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Akedah 5760.

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?

This is not a modern quandary. The veritable fountain of images of God invoked during Rosh Ha-Shanah and Yom Kippur--God as biographer recording our lives, God as merciful mother (the phrase Ayl molei rahamim literally means "God full of wombs"), God as glassblower, God as soft-on-crime judge--testifies to centuries of discomfort with this face-to-face meeting with the One we cannot face. In the context of our more-or-less egalitarian democracy, the Mahzor's metaphors for God can seem jarringly hierarchical. But their intention is the opposite: to bring us closer to God by translating the Infinite, Eternal, and Incomprehensible into human terms, which give us some common ground with a Being who is unspeakably, horrifyingly Other.

But the Otherness, of course, is always there. That too is part of our spiritual DNA, and our tradition ensures that we do not forget it, by making the Akedah, the story of Abraham's binding of Isaac, the subject of the Torah portion allotted to the second day of Rosh Ha-Shanah.

Bob Dylan summarized the Akedah in a single line: "God said to Abraham, kill me a son." The original account is, if anything, even more brutal: according to the Torah, God said to his faithful first follower, "Take your son, your darling one, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering[ldots]" (Gen. 22:2).

The horror of this story is not that God would demand child-sacrifice--clearly, God does not--but that God would put father and son through such a charade, looking on in approving silence through the carefully executed process the Torah details: "Abraham built an altar, laid out the wood, bound his son Isaac; laid him on the altar, on top of the wood[ldots]and picked up the knife to slay his son" (Gen. 22:9-10). Then, adding insult to injury, God proclaims Isaac's last-minute reprieve a happy ending and Abraham's attempt at filicide an eternal source of blessing: "By Myself I swear, the LORD declares: Because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your darling one, I will[ldots]make your descendants as numerous as the stars of heaven and the sands on the seashore.[ldots] All the nations of the earth shall bless themselves by your descendants, because you have obeyed My command" (22:16-18).

This horror is inseparable from the affirmation of God's presence in human history that is the core of Judaism. If present, God is at least a witness to, if not responsible for, incalculable anguish and cruelty. We cannot assert that God's presence redeems this suffering without suggesting that, from God's point of view, there is some benefit to it, just as the Torah's description of the Akedah implies that the sight of a father lowering a knife to his son's throat represented, for God, a success.

The image of a God who finds value in human agony surfaces again and again in the Torah: in Exodus' portrayal of God's prolonging the suffering of the Hebrew slaves to dramatize the Divine triumph over Pharaoh; in the haunting memory of the dying Moses staring down at the Promised Land God refuses to let him enter; and, most spectacularly, in the Book of Job, in which God murders 10 blameless children and subjects their equally blameless father to disease and destitution in order to win a bet with an obnoxious Heavenly courtier.

Why does Judaism include this appalling vision of the Divine? Why do we carry it from Rosh Ha-Shanah to Rosh Ha-Shanah and generation to generation? And why must we wrestle with it now, at the very moment when we are trying so hard to narrow the distance between ourselves and God?

Part of the hard-won spiritual knowledge embodied in Judaism is that we cannot get closer to God without facing this horror. The Akedah and the process of teshuvah -- returning to God -- are so intimately connected that the very symbol of teshuvah is the shofar, a ram's horn, which, according to tradition, represents the animal that Abraham slaughtered in Isaac's place. The sound of the shofar, the Mahzor says, reminds God of Isaac's near-sacrifice -- a sacrifice which, if carried out, would have included us all, since all Jews are descendants of Isaac -- and awakens God's forgiveness. In other words, the moment when Abraham picks up the knife is the eternal site of teshuvah: the blast of the Shofar summons both us and God to return there, to confront each other across the blade.

In that moment, God, if present at all, is either a thug who threatens everything we love or a voyeur musing in silence as we suffer. There are no laws to guide us, no relationships to orient us, no covenants to reassure us. Human and Divine stand naked to each other, so close that we cannot distinguish blessing from curse, life from death, hatred from love. Only then does God become again the source of blessing. Only then can we put down the knife.

What does such a barbaric paradigm have to do with the post-ghetto, post-secularly-humanized, twenty-first-century Judaism we are in the midst of creating? Aren't we ready, after three thousand years, to leave the Akedah behind?

No. Even if our private spiritual needs can be met by a kinder, gentler God, a diffuse, pocket-sized immanence each of us carries within, the Holocaust makes it impossible for us as a people to escape the trauma crystallized in the Akedah. No Judaism that does not reflect what we learned about God during the Holocaust will be strong enough, or vital enough, or even worthy enough, to carry us through the next millennium. The Holocaust is a site we must return to, when we return to God.

Perhaps that is why so many of us are so uncomfortable with the "G" word. We fear that, individually and as a people, we have endured more than any notion of God can survive, that there is no God we can be true to, no God we can cry out to, confess to, forgive. But the blast of the shofar proclaims the opposite: that if we can face the agony and horror, God will break the silence, bless us, blaze within us as the God of life again.

JAY LADIN is completing a Ph.D. degree in English at Princeton University. This essay, presented to the Jewish Community of Amherst, is part of a book he is writing on narrative as a spiritual technology in twenty-first century Judaism.
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Publication:Cross Currents
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 22, 2000
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