May 19, 2019

How to Think About God and the Bible — comments on Torah Portion Va-eira

I am always a bit perplexed by those troubled by the passage in this week's Torah portion where God is depicted as hardening Pharaoh's heart in Exodus 9:12, and in other places, as well. First, note that in most of the plagues, the text says that the heart of Pharaoh was strengthened or hardened on its own. Second, in the first passages of Exodus 7, God is shown as explaining why he will harden the heart of Pharaoh when he does: to multiply the signs and wonders, so the Egyptians will know that the Lord is God.

Many of those confused by the Bible resist reading the Bible as it is. In this case, the idea of God giving human beings free will is violated. People want the God of the Bible to be presented as fair, and to deprive someone of their free will, and then punish them, does not seem fair.

I believe that taken as a whole, the God depicted in the Hebrew Bible quite often does not seem fair, for example, in our terms of proportionality in punishment. The God presented in the Hebrew Bible seems to go too far at times in meting out retribution. I am not saying we should not be troubled when the God of the Bible is not fair, we just should turn this being troubled into theological angst. As I have often taught, we aught not try to derive a personal theology from the depiction of God in the Hebrew Bible.

This idea startles people when they hear it from me or others for the first time. The question usually goes something like this:  “Aren't rabbis supposed to believe in the Bible?” I have read my ordination certificate carefully, and I can't find any condition that says I have to accept a literal interpretation of the Bible or that I am required to “believe in the God of the Hebrew Bible.”

Kidding aside, I recommend again and again that readers of the Bible should stop reading the Bible, andread Jack Miles' God: A Biography and Yoram Hazony's The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture, and then go back to reading the Bible.  From Jack Miles' book it is clear that there is no one depiction of God in the Bible. I don't think anyone who has read Miles can possibly ask the question about “believing in the God of the Bible.” Which one? The God who torments Pharaoh as a way to humble him and bring the Egyptians to know God? Or the God of Psalms who cares for our hearts and souls when all others have abandoned us?

Sometimes when people should act in “Godly ways” I hope they have not read all of the Hebrew Bible; just the good parts, I hope.
When one reads Miles and Hazony, unless one is ideologically committed to some kind of orthodoxy, one can see that the Bible was not written to offer a theology. Even to say “the Bible was written” is to profoundly misunderstand the text, from a non-orthodox perspective. The books of the Bible came together over centuries, some early in the biblical period, and some, like the book of Daniel, around the time of Judah Maccabee.

I think every person serious about Judaism as asource for spiritual theory and practice, has to contemplate seriously at least two questions. The first is: your theory of the divine, as tentative and incomplete it may be. Protagoras, when asked to explain the gods of Greece in one of the Socratic dialogues, refused to even try as the 'topic was too complex and life is too short.'  We should at least try. Once you come up with a tentative theory, you can then test it reading good books and talking with thoughtful people.

My starting place is:  The being that created the universe had the power to bring into being a universe – the one we know of – with the energy and mass of 140 billion galaxies. This being created the laws of the universe that scientists and mathematicians have discovered. I am committed to believing that the God who created the laws of light, energy and matter also created a moral law, that reveals itself to those who study it, just as scientists have discovered the laws of nature. I am a moral realist – there really are better and worse answers to moral problems.

Second, any person who is serious about Judaism as a spiritual theory and practice has to have a theory of the soul, and especially how our souls and the Soul of the universe are related. As you may know, I am mostly guided by the Chasidic understanding of Lurianic Kabbalah.

From my second theory, I have thoughts about soul, morals, consciousness, language, narrative, interpretation, poetics, rituals, and the depths and levels of spiritual experience. From that world, I revere the Bible. I don't seek the Bible for theology. To be honest, I arrive with one. And with a sensitivity to language, myth and morals, the Bible reveals itself to be a text that is sewn with the presence of the Divine.