By renee bravo
October 19, 2008
Rosh Hashanah – 5769.
I have to start, as always, by telling you what I’m sure you all know, that I have no official religious authority. Nothing I say should be assumed to have any Halachic validity. I may even suggest that you think things which are at variance with received opinion, and contrary to religious norms, even slightly blasphemous. You think I am a sweet little old lady, actually I am a dangerous subversive.
My starting point this morning is not from any biblical text or rabbinic discourse or talmudic reference, but from a programme which appeared on television recently, which many of you would have seen or at least heard about, namely “god on trial”. It took place in a concentration camp, where the inmates accuse god of breaking his covenant with the Jewish people, and failing to protect them as he promised. They found him guilty, then went to pray. By co-incidence, the talk I gave at Limmud last year I called “The Case for the Defence”. I took characters in the bible who are traditionally denigrated, seen as villains, and looked at the evidence. Were they really guilty, or do they appear to be because of the way they are portrayed, or because that is how the rabbis want us to see them.
For example, Eve. She is seen as the epitome of female weakness and feminine wiles. because she defied god, and ate the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and beguiled her husband to eat it, all women are cursed to bear children in pain and travail. Catholics see her as the basis of original sin, and many of the attitudes to women in most religions stem from this episode. But look at the evidence. Is she the weak woman unable to resist temptation, beguiling her husband? “She saw that the tree was good for food, and eating it would make one wise.” She decided that knowledge was worth the cost, one of the first and most important decisions ever made by a human being. It is to Eve that we owe the glory of free will, and the knowledge of the difference between good and evil, the one thing that distinguishes us from the animals.
And what of the accusation that she beguiled her husband? “she gave to her husband, and he did eat”. He didn’t protest, he didn’t argue, he didn’t say “we mustn’t”. He didn’t try to dissuade her, he simply took it and ate it. Yet when god admonishes him for his disobedience, he blames the woman for his own weakness. He even blames god. “The woman you gave me, she made me do it”. How strange, how uncanny, that the male female resonances of the first couple on earth echo throughout history, even to our own day. So is Eve weak and manipulative , as we have been led to believe, or is the evidence against it?
Another example of a character given a bad press is Esau, the brother of Jacob; traditionally regarded as the villain of the story. He is a hunter, with animal instincts, the realist, the non-intellectual, and Jacob is the quiet, studious one, the mummy’s boy. You can see why the rabbis have portrayed Jacob as the good one, because he is to become one of the fathers of the Jewish people. But if you look at the evidence, you see that Jacob is the cheat and the liar. Esau is innocent of any wrong-doing. These are just two examples of characters which over the years have assumed an aura not borne out by the evidence, if looked at with an open mind.
The last character I called to the stand was god himself. And what was the charge? Making false promises, offering rewards and then defaulting. For example, he says, “If you live by my laws you will prosper, if not you will perish”. “I will bless those that bless you and curse those that curse you.” He is supposed to be compassionate, loving, dispensing justice and mercy. Where? Not in this world. Wherever we look we see injustice, horror and suffering. As for his promise to protect his people Israel, we seem to have come off the worst of all the peoples in the world. If he is so powerful, why doesn’t he prevent all these terrible things?
But in my scenario, god’s lawyer has a cast-iron defence. He simply says, “What proof have you got that my client said all these things.? Hearsay, even if repeated for thousands of years, and by thousands of eminent thinkers, is still hearsay. Where is the evidence? This is not a theological college, it is a court of law. People put the words into god’s mouth that they wanted to hear him say. All the lovely words about justice and mercy and peace, its what people want to hear, its what they hope for. But where is the evidence, where are the witnesses, the proof beyond reasonable doubt. And god was not acquitted. The case was dismissed for lack of evidence.
Well, that was a talk at Limmud, for fun. But we are in shool on Rosh Hashanah. This is serious. If the whole thing is only hearsay, what are we doing here? Why have we gone to all this trouble and expense. And the time taken up by coming to shool. after all, time is the most precious thing we have. The one thing which can never be replaced, at any cost. I’m sure you are all familiar with the words of omar kayam, an 11th century scholar and astronomer. “The moving finger writes, and having writ moves on. Nor all your piety nor wit, can lure it back to cancel half a line, nor all your tears wash out one word of it”. Yes, 11.45 on the morning of the 30th September, 2008 has gone, and all the computers in the world, all the marvels of science and technology, all the accumulated wisdom of all the clever people who have ever lived, cannot bring it back. Are you pleased with what you have done with it? Is there somewhere else you would rather be. Don’t answer that. So why are we here; what brings us back every year; what compels us to go to all this trouble, all the palaver with the kosher, and who to marry. Why be Jewish at all? Not because of the evidence, not science, not logic, but the one human attrribute that is greater than all the others. Love.
Just as love is not always good, or logical, or provable or sensible, so is our love of god, and being Jewish. And who can define love. It is inexplicable, it doesn’t follow any scientific laws, it does not conform to any pattern, it cannot be predicted, it does not stand up to investigation.
So is there something special about being Jewish, and does it come from god. And what about the other side, the terrible cost of being Jewish. Is it worth it. Wouldn’t we all be better off without it. Yes, if you look for logic, and sense, and evidence. But we are not logical, or sensible, or swayed by evidence. We are human, prone to illogical behaviour, hoping for something which we know may never come, putting our trust in a promise without any evidence that it will ever be fulfilled.
Let me give you the next verse from that poem of Omar Kayam, which is not so well-known. “And that inverted bowl we call the sky, whereunder crawling cooped we live and die, lift not your hands to it for help, for it is just as impotent as you and I”. It is interesting that a thousand years ago, in another world, and by a man from a different religion, was thinking the same thoughts. Let me give you another quotation, from George Bernard Shaw. More cynical, more ironic, more British, perhaps “A thing which nobody believes cannot be proved too often”.
So what is the limit of god’s power. Is he the almighty? To go back to the beginning, and the idea of putting god on trial for allowing the holocaust to happen. Could he have changed anything. And if he has no power, why do we worship him. And why do we come to shool, why do we go to such lengths to be Jewish. There are many wonderful books written and wonderful sermons given by brilliantly clever people pointing to many possible reasons. I will give you a very ordinary one. A man says to his wife, “I come home every night, I pay all the bills, I do everything you want me to do, why do I have to say “I love you”. Well you could suggest that if he comes home every night, pays all the bills, does everything his wife wants him to, proves that he loves her. But its not the same as saying it, is it. And that’s why we’re here. To be seen saying it. Being a good person, doing everything right, its all lovely , but its not the same as standing in shool with a prayerbook in your hand, and saying “Shema yisrael. I am a Jew.”
But don’t imagine for a moment that I have answered the original question, is god guilty, does he exist, did he really say all those things. Does he have the power to change anything. The scientist asks questions to which he hopes to find an answer. The poet asks questions to which he knows there is no answer. I believe that this is one of those. But we are human. Even though we know that it is illogical, not sensible, not provable, we continue to ask the questions. The answers may sometimes be wrong, but the questions are always right. I wish you all a happy, peaceful and sweet new year.