Judging God – Tetzaveh 5779

D'var Torah | Exodus

When Maimonides read Exodus 29:45 “And I will dwell among the children of Israel,” he felt constrained to explain how an omnipresent deity can be everywhere at once yet localized within a certain object, place, or people. In his Guide of the Perplexed (Book 1, Chapter 25) he concludes that verb “to dwell” used in reference to God denotes the continuity of His presence and providence (that is, His protection). In other words, when the Torah says God dwells in Israel – the people of the place – it does not mean to the exclusion of other people of places. Rather, Israel receives God’s divine protection continuously.


Maimonides focused his efforts on defending against theological challenges to belief in God. Later authorities, however, shifted their focus to addressing moral challenges to belief in God. In First Samuel 15, for example, God commanded King Saul through the prophet Samuel to annihilate the tribe of Amalek in retribution for their brutal attack against Israel following the Exodus from Egypt. Every man, woman, and child – as well as animals – is to be killed. But Saul fails in his mission. He takes the Amalekite king captive, along with the choicest loot for a gift to God for his victory. He is rebuked by Samuel for his disobedience and must suffer the loss of his kingship as punishment. This incredible narrative dumbfounded Martin Buber. How can such a compassionate God make such a brutal demand? And how can such a loving God punish a person for being merciful towards another? Buber declared: “Nothing can make me believe in a God who punishes Saul because he did not murder his enemy.” God’s behavior is morally untenable, inconsistent, and inexplicable.


About a century earlier, Rabbi Mendl of Kotzk anticipated Buber’s challenge and stated: “A God whom any simpleton could comprehend, I would not believe in.” The Kotzker did not advocate blind faith or intentional obscurantism. He merely argued, as Prof. Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote, that “it is a mistake to start with a human model and then seek to accommodate God to it.” This is not to assume that humankind can never understand any of God’s ways. It merely affirms that while some of God’s ways seem absurd from the human perspective, they are, nonetheless, just in the eyes of God. God’s ways are not morally invalidated because of humanity’s inability to comprehend them. This does not, nor should not, make us more content or less conflicted but serves to remind us that God cannot be judged by a human jury.


As Archibald MacLeish phrased the dilemma in his play “J.B.: “If God is God He is not (Jews would add the word: always) good; if God is good, He is not God.”


Words to Live By

What lies behind you and what lies ahead of you pales in comparison to what lies inside you.

– Ralph Waldo Emerson

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