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Divine Justice: A Jewish Perspective

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Rabbi Deborah Waxman speaks at the Chautaqua Institute. Image credit: Sarah Yenesel/Chatauqua Institution
Image credit: Sarah Yenesel/Chatauqua Institution

Rabbi Deborah Waxman, Ph.D. delivered this talk at the Chautauqua Institution as part of its “Interfaith Friday” series on July 19, 2019. Watch a video of the talk here.

I want to begin with a story about my friend Susan, a story I’m sharing with her permission. This is a talk about divine justice, about good and evil. I’m starting with a story that invites questions — heart-rending, anguished questions — about God’s presence, God’s plans, God’s love. I hope to point to some answers, from a progressive Jewish perspective and with a Reconstructionist focus, and I want to acknowledge that even raising these questions can be painful.

Like many Jews, Susan and her husband began looking for a synagogue when their kids reached school age. And, like many Jews, she chose a synagogue that was right near her home. It happened that it was a Reconstructionist synagogue, but in the beginning, that was incidental to her. The more she and her family got involved in the synagogue, the more Susan found herself drawn to the people. She found them smart, warm, caring. She made the selection out of convenience and became committed because of the community. And, over the years, she learned more and more about Reconstructionist thought, and that spoke to her as well. She learned that Reconstructionism seeks to harmonize religion with rationalism, and therefore sets aside the idea of a personal God who intervenes in history and upends the laws of nature. Susan began to think about God as the ground of being of the universe, the source of goodness and creativity and interconnection; in the words of the founding thinker of Reconstructionism Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, God is “the power that makes for salvation.” At her synagogue, Susan heard about Rabbi Harold Schulweis’s proposition of predicate theology. Schulweis was a disciple of Mordecai Kaplan, and he was especially perplexed by our very topic. He pointed out that if we focus on God as the Subject, on God as a Who, this leads to questions around divine justice that are hard to answer, and these questions frequently lead to rejection. Because of all the suffering in the world, many modern and postmodern people cannot accept what most Western religions traditionally teach — that God is just, merciful, “the Healer”. Schulweis proposed that we shift our focus from the subject of God to those predicates. Instead of proposing that God (subject) is merciful (predicate), he taught that when we see mercy — or justice or healing, all those predicates attributed to the divine — when we see these qualities, then we can know that godliness, the quality of the divine, is present. Schulweis was also influenced by Martin Buber, so he put relationship at the center of this understanding of godliness. He encouraged us to ask not “Where is God?” but “When is God?” and suggested that the answer was almost always in our interactions with each other, most especially when those interactions contribute to the collective good.

Susan found that this theology resonated deeply with her. She joined the synagogue out of convenience, became committed because of the community and ultimately became an ideological Reconstructionist. We Reconstructionists have long championed egalitarianism — the first bat mitzvah in 1922 was of Mordecai Kaplan’s eldest daughter, Judith. As Susan approached a milestone birthday, she decided that she would celebrate it at her synagogue by becoming an adult bat mitzvah since she had never had one as girl. She and her family sent out invitations, planned a celebration, and Susan learned to read from the Torah.

The day before the service, her husband drove to pick up one of their children from boarding school. And on the way home, the unimaginable happened. Life can change so quickly. The car went off the road. Both of them were killed. All the people who were gathering to celebrate Susan’s birthday and bat mitzvah instead came together to attend a double funeral.

Susan’s rabbi told me that he was intensely nervous as he raced to the hospital to be with her. He wondered what she must be feeling and what he could possibly say in the face of such a tragedy. When he got there, he found she was drawing deeply on predicate theology. She said to him, “I am so glad I am a Reconstructionist. I do not know what I would do if I believed in a personal God. Nothing I have ever done in my life could have warranted this kind of punishment. Instead of worrying about that, all I see is the kindness and concern of everyone who has spoken with me tonight.”

* * *

Through Susan’s story, I’ve given you a taste of the theology that sustains me and her and others. Let me zoom out now and reflect on the ways through the centuries that the Jewish people have asked questions around suffering, justice and God. Reconstructionism understands Judaism to be the evolving religious civilization of the Jewish people, so I’ll unpack some of this chronologically, as Jewish thought has evolved over millennia.

The Hebrew Bible is our foundational and sole testament; we don’t call it “old” because in Jewish understanding, it has never been superseded by anything “new.” In the Hebrew Bible, the underlying view of justice is that good is rewarded and evil punished in this lifetime. In other words, justice is immediate and complete; it’s the cartoon image of the lightning bolt descending from heaven to punish us for something we’ve done wrong. In our lives, we know this isn’t how the world works, and it wasn’t the case 2,000 years ago either. After the Temple was destroyed in Jerusalem, the early rabbis created rabbinic Judaism, which was codified in the Talmud, and has formed the basis of Jewish life and practice to this day. The rabbis had a different view than the Bible and suggested that individual justice would be meted out in future times — in ha’olam ha’ba or “the world to come,” which is roughly understood as heaven, though the idea of the afterlife has never been particularly developed in Judaism. They also put forward the concept of the messianic era, when the entire world will be redeemed and collective justice will prevail. There is continuity: Both the biblical and rabbinic conceptions presume that God is actively involved and engaged in our personal lives, and that God has in the past — and will in the future — intervene supernaturally to direct history, and to reward or punish individuals for their behavior.

Yet even as far back as the Bible, we have hints of a different understanding of justice and suffering and God, most notably in the book of Job. You all are probably familiar with the story, but I’ll recap it briefly: Job is a religious exemplar, God-fearing and righteous. He seems to be richly rewarded for his virtue, blessed in both family and fortune. Challenged by Satan, God tests Job’s faith mightily through repeated catastrophe: His children are killed; his home is destroyed; he suffers from painful illness. Job’s friends come to comfort him, but instead antagonize him, suggesting that since God is just, Job must have done something to deserve such punishment. Job is agonized and protests his innocence — to his friends and to God. Ultimately, God responds, but with questions rather than answers, and with the challenge that God — all-powerful creator of everything — is unfathomable to a mere human.

Rabbi Richard Hirsh explains that the lesson of Job is that this is life — full of unexplained pain and suffering — and that this is God, and what we get are not reasons or justification for pain, but rather presence. Job teaches us that life itself is greater than any individual life, and that God’s presence pervades all of the miracles of creation. Measured against the universe, we humans — with our blessings and with our suffering — are all but inconsequential.

The comfort the book of Job offers is two-fold. First, we can take solace from the notion of God as a Presence that sustains and unifies the natural world, even as the purpose of God or the world is unclear to us. And second, we may be moved by the dialogue between Job and God: Out of his great hurt, Job addresses God and is ultimately answered, even if the answer is a different one than he demanded.

Yet this second comfort is little consolation for us because such a conversation with God seems impossible in our lifetime. We have learned profound lessons from our own pain, from the pain of others around us, the pain of the Jewish people, the pain of the world. We have learned the inescapable truth of the modern era: We know we live in a shattered world where evil can flourish and often win on both a small scale and a great one; we live in a world where we can and do hurt one another terribly, through dehumanization and demonization, through terrorism and torture. The God who spoke to Job, however mysteriously, is silent in our lifetimes. The dialogue has been broken off.

* * *

Evil exists. Since the Enlightenment, we have lived in a world dominated by rationalism that would like to insist otherwise, but for those of us born in the 20th century and living in the 21st, it seems impossible not to concede the existence of evil in the world. And the hardest part is acknowledging that evil is not some other figure — not a Satan ultimately answerable to God. Evil is a domain that can dwell within us all. In the words of Rabbi Edward Feld:

The world contains a primal chaos whose destructive power rises up again and again in history and in the life of each person; it is a realm that cannot be subsumed under the Divine.

There is a dark side to human life and to religious life. There are impulses of aggression within each of us — dormant perhaps, under control we hope, but always ready to be released. We saw them released in the Holocaust; we saw them released in Rwanda; we saw them on Sept. 11; and we are reading them in the headlines each and every day.

* * *

AND. And just as it is crucial that we acknowledge that the world is a shattered place where evil can triumph, it is urgent that we declare that there is sacredness in the universe that arises from and points back toward the divine. This is not God who intervenes in history like in the Bible, but rather God who is the ground of holiness, who is an overflowing spring, who is the source of our kindness and courage, our ideals and virtues.

We know of this God from the many blessings and sources of abundance in our lives — from the ocean or the mountains that fill us with quiet joy every time we look upon them, from the relationships with family and friends that sustain us, from the work and play that we find both challenging and satisfying.

And we know of this God of holiness also through the difficult and terrible times. Again and again in the darkest moments of human history, we encounter people who choose to sanctify life rather than succumb to darkness. This was true in such extended periods of darkness as the Holocaust, when there were myriad examples of spiritual resistance, when individuals living in places like Auschwitz — environments designed to dehumanize individuals and then ultimately to kill them — got up every morning, washed and dressed themselves, and found some way to connect with one another, thwarting the destructive intentions of their oppressors and raising up their own humanity. And we see this commitment to the sanctity of life after every terrorist attack or natural disaster — stories of rescue workers rushing into the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, the incredible national outpouring of support after the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting last year, of people providing shelter and clothing after every hurricane or flood or wildfire.

The truth of reality is that good and evil are not separate realms, but are intertwined. Writing about faith after the Holocaust, Rabbi Richard Rubinstein observes that we all have the potential to let evil gain dominion in our hearts and in our social order. And equally true is that we all have the potential to be seekers of the sacred and to be bearers of a larger vision — one of humanity and holiness and hopefulness. Such a quest we know is a struggle, for we have to actively work to make room for the holy, for this connection to the divine. We have learned in the hardest possible ways that holiness does not happen on its own. We have to cultivate it.

* * *

Judaism is not only a religion — it’s a culture, a people, a whole civilization. The major emphasis in Jewish religion is on day-to-day living and the interaction between people rather than on doctrine or belief. It’s sometimes said that Judaism is more “this-worldly” rather than “other-worldly.” Throughout Jewish history, there have been multiple conceptions of the divine. The origins of a nonpersonal deity can been seen in the natural images of God that are scattered throughout biblical poetry — tzur Israel, hay ha’olamim, eyn hahayim. The ancient rabbis taught that there are shivim panim, 70 faces of God. They used this anthropomorphic image to integrate both personal and nonpersonal expressions of the divine and to legitimate diverse theological approaches. The great medieval philosopher Moses Maimonides offered the most comprehensive pre-modern articulation of nonpersonal theology. He wove into Jewish thought Aristotelian principles that he learned by way of Muslim philosophers, insisting that every anthropomorphic description of God should be understood as metaphor.

Let me acknowledge that this theological path is much easier in Judaism than in Christianity, with its emphasis on a personal messiah and an embodied God. That said, the idea that God is present in an unfolding and changing universe that is shaped by self-determination — this is known as process theology, and it was first articulated by Christian thinkers in the 19th and 20th centuries. This theology doesn’t speak to all Jews; there are many Jews, both liberal and traditional, who have never encountered sustained articulations of a nonpersonal God or who are uninterested in giving up the conception of a personal God, with all its implications.

Embracing nonpersonal theology liberates us from the vexing questions that are shaping this Friday lecture series. This approach frees us from classical theological assertions that God must be omnipresent, omniscient, omnipotent — all present, all knowing, all powerful. By giving up on these qualities — by making space for laws of nature that are binding and for the randomness in the universe — we can make a renewed case for God and for religion (as Kushner does). We can set aside the heavy task of justifying God, and instead tap into wellsprings of mercy and creativity that emerge from and point back to God. Understanding God as the Source of the Universe is not simply a philosophical claim. This truth is affirmed with the birth of every child; it is renewed at each encounter with beauty, be it natural or created; it is awakened every time we benefit from the inspirations of inventors and the caring of healers. In the face of suffering, we can find comfort and begin to make meaning. In his best-selling book When Bad Things Happen to Good People, Rabbi Harold Kushner writes:

Science can describe what has happened to a person; only religion can call it a tragedy. Only the voice of religion, when it frees itself from the need to defend and justify God for all that happens, can say to the afflicted person, “You are a good person, and you deserve better. Let me come and sit with you so that you will know that you are not alone.”

Embracing predicate theology means we can, like Susan did at the darkest moment of her life, feel the presence of the divine. On that terrible evening, God as Healer, God as Comforter was made manifest through every caring person she encountered. This approach invites us to partner with God to bring to life godliness in our world — at all times, and especially at those times when we and others are most vulnerable, most broken, most afraid.

I’ll close with a teaching from the 19th-century Hasidic master Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk.

A group of learned men came to visit the Kotzker rebbe. He surprised them with what they took to be a basic question: “Ayay m’kom kvodo? Where is the dwelling of God?” They laughed and filled in the rest of the quote from the prophet Isaiah, which is recited daily in Jewish liturgy: “M’lo kol ha’aretz kvodo. Is not the whole world full of God’s glory?” Menachem Mendel answered his own question: “God dwells wherever humanity lets God in.”

Theology, Reconstructionism
President, Reconstructing Judaism; Aaron and Marjorie Ziegelman Presidential Professor, RRC

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