classic theological depictions are contested? How do we, as modern journeyers people of a particularly ancient faith articulate a personal connection to the undefinable Divine?
I begin by acknowledging that Truth coexists with injustice. Instead of either the "God's reasons are unknowable to man" response or the Abrahamic "Far be it from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly?" response, I advocate an entirely different way of looking at God as involved in the world. I believe in a God who is the Light and Healing in the world, who defies definition because infinity not only exceeds expectation but because infinity does not act. God does not act in this world. God's Holy Presence heals without taking form or action.
Whether one believes that God created the world and then let it go like a pocket watch or that God is a redemptive force like hope, it is possible to believe that Apocalypse is a human decision, and that death is not. That does not make God the active Giver and Taker of Life. The metaphor for God as "Source of Life" is not to be confused with "Controller of Life." If we believe that the actions that occur in this world are God's doing then we damn God to an image of cruelty and dispassion. Our pain is real and worthy of expression. Just as I thank God for the blessings in my life which are often the results of loving human action, I scream at God for the curses of the world that are just as often the results of harmful human action. The theology of God's perfection is a broken myth from which we must emerge as we rescue God and our world from the acceptance of abusive and destructive definitions.
I believe we are called to do no less.
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