Akedah 5760

By Ladin, Jay | Cross Currents, Spring-Summer 2000 | Go to article overview

Akedah 5760


Ladin, Jay, Cross Currents


Does God find value in human agony?

A few Rash Ha-Shanahs back, I heard a Rabbi deliver a High Holiday sermon entitled "The 'G' Word," which defended that Rabbi's decision to use the term "God" in public. As we begin the millennium -- though of course it's not our millennium; our Y2K passed without a single computer crash 3,760 years ago--American Judaism is on the brink of a spiritual renaissance. Unlike Judaism's previous growth spurts, this one is marked by widespread discomfort with, for lack of a more delicate word, God.

It's easy to see why the "G" word makes us uncomfortable. For modern Jews, the conventional images of God as Creator, Father, and King -- not to mention everyone's favorite, the old man with the long white beard -- tend to feel hokey, if not offensive. Less-well-known images from our tradition (God as snorting bull, God as woman crying out in childbirth, God as Bronze Age warrior, God as cuckolded husband, and so on) sound, to contemporary ears, foreign and farfetched. And nouvelle notions, like God-as-Immanent-Awareness, often seem forced and artificial, attempts to create a Deity Lite that offers all the good spiritual flavors without filling us up with damning theological calories.

A service leader at my synagogue recently and ruefully declared, "Many of us want Judaism to be Buddhism, but it's not." I don't share that desire, but I can understand it. Buddhism is blissfully unencumbered by the need to make sense of the irrational, truculent, law- and ritual-obsessed, occasionally murderous divinity with which the Torah presents us.

But for Jews, there is no getting around the "G" word. Gunther Plaut calls Judaism a "spiritual mutation." The metaphor is apt. In the religious equivalent of humanity's gene pool, Judaism's spiritual DNA is unique. All religious traditions contain insights and wisdom that are essential to the spiritual evolution of our species. But no other people has been wedded to God since the heyday of the Pharaohs; no one knows what we know about the interdependence and codependence of God and humanity, what riches such a relationship can offer, where the breaking points are.

The key sequence in the three-millennia-long double helix of Judaism is right there at the beginning, in Genesis 12. God, a Being whose recent r[acute{e}]sum[acute{e}] includes both creating the earth and drowning almost every creature on it, abruptly tells a seventy-five-year-old man named Abram: "Go forth from your native land and from your father's house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation[ldots] and bless you,[ldots] and all the families of the earth shall bless themselves by you." The text does not record Abram's reply, but in the next verse, he's on his way to Canaan.

For 120 generations, Jews have individually and collectively reenacted this sequence, responding to the Voice of a Being we cannot fathom by uprooting ourselves from the ways of the world for the sake of blessing in our own lives, and the promise that those lives are part of a collective endeavor that will bring blessing to "all the families of the earth."

These two strands -- personal relationship to God, and membership in a family with a distinct mission in human history -- together make up the DNA of Judaism, and the Jewish calendar allots a New Year's celebration to each: Passover, which the Torah says "shall be the first of months" to us, marks the public chartering of the Jewish people, while Rosh Ha-Shanah inaugurates the season in which we revitalize our individual connections with God.

For many of us, Rosh Ha-Shanah is far more problematic than Passover. It's one thing to affirm our place in Jewish history; it's quite another to fill in the "G" word and decide what sort of God, if any, we are renewing our relationship with: who is evaluating us, measuring the distance between what we thought we were and what in fact we have been; to whom are we talking as we stare into the blank new year in which, as the High Holiday liturgy reminds, some of us will live and some will die, some be enriched and some impoverished, some take root and blossom and some be scattered like dust? …

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