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Virtual Talmud

Where Did God Go?

For more than a thousand years, the Jewish God was primarily seen and described by Christians as a vengeful God. As Robert Louis Wilken, writing in “First Things,” explains:
“One of the first major theological disputes in the early Church centered on the teaching of Marcion. Marcion thought that the Christian Gospel had nothing to do with the revelation of God to the Jewish people in the Old Testament. Christ, he said, had not been announced by the Law and the Prophets. The God of the Old Testament was a vengeful tribal God, whereas the God of the New Testament is a universal God of love and compassion.”

When Christians described the Jewish God as vengeful, their comments expressed more about what they thought of Jews than who the Jewish God truly is. For better or worse, there is a great deal of truth in the cynical anthropological assessment of God talk. Namely, all too often God becomes a mirror for who and what we are.

Most Jewish questions find an answer somewhere in the Talmud. The most notable exception to the rule is ironically, the question of who is God in the Jewish tradition. God is perhaps the most central component of religious life, and yet there is no tractate devoted to discussing the issue. The closest one gets is the tractate Avodah Zarah (Idolatry). In other words, there is more written about what God is not than what He actually is.

There are many different understandings of God in the Jewish tradition. Maimonides’ position is unique in its attempt to explicate the above-described irony. Maimonides famously argued that God could only be understood in the negative, that any depiction of God–linguistic or concrete– was akin to idolatry. In his “Mishneh Torah,” Maimonides went so far as to call anyone who sees God in any anthropomorphic sense an idolater. Those such as Rabbi Abraham ben David (Ravad) responded with force and indignation, reminding Maimonides that “greater ones than him have believed such things [that God can be understood as having physical attributes].”

The argument between Maimonides and the Ravad gets to the heart of Jewish life and thought. It forces us to ask in what sense God can be seen and understood in this world. How active a role does God play in our day-to-day lives, and in what ways is it proper to relate to God?

On the one hand, I am moved by the Ravad’s God. I want a God that is real, that is there with me in my pain, agony, joy, and love–a God I can feel and touch, see and hear everyday all the time, a God who walks with me “in all my paths.”

On the other hand, I know how dangerous such thinking is–how quickly the slope slides and how fast such a God can become but another object that I privilege, or worse, use as a weapon against others and their beliefs. A God that can be felt is a God that can be grasped and abused for the greatest evils.

So I go back and forth. When I read the paper and hear about the kind of God who kills and murders, I see God more like Maimonides–as something far more distant, divorced from the whims of peoples’ political passions. Yet, when I am in pain, hurting and need personal comfort, I look to the skies and try to bring down the God that Ravad knows.

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posted July 13, 2006 at 2:41 am

As an orthodox Lutheran pastor I’ve enjoyed this blog. I’m also a reader of “First Things”. You need to let your readers know that the Church rejected the teachings of Marcion. You make it sound like we accept Marcion’s teachings. We see both the Law and the Gospel (Good News) in both the Old and New Testaments. Infact, the first evidence of the Gospel is found in Genesis 3:15. Also, who would deny the joy and comfort of the Psalms. God is both one of the Law and one of the Gospel. A God who judges and also saves. Pax.

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posted July 13, 2006 at 2:46 am

PS – Your comment, “When Christians described the Jewish God as vengeful, their comments expressed more about what they thought of Jews than who the Jewish God truly is.” is just wrong.

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posted July 13, 2006 at 4:11 am

I think he totally correct. I’m also a Jew.

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posted July 13, 2006 at 5:41 am

Pastor, can you explain your PS? I don’t understand which part of the quote you think is wrong.

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posted July 13, 2006 at 10:39 am

can we ever truly understand that which we are not?

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posted July 13, 2006 at 3:25 pm

Sorry, Pastor, but as a Jew, I find the quote you cited to be right on the money.

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posted July 13, 2006 at 5:18 pm

I would refer to my post and how God is both one of wrath and one of grace. Christians view the God of the Old Testament as the Christian God also. When the Christian church views the vengeance of God, we indeed view God, not Jews. When I think of God’s wrath, I think of God, not my Jewish friends. This is different then how the church has viewed Jews as a nation or people. I will admit that some of the Christian church has not always been kind in her words and actions towards Jews. I, like many Christians, am not anti-Jewish. To be so would cause me to hate my neighbor who also has become my friend.

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Rabbi Eliyahu Stern

posted July 13, 2006 at 8:15 pm

The Pastor is correct that the church no longer uses such language to describe the Jewish God. Since Vatican II the Church has done fine job at being sensitive to such problematic statements about Jews and Judaism and removing such sentiments from their curriculum’s and textbooks. My point was only that historically many people adopted conciously and subconciously the view expressed by Marcion that the God of the Bible was vengeful.

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posted July 14, 2006 at 4:39 am

Rabbi, I appreciated your post and indeed you are correct in some Christian thought on God and vengence. Again, this has been an enjoyable Blog. I never realized the differences in Jewish thought. Pax, Pastor

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posted July 14, 2006 at 5:30 pm

B”H If you would truly like to know what G-d is all about, and who He really is, then read Tanya. The Chabad philosophy is unique in that it reconciles the mystical (spiritual) and the physical as one, and the Rebbes have clearly explained who G-d is in relation to the human race, His creations and children in the literal sense.

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posted July 14, 2006 at 8:58 pm

I feel Rabbi Stern has effectively described the tension between a personal and transcendent deity which has also been part of the Christian tradition at its best. Probably the most influential Christian theologian of the 20th century, Karl Barth, was appalled at the moral failure of liberal Protestantism when its leading proponents went along with the Kaiser’s war policies leading to WWI, and of course horrified by the state church’s spinelessness and corruption under the Nazi regime. So he wrote of a “wholly other” G-d who nevertheless condescends to be involved in human affairs. His theology leaves absolutely no room for a sense of possession of G-d — and therefore abuse in G-d’s name — but only one of awe, gratitude and humility. (Barth did most of his important work in Switzerland, as he was kicked out of Germany for refusing to sign an oath of loyalty to the Nazi regime.) The Maimonides vs. Ravad dialectic is indeed a compelling one.

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Rabbi Eliyahu Stern

posted July 14, 2006 at 9:56 pm

Shawn, the only problem with Barth’s appraoch is that God is slightly too distant from humanity making ethics secondary to God’s will. Barth is a little too “dogmatic” and polemical for my taste. I prefer H. Richard Niebuhr’s work because it keeps God in a transcedent position without divorcing him from ethics and the human condition.

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posted July 15, 2006 at 5:04 am

Rabbi Stern: I confess to a half-baked knowledge of Barth and am getting in over my head fast! I know you are in very distinguished company in your distaste of much of his approach. It’s just that your essay called to mind what I thought I had learned over 20 years ago: that B. thought Xian theologians had looked inward too much in their thinking, thereby creating a god in their own image and ultimately failing ethically in a catastrophic way. Meanwhile, thanks for the Niebuhr reference. I suppose the larger point is that all the monotheistic religions have to deal with the immanence-transcendence tension, and perhaps all of them have their rough counterparts to Maimonides, Ravad, Kaplan/Waxman, etc. -Shawn

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posted July 15, 2006 at 5:11 pm

Just a small point to the pastor. I think the Rabbi’s point is shown clearly with your use of the term “Old Testament” when you refer to the Torah. Your use of language clearly shows your beliefs about the Jews. We, in your construct, live in and believe in an outdated world view. Nothing could be further from the truth. Indeed, Christian theology is far more outdated in its pagan ideas. Jesus was conceived by the god, rather than a human man. Jews fully understand human sexuality and reproduction. The god conception is seen in multiple ancient pagan beliefs. The resurection of Jesus is a reproduction of Greek theatre. The person’s hubris; rending; and resurection is seen in the Classic theater of Sophicles, Euripedies and more. I could go on, but, the point is made. Christianity is far more of an outdated worldview than Judaism. Yet, you refer to our Torah as the “Old” testament. Thus, your construct of language limits Christians and others who hear the term, with no knowledge of Torah, in their comprehension of G*D and a living world view. This example is why the Rabbi’s statement about Christian’s view of Jews is shown when they speak of the “Old Testament” G*D. Jews have no “Old Testament.” That’s YOUR construct. It bears no reality to G*D of the Torah. Shalom! Debbie

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Elizabeth Shepardson

posted July 15, 2006 at 5:53 pm

I read this entire blog with interest and sometimes saddness. The opinions in this discussions points out how much we still do not understand of one another’s religious beliefs. First, Christians are not pagans and that comment is rude and hurtful. Second, Christians, at least the ones I know, do not think of Jews as vengeful or evil. As a matter of fact, the Christians I know don’t separate we, the people of God, like that. The Jewish people that I know do not separate the people of God either. I understand that we need to have blogs like this so that we can learn and grow, but I don’t understand why there is still the need to insult and mis represent both Christianity and Judaism as relgious constructs that have such a great need to prove one another wrong. Elizabeth

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posted July 15, 2006 at 8:53 pm

Elizabeth, I did NOT refer to Christians as pagans. I said the ideas inherent in Christianity are pagan. And there is no rational denying that fact. I converted to Judaism from Christianity in my 40s. I studied different religious traditions for over 17 years after I knew I could not follow a Christian theology. But, I was raised in that theology. I went to Catholic schools all through primary school, and through the 10th grade of high school, (before the bishop closed the only Catholic high school available.) My family is still Catholic; I have an aunt who is a sister of Mercy. And I have much respect for those who LIVE that faith. But, I do NOT view the construct of an ideology through the use of language which denies Jewish reality as respectful at all. There is NO “old” testament in Jewish theology. To refer to our Torah as the “old” testament, when speaking of Jews, implies that we accept a “new” testament, or covenent. We do not. Jesus of Nazarath, son of Joseph, was NOT the messiah as prophasised in the Torah. The lion is not yet lying with the lamb; men have not turned their weapons into plowsshares. Christianity had to change the prophacy to make Jesus the christ/messiah/savior. They now claim, in direct distinction to the Torah prophets, that Jesus will come AGAIN, and only THEN will there be heaven on earth. That’s not what the prophecy says. I’m sorry. There is no revision in Jewish theology. There’s no “old” testament for Jews. To speak in those terms when speaking of the Jews is disrespectful. And that is why the Rabbi’s point was proved by the pastor’s words. Jews study Torah. A living Bible. And there is no disrespect in stating that fact. Shalom!

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Rabbi Arthur Waskow

posted July 16, 2006 at 2:33 pm

Many Jews of our generation find “Lord” and “King” as lmetaphors for God untruthful and unhelpful. I think this is because we humans now have in our hands the powers that this metaphor ascribes to someone outside us — the powers to destroy all life on Earth, to create new species, (e.g. mixing the DNA of spiders and goats), overthrowing Pharaohs, etc. What ]metaphors tell more truth? One is “ruach ha’olam, breath/ wind/ spirit of the universe.” instead of “melech ha’olam, king of the universe.” Listen to what the name YHWH would actually sound like, if said the way it is written, without vowels. Try it —- For me, what comes out is simply a breathing. Yyyyyyhhhhhhhhwwwwwhhhh. I believe the Name is a breath. God is the Breath of Life. This is a paradox and a truth. To pronounce the Sacred Name means not pronouncing anything: just breathing. To focus on God is not to etherealize a separate non-material Thing but to infuse life, breath, holiness into every tiniest thing. In the traditional Jewish prayerbook it is said, “Nishmat kol chai tivarekh et-shimcha.” “The breath of all life/ living blesses/praises Your Name.” This makes total sense: the breathing of all life IS “your Name.” “Your Name is the breathing of all life. What the trees breathe out, we breathe in; what we breathe out, the trees breathe in. We breathe each other into life. This IS the breath of life. So many of us do NOT use “Lord,” or “Adonai,” either on paper or aloud, but on paper indeed just write Yod/Hei/Vav/Hei in Hebrew or YHWH in English. And aloud, we either just breathe, or say “Yahh” — as in “Hallelu-yahh” — “Let us praise the Breath of Life” — as a kind of short hand for the Breathing.” In this way of thinking, the command not to take the Name of YHWH in vain/ emptily warns us to infuse into every breath we take the awareness that each breath is filled with God, the Breath of Life. Our Shalom Center website explores both the “theology” of these questions and their implications for issues of the earth, war and peace, sexuality, etc. Shalom, Arthur

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posted July 19, 2006 at 2:02 pm

Please help me understand, Rabbi Stern, what you mean by the “kind of God who kills and murders.” Are you referring to destructive acts committed in the name of God?

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posted July 20, 2006 at 4:22 am

Oh, and Rabbi Stern, With deep respect, I wish to point out a small point too. The pastor identified himself as Lutheran. But, Vatican II was a council put forth by the Roman Catholic Church. The two are not synonomous. My dad was Lutheran; my mom Roman Catholic. They were not allowed to marry in the Catholic church, just in the vestible. So, the changes inherent in Vatican II *may* have been picked up by the Lutherans, (a fact about which I have no knowledge). However, was not a comment that was necessarily useful when speaking of how the Lutheran church may have changed it’s language. Again, no disrespect here. Just some factual information to clarify the discussion. I’m surprised the pastor didn’t clarify it himself. Shalom! Devorah

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Rabbi Eliyahu Stern

posted July 25, 2006 at 5:07 am

Thank you for the clarification devorah regarding gufi’s question what i was refering to was those who worship a God that they have no problem invoking when doing acts of violnece against other human beings.

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