Monday, May 16, 2011

Tackling reward & punishment / Bechukkotai

I participate in an “Ask the Rabbi” website. Periodically questions submitted on the site are forwarded to me for response.

Last week, this thoughtful question came my way: “In B'hukotai Leviticus 26:3-27:34 God enumerates the rewards for keeping the commandments and the punishments for violating them. I have difficulty… understanding how to make connections to the severity of these words. It is almost like a parent/child relationship.”

The questioner refers to the famous Tokhechah (Reproach or Execration). It is traditionally read in an undertone because the very thought of these curses evokes fear. How are we to interpret this section of Torah that depicts God as a Being who coerces Israel into obeying his commandments and throttles them if they deviate from his will? I cannot believe in a God so cruel. The Jobian argument that we are too small to understand God’s Big Game Plan doesn’t wash with me: if God can be just on the cosmic scale, God can be just on the micro scale, which is your life and mine. Arguments about God's forgiveness and mercy which are supposed to balance the scale of God’s threats and curses don't hold water for me either, because reward for righteousness and punishment for wickedness are certainly not built-ins of the universe. Perhaps that’s why beliefs about the afterlife (which arose after the Torah was closed and canonized, but are a natural outgrowth of biblical thinking) abound: Bechukkotai’s description of God is powerful but repugnant, and Deuteronomy’s description of reward and punished simply isn’t a reality in this world.

Therefore I was delighted by this marvelous question. I couldn’t wait to dive in. I don't believe that God controls the processes of the universe; the laws of physics do. However, I believe that God is the underlying reality that makes existence possible, and that all existence is part of God.

Here, in part, is my response:

The first thing I want to say is this: The Torah is the first Jewish word on God, but far from the last. It's the beginning of a 3000-year conversation we've been having among ourselves about God that has taken us to some pretty amazing places.

The second thing I want to say is that how we understand God and how we regard Torah are inextricably intertwined ideas. (I invite you to read a piece I wrote on Revelation. You can find it here. Click on "Ideas and Ideals" in the left column, and then on "Revelation.")

Torah speaks of God through images familiar to people in the ancient world: Ruler, Parent, Shepherd. These are metaphors, attempting to stretch our minds toward an idea and reality that is beyond words. The challenge is to determine how to frame Torah and therefore how to interpret it. Specifically:
  1. Did God give Torah, word-for-word?
  2. Is Torah the product of human minds and hearts, expressing their understanding of God and what God requires of them?
  3. Is Torah a divinely inspired document?
  4. Is Torah an ancient law code developed by people and that has no real connection to God?
For me, Torah is a reflection or outgrowth of our people's encounter with God in ancient times. It reflects their understanding of God and their place in God's Creation. It is, by necessity, written in the zeitgeist/mindset of the ancient world. (We do the very same thing when we talk about God.) The notion of reward and punishment seems to be hardwired into the human brain. Very small children not only expect it, but even desire it – it somehow makes the world seem "fair" and therefore "balanced" to them. Very small children grow up into adults, of course, and often continue to require reward and punishment to bolster their sense of "fairness" and "balance." As you have no doubt surmised, I'm not a fan of "fair." I think the combination of justice and compassion ethically trumps "fair."

Having said this let me add that I do not believe in a personal God (i.e. a God who is a Being with will and agency as the Torah describes). There have been many Jewish thinkers throughout the ages who did not believe in a personal God, ranging from Moses Maimonides to the Kabbalists, and many in between. (Some are discussed in the piece on Revelation.) I would locate myself among the Process Thinkers.

Torah is a sacred book for me, a repository of extraordinary wisdom and insight that has unified and fueled Jewish life for many centuries. I do not feel compelled to accept everything as wonderful or appropriate – not by a long stretch. Some elements reflect the ancient world more than they do God (e.g. slavery, treatment of women). Just as our ancestors’ understanding of God was shaped by their world, I am quite sure that my understanding of God is shaped in large measure by the world in which I live. For me that includes the world of mathematics, quantum physics, and evolution). How could it be otherwise? That does not mean this generation’s view of God is the last word, of course. We certainly don’t have a “lock on God," just as I am certain that there are things we tolerate but which future generations will consider completely unacceptable (e.g. poverty).

Allow me to give you two examples of how I might deal with Bechukkotai.

1. Lev. 26:3-13 paints a picture of what happens if we fail to live according to God's values. The passage is couched in the plural – it's all "we" and begins with how we steward the earth. For me, there is great truth in that: how we treat the earth –whether we are caretakers or despoilers – will make all the difference in the quality of everyone's life, including issues of poverty, war and peace, health, and more. To get this right, we have to learn to see that our lives and destiny are inseparably linked to everyone else's, and that we are not separate from "the environment” but rather part of it. When we get that right, God will indeed dwell among us – an integral part of our thinking, acting, living:
I will grant peace in the land, and you shall lie down untroubled by anyone; I will give the land respite from vicious beasts, and no sword shall cross your land… I will look with favor upon you, and make you fertile and multiply you; and I will maintain My covenant with you… I will establish My abode in your midst, and I will not spurn you. I will be ever present in your midst: I will be your God, and you shall be My people… (Leviticus 26:6, 9, 11-12).
2. The threats/punishments I don't take literally. (To be precise, I don't believe there is a literal meaning to any text. All texts are interpreted.) However, the threats in Bechukkotai paint a picture of pain, dislocation, and trauma. Indeed, that is – in general terms – indeed what we see when people do not live up to the moral standards of the Torah (again, not on an individual basis – Leviticus isn't saying that – but on a communal basis). I think those overarching moral standards boil down to three:

• Regard others as the image of God and treat them accordingly.
• Protect human dignity.
• Strive for justice and balance it with compassion.

The stern warning in Bechukkotai becomes a prescient warning concerning what we are doing to the earth and its inhabitants.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

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