This week, I was sitting in my favorite coffee shop with a student, studying Torah, when I was asked a question. The question concerned a moment in Deuteronomy. Deuteronomy, as we know, is the last book of the Torah, and contains Moses’ final speeches to the Israelites before they travel without him over the River Jordan, into the promised land. As Deuteronomy explains, once the Israelites enter the promised land, they are to go city by city, eradicating the peoples who currently dwell there—the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites. They are commanded, under Joshua’s leadership, to then take these people’s land, their livestock, and remove any trace of them from the land that our God had given them. It was in response to this situation that my student asked a question: “Why do we have to do this?” In other words, “Why can’t God just take care of this?” The question was a good one. We’ve seen God create a world, split seas, rain down food. God had no problem wreaking havoc onto the Egyptians, and obliterating Sodom and Gemorrah. We’ve even seen God open the earth to swallow up the disloyal within our own tribes. So, why do the Israelites have to go and fight, why do they have to commit what is basically genocide to secure a land that they never asked for?
Well, as Torah study often goes, this question led to another question, and to another discussion. But there is a broader context to this student’s question regarding the actions of God. If one has read the Torah in full, it gives varying versions of God and God’s personality, God’s power, and even God’s form. All of God’s qualities then vary even more when we read through the prophets, and the writings, let alone the rabbinic texts, the philosophy, the Kabbalistic mysticism. And now we look at God from a 21st century view, which is usually a combination of all of these wrapped up into one. Therein lays the problem. When we describe God as we think God is today, through the 21st century lens, and read the Torah, read the Bible, read the Talmud, when we look at the news, we run into a very contradictory God. Today, most monotheistic religions view God as omnipotent, omniscient, and all good. It’s a nice view of God—all powerful, all knowing, and the archetype of morality, the very definition of what is “good;” except that it just doesn’t work with the world as we know it. Scholars and theologians know that God cannot be all three.
God must only be two out of those three for the world to make sense.
Let’s start big and work our way to small. The destruction of our Temple (twice), the Crusades, the Inquisition, the Holocaust, all of these happened to Jews. If God was all powerful, God would have stopped these things from happening, but God did not. If God was all knowing, God would have seen these things coming, known what was happening or going to happen, and somehow stopped it from happening. If God was all good, there is no way God would have allowed the murder of children, the systematic destruction of our people, the forced conversion and torture, as none of that can be rationalized as “good.” So all three don’t work. Let’s try two out of three. In the wake of these tragedies to our people, God could be all powerful and all good, but simply not know it was happening, because God is not all knowing; God could be all knowing, and all good, but powerless to stop these things from happening because God is not all powerful; or, God could be all powerful, all knowing, but not all good therefore allowing bad things to happen. None of these sit too well with Jews, Christians, or Muslims considering our 21st century view that God MUST be all three.
Now let’s go smaller. Illness. My wife recently showed me a video wherein an interviewer asks Stephen Fry what he would say to God when arriving at the pearly gates. Without flinching, Fry says, “Bone cancer in children, what’s that about?” In other words, knowing what we know about God, how on earth could there be something so terrible on this earth that affects innocent children? All three won’t work here either. If God is all powerful, God would surely cure children, or eradicate this disease, but God does not; if God were all knowing, God would know that children are suffering and dying, and do something about it; and if God were all good, well, you get the idea. So we have to pick two. Either God is all powerful and all good, but just doesn’t know about bone cancer because God is not all knowing; or, God is all knowing, God knows about bone cancer, and God is all good, and wants to do something about it but can’t, because God is not all powerful; or, God is all powerful, able to eradicate a disease, all knowing, fully aware of what it does, but not all good, because there is nothing good, nothing moral, nothing just about bone cancer in children.
So why do bad things happen to good people? Why do bad things happen at all if there’s an all powerful, all knowing, all good God? This is a major problem for all of us in the religion business. It’s a question I can’t answer. Oh, I’ve heard some terrible answers, and you probably have, too: God works in mysterious ways. Yes, well, that’s not really an answer, that simply leads us to circular logic, meaning that if God works in mysterious ways, not all of those ways are good, and you can’t argue that they are. My favorite answer to that question is one word. It’s the word that’s uttered by the most devout religious followers, it’s declared by the right wingers, by the cult followers, by the preachers and priests: the F-word (no, not that): faith. That’s the answer to every problematic religious question: faith. It stops most conversations in their tracks, because that’s exactly what it’s designed to do. It’s not really an answer. It’s a roadblock.
But faith (in Hebrew, emuna), is a Jewish concept. To be “faithful” to God, in the Biblical sense, is to ascribe to no other religion, have no other gods or idols that you worship. The prophets viewed the relationship between God and Israel as a marriage. When Israel started to stray, the prophets called us adulterers. We were not being faithful to our God. To be faithful to God meant, and still means, to continue to believe despite all the difficulties. When the Temple was destroyed in 586 BCE the Jews kept their faith in God; when it was destroyed again in 70 CE, they kept their faith in God. Jews have kept the faith through the crusades, the inquisition, and the holocaust. We remain loyal to our God, remembering that we are part of a sacred relationship, a marriage, wherein we will not stray. That is the true meaning of faith, to continue to be loyal to a God despite our disagreements. Does that mean we agree with God all the time? That we’re happy with God all the time? Absolutely not. There have been plenty of times in my life when I’ve been asked about my relationship with God, and I’ve said that “we’re not exactly on speaking terms right now.” The truth is, we don’t know what God is: all powerful, all knowing, all good. We don’t know which of the two God is, and which God is not. That’s the beauty of Judaism. We don’t know how God could allow these tragedies to happen, or allow children to get bone cancer.
But the question has more value than the answer, because we know we don’t have all the answers. In other words, faith isn’t the answer to difficult theological questions; it is an aspect of our Jewish identity that we remind ourselves of as we ask difficult questions. Faith, then, doesn’t explain away all of the terrible things we see in the world. Rather, faith demonstrates our commitment to never stop asking the difficult questions. And it is faith, not an all knowing, all powerful, all good God, that should set us apart.