My God Problem
06/20/2012 - 10:34

My 8-year-old daughter and I are having a little bit of a God problem lately.

It’s not that we’re unsure whether or not to believe in him; I’m satisfied with leaving it unresolved by being agnostic, and Ellie’s OK with that as well.
It’s not even the “why do bad things happen to good people” issue, because, while the world is outrageously unfair, I don’t think God, if he exists, is micro-managing the daily lives of the world’s almost seven billion people.

The problem is, we just don’t like God very much, at least not as he is presented in the Bible. He’s spiteful, bullying and violent — and he plays favorites. (Note to pious, all-faithful believers reading this: you’d better stop right now, before you are consumed in a burning bush of righteous rage.)

For months, Ellie has been demanding to know why God hardened Pharaoh’s heart, why he visited plagues upon all the Egyptians and not just Pharaoh, why he had to kill the first-born, why he waited 300 years before intervening and freeing the Hebrew slaves. All I’ve been able to come up with, in response, is that God — or the humans writing it all down — thought these details made for a more dramatic and suspenseful story.

This weekend though, our annoyance with God came to a head. On Friday afternoon, we watched the new G-dcast episode about Moses and his siblings. When we got to the part about Miriam complaining to Aaron about Moses’s new wife and then being punished with a terrible skin condition, Ellie thought this was quite unfair. We wondered whether Miriam might have a valid critique of Moses, and also whether she might (with some justification) envy the way Moses seems to be given all the credit for the Exodus, even as she and Aaron made major contributions and had to endure childhoods of slavery while young Moses lolled about the Pharaoh’s palace.

On Saturday, at my niece’s bat mitzvah, the irritation with God bubbled up again. The Torah portion was about the 12 spies, 10 of whom greatly anger God by reporting back on the dangers they anticipate in conquering the Promised Land. Yes, they’re doubters and naysayers, but one can certainly understand why they’d be cautious and might not relish the idea of a pre-emptive strike against the current inhabitants of the Land of Milk and Honey. And why, even if God wants the Israelites to reclaim the land, does he have to urge them to violently conquer it? Couldn’t he figure out a nicer way to turn over the land to his chosen people?

As Ellie plaintively asked, in a question eerily resonating with the current situation in Israel: “Can’t they just share the land with the other people?”
Now, we’re hardly the only Jews who feel uncomfortable with the biblical God. A friend referred me to cartoonist Eli Valley’s highly irreverent and graphic (yet, I think, quite astute) take on Him. Similarly, novelist/memoirist Shalom Auslander famously opens his “Foreskin’s Lament” with several paragraphs about why he’s still terrified of God.

It was important to keep the man happy. When we obeyed what the man commanded, he liked us. He liked us so much, that he killed anyone who didn’t like us. But when we didn’t obey what he had commanded, he didn’t like us. He hated us. Some days he hated us so much, he killed us; other days, he let other people kill us. We call these days “holidays.”

At the bat mitzvah party, I was assigned to a table with several other Jews — some single, some in-married — who shared my ambivalence. My brother-in-law, who had much more of a religious upbringing than I did, referenced the Elie Wiesel play about the Jews putting God on trial after the Holocaust. My cousin-in-law said she’s equally attracted to and repelled by the tribal/peoplehood aspects of Judaism, and just can’t relate at all to the religious aspects, even as she’s tried. (Her husband’s parents, while not Orthodox, are religiously observant.)

Now, dear readers, I acknowledge the limitations of my Jewish education and I realize we’re hardly the first be disconcerted by God’s numerous antics (and we haven’t even touched on the Book of Job yet). I’m not looking for a facile excuse to opt out. I know the Talmud and commentaries and midrash struggle with various aspects of the Bible, and I invite suggestions of specific reading material — modern and within Judaism’s vast canon of texts on this topic. I want Ellie and I to grapple with these questions in a way that will, hopefully, strengthen our commitment to and appreciation of Judaism rather than make us wonder if we’re playing on the wrong team. (Say what you will about Jesus, but he’s a nice guy for the most part.)

I know this post will anger many people, particularly those already inclined to dismiss me for being intermarried and not Orthodox, but annoying people is not my goal: rather, I’m looking for intelligent, thoughtful answers. And I’m also trying to pinpoint one of the reasons for non-Orthodox American Jews’ increasing disengagement (according to the latest studies) with organized Judaism. Until the Jewish community openly and forcefully addresses these Big Questions, I doubt we’ll be able to compete with the many other community and lifestyle options available to American Jews.

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Engaging and questioning texts is a hallmark of Judaism. I hope that your earnest questioning leads you to some exciting and interesting study.

One important thing to note, is that the Chumash is not the sum total of Judaism. Judaism, as we know it, is Rabbinic. You might enjoy studying Pirke Avot with your daughter. Although it will not directly answer the questions you posed, it will give some greater insight into the ethical thinking of the Rabbis who helped form Judaism. You won't like or agree with everything you read there either, but that's an essential part of the process.

If you really want serious and thoughtful answers to these questions, you can google and project inspire in addition to the sites noted above by Rivka. They can put you in touch with people who can help you learn more about your religion and heritage.

Wishing you and your family a good Shabbos.

Julie, interesting question/column, and like many parents the low likeability of G-d comes up with kids as they begin their exposure to the Jewish canon.There is plenty of wonderful commentary to explore, but for my 5 & 10 yr olds, I've found their questions about G-d's essence - to their understanding - are best tackled on two fronts: first, assuring the kids that both questioning G-d's motivations (a frequent topic in both oral and written Torah) and trying to know G-d (see Moses' beautiful request to see G-d's "face" in Parsha Ki Tissa) are VERY jewish traits and lines of questioning. Second, for all the demands and punishment G-d seem to met out (we too were troubled by last week's G-dcast episode) , the main theme of G-d in Torah that of a Creator (for all humanity), a Merciful deity (again, read the attributes of G-d as he passes by Moses in Ki Tissa) and G-d that demands of his people to feed the hungry, clothe the naked and care for the orphan and widow.

I've often encountered the criticism from well -meaning friends & family that the New Testament Jesus is "a more likeable" guy. All in perspective I guess - allowing human sacrifice or agitating rebellion knowing what's in store doesn't seem all that likeable to me?

Julie, you and your daughter have some great questions, quesions without easy answers.

First, I think it's important to remember that beginnings are seldom easy, and in fact, they can get very messy at times. The Torah contains the record of early Jewish history, and most (or all) of the details are there. There is much that is good and much that makes us uncomfortable, but nothing is censored out.

When children study the American Revolution in school, many details are sanitized. Slavery and the treatment of native Americans are glossed over. The founders of our nation, although great people, had flaws that are censored out of history textbooks. American independence is wonderful, but many of the messy details are hard to find unless you look for them.

Returning now to the Bible: A look at the Bible is incomplete without a study of the Nevi'im, the Prophets. Their main purpose was to spread God's message. These were men and women of conscience, and they weren't afraid to speak up, ask difficult questions, and challenge the status-quo. Micah 6:8 says it very well:
"He has told you, Oh man, what is good, and what the Lord requires of you: Only to do justice and to love goodness, and to walk modestly with your God; then will your name achieve wisdom."

On Shabbat and Festival mornings, the Torah reading would be incomplete without the selection from the Prophets, the Haftarah. Very often, the weekly Haftarah provides a different, but interesting perspective on the weekly Torah portion. A careful reading of the Prophets reveals a concept of God that is slightly different from the one presented in the Torah. In the Torah God always seems to be very "hands-on," but as the Jewish people is growing up, we see a slightly more "hands-off" approach.

When we get to the last section of the Bible, Ketuvim (Writings), there are very different images of God. In Esther, God's name is never actually mentioned, although there are many clues that He is really present. In Kohelet (Ecclesiastes), there is a curious passage, unlike any in the Torah, and here God seems to be quite remote: "Keep your mouth from being rash, and let not your throat be quick to bring forth speech before God. For God is in heaven and your are on earth; that is why your words shuld be few." (5:1)

You mentioned that Jesus seems to be a nice guy. Perhaps that's true, but there's so much that we don't know about him. The accounts of his life conflict with each other and were all written long after he died. I'm sure that the Church managed to censor out inconvenient details of his life long ago.

I'm personally attracted to a Kabbalistic concept of God, but it's important to remember that there is no single "correct" concept. You may find it interesting to read the "Walking with God Series" that was prepared at the American Jewish University:

If all your questions are being asked sincerely, there are good answers out there for all of them. None of which can be adequately explained in this short format. If you're really sincere that you want "Ellie and I (sic) to grapple with these questions in a way that will, hopefully, strengthen our commitment to and appreciation of Judaism," and if you are open minded enough to really listen to the answers given, even from "ultra-Orthodox" (gasp!) people, I would suggest that you sign up for a phone study partnership through a program like Partners in Torah or Oorah's TorahMates. You can sign up for either online- google to find their websites.

A poignant illustration of how the "big" questions posed by modern Jews are so rarely addressed.

One modern Jewish thinker and writer who I think does a particularly good job of tackling such questions with the requisite intellectual integrity is Tzvi Freeman. He also manages to do so without resorting to high-brow semantics, his writing is contemporary, engaging and entertaining.

For a sampling of his re-thinkings or re-imaginings of classical biblical & midrashic episodes, see here: