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The Path of Wrestling – Marc Gafni

Marc Gafni » Blog - Spiritually Incorrect » Certainty / Uncertainty » Essays & Articles » Tikkun Olam / Social Activism » The Path of Wrestling – Marc Gafni

Presented by Marc Gafni

The following two articles were written as chapters six and seven in a book called in Hebrew, Safek. Safek literally means uncertainty. The full title is Reclaiming the Spirituality of Uncertainty.

The core of the book I developed about ten years ago. It was presented for the first time in a public forum at two lectures I gave at the Zionist Confederation House in Jerusalem in 1998-9.

A year or two later I met Ohad Ezrahi. It is perhaps worth mentioning that at this point when I met Ohad my book on Uncertainty – about 350 pages – was almost fully written. I met Ohad because I had seen a small booklet Ohad has written, 40 pages – on Uncertainty, which made a similar point to my book, using a very different methodology. I contacted Ohad and we met a few days after I saw his booklet. Although we had never met before or seen each others work, we both intuited that the old model of certainty being good and uncertainty being evil, prevalent in much of the faith literature, was at best incomplete. Moreover we both argued for a spirituality of uncertainty.

We both found a depth of authenticity and spiritual texture in the embrace of uncertainty. That is the common thread in our work.

Ohad’s schematic follows, almost exactly, the famous model of James Fowler on the relationship between Certainty and Uncertainty published in his seminal work, Stages of Faith.

Fowler outlines five levels of certainty and uncertainty. He then makes the simple but powerful point that one cannot confuse the uncertainty of the boor with the uncertainty of the sage.

The boor does not know because she has not troubled herself to know. The sage does not know because all the paths and effort at knowing have led to not knowing.

The end of all knowing is that we do not know.

The boor however claims that begin of all knowing is that we do not know.

This is simply not the case.

In my work, although I deploy some of the Fowler strategies, the basic thrust is very different.

I was concerned at the time with reading biblical texts and uncovering archetypes of Uncertainty.

What first began this quest was a very short radio exchange with Rabbi Akiva Tatz, a talented teacher and committed “outreach” missionary to unaffiliated and disaffected Jews.

Tatz repeated the usual claim which equates uncertainty and evil. The claim is based on the sources which identify Amalek and Uncertainty based on their numerological identity. Every hebrew letter has a particular numerical value which allows seemingly unrelated words to reveal a deep inner affinity in energy and substance. Tatz in his writing goes a step further still and argues that the spiritual experience of Uncertainty was essentially alien to biblical conciseness.

As evidence for this claim he points out that the word Safek meaning Uncertainty does not appear in biblical text. {See Akiva Tatz Living Inspired Targum Press} {At this point I do not to point out that Tatz does not understand the nature of linguistic development and that his argument is fallacious at best.}

Rather I want to share my response to that claim at the time.

It occurred to me in a moment of graced intuition that although the word Safek does not occur in biblical text, the word Ullai, meaning, Maybe, does appear. Not once but in seven major pivoting points in the book of Genesis.

It also became clear to me in that moment of grace, that there is a distinct and intentional biblical genre of Ullai- Maybe stories which form the basis of the biblical theology of Uncertainty.

In each of these stories the ability to hold uncertainty and not be seduced by easy certainties is the key to the triumph of the Biblical Hero.

From this point the book goes on to explore the spirituality of Uncertainty in many of it’s magnificent faces and to make a set of cutting edge claims for modern Jewish theology and experience. I am sharing early version of two chapters from this book below. These chapters are now being re-written and deepened in order to incorporate new material and a more profound non-dual understanding.

One version of some of the material in these chapters was published under the title Commandment to Question published in Azure magazine in English and in its Hebrew counterpart. Both magazines are published the Shalem Center Think Tank in Jerusalem. **The first two chapters of the book in more elaborate form, were the basis of Section Five of the book on Lillith which I co-authored with Ohad. The first chapter of the book on Certainty which is republished in this section was the basis of much of the material is Section Two of the book Lillith which I co-authored with Ohad.

Why cry out?

As the Talmudic myth has it, there were three powerful people in the Pharaoh’s court when he made his decision to oppress Jewish slaves. With them he consulted: Jethro, Bilaam, and Job. Jethro said, “Don’t kill the Jewish people.” Jethro ran away: he couldn’t participate in this canon of evil-doing. Jethro was rewarded (according to one version of the legend) with a son-in-law to be proud of – Moses. Bilaam, a Midianite prophet, said, “Destroy the Jewish people,” and Bilaam, “quid pro quo,” was destroyed by the sword. The Talmud then says, “Job was silent, and was sentenced to torment.”

The story is troubling! Punishment is always supposed to be quid pro quo, say the interpreters of the Talmudic text. Punishment is supposed to educate, to edify. Therefore there needs to be in the punishment some reflection of the violation. For example the Egyptians tormented the Jews through water – throwing their first born in the Nile; thus they were punished by water – drowning in the Red Sea. When I know why it hurts I can use the hurt for growth. God wants us to grow so she punishes us in a way which reveals the cause of the punishment. How does Job’s awful punishment relate to his silence? More essentially, all Job did was be silent. After all, what could Job have done? What difference could he have made? Jethro’s protest did not end the slavery: only God was able to do that.

It would seem like Job was silent for the same tragic reason that most of us in the world did very little about Bosnia, about Rwanda, and about Cambodia. Suffering is all over the world, and yet how many of us even wrote a postcard in protest? How many people picked up a pen? Or picked up a phone? Why? I don’t think it was because we didn’t care. So what was our rationalization? How do we explain it to ourselves?

We say to ourselves, ‘You know what, we’re not really going to make a difference.’ The chances are that if most people knew they could definitely make a difference, knew that protesting or crying out would actually prevent atrocities, all our streets would be crammed with screaming demonstrators. Why does this not happen? Because we believe that we’re not going to alter anything. And because we believe we’re not going to make a difference, we are silent.

This is the Job story. He knew that pharaoh had already made up his mind to kill the Jews. His consulting with his advisors was an exercise in form not a request for substantive input. Job says to himself – if I could make a difference of course I would protest. But the die has been cast and I don’t have the tools to change anything. So I will be silent.

God doesn’t buy it. God says: ‘Let’s see, Job, if you’re telling the truth. Let’s see if the real reason for your silence was helplessness.’ And Job begins to suffer. Physically, financially, emotionally, he is nearly destroyed. And what does Job do? He yells. He screams. And God says, ‘Is that you, Job?’ And Job says, ‘What do you mean, is it me? It hurts so much!’ And God says, ‘Job, why are you screaming? Does it help? I know it’s uncomfortable, but does it help when you scream? Does the hurt go away at all?’ And Job says to God, ‘God, don’t you know anything about human beings? When it hurts, we scream.’ And God says: ‘Ahah, so if you’re able to be silent, it means that it doesn’t hurt.’

If we are able to be silent about the evil in the world, it means that it doesn’t hurt us. Job is punished for his silence. We need to acknowledge the hurt throughout the world, even if we are deeply uncertain if there is anything we can do to help. The talmudic passage is suggesting that even in this helplessness, even in the futility of doubt, we must act in the uncertainty by crying out from the depths of our soul.

But if we were to cry out, to whom would we cry? To God? But surely to cry out and challenge God would be to lose God? Surely to argue with God is to lose the certainty of our relationship? Like the comforters of Job, we avoid questioning God so as to keep our relationship intact. We deaden our nerves, we block up our ears, or we blame the victims for their sins. Or if it hurts too much, like Dinah/Mrs. Job we let go of God. “Curse God and die.”

I would like to suggest that Judaism offers a third alternative: Job’s way.

The Talmud, which takes Job to task for his silence in the face of suffering, implies a stunning understanding of the book of Job. In effect the cries of Job in his book are the Tikkun – the fixing of Job’s silence. Job – who does not protest – becomes the archetype of the scream of protest.

The Chassidic story continues the tradition of Job.

It had been a particularly hard year. The community of Chassidim gathered on the Day of Atonement, the fast day when all Jews pray to God for forgiveness for their sins, and the growling in their stomachs was not as unfamiliar as they would have wished. Suddenly a man burst into the synagogue, pushed his way through the lines of silent supplicates, marched straight up to the holy ark and demanded to speak to God. The Chassidim were outraged at this heretical disruption of the dignity of this service of repentance, but the Rebbe signaled them to let the man be. They watched as the man spoke as if to the ceiling, gestured one way and then the other, then eventually wiped his hands as if concluding a satisfying business deal, and marched out of the synagogue.

The following day the Rebbe summoned the man to his study and reassured him that he was not angry. “Only please,” said the Rebbe, “please tell me what you said; to have spoken to God with such audacity on Yom Kippur … you must be a very holy man.”

“Well,” began the man, “I’m really not very holy at all. I told God that I was sorry: I’d not had the best of years. I could have gone to synagogue more, maybe I could have been a bit more generous in my donations to charity, perhaps I should have spoken more kindly to my wife. Taken for all in all, I said, maybe this year my bad deeds overtook my good ones. But you, God, what kind of a year have you had? God, do you know how many people starved to death this year? God, do you know how many people suffered from the ice and snow you sent us last January? And Moishe down the road – he cries himself to sleep every night after you took away his wife in childbirth. Can’t you hear him? And old Hannah, her insides so eaten away by disease she looks like a walking corpse – can’t you see her? My own children – chilblains on their feet because I can’t afford to buy them new shoes – can’t you feel their pain? And the wars, and the diseases, and the murders… God, you know, I may have not had the greatest of years, but you! You’ve had a terrible year! God, I think I’ll do you a deal. If you forgive me my trespasses, I’ll forgive you yours.'”

The Rebbe stood looking at the man with tears in his eyes. “Fool,” he said sadly, “If you had only prayed in the name of us all, you would have brought immediate redemption to the world.”

The Rebbe of the story understood that far from becoming heresy, the act of questioning God, of wrestling with the uncertainty of divine intent, can become religious service in itself. The task now is to find out whether this idea exists only in the whimsy of folk tales, or in the peculiar exception of Job, or does it have legitimacy in the wider world of religious thought and practice. Jacob wrestled with God and was blessed. We need to understand whether Judaism allows us, either within its liturgy or without, to transform the energy of our uncertainty into challenge. Is there a commandment to question?

The Right of Silence

Jewish liturgy presents us with several models for approaching the divine. As we have explored in volume one, we can relate to God as parent1 or as lover2. We have not yet examined the fact that very often, perhaps most often in Jewish literature, God is proclaimed King. What do we mean when we call God ‘King’? Kingship implies power, sovereignty. A king is one who decrees and whose decrees are fulfilled. Yet, can we truly and honestly say God is King in this world? If God is King and kingship implies power, the world looks confusing3. Even a cursory survey of our own personal reality and the reality of the world yields the conclusion that God’s power of royal decree seems to be lacking or weak. The distended stomachs of hungry children dot the landscape of our world. Harsh physical suffering, cruel torture, make up the daily stuff of human existence. And this is before we speak of the existential torture of lonely people sitting isolated in their rooms, or in their mansions, desperate for embrace and real connection. If God is King, if kingship implies power, and if God is good, then the world should reflect that power and it should reflect that goodness. But it doesn’t. Rwanda, Bosnia, Afghanistan, Cambodia, all mar our world even as we some mainstream historians continue to claim that the holocaust was an aberration that could not be repeated. And this is before we begin to speak of natural disaster and disease.

So how can we say that God is King? A Talmudic passage4 suggests that a person should say one hundred blessings every day. Each one of these blessings says the Talmud must contain within it an expression of God’s name and a declaration of his kingship. One hundred times a day we are instructed to express God’s kingship, and yet beneath our prayers we ask ourselves: ‘Are we sure? Is God really King?’ It is not difficult to think of God as a loving friend, knowing full well that friends sometimes let us down. God may well be Father and Mother, and part of growing up is naturally the realization that father and mother can’t always protect us. God may be our lover, and we understand full well that a lover may suffer with us and sometimes even inexplicably disappoint us. But can we say that God is King, sovereign and absolute? God’s power would seem to be too well hidden in our world of stomachs distended from hunger to allow for easy declamations of kingship.


My concern, at least in this chapter, is not with the answer to our quandary- it is with the question itself! Is this question about God’s kingship a legitimate one? Is it religiously correct? Or does the religious reader need to stop his reading because such a challenge is heretical? Do we have the right to question? Is questioning a movement away from the divine center towards a periphery which is devoid of divinity? Or is the act of questioning, even of challenging God’s essential kingship, an act of profound religious passion, even an obligation? Can we suggest, as I attempt to, that when we say ‘Hamelech‘, the King, we need to know what it means. It must express a reality that is true to our experience that we understand. If it isn’t, then it is dishonest.

Does God want us to be dishonest?5

Religious Honesty

The Talmud6 poses the question: Why were the Men of the Great Assembly7 called by that name? What was their greatness? And it responds: “They returned the crown to its glory.” The Talmud continues to explain that Moses praised God as “the God who is great, powerful, and awesome.”(Deut. 10:17) Yet when the prophet Jeremiah praised God he mentioned only his greatness and power, leaving out any mention of God’s awesomeness (Jer. 32:18). Jeremiah had watched the holy temple go up in flames. He had seen strangers mocking and desecrating the sacred site. He did not see or experience God’s awesomeness. For this reason, Jeremiah changed the traditional description of God which had been handed down from Moses. The experience of divine awesomeness was alien to Jeremiah, and so he omitted the word – awesome.8 Later the prophet Daniel, who saw strangers enslaving and oppressing the children of Israel, did not witness or experience God’s power, and so he similarly altered Moses’ formula and praised God’s greatness and awesomeness, but not his power (Daniel 9:4). Jeremiah and Daniel refused to use religious language which they could not own, which did not express their reality.

The Men of the Great Assembly respond to Jeremiah and Daniel that in God’s very absence, in God’s silence, rests God’s power and awesomeness. Only in God’s apparent silence does the miracle of the Jewish people’s survival emerge: the triumph of faith-history over power-history which allows the Jewish people to be one of the messengers of God in the world. This, said the Men of the Great Assembly, is God’s very greatness and God’s very awesomeness. And so they returned the text to its original form suggested by Moses: God who is great, powerful, and awesome.

The difficulty however is not with the answer but with the process. How did Jeremiah, Daniel and the Rabbis have the audacity to do what they did? How did they assume the authority to uproot the divinely-inspired words of Moses? The Talmud responds: “Because they knew that God is true, they did not want to be false to him.” They deleted words from a sacred text, rather than express that which was not true to their experience. And, adds the 11th century commentary of Rashi driving home the point: “God affirms that which is true, and God hates that which is a lie.”9 Clearly, Rashi is not talking about an objective lie, but rather that which is a lie to our experience. To say that God is King when in our core we are uncertain of God’s kingship, is to lie. And to violate the essential prerequisite of honesty in religious language is to violate God: God hates lies. The Talmud gives us the right to avoid religious expression which does not reflect our deepest certainty. We are not to claim false certainty. Rather, we are allowed to plead the Fifth Amendment; we have the right of silence.

The Men of the Great Assembly insist on the honesty of religious language. When religious language is unable to express itself in a manner which is true and honest, the prophet becomes silent. Silence is a religious option to be preferred over the lie.

The Commandment to Question

But are we allowed to challenge? Does Biblical consciousness allow us room to move beyond silence and bid God the King to enter into the wrestling ring? Can I cry out to God and say: ‘Yes, you exist, but are you relevant? Are you a personal God who is just and fair, or are you a God who allows a million children to be destroyed in the Holocaust?’

I grew up on the story of a little girl who saw a baby ripped apart in front of her by the Gestapo – and then buried the pieces. Apparently she had been hidden by a Christian family during the holocaust. Someone suspected her of being Jewish. The Gestapo came and massacred the house. The girl hid in a tree and watched the goings on below. When the Gestapo left she put the baby back together and buried him. She tells me that today as she nears sixty the baby’s face, his features, are becoming clear. The girl is my mother. It was the defining story of my childhood. I heard it a thousand times. What are we do with the stories of horror we’ve experienced and the stories horror we’ve received? May we scream our question towards God, demanding, in all of our human brokenness, an answer? If we challenge the majesty of God can we still remain in relationship?

All His Ways are Justice

The first time I performed a funeral in America, I was twenty-five years old. A couple in their early fifties had finally had their first child. The baby was born prematurely and died two weeks later. At the cemetery I read, for the first time as a Rabbi, the text of the Biblical response to the open grave: “He is the Rock, his work is perfect, for all his ways are justice.”10

When I went home that day, the phrase resounded in my mind and troubled me deeply. What did that sentence mean? It seemed as though I, as a Rabbi, had to ignore the pain of the mourners and almost coldly pronounce sentence. Did I or the grieving parents not have the right to shout that it is unfair that babies should die, that it should not be that way? I was so upset by the whole thing that if I liked liquor or knew anything about drugs I would have sought their solace. Instead I remained awake the entire night poring over the text, trying to understand its deepest, most hidden recesses. Does the text allow us another approach to God in moments of suffering, something other than mere affirmation of divine justice?

A Night of Illumination

That night turned out to be very important for me. I was up till dawn in my own dark night of the soul. Allow me to share with you I some of what I came to understand.

He is the Rock, his work is perfect, for all his ways are justice.” This funeral text is a direct quotation from Moses, as he gives his farewell oration to the Jewish people in Deuteronomy. The two key words in the text are ‘ways‘ and ‘justice‘. The personality in the text is Moses. Lets re-read the sentence- this time more carefully. Is there perhaps, a hidden echo in it, is there a deeper layer of meaning that can be uncovered by a closer reading?

Moses has referred to God’s “ways” only once before: when he stands before God after the sin of the Golden Calf, seeking atonement for the Children of Israel. As we have studied, God responds in the affirmative, willing to embrace his people once more despite their betrayal. But for Moses this is not enough. Moses demands, in a cry which resounds throughout the centuries: “God, show me your ways.”11

What is Moses asking for? What does Moses want from God, above and beyond full relationship with the Jewish people? With audacity and daring, the rabbis of the Talmud interpret the text: Moses says to God, ‘”The righteous suffer; the wicked prosper.” (Brachot 7a) God, your world is not fair. God, do you not know about the widows, do you not know about the orphans? Don’t you know about the wells of tears shed by your children every day? Show me your ways.’

In biblical consciousness12 prophecy is the highest level of human perfection, and here the ultimate prophet, Moses, is operating at the height of his prophetic powers.13 A close reading of the text reveals that the bible considers this moment to be no less than the zenith of human spiritual enlightenment – in the language of the kabbalists, it is “the Highest.” At this moment does Moses embrace God with clear theological proofs of divine perfection? Does he, in ecstasy, move to a higher level of meditation? No. At the highest level of human spirituality, Moses challenges God. He cries out in question demanding response. This challenge is understood by Biblical consciousness not as a movement away from God, but as the quintessential movement towards God. The question becomes the embrace; the grip of the wrestler becomes the most powerful expression of Jewish spirituality.

Return with me now to the funeral text from Deuteronomy. “God’s ways are justice.” On one level, Moses, parting with the Jewish people as they are about to enter Canaan without him, is affirming that God’s “ways” are just. His statement is one of core certainty in God. On another level, the word “ways” echoes with the challenge and the question of Moses’ previous usage of the same word: “God, show me your ways.” Proclamation of divine justice interweaves with doubt: ‘God, I demand that you explain how your world operates.’ There is deliberate literary ambiguity, a delicate balance of uncertainty and affirmation in Moses’ words.

We have thus far tried to detect the dialectical tension in the word “ways.” Now let us return and listen closely to the biblical echoes of the second key word in our primary text ‘justice’.

“All his ways are justice.”

According to Biblical text, the personification of Justice is Abraham, as God says, “I know that Abraham represents the attribute of justice and that he will transmit justice to his children.” (Genesis 18:19). Indeed, his reputation for justice is what, according to this text, moves God to choose him as His messenger. The Zohar suggests that Abraham had competition from Noah for the job of spreading the ethical message of God in the world. However, as we know, when God stood poised to destroy the world Noah did not challenge or rage: he simply followed orders and built the ark. Had Noah been anything but silent, compliant, and obedient, he would have become God’s messenger and the father of the Jewish people.14 As it was, Noah’s inability to protest led to Isaiah finding him culpable, naming the devastating flood which destroyed the world, “the waters of Noah.” (Isaiah 54:9)

Where though do we see Abraham associated with Justice? The answer – in his song of uncertainty, in his repeated challenge to God over the destruction of Sodom. It is through his dramatic challenging of divinity and his demand of Justice, even from God, that Abraham merits the accolade of being God’s chosen. On hearing that God intends to wipe out Sodom, Abraham does not lower profile, retreat into easy piety, battening down the hatches lest his house be damaged in the blast. Instead, Abraham stands at the potential open grave of thousands of people, albeit wicked people, and says to God: “Will you who are judge of the entire world not do justice?” Abraham rejects easy certainty even when offered by God himself, instead he challenges God, and in so doing embodies justice.

Thus Moses’ phrase, “[God] is the rock; his work is perfect, for all his ways are justice,” contains both the embrace and the challenge. Just as the core certainty of the modeh ani prayer is rooted in the complex soil of Leah’s insecurity, so the combative history of the funeral liturgy is at odds with its apparent stoicism.15 Not by accident was this ambivalent phrase adopted by the Jewish community as the text recited before the open grave. It is in this moment that we embrace God, even as the deepest divinity in our human soul demands that we wrestle and that we question.

Returning in Question

There have always been ‘believers’ for whom the dialectic of struggling embrace is simply too difficult and who prefer simpler answers to difficult human questions. For them all suffering in this world is divine punishment for human sin. The biblical text most often cited by this group is Deuteronomy 31:17-18, where God says: “On that day my anger will burn against them, I will forsake them, I will hide my face from them, and they shall be devoured and many evils and troubles shall befall them.” This passage does indeed suggest that there is a possibility of suffering in the world resulting from divine punishment of human misdeeds. Yet the passage in no way declares that all or even most human suffering can be explained as punishment: the key phrase is “I will hide my face from them.” Suffering ensues as a result of an eclipse of the divine presence, and God’s presence does indeed become hidden in response to sin. But can we be certain that the only possible or even major reason for divine concealment is punishment for human sin?

King David declares himself to be in direct opposition to such certainty. In Psalm 44 he describes the existential reality of his people to God: “You have given us like sheep to be eaten, you have sold your people for no great gain. You have not put high their prices. You make us a taunt for our neighbors, a scorn and derision to those around us…” David is describing a reality in which the Jewish people suffer greatly. He then deliberately and consciously refuses to accept the sin-punishment axis knowing, as he does, that his people have not sinned: “Have we forgotten the name of our God or stretched our hands to a strange God? Had this been true would God not have searched us out? For does God not know the secrets of the heart? We have been killed for you, God, all through the day, we have been considered as sheep for the slaughter.” In direct allusion to the Deuteronomy text, David concludes with the cry: “Why do you hide your face from us?” The hiding of God’s face in David’s reality cannot be a result of our sinfulness.

How does David know this? How can David reinterpret the simple meaning of the text in Deuteronomy? Doesn’t the text teach us that God hides his face as a result of sin? The answer is simple. David knew his reality. Like Job and his wife before him, David felt in the depth of his being that the Jewish people were not culpable to the extent of their suffering. And therefore David, trusting his spiritual intuition, affirms the innocence of his people. David refuses to violate the integrity of his spiritual intuition with the false certainty of easy theodicies.16 Instead, David shakes God and screams out: “Awake God! How can you sleep when your people suffer?”

An example from my home which demonstrates the all too relevant nature of our discussion — As I have mentioned, all too often in the public discourse of modern Israel we hear leading religious figures explaining that bus accidents in which children are killed are divine punishment for the sins of the parents. This cannot but lead people to reject the religion as a whole, for in their deepest spiritual intuition they understand that the Rabbis were wrong in teaching that twenty-eight children were killed in a school bus accident because God was punishing their parents for not keeping the Sabbath.17 Sadly this was an explanation offered by important religious authorities in Israel.

Unfortunately, this inability to trust intuitive human knowing, as well as the urge to reach for theological certainty in the face of the uncertain, characterizes much of the contemporary religious community. In this world of certainty presented as piety, there are no questions without answers. We know everything. For babies dying, for distended stomachs, for bus accidents, and even for the Holocaust, we have the ‘answer’. Tragically, one whose intuition is repelled by the nature of such certainty, who cries out in question, is taught that he has moved away from God.

The Modern Context

There is a fascinating Hebrew phrase ‘lachzor b’teshuva‘ – literally translated as ‘to return in answer‘. In contemporary Hebrew idiom, this is taken to mean the adoption of an orthodox Jewish life-style. It is more than a coincidence of language that Teshuva – translated as repentance in the English – literally means ‘answer’ in Hebrew, for contemporary teachers of repentance claim to have answers for all of life’s uncertainties.18 It is similarly striking that the phrase used in modern context for those who move away from religious orthodoxy is “lachzor b’she’elah – to return in question.” The implication is clear – Those who question are on the outside of religious faith. As we have seen in our study such an implication is a fundamental distortion of authentic Jewish spirituality.

The quest for a common spiritual language for society requires recognizing that questioning God is not a sign of anti-religion, but rather the peak of biblical spirituality. Put differently, certainty is not a desideratum for religious language. Uncertainty is at times the highest expression of authentic spirituality. The energy of uncertainty may well be drawn from the deepest well springs of the spirit. This is important not only as a religious statement but as a political idea.

Underlying much of the political conflict between fundamentalism and democracy world-over is an essential conflict of perceptions- over how to grasp the world we live in, whether through the prism of the sacred, or that of the secular.

These are the two categories into which we divide society, and each is identified with a set of principles, taken to be axiomatic. There are political and social opinions which are held to be naturally secular, and there are opinions which are held to be naturally religious. But these often emerge as caricatures rather than as reflections of authentic secular or religious philosophy.

Because we live in a world of sound bytes real reflection is often overwhelmed by the pressing needs, struggles and anxieties of the day-to-day. This allows the easy-to-digest, “fast food” caricatures of religiosity and secularism to become that to which the community relates and understands as true. These simplistic images are not a little bit distorting, and perhaps dangerous as well. They require examination if we are to forge a shared cultural language that can serve to unite the overwhelming majority of people.

Not infrequently, denigrating expressions of anti-religious sentiment in the media arise from a severely distorted perception of the intellectual and existential reality of religious thought. Clearly, some of this distortion is self-serving, and self-justifying. It comforts people who have long since abandoned any sense of deep religious content and identity in their lives, allowing them to feel justified, morally correct and even superior in their choices.

However, much of the misperception of religious life emerges from distortion generated by the religious community itself, specifically by voices which misinterpret, distort and project an image of religion which is unfaithful to the sources and the spirit of classical Biblical tradition.

Even when this strain of fundamentalist religious belief does ground itself in sources, it is done in a non-dialectical fashion: One source or a group of sources is cited from a particular time and place, and held to express the essence of religious thought; other sources from other times and other places which may express very different views are conveniently ignored.

In this chapter I have chosen therefore, to treat a single, highly charged example of this phenomenon which comes from non-dialectic use of sources: My analysis revolves around possible human responses to suffering and evil, and particularly the relationship between those whose response to evil is to question, and those whose response is to offer theological explanations. It is my hope that this effort will succeed in redefining at least this primary religious issue in a way that reflects a truer spirit of classic biblical sources. This is the first step in forming a shared spiritual language which has the ability to unite people under the umbrella of the sacred.

The classic understanding – or rather, misunderstanding – of the relationship between questions and answers in religious life is perhaps best expressed in the old adage, “For the believer, there are no questions; for the non-believer, there are no answers.” The suggested relationship of questions to answers is similarly expressed in the Hebrew vernacular by the not accidental terms referred to above, hazara bitshuva (“return in answer”) and hazara bish’ela (“return in question”). As we began to point out, one who returns with “the answer” is one who decides to take up observance of the commandments. It is to move from the periphery to the center, to become God-involved, to become a religious personality. One who returns in “question” is understood to be someone who moves from a theocentric world to an anthropocentric world, from living in a religious reality to existing and functioning in a secular reality.

The use of “the question” to express movement away from religiosity towards secularism is obviously not an accidental turn of phrase. Language, and particularly popular idiomatic expression, captures the essence of the thought and rhythms of a society. The mistaken implication is that to question is to move away from a religious mode of thinking and living. To have unwavering answers, on the other hand, is viewed as the epitome of the religious position.

Yet on consideration, it becomes apparent that this understanding of the relationship between questions and answers is a caricature of religious truth, and a distortion of the biblical sources. Indeed, the popular usage of these terms tells the story of a very profound mistake, one which exerts a powerful negative influence on the possibility of dialogue and shared community.

Let me pose a question: If the return to religion in its classic sense in fact means the return to a deeper, richer, more fulfilling lifestyle, why doesn’t everyone do it?

When I was seventeen or eighteen years old, looking around the religious world in which my friends and I would one day teach, we thought it was so simple. It was obvious to us that we would be able to find the words. We would present that synthesis of meaning and excitement that would prove irresistible to the secular person. We believed that it was only a matter of time until everyone was engaged in some form of religious practice, observance and study. We have been teaching now for over fifteen years and, somehow, it has not happened. The overwhelming majority of people have not returned to religion. Why? – Clearly there is not one simple monolithic answer. Part of the explanation is probably the hedonism of the modern world, which can unquestionably drown out the quiet murmur of the sacred, at least for a while.

This reason assumes that the listener cannot hear the still small voice of holiness above the din of modern materialism; the message is fine, the reception is unclear because of static. But I do not believe this answer exhausts the question. There is something deeper. There is another level of resistance to the message of “return” which prevents at least a significant segment of the population from considering religion as a serious alternative. This second deeper approach will suggest that perhaps the flaw lies within the message itself.

Let me turn for a moment to my tradition in order to fully unpack these ideas. Philosopher mystic Abraham Isaac Kook, in his magnum opus Light of Holiness, suggests that the people of Israel are themselves “a received tradition of Moses from Sinai.” In other words, the Jewish people, a community of the spirit, are by their very existence a prism of revelation. Refracted through the collective consciousness and unconsciousness of community are the rays of authentic spirituality and divine revelation: “Every spark of scattered life, through all the dimensions and currents of (Jewish) being is somehow connected to the source of divine spirit. Every movement in the symphony of Jewish thinking and feeling, no matter how far or how distant it seems to be, is in some sense an expression of the supernatural light within the Jewish spirit. Non-authentic spiritual movements find no enduring home in the community of Israel.”

One corollary of this idea which one finds in R. Kook’s writing is the notion that the community has a built-in barometer for spiritual truth, a built-in litmus test which detects authenticity in spiritual teaching. With this understanding one could, perhaps somewhat audaciously, offer the following thesis: If the community is unable to hear the message of a “return in answer,” then the problem may not be with the community: Perhaps the message itself is fundamentally flawed. It could well be that the Jewish people reject the contemporary call for religious return because of their inherent spiritual instinct. The intuitive spiritual barometer of the community senses a violation of its basic ethos in the way religion in being taught in its present form.

This violation is, I believe, related to the essence of the language of hazara bitshuva and hazara bish’ela. It is related to the very implication that if one but returns to God and to religious observance, one will be in a place which supplies answers-all the answers-a place which is beyond the place of sh’ela, the place of question. Intuitively, the community understands that this is not true, that questioning is a religious category, perhaps even a religious imperative, and that “returning in question” can, contrary to what has been said so often, be a profoundly religious act. It can be a movement not away from God, but a turning towards God.

There is, suggests R. Kook in a stunning passage, heresy that is faith and faith that is heresy.19 “There is heresy which is like faith, and faith which is like heresy.20 To understand R. Kook we need only revisit the idiomatic phrase, hazara bish’ela, “return in question,” and notice just how dramatically language can distort the spiritual sources of our people. People question in innocence, and yet those who speak for Judaism all too often demand that they stifle the question and accept “the answer,” because faith means hazara bitshuva, returning with the answer. And what an answer they wish for the people to accept: That the reason for the death of innocent children in this world is that we are being punished!

The natural, healthy intuition of the people, when they hear such “religious” arguments again and again is to reject. The rejection however is not of religion but of a caricature of religion. The result however is that people are unable to listen seriously to the tradition – and therefore reject everything – our sources, our tradition, our people, our God.

Yet in the authentic tradition of the prophets, as in the tradition of the Talmud, when one questions the injustice in the world one moves towards God. In the sources of our tradition, to return to God means to return in question-and it is the question, not the answer, which is the ultimate expression of spirituality. It is precisely when one is beset by question that one is, in the deepest sense, embracing the divine. Heresy which is faith.

The anger and outraged protest clearly expressed in the sources we have studied emerge from a refusal to adopt easy certainties. Although, as we showed early on there are ample approaches in Jewish sources which suggest ostensible understandings to the problem of suffering – they are not intended to provide certain answers. They are more in the realm of grappling, musings and gropings to find a partial framework with which to approach suffering. And while each approach teaches some deep truth about the human spiritual condition- no approach intends to provide the seeker with certainty. The uncertainty, the plaguing questions, remain, and fuel the anguished and audacious challenge/plea which we hurl heavenward. R. Kook teaches that ‘faith which is heresy’ never really experiences the goodness of God, and consequently never experiences the contradiction between God’s goodness and human suffering. Resting comfortably in the ostensible certainty of such partial faith is, in R. Kook’s eyes, faith that is heresy. Conversely, heresy that is faith tastes and sees that God is good and thus cries out plaintively, powerfully: ‘God, how could you allow this?’

If only we were able to reform our language, to understand that questioning is the ultimate expression of spirituality – moving anger and doubt into the energy and embrace of the divine wrestling ring – we might open ourselves up to creating a community that includes all of Israel.

The example I have used in the past several paragraphs comes from my Jewish community. It is painfully apparent that similar tensions exist in Catholicism, Protestantism, and in the various strains of Islam. However, although I study, I do not live and breath Christianity or Islam. I therefore lack the right to critique any community other than my own. At this point I want to return our discussion to the book we all share, the Bible.

The Biblical Context

Perhaps the most striking text which could be brought to bear at this juncture comes in Exodus, when Moses attempts to intercede on the people’s behalf at Pharaoh’s court. Despite turning sticks into snakes, he succeeds only in making the plight of the people worse than before. In frustration and guilt he turns to God and complains: “Why have you made it worse for this people?” (Exodus 5:22)

Moses’ challenge is odd. We need only to go back to the preceding passages to see that God has clearly mapped out his intentions to Moses (Exodus 3,4). There God explained to Moses that the people would go through a short period of suffering which would purify them, and ultimately, after that suffering takes place, they would be redeemed. Does Moses not remember the divine plan? Did he forget what God told him in the previous two chapters? The Talmud takes Moses to task for this and suggests that in challenging God, he sinned (Sanhedrin 111a). But I would suggest that Moses knew precisely what he was doing, and that if indeed he sinned, it was sinning for the sake of heaven.21 For this was the sin of a leader, it expressed the very quality which made Moses who he was, and which caused him to be chosen as the shepherd of the Jewish people.

Moses knew very well that the divine plan involved suffering for the people. But Moses also knew that to be a leader and to be a human being, one can never allow theology to deaden one’s sensitivity to human pain. God himself told Moses that there would be a divine purpose behind the suffering he would witness. And yet Moses, as a human being created in the divine image, understood that his only response to this suffering had to be to cry out and to challenge God: “God, why have you made it worse for this people?”

More certain of God’s divine plan than perhaps anyone else in the history of humanity, more clear than any mortal rabbi that the suffering of his people was necessary, reasoned, and non-arbitrary, nevertheless, Moses had to cry out in protest. To do otherwise, to allow theology to silence his cry, would have been to lessen God in the world. Moses teaches us that questioning the edict of suffering is not only an option, not merely a right, but an assertion of our essential humanity and of the divine image that resides within.

“Instructions for Living”

If everything we have said is true why do the “explanations”- the alleged “answers” to the problem of suffering – continue to be heard, and with such insistence, in the public debate. The explanation lies in an understanding of the different meanings of the word Torah. Etymologically the word Torah means Hora’ah – instructions. It in this sense that one contemporary Yeshiva which specializes in persuading secular Jews to “Teshuva” – to return to Jewish observance- refers to Torah as ‘Instructions For Living’. This is a legitimate, if creative, re-reading of the popular phrase Torat Chayim – literally a Torah of life.

‘Instructions for living’ implies safety. We teach our children that they can insure their safety by following the directions. If we don’t follow directions we risk being hurt. Torah in this sense becomes a road map to insure my safe navigation of a danger fraught world. This understanding however is undermined by reality. How do we explain the fact that people who followed the directions so well were so badly hurt? This is the question of human suffering. One explanation – adopted by much of the east – is to say that suffering is not real. It is Maya – illusion. In Biblical Judaism, which takes the world seriously, this approach is rejected out of hand.

Only two intellectual moves are available for those who explain Torah exclusively as instructions for living. Either the instructions are faulty or they were not followed properly. Since to claim that the instructions – the Torah – are flawed is a nonstarter the only explanation remaining is to claim that those who suffer didn’t follow directions. They may appear righteous, but in truth, they must be, in on sense or another, sinners. The evidence is empirical. They are suffering; had they followed directions they would be safe. The suffering per se becomes the decisive indicator of the lurking presence of sin.

The need to explain Torah exclusively as instructions is not etymological; it is existential. It is rooted in a deep desire for certainty. It would be very nice to be sure, that if we just followed the instructions, we would be safe. This is the story of Job’s comforters whom we met in the previous chapter. Reality, however, explodes this belief as a false certainty. The need to hold to false certainty always creates in its wake moral distortion.22 In this case the distortion expresses itself in the need to vilify the innocent in order to explain their suffering and thereby retain the understanding of Torah as ‘instructions for living’.

Etymologically and existentially however, the word Torah holds within it a second understanding – that of Latur ‘to search’23. This understanding is diametrically opposed to the first. To search is to be without instructions. It is about the journey, not the destination. This reading frees the man of faith from the need to create false dogma rooted in moral distortion. It allows one to live in passionate relationship within the quest, even in the shadow of uncertainty.

Biblical consciousness is really about holding both understandings of Torah together in dialectical tension. In much of life the Torah provides instructions, with innumerable important answers, and with a measure of security. At the same time Torah provides a framework of meaning from within which we can continue asking the question – the quest I’m on – in the often difficult, sometimes sweet, never ending search for understanding…

An Intimate Inquisition

The human question in the face of a brutal world is however more than an expression of a human right, or even imperative. It is also an expression of deep intimacy with God. If I were to stop someone I barely know on the street and challenge him with great intensity and depth, I would probably evoke a hostile reaction. If, however, I confront someone I deeply love, with whom I am in a close spiritual relationship, then the response will be very different. Questioning is a right which emerges from intimacy. Questioning in such a relationship is an expression of commitment, relationship and intimacy. So it was with Abraham, and with Moses, whose relationships with God were on such a level of intimacy that they were able to question his ways not as hostile opponents, not from the “outside,” but as those who are deeply “within.”

Moreover, the question of why children suffer simply cannot be intelligently posed by an atheist. It can only be meaningfully formulated by the believer. For if the world is finite, physical and natural, then there is no reason to assume that the world will be morally fair- cruelty and brutality make just as much sense in such a world as kindness and justice. Only if we assume the infinite, the metaphysical, the supernatural, only if we introduce a God who is good and who created a world with a moral law, do we find that we have the right to cry out when that moral law seems to be violated.

Paradoxically, the deeper I learn about that relationship between God and moral law, the deeper my intimacy with God runs, and the more I have a right to challenge. For the God who is the source of loyalty, the God whom I experience in a relationship as a moral God, is a God whom I can challenge when evil seems to erase morality. It is the knowledge of God’s existence and the experience of the depth of God’s goodness which together create the right to question. That is the sense of the book of Job when Job cries out: “Though he slay me, yet I will trust in him. But I will argue my ways before him.” Job is intimate with God. A function of that intimacy is Job’s right, as well as his existential necessity, to argue the ways (again that same word, “ways”) of God in the world. Job demands an explanation of these ways as his right as a human being who is deeply involved with God.

The power of the Book of Job is that at the end of the book God sides with Job. After God appears to rebuke Job23 he takes Job’s side. Divine anger in the book is reserved for those who piously defended God.

These are the friends who claimed, “has an innocent person ever perished…can a person be more just than God?” God rejects their piety, for they have not “spoken correctly, like my servant Job.”

Kaddish – A Plea for Peace on Earth

This affirmation of Job’s cry of protest as being an act of ultimate religious significance lies at the heart of the most evocative Jewish prayer – the Kaddish. The Kaddish is recited as an integral part of every prayer service and as a special mourner’s prayer.

The same biblical dialectic between protest and affirmation of divine justice that we discussed above, as being implicit in the liturgical formula recited at the graveside, lies at the core of the mourner’s Kaddish. At first blush the Kaddish is a pious affirmation of divine Justice. A second look however reveals Kaddish as a song of protest. ‘Yitgadel Ve Yitkadesh Shemei Rabah‘- ‘May God’s name be exalted and magnified’- is written in the future tense. Indeed all of the divine praise in the Kaddish text is phrased as a hope for a future different than the present. The implication is that in our reality God’s name is not yet exalted and magnified. Quite the opposite – the Kaddish, which is based on a text in Ezekiel, suggests that Gods name is desecrated in this world. In a world without apparent justice ‘God’s name is not holy,’ cries out the mourner before the still fresh memories of death. ‘God, please, we beg of you,’ pleads/demands the mourner, ‘exercise your kingship not at some later messianic time but in our lives – now!’

The conclusion of the Kaddish prayer is the affirmation that God is ‘Oseh Shalom Bemroamv‘- God who creates peace in heaven. Again, this seemingly pious statement is however, not what it seems. The source of the statement is not surprisingly – the book of Job. It is put in the mouth of Bildad, one of Job’s comforters and God’s defenders.24 In the very next verse however Job rejects Bildad’s declaration. “What is your advice… it has no wisdom?!” As we have seen, God sided with Job against his comforters. Why then is Bildad’s affirmation – rejected by God and Job – used as the dramatic finale of the Kaddish prayer?

The answer is in the very next phrase. After declaring Oseh Shalom Bemromav – God makes peace on high – the Jew says “He will make peace on us and on all the children of Israel”. Theology which remains in heaven is not what we’re after, says the mourner. Peace in heaven is not the goal. Rather we demand peace on earth – in our lifetime – now!

The Wicked and the Wise

In the Passover Seder, different types of spiritual seekers are represented as four sons (this before feminism had made its healing contribution): The wise son, the wicked son, the simple son and the one who has does not know how to question. The lowest level is the fourth son, the one who has lost the art of questioning.

The wise and the wicked sons both question, challenging the ritual of the evening. A careful reading would seem to indicate that their questions are identical. Both pose essentially the same question to the participants at the Seder: “What is the meaning of the Seder ritual for you?” Most understandings of the text, have tried, based on slight differences in the language of their questions, to argue that in fact the wise son and the wicked son are asking different things. But I would suggest that in fact the simple reading of the text is the correct one. The wise son and the wicked son ask precisely the same question. If so, you may ask, why is one son wise and the other wicked? The difference is that the wise son asks from within, as a function of relationship, of commitment and intimacy. The wicked son is the armchair philosopher who asks from the outside, who is unwilling to involve himself in a relationship with the deepest issues of living, who sits cynically critiquing from the safe distance of dispassionate and non-intimate existence.

To be wise is not to arrive at a place of no questions. A place of no questions is the lowest level, the place of the fourth son, the son who “does not even know how to ask”. To be wise is to know how to question from a place of deep relationship.

“A Helper against Him”

To wrestle with the angel of uncertainty is not to reject God, nor to criticize from afar: it is to assert intimacy and relationship. But if we are constantly wrestling, what does this say about the health of the relationship?

We learned in Volume One that our relationship to God needs to be seen through the model of marriage. What is the prototype marital relationship in the bible? Adam and Eve. Not only is this our first meeting with the concept of marriage, but this is a match literally made in heaven. God creates a life-long partner for Adam, forming Eve from Adam’s rib. The text gives us a clear indication of what God views as the ideal relationship. Employing a paradoxical difficult-to-translate phrase, God literally says: “It is not good for man to be alone; I will make a helper against him – ezer kenegdo.” The standard bible translates this as “fitting helper”, but in so doing moves us no nearer to the deep meaning of this phrase. How can the same person be both my helper and against me?

Rashi, the 11th century interpreter of biblical text, tells us that ezer kenegdo means that if we ‘merit’ our wives will help us, if we do not merit, they will be against us. Although clearly this does not touch the depth of complexity inherent in the phrase, “helper against him”. Mordechai Lainer of Ishbitz, in trying to interpret the same ambiguous phrase, draws our attention to a Talmudic story25. The tale is told of the deep friendship between two great scholars: Reb Yochanan and Resh Lakish. A powerful partnership is formed between these two men – R. Yochanan renowned for his beauty, and Resh Lakish for the fact that he was once a gangster drawn into religious study by his friend Yochanan. The Talmud tells us that one day the two friends are unable to agree on a point of law concerning the legal status of weapons of war. In a fit of frustration R. Yochanan cries out, “A master would know his tools,” thereby humiliating Resh Lakish in reminding him of his violent former life. Resh Lakish is hurt and responds in kind, devaluing his friend’s support in the early days: “What did I gain by coming to you? There they called me master, and here they call me master.”

R. Yochanan is trapped in his own hurt and rage. His anger, says the Talmud, causes Resh Lakish to fall sick. Although R. Yochanan’s sister, Resh Lakish’s wife, pleads with him, R. Yochanan is unable to let go of his dangerous anger. His best friend Resh Lakish dies.

It would seem at this point the story has very little to teach us about ideal romantic relationships, but R. Lainer draws our attention to its conclusion. After the death of Resh Lakish, the rabbis understand that R. Yochanan must be lonely, and so they send R. Eliezer ben Padat to study with him. The two of them learn together, and whenever R. Yochanan offers an interpretation, R. Eliezer nods solemnly and agrees, citing chapter and verse to confirm R. Yochanan’s opinion. After a few hours R. Yochanan can bear it no longer. “Do you think you can replace Resh Lakish for me? Do you think that I need your respectful agreement? When I learned with Resh Lakish, I would state my opinion, and then he would contradict me and offer twenty four reasons why I was wrong, and I would counter with twenty four reasons to the contrary, and this way our understanding would grow.” Ripping his clothing, R. Yochanan begins to wail in grief: “Resh Lakish, my friend Resh Lakish, where are you? Resh Lakish, where are you?” And so the great man continues to cry until the rabbis pray for mercy, and Rabbi Yochanan dies, perhaps rising to heaven, there to study with Resh Lakish once more.

In referring to this tale by way of comment upon the creation of Eve as a helper against him, R. Lainer is telling us that R. Yochanan in his grief discovered a deep truth about loving and committed relationships. The highest relationship is one of challenge. To lose one’s ezer kenegdo, one’s loving adversary, is to lose one’s essential opportunity for stimulation, growth, balance, and depth. It is to lose the essential ground of creative tension in which the most successful of relationships flourish. In giving to Adam an ezer kenegdo, God was granting to Adam and Eve a full relationship not of sycophancy and subservience, but of honest mutuality, robust and creative love.

If this, according to the words of God, is the nature of the ideal love relationship, then it must likewise be applied to the lover’s relationship between the human being and God.

The Lover’s Model

The underlying paradigm in almost all of Kabbalistic literature is that of a lover model. We are God’s lovers. The lover’s model implies two very different existential moments. The first is one of total merging. We lose ourselves in what Freud called the oceanic feeling of rapture. We melt sweetly in the arms of our beloved. The second implication of the lovers model however is precisely the opposite. We were not created to be yes-people, we were created to be God’s helper against Him, to be God’s ezer kenegdo, and to share in the creation and re-creation of the world. For this task we must enter into a relationship with God so intimate that it allows room for giving voice to uncertainty. We as Gods’ partners have a right to question and even to doubt.

When God flooded the earth, destroying all of life, we understand this was because “The Lord saw how great was man’s wickedness on the earth, and how every plan devised by his mind was nothing but evil all the time.” (Genesis 6:5) However much later, when the flood-waters had subsided and life had returned to the land, in placing the rainbow in the sky, God said to Himself: “Never again will I doom the earth because of man, since the devisings of man’s mind are evil from his youth.” The question we are bound to ask is – what has changed? God chooses to destroy the earth because of the evil of man’s intentions: God then vows never to do so again – why – because of “the evil of mans intentions”. The same reason given to destroy is the reason given not to destroy. Only one variable has changed: Noah has left his ark. No longer content to build his own comfort zone and ignore the wrongs of the world, Noah has emerged as a full partner in the divine relationship. Now Noah is active and open to pain and anger, as displayed when he curses his son Ham’s family (Genesis 9:25). Now God is not alone: mankind has entered into partnership. Noah has begun to assume responsibility. God then is able to let go — restraining divine anger in order to allow room for his human partner to emerge as a dignified and responsible being.


1. God as father is a common usage in biblical and prayer texts. God as mother appears in at least one biblical text where Moses refers to God in the feminine Numbers 11 – and is a dominant motif in the appellation of God as Shechina in kabbalistic sources. For the intellectual history of the term shechina see Gershons Scholems “On the mystical shape of the God Head” the chapter on shechina 140-97 see also volume one of this work pp.

2. I am my beloved and my beloved is mine Song of Songs 2:16 Song of songs is almost universally interpreted as a love song between God and the Jewish people or alternately – humanity. See volume one pp.

3. A king is one who decrees and whose decrees are fulfilled. Therefore, in Jewish law, one who violates the decree of the King has violated his essential kingship. Jewish law calls this person a mored bemalchut, one who has rebelled against the kingship of God. Yet, can we truly and honestly say God is King in this world? If God is King and kingship implies power, the world looks confusing. Because, after all, when we say that God is King, we mean that God has the power to fulfill his will.

4. What is God’s will in Jewish tradition? God is good; one of God’s holy names is “the Good One.” If God’s will is good, if God’s essence is good, then God’s desire in the world is to make the world a good world-a world of goodness and of joy, a world of fulfillment, without pain or suffering. In fact, R. Moshe Haim Luzzato suggests in The Way of God that the fundamental purpose of creation is for God to bestow his goodness.

4. Menachot 43b

5. It is worth noting that the prophet Zechariah was sensitized to the problem. In his description of reality he is unable to declare God to” be king in the here and now. Rather he declares “And God will be king over the all earth… on that day God will be one and his name will be one chapter 14 verse 9.

6. Yoma 69b

7. The ruling judicial body during part of the second temple period

8. See Isaac Hutner, Pachad Yitzchak (Brooklyn 1978), volume on Yom Kippur, essay 5, sec. 3, no. 20 for a similar reading of the passage.

9. Rashi, ad locum

This verse from Deuteronomy 32 Is a standard part of the Jewish funeral service

10. Exodus 33:13

11. Although it is not always the case, In regard to prophecy Maimonides expresses well the biblical emphasis on prophecy as a primary spiritual goal.

12. To understand the drama, the impact and the theological force of the text, we need to step back and look at the development of Moses in the Book of Exodus. We already know that Moses is a prophet. We know that he is the prophet par excellence in Jewish tradition. We know that most of Jewish tradition regards prophecy as the ultimate human spiritual achievement. Now we ask ourselves a final question. Does Moses – the ultimate prophet develop. Are their stages in his prophetic career. Is there an apex. A close reading of the text structures in the book of Exodus clearly answers our question. Moses gradually emerges throughout the book and reaches his prophetic pinnacle- in the scene in which he cries out to God ‘show me your ways’. We need only compare two scenes- an earlier conversation that takes place between God and Moses at the burning bush, and at a later exchange, which is intended to parallel it. There are three components, which appear in both conversations.

First. God says to Moses: I want you to take responsibility for the children of Israel. Initially Moses doesn’t even understand that he is talking to God. Then, realizing he is looking in the face of divine revelation, he hides his face, unable to look directly at the face of God. , Moses tries very hard to refuse God’s demand that he take responsibility for the Jewish people. Third – Gods reason for demanding that Moses take responsibility is that there is a covenant with Abraham Isaac and Jacob.

Much later in Exodus, a second conversation, an intended literary return to the first, takes place. In the second conversation, all three components appear but the roles are reversed. This time, it is Moses who says to God: God, you take responsibility for the children of Israel. And God attempts to say no. But Moses insists. If you will not take responsibility, says Moses, erase me from your book. God responds by affirming his love and responsibility for the Jewish people.

Second. In the course of this later interaction, Moses hears God say to him the following words: “Now, let go of me.” The rabbis seize on this peculiarity and ask: What does God mean, “Let go of me”? Was Moses holding on to God’s sleeve? Yes, respond the rabbis, Moses literally seizes the divine garment, looks at God “face to face”, demanding an answer to his request to “show me your ways.” God, he demands, why does the righteous suffers and the wicked prosper? In a more literary reading of chapter 33 the major goal of Moses is to see Gods face. That God refuses in no way mitigates the spiritual audacity of the request. Finally Moses reason why God must take responsibility for the Jewish people is the covenant- God – you have a commitment to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

Moses has changed since his first encounter with God at the burning bush. He has emerged. By the end of the book he in a literary sense taken over some of Gods role – speaking the lines that God speaks at the beginning of the book.

Moses is a prophet, the ultimate prophet. Prophecy according to Maimonides is the ultimate level of human perfection.19 What the text in Exodus suggests is that Moses at this moment is at the apex of his prophecy. Moses has emerged.

13. Insert text of Zohar on Noah’s silence – zohar bereishit 107a

14. See Volume One, Chapter One.

15. One example of the dogmatic presentation of the ‘suffering as punishment’ thesis is a well-circulated article by a leading Talmudic scholar M. Meiselman. His basic premise is that whilst the book of Job may reject the sin-punishment connection, the book of Lamentations, written by the prophet Jeremiah after the destruction of the first temple in 586 BCE, embraces this connection as the fundamental pattern of Jewish history. The difference according to Meiselman is that Job is referring to personal suffering and Jeremiah is talking about National suffering. Meiselman’s argument, stated in his article as irrefutable dogma, is in fact questionable on several grounds.

First, he has no axiological authority to claim that the book of Job’s uncertainty as to the ultimate cause of suffering refers only to personal and never to national suffering. The book of Job which, according to at least one opinion in the Talmud, is a metaphor, could certainly be understood as not being limited to individual suffering.

Second, every theodicy, personal or corporate, assumes that the sin-punishment nexus is not always an appropriate explanation of suffering. Otherwise there would be no reason to search for an explanation beyond divine punishment for sins. Meiselman must be aware that there exist in the tradition explanations for suffering – personal and national – which do not employ as their premise the sin-punishment nexus.

Finally – it is clear that the sources cited above in reference to King David- particularly psalms 44 are referring to national and not personal suffering. It is clear that this source rejects the sin punishment nexus as an explanation of suffering. Meiselman passes over this important source in silence.


17.Perhaps the clearest example of this is the response to the Holocaust

There is a popular seminar given in a prominent institution of learning in Jerusalem. In this seminar, one of the sessions covers patterns in Jewish history. The lecturer, at the crescendo of his presentation, says: “If one understands the deepest patterns of Jewish history, one understands that the Holocaust is not a challenge to our understanding of God. If the Holocaust had not happened it would challenge our understanding of God.” He then explains to the shocked audience that the pattern of Jewish history is the correlation between the suffering of the people and the sinfulness of the people. If the people sin, the people suffer. If the people in post-emancipation Germany abandoned God en masse, then the people must suffer. If they had not suffered, then the pattern of Jewish history would be violated and faith would be challenged. Thus he reaches the logical but obscene conclusion: Had the Holocaust not happened, it would challenge faith in our time.

In a similar vein, there are two common responses to the Holocaust, both emerging from orthodox religious camps, both of which assume the “punishment thesis.” The first response, given most powerful expression in the works of R. Yoel Teitelbaum, the late spiritual leader of Satmar, a large Hasidic court, suggests that the Holocaust is punishment for the sin of Zionism. On the other end of the spectrum of belief is a book entitled The Mother of the Children Rejoices written in 1944 by a renegade Satmar disciple, which suggests the opposite thesis: The Holocaust is punishment for European Jewry’s failure to respond to the divine clarion call of Zionism. European Jewry ignored God’s outstretched arm beckoning them to return to the land of Israel. The two positions, the anti-Zionist Satmar position and the pro-Zionist book – which, incidentally, is a standard text in religious Zionist schools – advance an identical argument concerning divine judgment. Both assume knowledge of God’s ways in the world. Both suggest that the Holocaust is punishment for sin. They disagree only as to the nature of the sin.28 The Rebbe of Satmar and the renegade Satmar disciple are both people who experienced the Holocaust directly. They are Job, whose worldly suffering defies normal human comprehension. Job’s affirmations, Job’s theologies, Job’s expressions in relation to God post-Holocaust should all be understood to be holy. We, however, are not Job. We are only Job’s children, the ones born after the suffering. The holiness of affirmation, and the holiness of denial which belongs to Job, does not belong to the next generation. What for Job is holy is for his child obscenity. I add this because I stand in a position of reverence and respect towards the positions of those two men who can, out of a Holocaust, forge religious language. However, I reject categorically the adaptation of that language as spiritually or theologically legitimate for anyone other than those who experienced it themselves. For us, the children of Job, to use theology as a response to suffering is, I believe, spiritual obscenity. And it is such obscenity which is unfortunately common theological currency in the religious street.

18. Orot Ha’emuna (Jerusalem, Mosad Harav Kook, 1985), p. 25.

19. How so? A person may believe that the Torah is from heaven, but his understanding of heaven may be so skewed that it allows for not a shred of true faith. And heresy that is like faith? A person may deny that Torah is from heaven, but his denial may be based purely on his having received such a view of heaven as is held by those who are full of meaningless and confused thoughts. He concludes that the Torah must have come from some higher source, and begins to find another basis-in the greatness of the human spirit, from the depths of man’s morality or the heights of his wisdom. Even though he has still not arrived at truth’s center, nonetheless this ‘heresy’ is to be seen as faith, and it approaches the faith of the true believer. And in a generation as revolutionary as this one, it is even to be understood as a high level. And the question of the Torah’s origin is merely one example of that which is true for all the greater and finer points of faith – in the relation between their expressed form and their inner essence, the latter being the desired core of faith.”

R. Kook employs the example of the origin of the Torah. A literal reading of traditional texts in regard to the idea of Torah from heaven yields an image of God sitting on his throne and dictating to Moses in advance the entire Torah, written and oral, as it would develop in the ensuing thousands of years. The implication which clearly emerges from the passage is that such a literal understanding of revelation is not faith but heresy. This because it is based on a misunderstanding of the concept of heaven and the idea of Torah.

20. See Torat Emet of R. Laibele Eiger. A close reading of his commentary suggests the category of Averah Lishma. See also *adloc Mei Hashiloach of Mordechai Joseph Lainer. It is perhaps not insignificant that both are related to the school of Kutzk.

21. Remember in chapter 2 how we understood this to be the point of the kabbalistic equation of Amalek the biblical archetype of evil with uncertainty.

22. See Numbers 14 “to search (latur) the land.

23. Chapter 38:4 “Where were you when I founded the world!” God accuses Job of hubris!

24. Job 25:2

25. Baba Metzia 84a

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