I don’t believe in that kind of God: Blessing, Free Will & Making Choices
My wife has been baking sourdough bread this summer. She does it not only because she enjoys baking (and we all enjoy eating). She does it because it gives her days structure and purpose. She does it because it reliably delivers. Choices are minimal. Actions set processes into motion. Feed the starter at certain intervals. Measure the starter. See if it floats. Mix and knead and score and bake. Precision, yes. Creativity, okay, but whoa there, not too much. There are rules, and following them brings predictable and desired results. Results we can see, smell, feel, hear, and taste.
Life ain’t baking, though.
Being an adult human is hard. It’s hard because: choices. And it’s meaningful because: choices. You’re not a baker. You’re a cook. This summarizes my gut feelings about being a Reform Jew.
Broader American culture, steeped in Puritan ideas about religion and spirituality, tends to characterize Judaism as a religion of L-A-W: Rules, regulations, and restrictions. The God I encounter in the Torah is (unfairly, I think) portrayed as all Fire-and-Brimstone, devoid of compassion.
When I read the Torah, I see a cast of complex characters, some of whom I’d want to emulate, and some of whom are… problematic. God and Moses included.
In this week’s Torah reading (it’s called a parsha in Hebrew), Moses continues his long speech to the Jewish people as they take a pause in their desert wandering before entering the Promised Land, without their Exodus leader. There’s just so much information in the Torah portion; it can be hard to focus in on what might have been the very human context: Moses, a human being, has had an intense experience with Something that many people call God. He cannot truly translate that experience for his people, though his people have luckily experienced this God through miracles (sea splitting, manna falling from the sky… Biblical stuff). He’s worried about these people, as they begin, for the first time in 400 years, to negotiate and maintain boundaries for themselves, as individuals and as a community.
Moses flows back and forth between passing along strict warnings and fretting about whether the people will remember all the awesome ways he’s advocated for them. He gives the people God’s words, but I can’t help but assume that he’s filtering those words through his own sense of grief and loss. He’s not going to be their teacher anymore (little does he know that he will one day be called Moshe Rabbeinu, our teacher Moses, by the entire Jewish people).
There’s a lot of politics in this book, probably because it was written, not by Moses, but by a member of the Levite tribe, who were charged with serving the Temple in Jerusalem. It’s filled with reminders about how to treat the Levites fairly, since they have no economic means besides the offerings others bring to the temple, and about the importance of worshipping God through the Jerusalem Temple alone. Which is also, if you think about it, centered on boundaries.
The holy and the ordinary. The Levite and the Israelie. The prophet and the people. God and human. There are boundaries — messy, porous boundaries — between these distinct groups, between these distinct individuals. Keeping boundaries isn’t easy.
I’m thinking about a boundary that used to protect me when I was very young. They called it a “playpen,” but the president of a synagogue I served while I was in rabbinical school called it “baby jail.” With a 14-month-old and a newborn, my mother needed to give me a healthy boundary so that I would not harm myself, and so that she could reasonably care for my little sister. Enter the playpen.
It sure did keep me safe. But if you’ve ever seen a child (or a dog, for that matter) in a “play area” (they’ve renamed them these days) or a crate, then you know they’re also pretty miserable. There’s no hurt, no danger. But there’s also no exploration, no sensory adventures, no curiosity satisfied.
Moses and God seem to be teetering between a desire to protect this infant people by creating a playpen: “Be careful to observe only that which I command upon you: neither add to it nor take away from it” (Devarim/Deuteronomy 13:1).
For some Jewish folks, this is the most meaningful way to practice. From when you lie down to when you rise up, a commandment for every moment, a word of blessing for every (spolier alert: not every, since our rabbinic tradition left out a bajillion experiences that center women, AFAB, trans, and queer folks) moment of benefit or enjoyment. A way to eat food, a way to build your house, a way to pay your employees, a way to celebrate, a way to mourn. It’s all there, laid out for you, and you don’t have to worry about choosing your direction, because there is no right and no left: There’s a playpen with boundaries, gates you can’t even open.
That’s not the Judaism I live. I live a Judaism of informed choice.
And it’s also the Judaism of this parsha:
רְאֵ֗ה אָנֹכִ֛י נֹתֵ֥ן לִפְנֵיכֶ֖ם הַיּ֑וֹם בְּרָכָ֖ה וּקְלָלָֽה׃
“See, I have put before you this day blessing and curse” (Devarim 11:26).
We have to choose. It’s all there, laid out for us: paths to take, and each path with a consequence.
I think about the God of the Torah the way I think about my own role as a parent. It’s actually not God’s job to tell us what to do. And it’s not our job to simply do it. It’s God’s job to tell us that we’re in a sacred relationship with one another, and that we have power in that relationship. And, indeed, we have responsibilities precisely because we are in relationship.
God tells us, “See, I have put before you this day blessing and curse. Blessing, if you obey the commandments of the Eternal your God that I command upon you today; curse, if you do not obey the commandments […]” (Devarim 11:26–28).
This isn’t the Zappo! model of a God who sits up in the clouds somewhere and decides to punish us for failing to follow the letter of the law. This is a parent who loves us, who knows that their job is to let us develop our capacity, who watches us make decisions. And at the same time, this parent is wise, and experienced, and has made mistakes in the past, and knows that sometimes we’re gonna feel needy and sad and desperate, and this parent wants to comfort us, wants to protect us.
And so God, like a good-enough parent, says, Look, there is blessing and there is curse in this world. And I know this world, trust me. I’ve made some boundaries, some rules, some family values. I want to pass them on to you. I want you to practice them. Not because I want you to please me. But because I know that if you follow them, your chances at a fulfilling life improve exponentially.
The consequence of deviating from the values our Torah presents to us are not that God will come down from the sky and punish us. I just don’t believe in that kind of God. I don’t believe that God gives children cancer (G-d forbid!) or creates hurricanes. I believe that our divinely-inspired Jewish tradition warns us that our actions have consequences. Like a parent warns a child: your actions have consequences, not because a good parent is a capricious abuser, but because a good parent gives the child enough information to make a decision. If you climb up high, I won’t throw you down to the ground. If you climb up high and don’t pay attention to your hand and footholds, you might fall. I want you to climb, and I want to minimize your risk.
So, God, through Moses, reminds us that we have a choice. Life, death. Blessing, curse. We are powerless in the face of so much in our world, and yet we have control over our own responses. God says, remember, you have the power to pause, to consider the consequences, to consult the wisdom of past generations, to recall your own past sensory experiences, and make a choice.