Sunday, September 15, 2013

Which God shades us in the sukkah? / Sukkot

Baylor University professors Paul Froese and Christopher Bader tell us that 90% of Americans believe in God, and that, collectively, we view God in one of four distinctive ways, depending upon whether we believe God to be angry or not, and whether we believe God to be actively engaged with the world or not. The four God-personalities are: Authoritarian, Benevolent, Critical, and Distant. They break down this way:

Engaged and involved
Not engaged or involved
Authoritarian: This is the angry and judgmental God who expresses love through punishment. He’s gonna getcha.
Critical: This God is angry and judgmental, but unwilling to engage with the world; judgment is delayed until after you die. He’s gonna getcha later.
Not angry
Benevolent: Believers hold that God acts in our world by doing good on our behalf. He doesn’t wanna getcha.
Distant: This God is conceived as a powerful cosmic creator, who set the world in motion but is not engaged with it. Get what?

Froese and Bader’s work is based on extensive surveys and interviews and published in America’s Four Gods: What We Say about God — and What That Says about Us. As the title implies, their purpose is to demonstrate that Americans’ views of God are predictive of their views on politics, social morality, science, economics, technology, war, love, and more. Froese and Bader explain that our image of God is our meta-narrative; it reflects our big picture view of how we think the world operates.

Liberal American Jews, the authors tell us, tend toward the “Distant” God; Orthodox Jews tend toward the “Authoritarian” image of God. Let’s explore that a bit.

Clearly, the writers of Torah subscribe to the Authoritarian model (on steroids): The God of Torah loves Israel, to be sure, but spends a good deal of time expressing anger, disappointment, and disapproval, and even more time commanding, threatening, and punishing.

Sukkot fast approaches. Many of us are busy putting up a sukkah, gathering decorations, and cooking, cooking, cooking. When Sukkot arrives, on the tail of Yom Kippur, we will read these verses from the Torah, from Leviticus chapter 23:

Mark, on the fifteenth day of the seventh month, when you have gathered in the yield of your land, you shall observe the festival of the Lord for seven days: a complete rest on the first day, and a complete rest on the eighth day. On the first day [of Sukkot] you shall take the fruit of hadar (or: lovely) trees, branches of palm trees, boughs of leafy trees, and willows of the brook, and you shall rejoice before the Lord your God seven days. (Leviticus 23:39-40)

God’s commandments are clear enough, including the delightful requirement to rejoice for seven days. As for consequences, this is pretty typical of Torah and is found only two chapters later:

If you follow My laws and faithfully observe My commandments, I will grant your rains in their season, so that the earth shall yield its produce and the trees of the field their fruit… I will grant peace in the land, and you shall lie down untroubled by anyone… You shall give chase to your enemies, and they shall fall before you by the sword… I will establish My abode in your midst, and I will not spurn you… But if you do not obey Me and do not observe all these commandments, if you reject My laws and spurn My rules… I will wreak misery upon you — consumption and fever… you shall sow your seed to no purpose, for your enemies shall eat it… Your land shall not yield its produce, nor shall the trees of the land yield their fruit… (excerpted from Leviticus 26:3-20)

This, however, is far from the only way to understand God, and how we understand God is inextricably tied with how we read the text.

Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev did not fit any of Froese and Bader’s four models, but he can be excused for that because he lived in the Ukraine in the 18th century, and because he was a Hasidic rebbe and therefore a Kabbalist. Levi Yitzhak is famous for being the “defense attorney” of the Jewish People. His compassion was unbounded. He found value in every soul. Not surprisingly, for Levi Yitzhak, God was the quintessence of empathy, an ever-present and ever-available flowing cascade of compassion surging through the universe. Dip into the flow, and you will find within yourself love, tenderness, mercy, tolerance, kindness, forgiveness — in a word, the deepest level of humanity.

In his famous work, Kedushat Levi, Levi Yitzhak opens with a question he finds in Midrash Tanhuma (Emor 22) about the Torah verses cited above: If Sukkot begins on the 15th day of the 7th month, how can it be deemed the “first day”? He notes that the midrash supplies the answer that this is the first day when sins are counted. Levi Yitzhak finds this explanation lacking, and proceeds to articulate his own answer, one that closely echoes the Tur (Orach Chaim 581):

This seems to be the meaning. On the days from Rosh Hashanah until Yom Kippur, every Jew goes about with open eyes, surveys his deeds, and prepares to return to God. Each of us, according to our own mind and our own level of piety, fears Adonai and God’s glorious majesty as God rises to judge the earth. The “Day of God” is near, and who can ever feel righteous in judgment? Who can but fear and be humbled in coming before the Judge of the universe? If you tremble before God in this way, you will rise in the heights of your mind to set aright whatever has gone wrong. Such a return to God is called “repentance from fear.”

But after Yom Kippur we are involved in such mitzvot as sukkah and lulav. We give to the needy generously as God has blessed us. We love serving God in this joyous and good-hearted way. This is repentance out of love.

Levi Yitzhak differentiates between two types of repentance, two ways to turn our lives toward God. The first is based on fear: The Authoritarian God, the He’s-Gonna-Getcha-God, will punish me. So, out of fear for my own welfare, I repent and attempt to set right what I have caused to go wrong.

The second type of repentance, and clearly Levi Yitzhak things this is the superior type, is based on love. Having come through the High Holy Days, repented, atoned, and wiped the slate clean, we feel joy and gratitude which we invest in joyfully doing mitzvot and generously attending to the needs of others. We do not merely fix what we broke, we set out to do good. We serve God not out of fear of punishment, but out of love. This is certainly not the Authoritative model of God — no angry God here — but is it the Benevolent image or the Distant image? Is God actively engaged with Creation or not?

Levi Yitzhak explains this dichotomy of teshuvot (turnings toward God), drawing from the Bavli (Babylonian Talmud):

Our Sages taught (B.Yoma 86b) that when one repents out of fear, intentional transgressions are reduced to the status of unintended misdeeds. But when one repents out of love, the same transgressions are transformed into actual merits. Now God, in God’s great mercy and compassion, wants the penitent to return in true love. “It is not the death of mortals You seek, but that they should turn from their ways and live” [from the prayer Unetaneh Tokef recited on the High Holy Days].

The Bavli credits Rabbi Shimon b. Lakish with this teaching. Reish Lakish sees two purposes for repentance: the first is the self-serving motivation of avoiding punishment; the second is because one is filled with love for God and thereby inspired to do good for others. For Reish Lakish, our good deeds, inspired by love of God, lead to a divine recalculation such that our demerits are deemed merits. Does this surprise you?

I think that Levi Yitzhak goes further. His commentary continues:

So on his holiday [of Sukkot], when we come to rest in God’s shade [under the s’chach roof of the sukkah], performing mitzvot and good deeds out of love of Adonai, God begins counting our sins. He wants to know how many merits we are earning in the process of exchange! He doesn’t count them prior to Sukkot, when we are motivated by fear.

Levi Yitzhak understands that repentance inspired by love is superior to that which is motivated by fear. But he also understands that love itself is transformative. Goodness begets goodness, and it is in our nature when we move past fear and relate to God through love. Or, as Levi Yitzhak reminds us, quoting B.Pesachim 112a, “More than the calf wants to nurse, the cow wants to be suckled.” Allowing love to be the motivating force in our lives rather than fear is powerful and transforming — and also entirely natural because empathy, compassion, and love, are God flowing through us.

Levi Yitzhak’s God is one of empathy, compassion, and love. This God works through us, promulgating and disseminating love at every opportunity. It is not only our deeds that are transformed through love; it is the very Torah text that is transformed from a harsh authoritarian text into one of love. Perhaps Levi Yitzhak is telling us to envision God not as the world is or appears to be, but rather as we wish it to be.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

1 comment:

  1. I'm coming at this with all kinds of Christian baggage to be sure, but when I read "Clearly, the writers of Torah subscribe to the Authoritarian model (on steroids)" I cringe because its not true.

    Perhaps because when I read your analysis of the "Authoritarian model" I read "He’s gonna getcha" I read "he's gonna send ya to hell for all eternity."

    If you only mean "he's gonna smite you," well, then, Ok, there is plenty of smiting in the Torah.

    Maybe a whole 'nother set of categories needs to be added, subdivided, etc. to show the relationship of the meaning of "getcha" where in some "getcha" means hell and in others just physical death.