Can God really love us when we suffer so much?

The Yom Kippur prayers speak of a merciful God - but how can we make sense of the idea?

By Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg, September 24, 2009
Jonah has pity on the gourd by the Israeli artist Jacob Steinhardt

Jonah has pity on the gourd by the Israeli artist Jacob Steinhardt

At the cemetery recently I caught myself unconsciously doing something which took me by surprise. I was reading the inscriptions on the graves of friends, many of them young, among them children, when I heard myself quietly singing the melody which forms the leitmotif of the Yom Kippur prayers: “God, God, merciful and gracious”.

The second I became aware of what I was doing, I thought to myself: “Stop! How can you sing about the God of love here?” Yet I continued to do precisely that.

If God were somewhat less full of mercy, perhaps there would be a little more mercy here on earth, observed Yehudah Amichai in an ironic inversion of the familiar words of the memorial prayer. God does not prevent pain and suffering, in people or animals. God does not stop disasters overwhelming thousands of people or overrule injustice when it torments and murders millions. Is God, then, not at best indifferent and at worst cruel? Further, are not many of the most appalling deeds committed, unashamedly, in God’s name? How dare we then speak of God’s love?

We cannot blame God for how religion is abused. But we can ask where, if the so-called benign deity allows tragedies to happen, God’s mercies reside. Nowhere, proclaims Richard Dawkins in a sentence as impassioned as it is bigoted: “The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction…a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic-cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sado-masochistic, capriciously benevolent bully.”

Yet if I visited those graves again my heart would unconsciously turn to those same words, “God, God, merciful and gracious”. How is this possible?

The key issue is the kind of God in which we believe. How we understand God is not a question to be resolved by some dogmatic formulation in favour of atheism, agnosticism or faith. Rather, it constitutes our life’s most essential spiritual endeavour, an exploration which should not cease until we die.

Judaism itself is a perennial quest. From Abraham’s challenge, “Shall the judge of all the earth not do justice!”, to the Talmud’s pained assertion that God secretly weeps over the failures of history, Judaism is a relentless debate about, against, yet ultimately always with, God.

Judaism is a relentless debate about, against, yet ultimately always with, God

All descriptions of God should be read as part of this human struggle to relate to what ultimately remains an incomprehensible mystery.

God language must never, therefore, be taken as literally true but always, and only, as part of the unending search to articulate the inexpressible and to engage with the nameless which draws us to itself.

And our tradition teaches, in the very face of our tragic history, that God is merciful. What can this mean?

On Yom Kippur morning we read Isaiah’s vision of the kind of fast God truly wants, a day of feeding the hungry, clothing the naked and freeing the oppressed. He speaks of an urgent need for compassion which has never diminished since. We, too, daily walk past people, be they sick, poor, out of work or in search of asylum, whose principle participation in the surrounding plenty is to watch it elude them. God’s mercy, teaches Isaiah, is in our hands.

Later we read about Jonah. I do not entirely like the prophet but do, to my shame, recognise parts of him — in myself. He is not bothered about the 600, 000 inhabitants of Nineveh. But he is deeply upset when his protective gourd shrivels up and dies. “Are you right to be angry?”, God challenges him. He is not the only person to care more for his own cup of tea than for the thousands in anguish around him.

The story ends with the words “and many cattle”. God informs the reluctant prophet that these creatures, mere animals though they are, matter too. Do they matter to him, to us? Who appears unmerciful now, we, or God?

The prophets do not envision a God who magically makes love break out on earth, but who calls out to us constantly from within all life to behave with mercy and compassion. As Hans Jonas writes in The Concept Of God After Auschwitz, “I entertain the idea of a God… who responds to the impact on his being by worldly events, not ‘with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm’… but with the mutely insistent appeal of his unfulfilled goal.”

To Jonas’s contemporary, Emmanuel Levinas, nothing expressed God’s appeal more powerfully than the human face. I recently met a Turkish woman who worked for the rights of mental health patients. Staff, she noticed, were often overwhelmed, and did not create opportunities to engage with their “patients” as people.

So she encouraged patients and nurses to sit opposite one another and draw each other’s face. “I never really looked at her before”; “We’d never spoken like that”; such comments invariably followed this simple, but transformative, activity. Suddenly one perceives the humanity, God’s image, in the unique features, and suffering, of one specific pain-worn visage.

Arik Aschermann devotes his life to struggling for the rights of dispossessed and downtrodden Jews and Arabs alike. Last year he strove single-handedly to put out the flames after settlers burnt olive orchards belonging to Palestinian farmers. “I had the sense,” he wrote, “that I was not really alone. As Abraham Joshua Heschel taught us, ‘No one is lonely when doing a mitzvah, for a mitzvah is where God meets man.’”

The Talmud teaches that the true meaning of the commandment to “love the Lord your God” is to make the Lord our God beloved through our deeds. It is not sufficient to leave God’s love in heaven; it must be in our hearts and hands.

God’s presence in all things affects our lives profoundly, but I cannot believe in an interventionist deity who either wilfully bends the laws of nature or interferes groundlessly in the cause and effect of the moral consequences of human conduct. I believe that God abides within the vitality of all life, that God thus forms the strength of our heart, the song of our soul and the discernment of our conscience, that God fills the immensity of which our consciousness is a briefly separated fraction.

As the Psalmist teaches, “God’s mercies are upon all God’s works”; the awe of God silently calls out to us and the love of God wordlessly appeals to us from within all creation. But how we draw God into the world of deeds and relationships is our responsibility and that determines whether God is manifestly present, or seemingly absent, in our hearts, our homes, our society and our politics. The call to God is love, the foundation of all the commandments.

This love touched me in that cemetery in the simultaneous awareness of the beauty, and fragility, of life. The thought of the tenderness and daily affection, of the arguments and making up, and of the grief of parting, says to us, “While you can, over the fleeting, limited time that you have life, live it with love!”

I believe that is why I found myself singing “God, God, merciful and gracious”. I would do so again. However those words should be sung not in the graveyard but in life, wherever they are needed. For God’s presence is everywhere and calls out to us from all being, all suffering, all need, all beauty and all joy, to live by the challenging laws of love.

Jonathan Wittenberg is rabbi of the New North London Masorti Synagogue

Last updated: 1:50pm, September 29 2009