“Christians Often Speak of, “Love,” “Grace” and “Salvation,” but What Do These Terms Mean to Jews?

My third essay, (slightly expanded) that appears in Lights in the Forest, edited by Rabbi Paul Citrin and published September, 2014 by CCAR Press:

For me, these terms relate to what I call, “The mystery of God.” As long as I live I shall never forget the plaintive cry of a young girl a few weeks before her Bat Mitzvah. I had been called to the family’s home as her father had just passed away. She sobbed in my arms, and cried out, “God damn you God!” I can still feel her tears and hear her sobs.

Things happen in our lives that are incomprehensible! I don’t believe we are meant to understand the reason for everything. I resonate to God’s ultimate response to Job who finally demanded an answer from the Almighty for his many afflictions – “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the world?” (Job 38:4-39:30)

In contemporary words, there is much that we cannot know that we wish we did. That is an essential element of my faith. Over the years many times during Torah study and other learning sessions, people have asked, “Why did God do that?” Or “How could God have been so mean as to have done that?” My response has been, “There is a reason that we come to worship God and do not expect God to come and worship us. We answer to God. God does not answer to us.”

As human beings created in God’s image we have a very good idea of what God hopes our behavior will be. God hopes we will treat one another with graciousness and love, and we may hope that God will treat us with graciousness and love. Often it will not seem that way. We have all seen many bad things happen to very good people. Because of such events I have seen so many people lose or abandon faith in God.

Harold Kushner earned international renown by explaining that phenomena by writing that he can believe in a God as all good but not all powerful. It is a formidable argument that has brought great comfort to a great many people, but I am not sure he is correct. How God dispenses reward land love in this world is a mystery I do not believe we can solve.

No matter how sophisticated the computer programs we develop, no matter how close we humans come to winning the battle against cancer, there is still an infinite gulf between the reality of God and our knowledge of God. I think we need the humility to realize that.

In the aftermath of the children of Israel’s apostasy at Sinai when they worshipped the golden calf, Moses (Exodus 33:12ff) asks God to give the people more tangible evidence that God is with them. Moses asks God to show the people a reason to believe. God agrees to Moses request, but insists (Exodus 33:19) I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and I will show compassion to whom I will show compassion” In other words God says, “Moses even you who have closer knowledge of me than anyone before or since will not fully comprehend the reasons for all that happens, and the rest of the people will have even less understanding. I am in essence a mystery.

We do perceive, though, that God’s love, grace and salvation are things we must try to earn. This is one of the largest real differences between classical Jewish and classical Christian thought. In Christian thinking faith in God and Jesus are indispensible and (some would say the only) if one wishes to gain grace, salvation and God’s unconditional love.

By contrast we Jews believe that we must try to earn them through the acts of kindness, caring and compassion that we do. Our belief in God or lack of belief is clearly a secondary consideration.

We also believe, though that because of God’s graciousness and love for us, we have a mission to use Torah – understood in the broad sense of the term as all of Jewish learning – to work toward the salvation of the world. It is a goal we may never fully attain, but as Rabbi Tarfon taught us nearly 2000 years ago, “we are not free to desist from it.” (Pirke Avot 2:21)


An After Note on Partnering with Rabbi Renee Goldberg Edelman

A few days ago in a joint post Rabbi Renee Goldberg Edelman and I each shared our views on the mystery of God.

At the time of our posts Rabbi Edelman wrote me that she had tried mightily, but there was nothing she could do to remove a strange series of random letters, numbers and other characters that appeared at the end of our post. “OK, no big deal,” I replied.

Yesterday when I checked on our joint posting I found to my delight that Rabbi Edelman had magically transformed the collection of markings into a large beautiful question mark.

Today I see that question mark not as a nice decoration but as the main point both of us are trying to get across. We believe in God, but we still have lots of questions and doubts. The goal is to continue to ask them and struggle with them.

In a speech I heard several years ago Rabbi Harold Schulweis spoke of the phenomena of young people who become Ba’alay Teshuvah. The term describes those who were secular or who had even viewed Judaism with disdain. Somehow, though, they “saw the light” and became Orthodox Jews. They would describe their transformation as saying they chozrim b’ teshuvah, they “return in repentance” from the lives they had previously led. The word teshuvah also means, “answer.”

Much more meaningful, continued Schulweis, than “returning with the answer,” is to become chozrim b’she’elah, those who “return with the question.” The ideal is not for us to simply accept Orthodox belief and adopt Orthodox practice. The goal is to take our Judaism very seriously and struggle with it. We should freely question everything! But we should also infuse our lives with acts that affirm and re-enforce our Jewish identity and ideals.

The word Yisrael, Israel, does not mean one who believes in God or one who knows about God. It means, “one who struggles with God!” There can be no greater area of uncertainty than the nature of God, and faced with that uncertainty we have three options:

  1. Become Orthodox in our belief and practice.
  2. Discard religion because we can’t imagine a just God ruling over a world with as much evil in it as ours.
  3. Continue to ask and struggle with the questions that trouble us and try our best — with Jewish rituals and observances as inspiration –- to live up to the ideals of ethical conduct our Torah teaches the world.

Clearly Rabbi Edelman and I choose option three, and that is why I find her beautiful question mark such a perfect way to punctuate the messages we shared on the mystery of God.