RELIGION / JOHN DART : Rabbi Considers Why a Good God Would Tolerate Evil : Judaism: Book written by Harold Schulweis of Valley Beth Shalom posits a diety with a split personality.
A dutiful synagogue member afflicted with cancer once wrote her rabbi in Encino that she dreaded Yom Kippur because a major prayer recited throughout that solemn Jewish holiday asks, “Who shall live and who shall die . . . who shall be at ease and who shall be afflicted?”
The prayer concludes that “repentance, prayer and righteousness” can avert a severe divine judgment. But the anguished woman protested to the rabbi that she couldn’t believe God had given her cancer for “some terrible unknown transgression.”
For his congregant, and for tens of thousands of religiously skeptical Jews, Rabbi Harold M. Schulweis of Encino’s Valley Beth Shalom is publishing a book in which he offers a new solution to an ancient philosophical problem: Why would a good God tolerate evil happenings?
Schulweis posits a God with a split personality, a divinity with two different sides--the God of nature who shrugs and says, “It happens,” and the God of human relations who says, “Do the right thing” and “God helps those who help themselves.”
And, rejecting centuries of Judeo-Christian belief in an all-powerful God, Schulweis contends that even if worshipers are dealing with the God of human relations, there are problems beyond his power to ameliorate; nature must be allowed to take its course.
Although praised by some Jewish thinkers for his practical theology, the nationally known rabbi who has headed the San Fernando Valley’s largest synagogue for 24 years may shock believers by portraying God as weak and ineffective by traditional expectations.
But people like his cancer-afflicted congregant may welcome Schulweis’ claim that there is no capricious figure in the heavens bringing occasional misfortune to “test” the faith of moral individuals.
In Schulweis’ view, one aspect of the divinity is Elohim, the source of blindly implacable nature whose sunshine and rain, earthquakes and cancer happen whether you’ve been bad or good. The other is Adonai, a transforming force that summons a human response to suffering and opportunities.
“Elohim is the source of the powers of nature; Adonai is the ground of moral goodness,” Schulweis writes in “For Those Who Can’t Believe, Overcoming the Obstacles to Faith” (HarperCollins).
Of the many Hebrew names of God in the Bible, the one that appears most frequently is Yahweh, which became replaced in Jewish worship by Adonai (“my Lord”) because of the sanctity of the divine name. Elohim (“God”) is the name used in the opening chapter of Genesis before the creation of man.
Once Adam is created, the name Adonai is introduced in the Bible. But as Schulweis notes in his book, only when Adam receives the breath of life and interacts with nature, tilling the rain-soaked soil in the Garden of Eden, are the names Elohim and Adonai joined, usually translated into English as “the Lord God” (Genesis 2:4-7).
The two names are commonly found side-by-side in Jewish prayer books--"Blessed art Thou O Lord our God.”
Schulweis said he believes that sickness is neither a divine punishment nor an exercise by God to somehow test the undeserving believer.
Thus, when the woman with cancer recites on Yom Kippur the line that “repentance, prayer and righteousness overcome the evil decree,” the rabbi wrote, “she prays for the transformative powers of Adonai that help her mold the givenness of nature into ideal ends.”
That could mean that she would teach her children by example how to cope with life’s challenges, he said, citing a Rabbinic legend that concludes: “The righteous are informed of the day of their death so that they may hand the crown to their children.”
Schulweis’ book, to be published Sept. 14, the eve of Yom Kippur this year, was called the “best book of its kind” by Harold S. Kushner, author of “When Bad Things Happen to Good People” and, like Schulweis, a rabbi in the centrist Conservative branch of Judaism, and as “a masterwork” by Rabbi Alexander M. Schindler, president of the more liberal Reform Judaism’s Union of American Hebrew Congregations.
Rabbi Elliot Dorff, professor of philosophy at the University of Judaism, said in an interview that some intellectual problems may exist in the relationship between Schulweis’ two aspects of divinity. “But the theology is really good in pragmatic applications,” Dorff said.
“The nice thing about Schulweis’ approach is that he is not pretending life is a bowl of cherries and yet he is not acquiescing to the terrible things that happen to people,” Dorff said.
Some rabbinical traditions have distinguished between Elohim as reflecting God’s attribute of justice and Adonai as reflecting the divine quality of mercy. While Schulweis notes that tradition to show that a dual-faceted God is not foreign to Judaism, he disagrees.
“I want to introduce Elohim as the god of all that is, one that is morally neutral,” he said. “I am doing theology here, presenting an alternate way of looking at divinity, but this is very much a Jewish practice through the centuries.”
The workings of Elohim could be seen in the natural forces that caused the Jan. 17 Northridge earthquake, although the temblor was not a purposeful “act of God,” Schulweis wrote.
On the other hand, “Adonai was evident in the earthquake through the response of firemen, policemen, doctors and neighbors who helped restore lives, calm the frightened and rebuild the shattered lives of those around them,” he said. “In their individual and collective behavior the community testifies to the reality of Adonai without denying the reality of Elohim. “
On the wrenching topic of the World War II-era Holocaust, an unprecedented massacre that has sorely tested Jewish faith to this day, Schulweis wrote that Elohim was reflected in the Auschwitz death camp simply because nature includes the aberrant economic, political and military factors that coincided to create the Nazi state.
But Schulweis also pointed to “the power and mystique of Adonai” at work in the Holocaust, based on his experience as founding chairman of the Jewish Foundation for Christian Rescuers, an international body that identifies and offers grants to non-Jews who helped victims of Nazism.
“In addition to the record of Jewish self-sacrificing heroism on behalf of endangered fellow Jews, there were tens of thousands of non-Jews, Christians, believers and nonbelievers, young and old, who came from every walk of life to risk their lives and those of their children to save Jews pursued and persecuted by the Nazis and their collaborators,” he wrote.
“The evil that men and women do must never be allowed to eclipse the goodness that men and women do,” he said.
Schulweis said that in a predominantly secular society such as the United States many people are blind to signs of godliness (in Hebrew, “elohut”), a term that the rabbi thought might best describe the often unnoticed, sometimes surprising functions of Adonai.
The current rapprochement of Israel and Jordan is an example, he said. “We see this as something secular, but that’s because we’ve replaced the idea of godliness at work in the world.”
The deity posited by Schulweis is neither all-powerful nor all-knowing. And the Bible stories indicate that he changes, he said.
“The mutability of God is profoundly Jewish and I would hope Christian too,” Schulweis said in an interview. “It’s certainly a more interesting God.”
Schulweis, 69, said that his working title for the book was “When You’re Older You’ll Understand,” because he said the big questions about religion asked by young people are too often postponed and usually never answered adequately.
The rabbi said that so many people tend to think of prayer falsely as a magical means for change. To do so leads to disillusionment, he said. Prayer “must respect the world that God has created,” he wrote. “We may not pray magically for a result that defies the laws of nature or that contradicts the laws of logic.”
Schulweis sees prayer functioning best within the Jewish understanding of a covenant with God that places responsibility on individuals as “an active partner with the Divine Other,” not a passive recipient of commandments or favors.
Drawing from both mystical and rationalistic Judaic sources, as well as from centuries of rabbinical commentaries, Schulweis said a strong tradition exists against taking biblical accounts of miracles literally. To insist the miracles actually happened and explore the story no further loses the symbolic meaning of the stories, he said. When that happens, the human craving for miracles weakens the human obligation to do good, he said.
“The Bible is holy not because it is the final word but because it is the first word of an unending tradition,” he writes.
Repeating a classic rabbinical story, Schulweis said that Rabbi Akiba some 1,900 years ago was challenged by a pagan with the question, “Whose deeds are greater, those of God or man?” Akiba replied, “Greater are the deeds of man.”
To the pagan surprised by the answer, Rabbi Akiba brought forth sheaves of wheat and loaves of bread and asked, “Which are superior?” the raw ingredient or the usable finished product.
Schulweis said that there is a “cooperative relationship between God and man” that skeptics and nominal believers tend to overlook.
Similarly, he said, a Jewish prayer known as a kiddush benediction is not made over grapes but over the wine that is produced by human intelligence. “Wine, not grapes, represents the fullest expression of the holy, the transaction between the godly human and non-human nature.”