December 30, 2013 § Leave a comment
Last week, in response to the portion Va’era, I raised some questions relating to God’s hardening of Pharaoh’s heart. This week, I wanted to investigate in greater depth Maimonides’ position on this issue.
In Maimonides’ view, virtuous or moral behavior is established through repetition and training. Individuals are rewarded or punished not for isolated events, but rather for their pattern of behavior. Providence punishes (in the form of adverse outcomes) those who turn their attention away from God or cater to the desires of the body, particularly when they do so repeatedly. These adverse outcomes are the natural consequences of such actions.
Thus, when the Bible speaks of God’s punishment, it refers to the impersonal actions of Providence. In the context of the Exodus narrative, for example, it might seem that God is actively changing Pharaoh’s heart, but the outcome should instead be understood as the natural result of the Pharaoh’s decisions. As Maimonides explains, “…Pharaoh and his followers disobeyed by choice, without force or compusion.” God does not act in the sense of causing the heart to become resistant to change; rather, the Pharaoh’s repeated refusals reinforced his resolve and led him to become increasingly resistant to Moses’ requests.
Maimonides also acknowledges that there are verses in the Torah that “cause many to stumble and think that the Holy One – blessed be He! – has decreed that man shall do good or evil and that man’s heart is not allowed to do as he wishes.” In truth, however, those passages are reporting on the cumulative effect of the individual’s evil actions: Grave sins and repeated transgressions create a barrier to repentance.
In those cases, the sinner must acknowledge so much wrongdoing and make such great changes in his or her character that the goal becomes nearly unreachable. As Maimonides explains: “It is possible that a man might commit a grave iniquity or many sins so that the sentence of the Judge of Truth might be that the doer of those wrongs, done intentionally and deliberately, would be denied repentance.”
“Because they continued to sin,” he writes, “repentance was withheld” and they could not break the pattern of behavior. It was not God who caused their difficulties; rather, they were the ones at fault. “Consequently it can be said,” he writes, “that the Lord did not decree Pharaoh to do ill to Israel, or Sihon to sin in his country or the Canaanites to act horribly or the people of Israel to be idolatrous. All these sins were their own doing and consequently they deserved no opportunity to repent.” The magnitude and multitude of a person’s sins might prevent repentance; the pattern of behavior may have become too ingrained to renounce.
December 23, 2013 § 1 Comment
In Cincinnati, there is a large shopping mall with exactly one lane of traffic into the parking lot and one lane out. It can get really crazy around the Christmas buying season, in fact, and will have a line of a dozen cars waiting to exit. If that were not bad enough, a popular chain restaurant has its entrance right where the traffic backs up, so drivers often have to wait for overly-full diners with doggie bags to make their way across both lanes.
So it happened that once during the holiday season, I was following a suburban as we were attempting to leave the parking lot. It stopped unexpectedly in the lane, right in front of the restaurant – as if there were no line of cars behind him! – and then two able-bodied passengers climbed into the car. Aghast, I honked at him: move it!
What I could not see, however (for he was just outside of my peripheral vision), was the man in a full leg cast up to his hip making his way cautiously across the icy sidewalk to the car. In other words, the suburban actually had a good reason to stop.
The man’s friends and family, absolutely outraged that I would begrudge him his time to be loaded into the car, got out of the car and started yelling at me. One man – I think that he was the driver – kept saying over and over to me, ‘Are you stupid? Are you stupid?’ I tried to mime the idea ‘I’m sorry; I didn’t know’ but that isn’t an easy concept to convey with a gesture. It just seemed to make them madder. So I rolled down the window. He leaned in and said it one more time, this time with emphasis: ‘Are? You? Stu? Pid?’
Um, no, not stupid, actually. Just sorry for having honked at him before I understood the situation.
In the case of Pharaoh, it is not stupidity that causes him to ignore all the signs around him, but rather a refusal to understand. It’s not that he doesn’t see the man in a hip cast, but rather that he simply doesn’t care.
Even so, in responding to Moses, Pharaoh certainly seems remarkably dense. Exactly how many times does Moses have to correctly predict a calamity before Pharaoh believes that Moses has God on his side?
How could Pharaoh be so stubborn? The text, of course, provides its own answer: God intervenes and hardens Pharaoh’s heart. But why does God do that?
We have here a basic problem of free will: if we are to be held responsible for our actions, if we have some kind of ethical responsibility, then we must assume that the actions we take are made on the basis of free will. For it would be merely cruel to punish someone for something outside of his or her control.
But, if we do indeed have free will, then how can it be possible for God to harden Pharaoh’s heart?
Consider the possible implications:
It could mean that God has the ability to intervene and cause someone to fulfill a predetermined destiny. But then we have an ethical difficulty: how do we know when God has made this predetermination, as opposed to knowing when an individual has chosen this path voluntarily? How could we hold everyone responsible if some are indeed responsible but some really are not?
Another possibility is that God does not intervene directly, but that everything ultimately flows from God. For example, the Italian Jewish scholar Samuel David Luzzatto of the early nineteenth century suggested the following understanding: “Know that all acts are ascribed to God, since He is their ultimate cause, some by absolute decree, and others through the operation of human choice granted by Him…In the sense that He is author of all acts, He hardened Pharaoh’s heart…”
In this explanation, it is Pharaoh’s own doing that he has become so stubborn; God is involved only in the sense that God is involved in everything.
But this explanation does not address a critical question: why is Pharaoh being so stupidly stubborn about the Hebrews? Why does he stubbornly endure (or be hardened to endure) ten plagues?
In this regard, I think that Maimonides’ naturalistic explanation makes the most sense: he argues that Pharaoh’s own wickedness has become such an ingrained habit that it is nearly impossible for him to repent and change his ways. It is as if God had hardened his heart, for he is so accustomed to a certain path of behavior.
Aha. There is an important insight there. Sometimes our worst behavior is the force of habit: a reflexive refusal to recognize the pain and suffering of others whenever it is inconvenient to change our ways.
So, to return to my story: honking at someone is hardly a sin, and few would fault me for it. But the incident itself could be used as a metaphor: the people around us might be lumbering on with a difficulty we cannot see. They might be waiting for someone outside our field of view. On a small scale, these small interactions are not noteworthy. But be careful of the habits you create: Don’t go hardening your own heart. Boundless compassion takes effort and practice. And a bit of patience.
 As quoted in Nehama Leibowitz, New Studies in Shemot/Exodus, p. 151.
December 16, 2013 § 2 Comments
Exodus 4:28 Moses told Aaron about all the things that YHVH had committed to him and all the signs about which He had instructed him. 29 Then Moses and Aaron went and assembled all the elders of the Israelites.
It was a surprisingly large crowd. Aaron looked at Moses to see if he wanted to speak first – and then, realizing the nature of his role, stepped forward to address the elders.
“Sons of Israel” – his voice wavered a bit, so he took a deep breath before continuing – “I am Aaron, this is Moses, my brother; the God of our fathers revealed Himself to Moses in a fiery bush at the Mountain of God, in the Horevah area.” He was speaking quickly now, hoping that his voice would not betray his fear. “God has indeed seen your plight and has sent us to bring you out of Egypt. We will go to Pharaoh – ”
“—Oh yes,” one of the elders interrupted, “and tell Pharaoh that our God wants us to be freed. And Pharaoh will say, ‘who is this God that I should heed him? What is the name of this redeemer-God that you speak of, the God of your fathers?” The elder continued speaking, using a tone that might have conveyed a sense of genuine concern, but also might have been condescension – it was hard to tell. “By any chance did this god tell you his name?” he asked, waiting for an answer, with eyebrows raised. The crowd tittered in nervous anticipation.
“Yes,” said another, picking up on the nature of his question, “did he tell you his name?” – the elder leaned forward to make his point – “was it the God of our Fathers who spoke to you – or was it a demon who has in fact deceived you?”
Aaron’s heart skipped a beat. Moses had been so sure of himself that Aaron had not stopped to think that it could have been a demon who sent them. The metallic taste of fear rose in his throat. Was it really God who spoke to Moses? Was it really God who noted our suffering? Does God even exist? And how could we possibly know?
Standing next to him, Moses spoke quietly with his eyes closed: “I am and will continue to exist as I have always existed. Thus shall you say to the Israelites, I exist sent me to you.”
And at once Aaron understood. “He said,” Aaron announced, his voice grander now, “‘YHVH, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob has sent me to you; this is my name always and this is my memorial from generation to generation.’”
Exodus 4:30 And Aaron repeated all the words that YHVH had spoken to Moses, and he performed the signs in the sight of the people, 31 and the people were convinced. When they heard that YHVH had seen their plight, they bowed low in homage.
December 9, 2013 § 1 Comment
Theology defines what is possible in our lives: the experience of miracles or of no miracles. A landscape illuminated with the divine or a landscape that is not. A life lived within the context of God’s presence or a life without.
For many of us, our theology changes as we grow older. In Joseph’s case, his understanding of God changes and his theology improves.
In this week’s portion, for example, we see Joseph and his brothers many years after he was sold into slavery, many years after he tested them and revealed his identity. We see that in his relationship with his brothers, there is still a current of mistrust, for in the period after their father dies, the brothers appear before Joseph and beg for their lives. They make up a story, convinced that he has been waiting for this moment to exact his revenge.
“His brothers went to him themselves, flung themselves before him, and said, ‘We are prepared to be your slaves.’”
They are truly afraid. But Joseph is not offended. He tells them: “‘Have no fear! Am I a substitute for God? Besides, although you intended me harm, God intended it for good, so as to bring about the present result — the survival of many people. And so, fear not. I will sustain you and your children.’ Thus he reassured them, speaking kindly to them.”
In other words, he tells them: What you had intended for evil was transformed by God into good. The jealousy that led you to sell me into slavery ultimately became the catalyst for saving a population from starvation.
And on this basis, he forgives them.
Notice that he does not say it was God’s will. Notice also that he does not argue that things had to happen this way. Notice also that he does not pretend that the brothers had good motives, or that their actions were any less destructive than they actually were.
Rather, he has created a theology that allows him to heal and forgive, by assuming that God has transformed all the negatives into something positive. Even in the darkest depths it is possible to remake the situation into a lasting good.
And what are we to learn from Joseph? After experiencing a tragedy like Joseph’s, we do not need a theology that leaves us wounded with no structure with which to rebuild.
We also do not need a theology that says it is okay that others should have to suffer. And we do not need a theology that blames it all on God and lets us off the hook. Rather, what we need is a theology that allows us to forgive and rebuild. The best response to a tragedy is to create a world where such kinds of evil are unknown.
Then we might be able to say: what was intended as evil was transformed by God into good, because we acted on God’s behalf.
December 2, 2013 § Leave a comment
An interesting thing happened to me last week: in a single sitting I read the portion of the week (which was Miketz) and then wrote a commentary on it — yet (without realizing it) I focused on the material in this week’s portion (Vayigash). I don’t know why that happened exactly. I could, of course, read meaning into my choice: perhaps it happened for a reason. Perhaps there was someone (me or someone else) who needed to hear that message in that week. That was, in fact, my first impulse when I started writing this week: to find some meaning in the error.
The irony of it, however, is that my message last week counseled against reading too much meaning into random events. Perhaps, then, God has a sense of humor.
Regardless, we have this strong need, of course, to explain ourselves. We have this desire to make a narrative out of our lives, to provide context and meaning.
Whenever there is a catastrophe, for example, there is always someone who will want to step forward to assert that ‘this was God’s will.’ It is entirely too easy to step into the breach and declare that we had not been faithful enough, that we had somehow done something wrong, that we are at fault.
The advantage of this approach, of course, is that it takes things that were chaotic, difficult, and scary, and tames them into something we can control. If we observe the commandments, then all will go well. This is the theology of Deuteronomy; this is the theology of those who would declare with confidence that God would punish us because God does not like how we vote.
It is easy to dismiss theology – and to dismiss God – on this basis. You know, to leave God to the loonies and the wild-eyed among us.
And there is also a second position, much less confident, that God is missing-in-action. Did we not have a covenant of protection with this Being? Do we not have an agreement that tragedy should not happen to us, that the forces of chaos, the dangers of the wilderness, the demons of destruction, should all stay clear of us, so long as we ‘observe these commandments that I enjoin you on this day’?
In the wake of tragedy we are often angry with God: we had a deal. And yet it was not observed. Perhaps God is not all-powerful after all.
Why, then, should we care about theology?
What difference, really, does it make if we were to think of God as a bearded gentleman, or as an invisible force, or (to borrow an image from the avowedly secular) as a flying spaghetti monster? Why should it matter whether someone thinks this event or that event is the will of God?
Theology defines what is possible in our lives.
To give an example, one rooted in simple logic: If you believe in miracles, then miracles can happen in your life. And if you do not, then they do not. In Joseph’s world, miracles do happen: God guided him to this very moment to save his family from famine.
This is not a form of magical thinking. Rather, your decision as to whether or not miracles are possible defines whether or not events will qualify or not qualify as miracles in your life.
So, the question becomes: what kind of life do you want to live?