I’ve spent much of my career talking to people about Judaism, faith and Tanakh (the Hebrew Bible).
A certain amount of my attention has gone to thinking with people about what they believe, what they don’t believe and what they would like to believe even though they somehow cannot. In different settings – ranging from my senior year high school class in Modern Jewish Thought to the Getting to God kallah that I created – we spend time identifying obstacles.
With this post, I would like to consider two of those obstacles and do a little theologizing along the way. Both of these are questions. And both have to do with how we think about Tanakh and how we think about ancient times.
The first question is this: was God more present in ancient times than God is today?
We read in Torah about God speaking to Abraham and Moses, working wonders during the Exodus from Egypt, and appearing to prophets like Moses or Ezekiel in visions.
And we wonder: why doesn’t that happen anymore? If not to me, at least to someone whom I trust and whose report of it makes sense?
My opinion about this is exactly that: an opinion. There is no way to prove or disprove my thesis, but here it is. My belief is that God today is pretty much the same God as the One 3,000 years ago. Likewise, we are pretty much the same today as we were back then.
For me, that means that the God who doesn’t speak to people today didn’t speak to people back then. The God who doesn’t perform miracles didn’t do so back then, either. The God who could convey something of His/Her/Its Self through visions in biblical texts didn’t do so in ancient times and doesn’t do so today. In this sense, I am a rationalist and I believe I follow Maimonides’ lead when he wrote, a thousand years ago, that the Torah is written in “human language” so that we might understand. In other words, its narratives, images and metaphors are, in today’s terms, fiction – but a fiction meant to convey, through the limited conventions of language and metaphor, truths about a transcendent Source of being.
If I’m right, then, God’s relative absence today is not due to a change in God’s behavior. It is, perhaps, due to a change in ours. As Abraham Joshua Heschel often articulated, it is our modern, mechanistic, secular outlook that prevents us from experiencing God’s presence, as much as anything else.
The second question is: were Jews more religious in ancient times?
Again, because we take the stories of Tanakh as descriptions of literal happenings and truths, we believe that our ancestors all were pious and faithful. We, by comparison, are weak in faith, vision and understanding. If they represent the benchmark of religiosity – the major leagues, so to speak – we cannot measure up; we are a single-A ball club playing in Podunk, Arkansas, with no hopes of making it to the big leagues.
This, too, is a conclusion resting on a faulty foundation. And this argument, in fact, can be made objectively.
Example number one: our patriarch, Jacob. You’d imagine a patriarch, a founding father of our people, to be a man above reproach, one whose conduct is exemplary and whose faith in God is beyond question. And yet, it is Jacob who connives the birthright from his brother, Esau, and deceives his father such that he receives the blessing meant for Esau. These are not just words and gestures. With these two things came wealth, land and status. Jacob baldly favors one son over all the others, and the conduct of the remaining brothers is reprehensible: they sell the favorite, Joseph, into slavery and lie to their father about his demise.
In the central story of Jacob’s life, the spiritual wrestling that is endemic to his entire life is made manifest in his wrestling with a figure whose identity is ambiguous but who very well may be God, or at least God’s representative. Jacob’s name is changed to Israel – one who struggles with God – but the wrestling leaves him with a physical limp that represents his spiritual deficit.
Likewise it is throughout Tanakh: the narrative describing the Israelites’ forty years of travel through the Sinai wilderness on their way to Israel is connected by the spine of seven rebellions – rebellions against God and God’s appointed leader, Moses. Even before that, no sooner had they left Egypt than the Israelites began to complain that they had had it better back there, and that Moses should not have brought them out in order for them to die in the desert. The central theme of the book of Numbers/Bemidbar, in fact, is the Israelites’ faithlessness, not their fidelity.
So, too, with the many prophets: Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos, Micah and the rest. Elijah is commissioned by God because the entire Northern Kingdom of Israel has been led astray by its king and queen, Ahab and Jezebel, into worship of a foreign god, Baal. And that is true of one ancient king after another, abandoning God until, finally, the impact of the defection is defeat at the hands of enemies.
If one reads the Bible – and one doesn’t have to read it terribly closely – the picture that emerges is not one of a constant piety occasionally interrupted by misdirection and a falling away but, rather, quite the opposite: that Israel’s leaders, and those writers who describe Israel in Tanakh – understand them to be religious failures. They are feckless in their attempts to remain true to God and, if they exemplify anything, it is the near-impossibility of remaining faithful to this unique God who desires a covenant with them.
It is no wonder, then, if people believe today that God regularly interjected and intervened in human affairs three thousand years ago, and that our ancestors, in response to those actions, were faithful beyond measure, that it is difficult to see one’s self as in any way religious.
There are many other factors, too: the power of science to describe in material terms so much that religion once pretended to understand; our identification of Orthodox and, especially, Chassidic Jews as the only authentic Jews; a general preoccupation and satisfaction with the enjoyment of material goods over spiritual ones.
But if we begin to think differently about our own heritage and to see it in a more rational light, we might remove some obstacles to our own potential as spiritual – and religious – beings.
And, if I’m right, we are no more or less spiritually adept than were our ancestors, and God is no further away than She ever was before.