God might be an underachiever

Rabbi Harold Kushner figured something out about God. Let's go one step further.

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It does not matter how many times I sit at a hospital bedside, or at a house of mourning, or with congregants who are dealing with a tragedy, or at the very least, a crushing disappointment.

Or, for that matter, over the past three years, the following question: “How could God allow COVID?” Or, school shootings. Or, Ukraine. Or…

The most common response, tentative and humble as it may be, goes back to Rabbi Harold Kushner, who died last week.

If we look at the harsh realities of the world, and if we must choose between a God Who is loving, and a God Who is all-powerful, we will take the God Who is loving, and choose a God Who is less than all-powerful.

It is the most often-repeated “move” in modern pastoral theology.

There are echoes of this idea in Jewish mysticism. In order for the world to come into being, God needed to contract (tzimtzum) into the divine self. That divine contraction left a space in existence that was “godless.” This was either a bad thing, because it let a place devoid of the divine presence. Or, it was a good thing, because it left room for human initiative.

Or. put it this way: God might be the most powerful entity in the universe, but even God is not all-powerful. There are “holes” in God’s power.

It reminds me of what happened when the son of the famous social activist and preacher, Rev. William Sloane Coffin, was killed in an automobile accident. He wrote:

When a person dies, there are many things that can be said, and at least one thing that should never be said.  The night after Alex died, a woman came by carrying quiches.  She shook her head, saying sadly, “I just don’t understand the will of God.”  Instantly I swarmed all over her.  “I’ll say you don’t lady!  Do you think it was the will of God that Alex never fixed that lousy windshield wiper, that he was probably driving too fast in a storm?  Do you think it is God’s will that there are no streetlights along that stretch of road?”  Nothing so infuriates me as the incapacity of intelligent people to get it through their heads that God doesn’t go around with his finger on triggers, his fist around knives, his hands on steering wheels . . . My own consolation lies in knowing that it was not the will of God that Alex die; that when the waves closed over the sinking car, God’s heart was the first of all our hearts to break.

That’s the part I want to focus on — that whole notion that “God’s heart was the first of all our hearts to break.”

Because, for many years, I have taken Rabbi Kushner’s ideas, and I have upped the theological ante by saying, to myself and others, that it’s not only that God is not all-powerful.

There is more.

God weeps with us.

It is actually an ancient idea — that God weeps because of God’s lack of absolute power — and because of the freedom that God has given us.

Consider this quote from the Talmud: “When God remembers His children who dwell in misery among the nations of the world, He causes two tears to descend to the ocean and the sound is heard from one end of the world to the other” (Talmud, Berachot 59a).

And, another:

“My soul shall weep in secret for your pride” (Jer. 13:17).

Rabbi Samuel bar Inya said in the name of Rav: The Holy One has a place for weeping; it is called the “secret place.”

What is meant by “for your pride”?

Rabbi Samuel bar Isaac said: God cries due to the pride of the Jewish people, which was taken from them and given to the heathens.

Rabbi Shmuel bar Nachmani said: God cries due to the pride of the Kingdom of Heaven, which was removed from the world..

God cries in the innermost chambers, where God can weep in secret…

”My eye shall drop tears after tears, and run down with tears, because the Lord’s flock is carried away captive” (Jer. 13:17).

Rabbi Eleazar asked: Why are tears mentioned here three times?

Once for the First Temple, once again for the Second Temple, and once more for Israel exiled from their home. (Talmud, Hagigah 5b)

Don’t take this literally. It is not as if God has a body, a head, eyes, and functioning tear ducts.

What I am saying is: There are moments when the Soul of the Universe itself needs comfort.

This is a deep, holy idea — and it has comforted many Jews.

Consider Rabbi Kalonymous Kalman Shapira, also known by the title of his most important work, the Eysh Kodesh, “the holy fire.” He was the last Hasidic rebbe in Warsaw . He taught, ministered, and preached in the Warsaw Ghetto, and he perished in the Trawniki work camp on November 3, 1943.

To quote Andrea Cohen-Kiener, a scholar who has analyzed his writings:

Shapira said that there is a secret gate — the gate of grief, a hidden place where God goes to shed tears. In these moments God is hiding away and crying along with us. Our grief is experienced, as it were, by the Creator. God too feels our isolation, rage and fear. When we do not abandon our true feelings, we are not abandoned. We are in fact connected with the heart of the one who made us.

I believe that there is great utility in this image, even if you do not believe it literally.

First, in a gendered sense. Many of us, and for some time, have worked tirelessly in retiring the older image of the male Father God, and have experimented with God as Shechinah, female presence, and/or a gender-neutral God.

The fact remains that many people still, in their heart of hearts, believe that God is masculine. It is far more difficult to dispel this mythic system than we think.

Therefore, the image of a weeping (male) God might serve to teach men to become more emotionally open and vulnerable. The fabled Father God is not a macho man.

But, second: Even and especially if we do not take this new image of the weeping God literally, we still might take it seriously.

It testifies to the kind of God that many of us actually do crave — a God Who is with us in our pain.

To quote Henry Slonimsky, who served as dean at the old Jewish Institute of Religion, and is one of American Judaism’s least heralded thinkers: “God is primarily a great heart, caring most for what seems to be important and sacred to us, namely, our loves and aspirations and sufferings.”

I will sign on to that God. What about you?

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