The most tragic figure in the Bible is God, said the famous Talmudic scholar Saul Lieberman. Indeed. No one has been more misunderstood than God. But let’s be honest; it’s His own fault. After all, one day He appears in the Torah as the Creator of the universe, full of mercy and love, while the next moment He’s utterly annoyed when He doesn’t get His way—especially when His creations do not listen to His commands. He splits the Red Sea for the Jews, saving them from their arch enemies, the Egyptians, and then leaves them without food and drink in the desert until they rebel and ask whether He really exists. The paradoxes abound. In several instances He rescues His people who are in Exile, while at other times He does not stretch out His hand when the Jews suffer one pogrom after another. He first carries them on His wings in Spain, but then makes them undergo the cruel Inquisition. He helps them find a safe haven in some northern European countries, but subsequently allows a Holocaust of such brutality that one is nearly forced to conclude that He no longer cares and has simply left. To further confuse His people, He performs miracles during the establishment of the State of Israel, later followed by the astounding victory of the Six-Day War, only to make a sudden about-face and throw Israel’s citizens into the disastrous Yom Kippur War, which claims the lives of many Israeli soldiers and traumatizes the entire nation. God seems to yo-yo through history, alternating between fits of anger and offers of mercy. By displaying these many inconsistencies He becomes downright impossible to handle.
Who else ever had such a track-record of the most radical paradoxes? And this is not all. Things get worse. This God requires unconditional submission to His demands and threatens to wipe out His people if they do not listen to Him. To add to the confusion, He seems completely surprised when many of His creations start sincerely wondering why they should follow Him. It is especially the Jewish people, the “apple of His eye,” who constantly experience these devastatingly unsettling paradoxes. They pay the highest price, and the consequences are too overwhelming to deny: The Jews start asking themselves what they should do with this God. Many feel no longer obligated to observe His commandments. Some deny His existence, but most see this denial as a copout and conclude that He is indeed the most tragic figure in history, and one needs to show Him mercy and be somewhat obedient.
Such is also the history of the first Jew. Avraham is promised by God that he will give birth to a child who will father a special nation that will promote this God and His ethical demands. From the beginning it is clear that God is more in need of this nation than Avraham is. After all, His prestige depends on it. Through this nation, He and His purpose for the world will be known. Avraham can’t wait to start his great mission, and once he has a son he will do anything to build up this unique nation for the sake of this God. Who would not want to serve such a God and take on this great assignment? Finally, Avraham gets his son, but the blow is not too far off. Not only is it disastrous, but it seems set up to destroy any possible belief that this is a merciful and wonderful God. To his utter shock, Avraham is asked to sacrifice his son as a token of his complete commitment to this very God! The God, who is in dire need of this nation, and therefore of Avraham’s son, ruins His prestige and undoes his goals in one stroke—no son and no nation! And it is God who undermines Himself by doing so. He appears to be committing spiritual suicide. After all, what will become of Him without this nation?
What is Avraham to do now? Should he rescue God from Himself and refuse to give a hand to this suicide attempt? Or should he perhaps become an atheist? After all, such a God cannot exist! But Avraham goes for neither of these options. His total commitment to this God prompts him to make the greatest mistake of his life. He listens and is prepared to give up his son without even a fight, thinking that this is what it means to be really religious—even if it undermines God’s prestige and brings an end to His goals.
Avraham still lives in the world where man submits unconditionally to any god, whatever its demands. He is still a child of his times; subordination is seen as the pinnacle of religious devotion. Only when God, by way of His angel, shouts No! “Do not lay a hand on the boy” (1), just a second before his knife touches the skin of his son, Avraham wakes up from his so-called religiosity.
Avraham still has to learn that his willingness not to kill his child far surpasses his earlier commitment to make an end to his son’s life. The angelic messenger calls “Avraham, Avraham!” repeating his name twice because the command to desist and not sacrifice is harder to accept than the original commandment to kill. It goes against the trend of what it means to be religious. Yet, not to listen is greater proof of commitment to this “Jewish” God than is the willingness to sacrifice in honor of this God. The wake-up call is loud and clear! The impact of this message is far more shocking and forceful than that of the earlier call to kill. This God is an entirely different God. Capricious and unpredictable but, strangely enough, also demonstrating that human life is holy and may not be taken except in self-defense.
Until this incident, Avraham believed that it was only permitted to object to God if He was about to damage His reputation by doing a great injustice such as destroying the cities of Sedom and Amora. In that sense, he surpassed Noah whose reticence prevented him from even protesting when God told him that He would destroy all of mankind with the flood. Avraham had already realized that the Jewish God is different from all the other gods among whose followers he lived. To let the world perish is not what this God desires. So Avraham fights back. But once he loses the battle and is unable to convince God to leave these cities of Sedom and Amora alone, he concludes that Noah must have been right after all. There is no point in fighting God’s will.
What Avraham fails to see is that while he loses this battle, God clearly encourages Him to give it a sincere try so as to win. After all, God listens to his arguments. When Avraham contends that if there were to be 50, 40, 30, 20, even 10 tzadikim, then these cities should be spared, God does not respond by telling him to mind his own business. On the contrary, He clearly indicates that He might be convinced, if Avraham’s arguments were better or the circumstances different. But Avraham apparently fails to get this point. He seems to conclude that since he didn’t succeed, there is no point in arguing with God any longer. Why, after all, would God listen to man’s subjective arguments? What could man possibly know about God’s reasoning?
So Avraham doesn’t argue with God when He asks him to sacrifice his son. God may be incomprehensible, but He is consistent. He knows what He is doing. Who am I to argue?
This God, however, Who is the Creator of heaven and earth, teaches Avraham not to give up. He shows him that He is open to discussion and would have listened to his arguments in favor of his son. Now that Avraham is silent, God takes up the argument that Avraham ought to have made but didn’t. What Avraham should have done for God, God now does for him. He tells Avraham, You ought to have fought Me. You should have told Me, “Far be it from You! Shall the whole world’s Judge not do justice?” (2) God now needs to save Himself and His mission despite Avraham’s religiosity! He must ensure that the Jewish people will come into being, notwithstanding Avraham’s readiness to forgo that possibility.
Avraham is thus exposed to an aspect of God that is both blasphemous and ethical. This God appears to be unstable, but He is also a God of incomprehensible magnitude, power and moral supremacy: One Who is prepared to listen to man, take him seriously, and even be defeated by him! Who can make sense of this God? Avraham begins to learn that this God is tragic because He makes Himself appear as a God Who lacks all qualities of a real god, but in truth is greater than all idols.
God appears to experience all the human emotions: love; anger; involvement; indignation; regret; sadness; and so on. By so doing, He gives the seal of divinity to the very essence of our humanity. He implicitly says to man: “You cannot know what is above and what is below, but you can know what is in your hearts and in the world. These feelings and reactions and emotions that make up human existence are, if illumined by faith and rationality, all the divinity you can hope for. To be humane is to be divine: as I am holy, so you shall be holy; as I am merciful, so you shall be merciful.” Thus, there is only one kind of knowledge that is open to man, the knowledge of God’s humanity (3).
Suddenly, Avraham learns that to be religious is to live with a God Who carries contradictions and incongruities. Consistent gods are idols because they do not teach man how to live in a world that is full of dichotomies and inconsistencies. To be religious means to know how to navigate unresolvable conflicts, to be bold enough to negotiate, and to stand upright even when failing. It is in the unresolved that real life is lived. Only that can lead man to true religiosity. Avraham learns that a God Whom one fully understands is only half a God. Because a life without dichotomies is a life not lived. The overwhelming paradoxes are what portray life in its full force and reality.
Indeed, this God of many contradictions is the only God man can really worship: tragic, yet sublime. To serve Him means not only to obey, but also to protest.
At Mount Sinai, Moshe warned the Israelites, “Be careful not to climb the mountain and touch its edge” (4). How true is the Kotzker Rebbe’s interpretation—be careful when you climb the mountain, not to touch just its edge. Go all the way!
1. Bereshit, 22:12.
2. Ibid., 18:25.
3. Dr. Yochanan Muffs, “God and the World: A Jewish View,” in his book The Personhood of God: Biblical Theology, Human Faith and the Divine Image (Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights – Publishing, 2005) p. 177.
4. Shemot, 19:12.
While the suggestion made by Rabbi Lopes Cardozo is intriguing, I would like to introduce two caveats: (1) Innovating Jewish theology straight from a close reading of the Bible (without adducing evidence from within the Oral Tradition) is inherently problematic, if it is to be accepted as normative thought, not to mention the fact that basing a theological message on a literary reading leaves it inherently open to argument. (2) To argue that “consistent gods are idols because they do not teach man how to live in a world that is full of dichotomies and inconsistencies” seems a bit far-fetched. The Greek gods were problematic as role models precisely because they followed their whims and desire. I would think that a God who demonstrates consistent values would be a refreshing change to the others. Indeed, the advantage to having one God is that this God can possess one moral system–a system to be applied in an admittedly complex world.
This having been said, God’s actions throughout Abraham’s life and Jewish history clearly do seem inconsistent; indeed, one could read all ten of Avraham’s (midrashic) tests as attempting to undermine or destabilize his belief in a consistent, dependable God. Thus, he is sent to the Land but forced to flee because of famine, he loses (or almost loses) his apparent heir Lot and then again almost loses Isaac, and so forth. Jewish history seems to be about our faith in God notwithstanding His “apparent” lack of faith or His inconsistencies, and our willingness to work on ourselves so that we merit His mercy in the future.
Indeed, if He is truly human in His emotions and behavior than I am unclear about what it is exactly we are trying to emulate, or why we would wish to do so.
Rabbi Lopes Cardozo says
Thanks for your important observations. I think that the observations made by Yochanan Muffs is trying to answer your question. There is only one kind of knowledge to man. The knowledge of God’s humanity.
This does not mean that God is not much more. It just means that we can’t go beyond this understanding of God because we are human.
In Gods “short comings” we recognize our own and therefore get an insight how to deal with them without becoming evil or losing it all together. If God would be perfect we could not emulate Him in all His good deeds.
Nathan Lopes Cardozo
Laurence Winer says
The problem, the confusion about God is not Him, but us. Or phrased a bit differently, we are not satisfied with the god of our creation. God is all powerful, yet many things appear out of his control, especially his prime earthly creation, man. God is all knowing, yet the Chumash argues otherwise. Granted, there are His predictions of how the people will eventually rebel, but given man’s nature, predictions such as these are less than impressive. And of course, God is all good. I suppose the problem here is one of definition. Yet the syllogism ends with the notion that even with an all-powerful all-knowing, and all good God, evil exists in the world. The syllogism is false by construction or by definition. It is we who have defined God, we who took texts and created this construct. It is we who are unsatisfied with a god who does not live up to the standards we set. God may have created the universe, man, and any number of other things. But I would argue that commentators, theologians, and mere mortals notwithstanding, God is sublime because we made Him so.
Michelle Ish-Shalom says
I read this while waiting for Sir Rabbi Sacks to speak at the Sinai Indaba here in Johannesburg. He said the same. He talked about Noah failing as a Jew as he complied with God about the flood, then mentioned Abraham but left out the his readiness to slay his son. He insisted that, as Jews, we challenge God. I thought of you, Rabbi Cardozo and wanted to send him this teaching. Thank you for making Judaism real. Michelle