Monday, September 18, 2017

My “Jewish God”?

In 2012, the last time I wrote about this topic, I began with the following disclaimer: “This is a critical reflection on certain aspects of my tradition. It has been suggested to me that, in highlighting these elements, I am reinforcing a misconception of Judaism as overly harsh. A balanced study of Judaism and the Yom Kippur service will show concepts of God as both compassionate alongside themes of judgement”. This disclaimer is still relevant.

On Saturday 23rd September this year, I will have the solemn Jewish New Year Holy Day prayers echoing in my mind. Many of these will reflect the idea of God as a judge. God’s verdicts will determine ‘Who will live and who will die? Who at their pre-destined time and who before their time?’ (1). One week later, Jewish people observe the Day of Atonement, where the theme of God as judge comes up again, along with language referring to God as father and king. It leads me to consider what the traditional Jewish concept of God is (This is what my topic means, not that there is a God that belongs to Jews or a God who is Jewish somehow.)  

In our highly poetic Torah reading this week, we are told that “all of God’s ways are ’judgement’” (2). The Talmud takes this verse as a warning against daring to say that God is clement (e.g. one whose nature it is to let people get away with sins) or indulgent (3). This teaching is puzzling because God is praised in the Torah as forbearing of sin (4). An implausible resolution of this contradiction is that God is forgiving of one or two sins, but not with repeat offenders (5).

A far more compelling teaching encourages us to have faith and confidence in God’s forgiveness. God is described as “generously forgiving the instant one pleads for forgiveness…” (6). This teaching refers to the daily prayer that praises God for being abundant in forgiveness (7).  “It is characteristic of people, that if one injures another and asks his pardon which is granted, and then repeats the misdeed, it becomes more difficult to grant pardon again, and certainly a third and fourth time. But, by the standard of God, there is no difference between once and a thousand times. Pardon is a manifestation of [God’s] ...mercy. Divine [mercy is] not bounded and finite; they are infinite.” (8). .."For His mercies have not ended" (9).

Recently, I have been learning a little about assertiveness and management  from a wise woman, Michelle Brenner, and the impressive business coach Wade Ebrahimi. (10) (Yes, this is a plug.) A key lesson for me is about the importance of being clear in my communication as a “boss”. I don’t like the idea of being a “boss”. I would rather just be a colleague and still get everything magically done as I think it should. I am learning that I can continue to be collegial with those who report to me. However, I must also give them clear direction. I must differentiate between suggestions, requests and, if need be, orders. Similarly, God relates to humans in multiple ways - in mercy mode as well as holding us accountable. The former should not be taken to override the latter, particularly in a moment of decision making about whether or not to do the right thing (11).  

If I was seeking a neat resolution, I would end this discussion with the abundant forgiveness teaching above. One Jewish man I met the other day, thought of God as predominantly forgiving. That works for him. For me, I am caught between the different characterizations of God in both Torah and prayers.

I was struck by an anecdote that included an apparently tactless statement made to a grieving father mourning the death of his young son. The father was told that the death of young children is a Divine punishment of parents for the parents’ sins (12). The basis for this troubling idea is the verse “God saw and became angry, from the anger of his sons and daughters” (13). This is interpreted as parents provoking God, causing Him to punish the parents through their children (14). The modern reader can either howl in protest or respond with silence.

These teachings, somehow, sit side by side with parental concepts of God.  We read of God carrying the Jew like an eagle carries its young on its wings, (15) “nursing him with honey from bedrock” (16).

Despite the contradictions, I take some comfort from the fact that, whenever the Torah calls us to imitate God, there are always references to God as caring and compassionate, never cruel and harsh. “Just as G‑d is called merciful, so too, you must be merciful. Just as G‑d is called kind, so too, you must be kind...” (17). Similarly, we are taught:  "Just as God clothes the naked, ... so too, you must clothe the naked. Just as God visits the sick, ... so too, you must visit the sick. Just as God comforts mourners, ... so too, you must comfort mourners" (18).

I end, as I began, without a clear Jewish concept of God. I don't speak for all Jews, but I think it is fair to say that it is not a simple question to answer for those of us who seek guidance from traditional texts. This time of the year, with the days of judgement, repentance and atonement, is a time for re-engagement between the Jew and his God. I suggest that the repeated references, in our liturgy, to God as both father and king, is a useful indication of a complex Jewish understanding of God.  

1.     Reflection on who will live and who will die is prominent in the Unesaneh Tokef prayer, which is a key part of the Rosh Hashanah prayers.

2.     Deuteronomy 32:4: Surprisingly, Ramban suggests that Mishpat here relates to mercy.

  1. Talmud Bava Kama 3a: The context of this teaching is a story about a righteous man who dug wells for the community, whose daughter fell into a well but was saved from drowning in the merit of her father’s good deeds. Yet, her brother died of thirst, despite his father’s merit in supplying people with drinking water, because God is very demanding of the righteous and even small sins can result in harsh punishment.
  2. Exodus 34:7
  3. Torah Temima on Deuteronomy 32:4
  4. Tanya, Igeret Hateshuva 11
  5. The Amida, חנון המרבה לסלוח
  6. Tanya, Ibid
  7. Lamentations 3:22
  9. Torah Temima
  10. Talmud Kesubot 8b
  11. Deuteronomy 32:19
  12. Rashi on Talmud Kesubot 8b, also in Maharsha commentary
  13. Deuteronomy 32:11
  14. Deuteronomy 32:13
  15. Sifrei Parshat Eikev., cited in Maimonides’ Sefer Hamitzvot, Mitzvah 8, based on Deuteronomy. 28:9, 11:22, and 13:5
  16. Talmud, Sotah 14a

Friday, September 1, 2017

Deluge of Doubt Torah & "Natural" Ethics (Ki Teitzei),

Indecisive. Weak. Not good enough. Am I doing the right thing? Accusations and self doubt are part of the semi-conscious soundtrack of my mind and I am not alone. These thoughts can be distortions of reality and unreasonable. However, living with uncertainty is also a strength.

The verbal onslaught is not just internal. There is a constant stream of emotive arguments for one course of action or its opposite. For example, on Sunday night I listened to Michael Kirby. A dignified, and distinguished former judge of the High Court of Australia. He observed, how despite the fact that people praise him for his various accomplishments because he is gay he is treated like a second class citizen in his own country. In a telling reflection of the ferocity of the current public debate, he insisted that ‘he was not bullying anyone in putting forward his view’.     

Some people seek refuge from uncertainty in religious absolutes. However this depends on the question of whether the Torah claims to have all the answers and therefore ethical ideas from sources outside the Torah are not deemed valid? Or does Torah recognise ‘natural ethics’?

In the Torah reading this week we are confronted by the treatment of a captive “woman of beautiful appearance” (1) during a war in ancient times. In one interpretation (2) of this passage, it is about managing a man’s lust and seeking the lesser of two evils. The woman goes through a process that is designed to make her less attractive to this man in an effort to dissuade him from marrying her. It seems to be all about his needs, not hers.

The woman’s consent for having sexual relations with this man is required (3). However commentary tells us that as prerequisite for the marriage she was to be converted to Judaism and according to one view this could involve coercion (4). Even the marriage itself does not seem to depend on the full agreement of the captive woman/new wife (5).  

This law is only confronting if there is a standard of ethics that we measure the Torah against. If we assume that G-d’s law defines morality then it is not good by definition? Perhaps. However, I think that Torah does recognise the validity of natural ethics.

The Torah calls us to to do that which is good and proper in the eyes of God (6). However our tradition teaches that the word “proper” refers to faithful conduct in matters of trade and dealing with others in a way that is pleasing to people (7). Human concepts of ethics are clearly valid.  

Proper human conduct preceded the revelation of God’s law by twenty six generations (8). People conducted themselves “according to proper logic and faith without the Torah” (9). In fact if the Torah had not been revealed we could have learned modesty from a cat, to avoid theft from ants etc (10). The tradition that we could learn how to behave from observing the behaviour of animals and insects demonstrates that a) there are virtuous character traits that can be learned outside of religious law and b) that it would be proper to learn this from observing natural phenomena (11).

Judaism teaches that natural notions of ethics and religious revelation are interdependent, neither of these really works without the other (12). There are many nations of the world that have not followed the Torah yet, they are ethical (13). Torah, religious revelation and teachings,  can play a key role in setting a person on the right path, but there is also that which comes to a person from within himself and his natural conduct...And if a person does not have this natural preparation the commandments of the Torah will not be enough. Because commandments can straighten a person generally but it is impossible for them to address fine details that are constantly arising anew. [for this] one needs morals and natural ethics…(14).

Returning to the  law of the beautiful woman, there are alternative commentaries of some aspects of this that are somewhat less in conflict with natural justice. The required process of her crying for a month long is designed for her benefit, the mourning process being cathartic (15) and about honoring her parents. Shaving her hair, and cutting her nails are part of her spiritual transformation (16). Still challenging, but the woman is seen as person, not an object.

The question about the place of natural ethics, is also reflected in an astonishing teaching relating to the commandment to send away a mother bird before taking her chicks or eggs (17). If someone recites a prayer that attributes this commandment to God’s mercy that person is silenced (18). One explanation (19) for this is that the commandments are not to be understood as expressing mercy but as God’s decrees!”.This seems to be a dismissal of the merits of the natural ethical value of mercy as being unimportant, with the prefered emphasis placed on obedience.

Again, other commentary offers an alternative view. The restriction on attributing the commandments to mercy is technical not theological. It applies [only] to mitzvot whose reasons have not been specified, therefore in it is not for us to decide what the motivation is. Furthermore, the required “silencing” is only after the prayer was recited with a caution to avoid saying it another time rather than being so terribly heretical that it needs to be corrected immediately (20). Another commentary states that to take the mother bird along with her young is “a way of cruelty” (21), implying that this commandment is indeed motivated by mercy.  

A final example from our reading is the insistence of the Torah that we show compassion for someone who escaped an oppressive situation and seeks refuge with us (22). Commentary about this law equates human concepts of what is to be regarded as cruel or merciful with what is pleasing to God and imitates God’s ways (23).  

Once we accept the importance of a human element in discerning proper conduct we are in the messy ambiguous space of subjective value judgements about specific situations. Of course we can bring religious wisdom to decisions, but we will still often need to grapple with the questions of what is right or wrong. It is not easy but would we really want it any other way? I think not.


  1. Deuteronomy 21:10
  2. Rashi on Deuteronomy 21:10
  3. Yeraim, cited in Ritva,cited in Yalkut Meam Loez states “It has not been permitted, only by her consent, he is not allowed to have intercourse with her against her will. Ramban on 21:11, states “it is not proper to sleep with her, in a situation in which she being “forced” [into conversion] as she mourning her family and faith and screaming in her heart to her god to save her and return her to her people and her god/s.”
  4. Ramban on 21:11, states that her conversion is by compulsion, however Ramban sees a process in which she is comforted and encouraged to accept her new reality, that she will never see her people again and therefore she will adjust to the point that her idol worship will be removed a little from her heart and she will cleave to this man. To what extent such resignation and acquiescence should be  considered consent is a tough question.  According to Rabbi Yonason in Sifrei and Sifrei Dbei Rav cited in Yalkud Me’am Loez she is not to be converted against her will, also according to the Rambam,  cited in Yalkud Me’am Loez p. 795, the conversion is voluntary.
  5. we are told in the Torah that if the Jewish man does not want to marry her that she goes free (Deuteronomy 21:14). According to Ibn Ezra’s commentary on the words “she goes free”, the assumption is that the man “should do her will”, which implies that we assume that she did not want the marriage.
  6. Deuteronomy 12:25 & 12:28
  7. Mechilta
  8. Vayikra Rabba 9:3, Tana Dbei Eliyahu Rabba 1
  9. Etz Yosef commentary on Vayikra Rabba 9:3
  10. Talmud, Eruvin 100b
  11. Ethics of the Fathers 3:17
  12. Yachin, Tiferet Yisrael commentary on the Mishna.
  13. Meiri on Avot 3:20 in Beit Habechira p.56, Vagshal publication 1971, based on Mekitzei Nirdamim, 5696
  14. Maimonides in the Moreh Nevuchim, cited in Ramban on 21:11, also in Chizkuni
  15. Chizkuni, he argues that it is similar to rituals performed as part of the transformation of the Levites when they were appointed to their roles in the desert temple (Numbers 8:7).
  16. Deuteronomy 22:6–7
  17. Mishna in Talmud, Berachot 33b, translation from
  18. Rashi on Talmud, Berachot 33b
  19. Maharsha, on Talmud, Berachot 33b
  20. Chizkuni
  21. Deuteronomy 23:16-17
  22. Ramad Vali, Mishneh Torah, Devarim.
רמ"ד וואלי - משנה תורה - דברים (דף 242-243) מפרש המצוה לא תסגיר בקשר לחילול השם וקידוש השם. אלו דבריו: " כי כבר ידוע שהוא בורח מפני אכזריות אדוניו שרדהו בפרך ואינו יכול לסבול את רשעתו. ואם ישראל ימסרנו ביד אדוניו יהיה חילול השם גדול, כי יאמרו הגוים שבני ישראל אכזריים יותר מהם, מאחר דניחא להו להחזיר העבד העלוב מוכה ומעונה בידו של אכזר. ואדרבה ניחא ליה לקב"ה שיהיו ישראל בחזקת רחמנים בעיני האומות... עמך ישב בקרבך. דהיינו במקום המוצנע, שלא ימצאנו אדוניו ולא יחזירנו לשעבודם.
במקום אשר יבחר. הוא ולא אתה. כי בחירת אחרים מצערת את האדם כשהיא כנגד בחירתו.
באחד שעריך. דהיינו בעיר ולא בכפר, כדי שתהיה הצלתו בטוחה ולא מתרופפת.
וגם בעיר עצמו. בטוב לו. ולא בטוב לך, שאם ירצה ידור בבית זה ואם ירצה ידור בבית אחר ולא תכריחנו לדור בפי רצונך. שאם תעשה כך, זהו חסד שלם המשתוה אל הנהגת אדון הכל, ואתה עושה נחת רוח ליוצרך, וקידוש השם לעיני העמים."