Just about two years ago now, I arrived in Oceanside, New York on Long Island in order to start a rabbinical school internship. We moved into the community over the Summer, got settled in (much like we’ve done this Summer), and things really got started a few weeks before the High Holy Days. I remember that one of the first shabbatot in which I was really active in the community was Ki Tavo. That morning we read (as we have done this morning) the extensive list of curses and threats that Moses makes against the people. We read it in an undertone, quickly; afraid of what we are suggesting about ourselves and our ancestors. That morning (like this one), I sat and listened to the litany of death and destruction suggested and raised the same umbrage: how can the Torah assert that these horrible things happen as a result of our sin? How can we believe in a God who would punish our misdeeds with genocide and plague?
What made that query even more acute in Oceanside was that this was a community which only a few years prior had survived Hurricane Sandy. Many members of the community had lost homes, cars, and invaluable possessions. Some people, years later, were still living in temporary accommodation. It was a town traumatized; the slightest suggestion of a thunderstorm on the evening news would prompt a wild rush for bottled water and non-perishable food. The synagogue itself had served as a shelter for weeks after the storm, being relatively undamaged mostly due to good luck and a slight difference in altitude.
Today, two years later, as we read the same curses, a new group of super-storms is terrorizing the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico. Harvey has humbled Houston, now Irma and José and Katie continue to wage war, bringing death and destruction to millions of people. In the midst of all this, we find the same nonsense being spouted from religious nuts and political pundits. Evangelical television preacher, Pat Robertson, has repeatedly affirmed that these disasters are punishment for sin: Katrina was a result of America’s embrace of homosexuality (so he termed it), and then Sandy, he oddly argued, was God telling us that He didn’t want a Mormon to be President (Mitt Romney was then running against President Obama.)
‘How absurd!’ we might say; ‘How offensive, to attribute disaster to human misdeeds!’ Yet, at the end of the today, can we really say that we’ve done any better? The curses we’ve read this morning- are they really any less horrible than the foolish statements of Robertson and others?
Unfortunately, I don’t think they are. To me, the curses we read in Ki Tavo- the death and destruction that God promises (via Moses) to bring upon the people should they choose not to follow the law- carry the same unfortunate implication of Robertson’s claims: either way it is bad theology. A vision of God in which our suffering is due to our sins is not one I can accept. An earthquake in the Indian Ocean is not punishment for idolatry, nor is a cancer diagnosis retribution for transgression. If that’s so, where does it leave us vis-a-vis Deuteronomy, which seems to frame for us a dark vision of Divine wrath?
Rabbi Harold Kushner, in his notable book When Bad Things Happen to Good People, recycles an old theological game that can help us understand more. R’ Kushner tells us that there are three things which God can be: omnipotent (all-powerful), omniscient (all-knowing), and omnibenevolent (all-good). Yet, the paradox which we find ourselves in is this: a functional theology requires that we pick two out of those three. We simply cannot have a God who is all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-good; Evidence abounds in the world around us as to this impossibility. We suffer, death reigns supreme, and humans continue to choose senseless slaughter of one another over cooperation and collaboration. Thus, there are two configurations of this ⅔ paradigm that are worth our consideration:
Option 1: God is omnipotent and omniscient, but not omnibenevolent. This seems to be Deuteronomy’s take. God doesn’t always do good, in fact, as the curses remind us, sometimes God causes evil and suffering. It has a precipitating cause (our sin), but the result remains that God inflicts natural evil upon us, knowingly and in complete control of nature.
Option 2: God is omniscient and omnibenevolent, but not omnipotent. This may seem like a contradiction to the entire framework of religious life (God is in control), but it is one which our Sages continually tinker with, in response to and rejection of Deuteronomy’s curses. Could it be that God does want only good for us, and knows everything that’s going on, but simply isn’t always able to actually stop evil and chaos from reigning here and there? Perhaps we can also understand a sort of limited-omnipotence; That God is able to stop evil, but to do so would be an impossibility (for instance, God’s intervention would overwhelm the systems of reality and undermine the intention).
Option 3 is really not even worth considering (God is in complete control and wants only good but simply doesn’t know what’s going on.) That leaves with two choices for our paradigm: Deuteronomy’s curses, or the Sages’ vision of God. Their sense of God as not in complete control is borne out by a number of biblical verses (God has to tame the chaos in Genesis but some of it remains behind, God can’t actually change Pharaoh’s mind in Exodus, etc. etc.), but also by several traditions of Rabbinic Judaism, one old and found in the Midrash and the other medieval and emerging from the mystics.
In the Talmud [Bavli Megillah 29a], the rabbis include the idea that the Shekhinah (God’s feminized presence on Earth), was exiled with the people when the Temple was destroyed. That is, a part of God Itself suffered alongside the refugees who left Jerusalem. Side-by-side, hand-in-hand, this God is one of pathos. Not able to actually stop the destruction, instead God joins the people in their suffering. This idea, called galuta deShekhinah (Shekhinah’s Exile) in Aramaic gets expanded considerably by the mystics who follow those early Sages, more and more telling a story of a God who needs our help, who lives with a broken world. Perhaps what expresses it best is the revised creation story told by R’ Yitzhak Luria in his formulation of Kabbalah. It goes a bit like this:
Once upon a time, before anything existed, there was only Infinite Light encompassing all reality. When that Light decided to create a world within which it could shine, it had to first constrict itself, removing the Light from a circular space, empty and dark. In that empty space, the Light fashioned vessels of light, containers in which the new world would be formed. However, when the vessels were completed and the Light began to re-fill the previously empty space that had been shaped, the containers proved insufficient. They shattered, breaking the entire creative enterprise and scattering fragments of Light, like pulverized glass, all throughout reality. Then, creation started anew, this time with better formed vessels, more separation between the Light and It’s world. That creation is the one described in Genesis; A second creation into a void which now is full of a million little pieces of Divine Light.
The picture here of God is clearly not of a being in complete control! Creation emerges from a mistake, from a cosmic cataclysm which gives reality substance and gives life its sufferings. Those broken fragments, the Kabbalists argue, are all around us: in the air we breathe and the face of our neighbour. We can help the not-quite-omnipotent God with whom we have made a covenant by tracking down the shattered bits of Light and sanctifying them once again, restoring them to their proper place. This process is done through the mitsvot, the commandments, and relies, entirely, on our voluntary cooperation with a God who knows what’s going on, wants only good, but can’t quite do it by Themselves.
Deuteronomy has one vision of God, but the Sages who built the Judaism we observe today, and especially the mystics had a different one, one more like this: where God is good but not omnipotent; where God needs us to help repair the world; where the Divine presence goes into exile along with the Jewish people as the Temple burns; where creation begins in a cosmic disaster. That is the God I believe in and the one whom we should turn to in times of disaster, not to plead for the punishment to end, but to find a comforting partner, sharing our burdens and our sufferings and offering us an out-stretched hand with which we can join and begin to work to fix the world we find ourselves in.
The choice is ours, for we have inherited a religion with more than one theology. Do we want to believe in Deuteronomy’s vision of a punishing God, bringing hurricanes and disease upon unfaithful followers? Or, do we want to believe in the Kabbalist’s vision of a God who needs our help, our partner in restoring Creation, who suffers as we suffer and shares our pains and our exiles? Each has its benefits and each its drawbacks, but this Shabbat, the choice is yours.