Religion News, along with its very useful daily online summary of religious developments, also posts some longer texts deemed to be interesting by the editors. On October 27, 2014, it published the full text of a sermon preached on the eve of Yom Kippur (October 3) by Will Berkovitz, a Conservative rabbi in Seattle. It makes for startling reading. I wonder how the congregation reacted to it.
The sermon begins by reiterating that on Yom Kippur we recount our sins, big or small, both against other people and against God, whom we ask for forgiveness. Nothing startling thus far. But then comes a wrenching cry from the heart:
Increasingly, I am feeling…that we are not the only ones who need forgiveness. I have lost friends and family to cancer this year, and I feel outraged at God. I have been sickened by the images from mudslides, hurricanes and earthquakes, not to mention the suffering we human beings bring upon each other in the name of religion, politics or just vengeance. There are times when I feel like washing my hands of this abusive relationship [with God]. I want to scream into the whirlwind, into the void I was once sure God filled. I want to scream: ‘I don’t believe in you! We are alone in the universe. There is no master plan. There is no power or Creator’. God may not ask for my forgiveness, but yet I feel a need in my soul to struggle, like a drowning man, to forgive God for all God’s sins against humanity. If I do not forgive God, how can I believe in God? How can I stand and tell others to ask for God’s forgiveness?
What Rabbi Berkovitz evokes here is the age-old question of theodicy—the question of how God, who is believed to be both omnipotent and perfectly just, can allow suffering and evil to afflict the innocent. The question is addressed head-on in the Biblical Book of Job. (The whirwind mentioned in the sermon refers to that storm out of which God speaks to Job.)
After that, it seems to me, the sermon veers away from the passionate accusation with which it began. “It is not easy to forgive, but I will.” Why? “Because despite the pain, sorrow and suffering, I want my universe full of miracles, not devoid of them.” And because “I want to surround myself with the people of Jacob, of Israel, with those who struggle with God.” That is a perfectly credible position. I am sure that the idea of accusing God would have been considered blasphemous throughout the history of Judaism. Yet the Hebrew Bible contains episodes in which pious men argue with God. And there must have been good reasons why the Book of Job was allowed into the Biblical canon. All the same, after reading Rabbi Berkovitz’s sermon, I would have liked to have him say a little more about how he responds to his own accusation. Perhaps he does elsewhere.
I think one can make a guess by looking at the biographical information provided by Religion News Service. Berkovitz heads Jewish Family Service of Seattle, a major social service agency helping people of all or no religions. He is active in “Repair the World”, a Hillel program at the University of Washington. The name caught my attention. The Seattle program is affiliated with a national Jewish organization which promotes volunteering, especially by young people, with services that deal with homeless people, children and adults with disabilities, and others with special needs. The name is a translation of the Hebrew “Tikkun Olam”. This has a large footprint in the history of Judaism.
The term goes back to the early period of rabbinical Judaism. It is discussed in the Mishnah, the first written compilation, about 200 CE, of earlier oral traditions. It concerns mitzvot, good deeds that are to hasten the coming of the Messiah. There are two kinds—those performed to obey commandments (especially the keeping of the Sabbath) and those, though not specifically commanded, are undertaken for the good of fellow human beings. Perhaps this is what the French Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas (1906-1995) had in mind when he wrote, “Beyond the Law is the vast ocean of compassion”.
The concept of Tikkun Olam does not deal directly with the problem of theodicy. On one hand it is a practical solution to this problem—as if to say—repair the world rather than question its creator. There probably was the thought that this might contribute to the ultimate theodicy, when all things will be made whole with the coming of the Messiah. The concept, broadly understood, is at the root of the proverbial Jewish philanthropy, with its great role in America. A secularization of the concept may also be involved in the left-liberal tendencies of American Jews, who see the strudggle for social justice (in their understanding) as an expression of Tikkun Olam. An explicit case of this is the magazine actually called Tikkun, founded and edited by Rabbi Michael Lerner, which endorses causes from the agenda of the left wing of the Democratic party.
Thus the concept of Tikkun Olam is a significant feature in the ethics of mainline Judaism (whether strictly Orthodox or not). A more direct application to theodicy is made by a somewhat obscure but very interesting school of Kabbalah mysticism. Isaac Luria (1534-1572) came from a family exiled from Spain in the expulsion of all Jews in 1492. The memory of this great catastrophe overshadowed his thought, which has been interpreted as a cosmology of exile. He taught for many years in Safed, in what is now in northern Israel, where he attracted a community of disciples. A central place in Luria’s cosmology is his idea of the shattered vessels: These vessels held the light with which God created the universe. The vessels were shattered in a cosmic upheaval, the details of which (as far as I know) are not spelled out. The world is now in darkness. The shards of the vessels, containing some of the light of creation, fell into the material world from which they are to be retrieved. The retrieval is the Tikkun Olam, which includes the traditional good deeds, mitzvoth, of rabbinical Judaism, but with the addition of mystical exercises taught by Luria. In this cosmology God cannot be blamed for evil and suffering, which were not part of his original creation. God himself is in exile. When all the light has been retrieved from the broken vessels, the world will be restored as God intended. In the interim, the exiled God shares the unredeemed condition of the human race. (I am not a student of the Kabbalah, and I may have misinterpreted the Lurianic teaching. But if I am even halfway right, Isaac Luria shows a way of turning away Rabbi Berkovitz’s indictment of God.) This is indeed a theodicy. In terms of Biblical faith, it comes at a price: God’s omnipotence is compromised, at least temporarily.
What about other religions? The experience of suffering, whether caused by nature or by evil men, is universal. But the question of theodicy, in the literal sense of the justice of God, is sharpest in the monotheistic religions that originated in western Asia—that is, the “Abrahamic” traditions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. While eastern Asia has worshipped many gods, none have the qualities that would make plausible Rabbi Berkovitz’s indictment of the Biblical God. Thus a key idea of Hinduism (taken over by Buddhism, with significant modifications) is karma, the wheel of reincarnations, each one of which produces the consequences, beyond this life, of an individual’s actions. This is why Max Weber suggested that Hinduism provided the most rational theodicy: Every individual must suffer the automatic consequences of actions undertaken in previous lives: there is no one else to be blamed.
In every one of the three “Abrahamic” faiths, there is a common attitude of submission to God’s will, summed up in the phrase of the Lord’s Prayer, “Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven”. This is probably the prevailing attitude among ordinary believers with no inclination toward theoretical speculation. One submits to God in the faith that his will includes what is best for the believer, even if this is not evident in the present moment. This attitude can be found among pious Jews and Christians, but it is most central in Islam—the word itself is derived from the Arabic aslama/to submit. The Christian theodicy is of course grounded in the figure of Christ, who took upon himself all the burdens of the human condition, finally including the burden of death. God himself became man—he can no longer be accused of presiding in remote majesty over human travails.
From early on, this raised the question of how the divine and the human aspects of Christ related to each other: How can Christ be both God, the second person of the Trinity, and a man from Nazareth, who lived and died in a remote corner of the Roman empire? The first five centuries of Christian history were dominated by this question, leading to violent disagreements and schisms. The historian Philip Jenkins, in his book Jesus Wars (2010), has given us a masterly account of the theological issues and their importance, as well as of the murky political interests that were very much involved with them. One should not be misled by the abstruse language of these disputes or the murky politics to think that the disputes were unimportant. The endless distinctions made to define the relation of the divine and the human in the person of Jesus seem petty if not meaningless to a modern mind. Yet they touch on the core Christian Gospel of redemption. For that to make sense, including its implications for theodicy, both the divine and the human must be held in some sort of balance: Jesus must be both God and man. If the divine aspect is over-emphasized, Jesus cannot really bear the suffering and sin of a humanity from which he is essentially remote—as Jenkins put it, he would have been a divine tourist on earth (rather like the avatar of a Hindu god). If on the other hand the human aspect is too much emphasized, Jesus becomes a great teacher or an ethical paragon, but unavailable for the cosmic repair job that the unredeemed universe requires.
There were five great patriarchates in the early church: Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem. The last of these does not seem to have played an important role in the great dispute about the nature of Jesus Christ. Alexandria tended toward the divine (Monophysite) emphasis, Antioch toward the human (Nestorian) one. Rome and Constantinople occupied the middle ground, three persons and one nature (“substance”) in the Trinity. This is not the place to delve into the fascinating details of the various attempts to define the balance (and I’m not at all sure that I’d get all the details right). In any case, Rome and Constantinople collaborated in establishing what became the orthodox position (no doubt because these two cities were the power center of the late Roman period). This, by the way, did not stop them from excommunicating each other several centuries later. Needless to say, murky politics was involved both in the temporary victory of the Rome-Constantinople alliance, as in the later schism between them. In another book, The Lost History of Christianity, Jenkins described the price paid for this victory, which was ratified at the Council of Chalcedon in the fifth century—the loss of much of the Christian East, where so-called Oriental churches, Monophysite or Nestorian (thus not in communion with either Constantinople or Rome), survive to this day in North Africa, the Middle East, Armenia and South India. That entire period can serve as a basic lesson on how the most sublime theological debates can be intertwined with very vulgar political interests.