Although I am gratified by the direction of Sen. Portman’s change of view, if it is the case that one certainty about God’s will is now replaced by another certainty about God’s will, and Sen. Portman still thinks he’s channeling God, my contempt will know no limit.
The one thing that religious extremists — be they Christian, Muslim, or Jewish — have in common is that they support their bigotries by pointing to Scripture and claiming that their views are God’s will, all encoded in a book of marching orders. The scourge of fundamentalism and reactionary conservatism in our country is dangerous; its foot soldiers audaciously claiming a lock on God.
Torah is our starting point for the conversation about God, one that has ongoing for over three millennia. Our Rabbis participate in the conversation, offering different views and voices. Torah’s vision of a Supernatural Being imposing will and agency, manipulating events on the ground, rewarding and punishing, is not the Rabbis’ experience. For the Rabbis, God has withdrawn into the background of history, seldom intervening but potentially capable of coming forward. Human moral and intellectual agency has moved to center court. For Maimonides, God is pure thought and reason, “the Active Intellect,” which makes the world possible but does not in any way run it. For the Kabbalists, the entire universe is in God and therefore God’s divine energy flows through the universe continuously, enlivening and enlightening all those who become vessels for it. Note what a far distance we have come from the biblical view: when the Kabbalists speak of God as a being, using pronouns like “You” and “He,” and employing verbs like “see”, “hear”, and “love,” this is for them metaphor, a way we embodied humans can more easily speak of our experience of God. The Kabbalists’ view of God is entirely abstract.
People have long known that Torah and Talmud are humanly authored books situated in an historical context, and that they reflect their authors’ experience of, and best understanding of, God. From our vantage point in the 21st century, scientific cosmogony and the laws of physics have given us a far clearer understanding of how the universe operates. This in no way eclipses belief in God, but it motivates us to think more deeply. Scripture contains numerous ancient misconceptions, bigotries, and values we no longer hold. We do no honor to Scripture to read it as a mere rulebook that justifies bigotry and narrow-mindedness.
Scripture must be interpreted. There’s a wonderful poster that hangs on many college dormitory doors. At the top it says, “What Jesus said about homosexuality.” The rest of the poster is blank. I wonder if Sen. Portman has seen that poster. On the other hand, the Bible is very clear about eating pork and shellfish, keeping the Sabbath as a day of rest, and stoning rebellious adolescents. Does Sen. Portman conform to the rules associated with these passages? Clearly he chooses to interpret these passages in a manner that exempts him from compliance.
And indeed, all who take Scripture seriously interpret it. We need to search sacred texts for meaning consistent with what we know. But even more: Ben Bag Bag’s deeply profound teaching in Pirke Avot is now more relevant than ever before; he said this about sacred Scripture: "Turn it, and turn it, for everything is in it. Reflect on it and grow old and gray with it. Don't turn from it, for nothing is better than it." (PA 5:22) Ben Bag Bag is telling us: Torah must flow through us, and start us on a path of searching for answers to difficult and troubling questions. Torah is about the process of finding answers, and it is about our sacred relationships, with God, with other people, and with the world we inhabit.
We don’t speak for God, but through the process of Torah we allow God to speak to us. It takes humility and compassion to listen.
This week we celebrate Passover. Midrash Pesikta de-Rav Kahana (piska 7:2) builds on Ben Bag Bag’s teaching, making a subtle but startling claim about how we speak about God. It begins with a comment on a verse describing the tenth plague:
And it came to pass at midnight that the Lord smote all the first-born in the land of Egypt (Exodus 12:29).
The midrash wonders how anyone could know the exact, precise moment of midnight, and concludes only God can. (Smart phones that pull the time off satellites keyed to atomic clocks were not facets of the ancient world.) The midrash tells us:
R. Aha began his discourse by citing the verse, I am the Lord, that is My name. I will not yield My glory to another, nor My renown to idols (Isaiah 42:8). I am the Lord, that is My name means, according to R. Aha, that the Holy One said: I am the Lord, that is My name, the name which Adam called Me; that is My name, the name I have consented to be called by…
This is a profound insight. Let’s dissect it. For the Rabbis, God’s Name (the 4-letter tetragrammaton) has special resonance. The Sages believe that God’s Name itself is invested with power and is so closely identified with God that it cannot be separated from God’s existence, essence, and being. R. Aha brings a verse from Isaiah that in context says: “I am Adonai. Adonai is My name. I will not yield My power, presence or reputation to any other gods or idols.” In the context of the Passover story, this makes perfect sense: the Exodus is the story of a showdown between Adonai and Pharaoh, the god of the Egyptians. God handily and publicly proves his superior might, again and again and again, bringing plagues upon Egypt, splitting the Reed Sea for the Israelites, and closing it again over Pharaoh’s army to assure the Israelites’ safety. In the story of the Exodus, it is Adonai, and not Pharaoh, who possesses the power.
R. Aha, however, tells us that “Adonai” is a name Adam chose and therefore God accepted it. That Adam — who could also be a stand-in for humanity — chose the name suggests that Adam (i.e. human beings) conceived the universe in a certain way, and named their understanding of their experience “God.” Whether people call that experience Adonai or God or Lord or Allah, or any other name that Adams throughout history have chosen, it is a reflection of people’s experience, not a literal truth to be trumpeted from the hilltops and in the halls of Congress.
When Isaiah has God say, I will not yield My glory to another, nor My renown to idols, Isaiah is telling us that God does not want other deities given credit for what God does, but in the hands of R. Aha, the latter half of Isaiah 42:8 suggests that it is Adam — again, the stand-in for people — who makes of his God-ideas idols. Claiming absolute truth and a direct line to God’s will is pure arrogance, and a naked attempt at grabbing power to control other people.
Truth is far more subtle and nuanced than the black-and-white formulation fundamentalists and religious extremists offer us so “lovingly.” Truth is the search for wisdom, and wisdom doesn’t come in a verse or a bottle. Wisdom comes from living, searching, and loving, and it requires humility and compassion.