Challenging the Binary Theology of Devarim – Eqev 5776

There is an ancient Talmudic story of the rabbi who loves golf so much, that he simply cannot resist going out on Yom Kippur for a quick nine. So Musaf comes to an end, and he’s out the back door on the way to the golf course. He’s on the first hole, teeing off, and the Qadosh Barukh Hu (God) notices what the rabbi is up to. So God declares to the Heavenly Court, “Watch this!” And He causes a great wind to come up, just as the rabbi’s club is on the downswing, and it blows the ball right into the cup. A hole in one.

An angel asks God, “Why did you do that?” God smiles, and says, “Who can he tell?”

I do not shy away from theology. On the contrary: I think that we need to address God in prime time, because the only way we’ll get past the challenges to be found when discussing God is to tackle them head-on.

What are those challenges? What makes the concept of God so difficult for modern people to wrap their heads around?

  • It’s hard to believe in things we can’t see
  • The human origins of religion
  • The “challenge” of science
  • God does not control the weather, at least the way that the ancient people understood it
  • The difficulty of suffering / evil in the world (Shoah, Katrina, etc.)
  • The problem of gender

Now let’s deconstruct the joke. (I know – that’s the best way to kill a joke!)

Going back to the rabbi and the Yom Kippur golf miracle, what’s problematic about that story is that it is constructed of traditional notions of how we understand God: that is,

  • Sitting on a throne on high, presiding over a heavenly court of angels,
  • Micro-managing things that go on here on Earth,
  • Capable of creating strong winds and heavy rains.

But let’s face it: maybe God does not work like that: interceding directly in our lives to change people and/or things. And if God does not function that way, then perhaps all of what we have received as tradition in Judaism is therefore somehow missing the mark.

But we can, and should, strive to understand God differently. And yet, a key piece of our tradition that feeds into the challenge of contemporary theology is something we have encountered already twice today, the second paragraph of the Shema, drawn from Parashat Eqev. In particular, the following lines (it’s on p. 156 of your siddur also; Deut. 11:13-17):

יג וְהָיָה, אִם-שָׁמֹעַ תִּשְׁמְעוּ אֶל-מִצְו‍ֹתַי, אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מְצַוֶּה אֶתְכֶם, הַיּוֹם–לְאַהֲבָה אֶת-ה’ אֱ-לֹהֵיכֶם, וּלְעָבְדוֹ, בְּכָל-לְבַבְכֶם, וּבְכָל-נַפְשְׁכֶם.  יד וְנָתַתִּי מְטַר-אַרְצְכֶם בְּעִתּוֹ, יוֹרֶה וּמַלְקוֹשׁ; וְאָסַפְתָּ דְגָנֶךָ, וְתִירֹשְׁךָ וְיִצְהָרֶךָ.  טו וְנָתַתִּי עֵשֶׂב בְּשָׂדְךָ, לִבְהֶמְתֶּךָ; וְאָכַלְתָּ, וְשָׂבָעְתָּ.  טז הִשָּׁמְרוּ לָכֶם, פֶּן יִפְתֶּה לְבַבְכֶם; וְסַרְתֶּם, וַעֲבַדְתֶּם אֱלֹהִים אֲחֵרִים, וְהִשְׁתַּחֲוִיתֶם, לָהֶם.  יז וְחָרָה אַף-ה’ בָּכֶם, וְעָצַר אֶת-הַשָּׁמַיִם וְלֹא-יִהְיֶה מָטָר, וְהָאֲדָמָה, לֹא תִתֵּן אֶת-יְבוּלָהּ; וַאֲבַדְתֶּם מְהֵרָה, מֵעַל הָאָרֶץ הַטֹּבָה, אֲשֶׁר ה’ נֹתֵן לָכֶם.

13. If, then, you obey the commandments that I enjoin upon you this day, loving the Lord your God and serving Him with all your heart and soul, 14. I will grant the rain for your land in season, the early rain and the late. You shall gather in your new grain and wine and oil. 15. I will also provide grass in the fields for your cattle, and thus you shall eat your fill. 16. Take care not to be lured away to serve other gods and bow to them. 17. For the Lord’s anger will flare up against you, and He will shut up the skies so that there will be no rain and the ground will not yield its produce; and you will soon perish from the good land that the Lord is assigning to you.

In other words, the Torah defines our covenant with God in binary terms: if we do the mitzvot, we get rain, and therefore good crops (remember that to our ancestors living in the Middle East, rain was essential for life). If, however, we do not uphold our end of the covenant, there will be no rain, and we will die. Binary. Either this or that. One or zero.

... of july there wasn t one firework in the sky rain rain please go

When I was at the Jewish Theological Seminary, as a student in one of Rabbi Neil Gillman’s theology courses, we were actually encouraged to challenge our understanding of how God works.

So we learned not only to address theology directly, but also to revisit our most fundamental assumptions about God, the Torah, and Jewish practice. And that is why the second paragraph of the Shema, the least-known part of the most-familiar prayer in the Jewish canon is particularly captivating to me.

There is almost something embarrassing about these lines, because we do not literally believe it. A common Sefaradi custom is that in congregations where every word is recited aloud, two verses in the middle of this paragraph are NEVER chanted audibly during services. Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, one of Rabbi Gillman’s teachers at JTS and founder of what ultimately became the Reconstructionist movement, replaced that paragraph with another in his first Reconstructionist siddur.

But here’s the upshot: we are Yisrael – the people who struggle with God. And we can struggle with this theology. In fact, we have been doing it for two millennia. Here is just one example from the Talmud (BT Berakhot 7a), where the rabbis imagined Moshe Rabbeinu asking God about the eternal problem of why there is suffering in the world, even among those who follow the mitzvot:

אמר לפניו רבש”ע, מפני מה יש צדיק וטוב לו ויש צדיק ורע לו? יש רשע וטוב לו ויש רשע ורע לו

Moshe asked before God, “Master of the Universe, why is there one righteous person enjoying prosperity and another righteous person afflicted with adversity? Why is there one wicked person enjoying prosperity and another wicked person afflicted with adversity?”

In other words, Moshe is asking God that, given the information that we see on a daily basis, this traditional theology is woefully inaccurate. And we all know this intuitively; committing oneself to mitzvot does not ward off terminal diseases; likewise, eating shrimp (e.g.) will not cause you to lose your livelihood; all the more so, it cannot be that if Hayyim eats shrimp, that Yankel loses his job. So the way the covenant is framed in Parashat Eqev cannot be accurate.

In what amounts to a conclusion to this passage, the rabbis merely throw up their hands and say, effectively, “Well, we do not really know how God works.”

דא”ר מאיר שתים נתנו לו ואחת לא נתנו לו שנא’ (שמות לג, יט) וחנתי את אשר אחון אע”פ שאינו הגון ורחמתי את אשר ארחם אע”פ שאינו הגון

… R. Meir said (that God granted two of Moses’ requests and refused one.) As it is said,”I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious” (Exod. xxxiii. 19), i.e. although he may not be deserving; “And I will show mercy on whom I will show mercy” (ibid.), i.e. although he may not be deserving.

Not very satisfying, right?

And so we have continued to search as a people for answers to why this whole covenant thing is not so simple. And meanwhile, we continue reciting the second paragraph of the Shema, twice a day, evening and morning.

Amber waves of grain | Beautiful places | Pinterest

But perhaps one thing that Rabbi Gillman tried to teach us was that the search is as valuable as the answer; that the philosophical argument is really what sustains us. “I am a liturgical traditionalist,” he told us, “but not a literalist.” That is, unlike Rabbi Kaplan, he continues to recite the traditional words of tefillah, including the bit about mitzvot and rain, but re-interprets those words to suit his theology.

When the traditional text is uncomfortable, we do not toss it out; rather we seek a different way to understand God.

One way we can tackle the second paragraph of Shema is to consider our values as a society.

“If, then, you obey the commandments that I enjoin upon you this day, loving the Lord your God and serving Him with all your heart and soul,”

If we take the holy opportunities of tefillah / prayer, Shabbat, celebrating holidays and lifecycle events, kashrut, etc. seriously, and if we understand that fundamentally these activities are about maintaining and improving the sanctity in all of our relationships,

“… I will grant the rain for your land in season, …”

then we will sensitize ourselves to the everyday holiness to be found all around us, and we will make good choices that will support healthy living and good-neighborliness, yielding a better, more just, more equitable society. We will be bathed in the cleansing rain of respect, gratitude, humility, cooperation, and mutual understanding.

“Take care not to be lured away to serve other gods and bow to them….”

Do not worship at the altars of greed, selfishness, materialism, anger, fear, or hatred,

“For the Lord’s anger will flare up against you, and He will shut up the skies so that there will be no rain…”

because you will destroy yourselves in the resulting chaos. Your parched souls will lead you to an unpleasant end; while your cities will be swallowed by rising seas and the forces of terror and racism will overwhelm your democratic institutions.

****

What we learn from this forlorn paragraph of the Shema is that there are real consequences to our actions, even though they may not be what our ancestors thought they were. And we can understand God’s role in our world quite differently. When we make the holy choice, we improve our world collectively. God, however we envision or understand God, has fashioned our world in this way.

Not, “If you do X then you get Y,” not binary, not one or zero, but rather, the message is that we have to work to create a world in which God’s presence may be felt.

We all have that potential, as individuals and as a community. And that might be a better approach to understanding God.

Shabbat shalom!

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 8/27/2016.)

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4 Comments

Filed under Sermons

4 responses to “Challenging the Binary Theology of Devarim – Eqev 5776

  1. Thank you, Rabbi Adelson for your articulate and balanced approach to understanding the words we easily recite by rote, often without doing so.

  2. Jesse Rodman

    A helpful exposition for those who struggle to put a rational matrix on Torah and tefilah

  3. David Zielenziger

    Good sermon, but as you know, I don’t hesitate to throw out liturgy I find repugnant and irrelevant. I read the second graf of the שמע as a primitive concept of actions and consequences and often skip it. No reason for us to include it any more.

    • I think “repugnant” is a bit harsh, particularly since the second part of the paragraph (which I did not discuss) echoes much of the first paragraph. Nonetheless, one of the things that makes us Conservative Jews is that we are conservative with respect to change: it happens slowly and deliberately. Even Rabbi Kaplan felt the need to preserve the three-paragraph structure, even if he disagreed with the theology of the traditional paragraph.

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