I recently came across an essay by Rabbi David Hartman, from a few years ago, from a speech he gave in Los Angeles, CA. In speaking about the covenant that God made with the People of Israel, Rabbi Hartman gave three examples of how God views the covenant as one of love and not of authoritarianism. The first example he gave is from the dialogue between God and Abraham just before the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. It is a telling moment that begins with God asking the question (to whom?) if God should share the divine plan for the cities with his servant Abraham. The fact that God even bothers to share the information with a “servant” is telling, but the story goes on. Abraham insists that God not destroy the righteous with the wicked. Abraham is not quoting a Biblical verse, or a halacha from some other source. There is this innate understanding in Abraham, it is his own “moral intuition” that brings him to question God’s actions. Then the bargaining begins. Why doesn’t God tell Abraham to stop his prayers since there are not even ten righteous people in the city? God must love the confrontation with his “partner” who feels morally strong enough to critique God.
The second example is from the Talmud. Rabbi Hartman notes that when God tries to intervene in the deliberations over the oven of Akhnai, Rabbi Joshua rebukes God saying, “Lo bashamayim hi!” “It is not in Heaven”. Halacha is a human invention based on what we know of what God has given us. God decided what would be in the Torah, now we get to decide what will be Halacha. In the Academy we get to tell God to be quiet and not interrupt our deliberations. Outside the Academy, what right do we have to criticize how God runs the world? We silence God in the house of study, God silences us when we confront the incomprehensible in our world.
Rabbi Hartman’s third example is the crossing of the Red Sea. This miracle is the paradigm of all miracles of God acting in history. Since the destruction of the Second Temple, we have been waiting for the next miracle, the arrival of the Messiah. That is why there were so many who opposed Zionism for trying to force God to redeem our exile and bring us back to our land. They thought that Zionism was a rejection of tradition. Instead, Zionism was an act of covenantal empowerment. We chose to learn agriculture, banking, and self defense and bring about our own redemption. We take responsibility for our own history. It was our own initiative that ended Jewish homelessness.
According to Rabbi Hartman, we should not be asking God to solve our problems, we should seek instead that God should be with us. He writes, “Therefore, for me, the spiritual moment in contemporary Jewish history is a covenant of love. Here, reward and punishment cannot work anymore in the modern world, because we have other forms of gratification and other ways of creating obedience to the law. God is now sought not because of a function but because God is God.”
In the struggle to understand what a “Conservative Jew” really is, much of our movement has gone off in a wrong direction. We have struggled with the concept of Halacha and observance, when to me; the real issue is if we have something to offer modern Jews. I can worry about those who are tied to the law and will not vary an inch, and those who are so unattached to Judaism that they don’t care anymore what God or humans have to say. This is what I worry about because I am a pulpit Rabbi and these two poles describe many in my congregation. But when I think about who I am, and what I am looking for in the world, Conservative Judaism teaches that in this covenant of love between God and humanity, we have to be responsible for this world and for what goes on here. God wants and expects us to struggle, argue, and ponder all the messiness of life and then do what we can do with what God has given us, to make this world better: To continue the process of Creation by striving to bring order out of chaos.
The God that many people seek is the God who tells Adam and Eve how to live their life and then punishes them with exile when they disobey. It is the God who destroys the world with a flood, saving Noah, so that humans will be better to each other. It is the God who confounds the languages of the people of Babel, when they decide to build a tower to heaven so they can wage war with God. I think they are looking for the wrong God. The Torah itself seems to teach us that God understands that this kind of a power arrangement does not work. Punishment does not make people obey. Destruction does not induce humanity to be kind to each other. (How else can you interpret Gen. 8:21?) God can confound the languages of the earth but people still seek to “wage war” against God.
So God chooses a different path. Out of the blue, God picks Abraham to begin a covenant that will guide just one nation (There are seventy nations in the Torah, Abraham is promised to be nation seventy-one). A covenant based not on punishment or anger, but on love. God gives us the tools we need and then nudges us from time to time with big ideas that help us move our society along. God does not want us to be perfect. God only wants us to keep trying to make ourselves and our world better. From time to time we silence God for interfering with our struggle (“Mother please, I’d rather do it myself!”) and sometimes God tells us to be silent if we complain that God is not helping us enough. (“You made your bed, now go lie in it.”) We wait for God’s miraculous redemption at our own peril. WE are the redemptive force in the world and through our actions we will tame the chaos and bring order to our messy world. Sometimes the Halacha will not fit into the system we created as well as we would like. But if our innate sense of Justice is anything like our ancestor Abraham’s, Halacha or not, we will keep trying to do the right thing. Maybe we will discover that in spite of our best hopes, things are not as good as we think they should be but we will learn from our mistakes and pick ourselves up and get back to work.
And God will love us anyway,