Back in 5757 I wrote: "Now, we can get into a really deep philosophical spiral here, if we start wondering about a Gd who punishes us for wrong actions. Let's not go there today. (It's not a trip I particularly enjoy at any time, but it can't be avoided forever.) Let's just take the words at their face value - and recognize the gift the Am Yisrael has been given in forgiveness after consequences, rather than before."
Well, I've successfully avoided this question the last few years by finding other aspects of the text to focus on. Guess it's time to finally tackle it.
A Gd who punishes even unto almost total extinction, for transgressions. Punishment so severe that the remnant left behind will have no doubt that the non-observant practices of their fathers is responsible for their plight.
This is bad, our modern sensibilities cry. This is wicked, mean. We could never accept a Gd like that. And so we grab on tightly to the small hope offered in the text that Gd, in the end, Gd will never abrogate Gd's end of the covenant, and will forgive and restore the people. Christianity took it a step further, putting the forgiveness right up front, and dumping all the iniquities on a hapless, rebellious young rabbi. For Jews, the forgiveness comes only after some suffering, for Christians, an Abraham offered up an Isaac, and the human sacrifice was accepted. References to the "lamb of Gd" notwithstanding, it was the human who perished, and no animal substituted as in the Akedah.(Think about that one for a minute. I've no desire to bash Christianity, but if there's one thing I learned while studying at Vanderbilt Divinity School, it was that Christian reinterpretation of Jewish doctrine is some of the most baffling and bewildering stuff around, and my encounter with it only served to strengthen my Judaism.)
But is a Gd who punishes, even harshly, something we must reject? I think not. Life comes with bad and good. Jews get saved, Egyptians drown. Joseph gets sold into slavery by his brothers, Joseph saves Egypt and his family from starvation. From the ashes of the Shoah the Israeli homeland arises anew.
No, there is a method to this seeming harshness and madness in the text.
Those of you who have been reading my musings for a while know that I have a penchant for allusions to self-help and 12-step philosophies. Mostly because I think the Torah is replete with these very same concepts-they were merely rediscovered.
Look at the example we have before us. We transgress and we are punished. We transgress yet again and are punished more. And so on, until our cumulative transgression and the pain they bring upon us can no longer be born, and we confess and admit to them. Then, and only then, does Gd forgive, and begins to help us rebuild our shattered lives. That is surely an example of letting someone "bottom out" so they are ready to seek help.
And how like reality. An addict or alcoholic suffers a consequence due to their addiction, and finally they seek treatment. Sometimes they slip back into their old ways, and must again suffer consequences and seek help. For the more fortunate, and ultimate bottom is reached, and they are driven to change their ways for good, so that they may never suffer in this way again. But some never make it all the way to the bottom. And others never even learn there is a way out, and they perish all too soon.
But this, you say, is not what the Torah says. The Torah speaks of Gd directly inflicting punishment on the individual for failing to keep the mitzvot. (And yes, it also speaks of the rewards that will come for faithful adherence to the mitzvot.) It's not analogous, you say, because the alcoholic brings on their own consequences, they aren't a punishment from Gd.
But is it not the obstinacy and stubborn infidelity of the Jewish people that brings on this punishment? Are we not indeed suffering the consequences of our actions. Gd may be the purveyor, but Gd is not the source. And Gd is not singling out individuals, but an entire nation.
Many contemporary translations of the text make it sound as if Gd is selecting out individuals for reward and punishment. (Pointing out a sadly lacking feature of modern English that the singular and plural "you" are indistinguishable, thus giving rise to that ever popular Southern affectation for addressing a collective you-"y'all.") But throughout the text, the references are plural. It is "am Yisrael" that is collectively judged, punished and redeemed by Gd. This should be our first clue that to view the text as describing individual reward and punishment from Gd is probably erroneous. The canonization of Job is another. It's just not about that.
But is collective reward and punishment any better? Of that, I'm not sure. And I'm not going to rise to the defense of a retributive Gd. Gd will have to fend on Gd's own will this issue.
But I will rise to defend the text. The text, which spells out in plain terms the process that people must go through to bottom out, realize they were the cause of their own suffering, and seek to change things for the better. AA may have it's "Big Book," but we Jews are fortunate to really have the original Big Book. Let us not ignore this ancient treasure, with reflections of modern realities, in our midst.
Well, will ya look at that. I seem to have successfully dodged my way around the question of a retributive Gd once again. Guess I haven't yet bottomed out on this aspect of my life.
Wishing you and yours a
©2001 by Adrian A. Durlester
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