Thursday, April 30, 2020

Theodicy is Important

The word theodicy means the justice of God.  Theodicy questions God’s ways of working with the world.  Some people think theodicy is a waste of time either because they don’t believe there is a God, or they think God is so problematic and mysterious that asking questions about the justice of God is absurd or some think theodicy is a sign of a lack of faith and an arrogant pride trying to investigate the glory of God.

While there may be some legitimacy to the above reservations concerning theodicy, I disagree with all of them.  Theodicy is a human attempt to understand and question the ways of God in a world of so much underserved suffering.  Theodicy is a faithful human attempt to trust God and stay sane at the same time.  Theodicy wonders about the methodology and fairness of God in our world.  And it does so as an outgrowth of faith and not against faith. 

Asking questions about the moral character and intent of God is also Biblical.  Abraham argues with God over the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah.  Moses confronts God regarding God’s attitude toward the Israelites and their long suffering under slavery in Egypt. Hagar laments to God as she lingers in the wilderness. Job challenges the morality of God and is vindicated by God.  In the book of Ezekiel, God laments that there is so little faith among the Hebrews that no one is willing to challenge God to keep God’s promises. And of course, in the New Testament, Jesus ends his life by crying out a question about God’s abandonment.

Theodicy is an inherent part of a faith that refuses to let God off the hook by making excuses about what God is not doing to defeat suffering and evil. We are presently living through the Coronavirus which has already killed almost 60,000 people in the USA. What is God doing amidst all these deaths?

There is a fine book called, Pathways in Theodicy by Mark S. M. Scott.  Scott reviews the different ways theodicy has been approached but does not favor one approach.  He argues we need to keep the theodicy question open and on the table. And I agree.

Why do I care so much about theodicy? Because faith is a risky business.We are proclaiming our faith in an invisible and highly problematic God.  Our faith should be honest and mature.  We ought to be intellectually and spiritually truthful about where our faith works and where it does not work.  In all my years of teaching I have tried to encourage and aggravate my students, particularly those who espouse faith, to tell the truth about the fragility and difficulty of faith.  Such thinking may cause some to doubt but doubt and faith are two parts of the same coin.  Theodicy is important!!!

Friday, April 17, 2020

Caught Between Faith and Facts

Whenever an event as evil as the Coronavirus rears its head and delivers its destruction upon us, we religious folk are caught between our deep desire to have faith and the facts our eyes are communicating to us. We are caught between faith and facts.

For Jews this happens because Jews trust the heart of God is revealed in the Torah.  God loves his people so much he gave them his only Torah to teach them what it meant to live a human life.  Whatever has happened to us across the centuries, we Jews trust against trust that God is for us and not against us.

Christians trust the heart of God has been revealed to all people in the cross and resurrection of Jesus.  God loved his people so much he sent his only son to die and be raised.  In Jesus, God shows how much God loves humanity and does not leave them alone.  And Christians trust “nothing shall separate them from the love of God.”

And Muslims trust God so loved the world that he sent his final revelation through Muhammad and had it written down in the Quran.  Muslims trust that everything that happens to human beings is in some mysterious way the will of God.  Five times a day Muslims proclaim their hope and trust that Allah is truly God, for us and not against us.

All this is well and good.  It is our faith. And we want our faith to be true.

But when the craziness and horror of evil lives among us, people of faith are compelled or forced to live in the tension between faith and facts.  And the fact is:  despite the Biblical assertions of God’s commitment to justice and love, hundred of thousands are being killed.  Despite prayers upon prayers upon prayers, the silence of God lives among us.  Of course, we can and will give the usual reasons or excuses to make God not look so bad.  After all, look at all those who survive the virus.  We can sing more hymns.  We can babble on about the mystery of God’s ways.  And let’s face it, theologians and religious leaders have honed their craft over the years to disqualify or eliminate any questioning of the deity.

But this is nothing new.  Faith and facts collide in the Biblical stories.  And those of us who have studied the Holocaust are aware of the silence or indifference of God.  Years ago, Elie Wiesel opined that Jesus was most Jewish and most honest when, on the cross, he implored the deity, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”

So, this is our predicament.  We have just come through two holidays, Passover and Easter, where God’s deliverance was rehearsed and celebrated.  Despite all that, if we religious believers are willing to be honest, we will admit we are aware of the tension in which we are compelled to live. 

After all, Jews and Christians and Muslims are communities who have always been waiting for God to act like God.  In the meantime, believers are caught in the tension between their faith in God and the facts screaming at them in the face.  So, I say again, Stay sane out there.

Sunday, March 15, 2020

A Few Words About God and the Coronavirus

When the entire planet is wrestling with the Coronavirus, what, pray tell, is God doing?

We are all in the middle of trying to avoid getting the Coronavirus.  We know such occasional viruses and pandemics are part of being human.  We humans are amazingly agile and fragile.  As to God’s part in all this, I am convinced that such a virus is not the will of God.  God does not send a virus to kill people as part of God’s mysterious plan.  So, no need to blame God for this outbreak.

But, let’s not be too easy on God.  Assuming there is a God, this God created a world where viruses are part of life.  They come and they go hurting and sometimes killing hundreds and thousands of people.  But they too are part of God’s “good” world.  And I say again, we ought not absolve God too easily of some responsibility for their existence.  From earthquakes to tornadoes to hurricanes, to monsoons, to Tsunamis, to volcanos, to cancers of all sorts, to diseases upon diseases, to viruses upon viruses.  So rumbles nature from day to day without a conscience, going on and on and on churning away in its wild unruly manner.

Perhaps as has been suggested, we need to forgive God for creating such a dangerous chaotic world.  That sounds right to me.  Much better than assuming everything that happens is the will of God.  How absurd!

What do I think God is doing in our present virus?  I certainly do not know.  But I presume, if our religious traditions are right, God is at work with us as a partner in the universe doing what can be done to minimize the effects of nature.  As in the Biblical texts God is wrestling with nature to create order.  Is it enough?  No.  It is insufficient.  God is not in control of nature.  And such is the precarious nature of life on our planet.

If we are going to trust in a benevolent deity, that’s fine but let’s be honest about our dilemma.  When the chaos of nature rears its head as it too often does, we are and will be forced time and again, to trust without knowing for sure.

Are any of these words helpful?  Probably not but we say what we can say and do what we can do.  Such is the nature of intelligent religious faith.  And the fact is nature can be startingly creative and monstrously destructive.

I wish us all well as we walk through this present calamity and trust against trust, we are not walking through it alone.

Friday, March 6, 2020

The Torah in Jewish Tradition

In the Book of Exodus, the ancient Israelites built an ark, and a tabernacle to carry the commandments wherever they went.  Having been rescued from slavery the Hebrews would wander in the wilderness for a long time.  The Rabbis tell us this was the beginning of the mobile Jewish tradition.  Despite the relatively short times when the Temple existed, for most of its history Jews have carried the Torah with them wherever they went.

The word Torah means teaching.  It is the teaching of God concerning how to live a life well lived.  The Torah can be understood narrowly as the ten commandments and more broadly as the entire Tanach (Hebrew Bible), and even more broadly as including the Talmud (a 72 book Rabbinic multi-generational commentary on the Tanach.)  Torah can also include the word midrash which refers to stories or commentaries which make explicit what is implicit in the Biblical text.

In Jewish tradition studying Torah is a holy activity.  As the old cliché declares, “When I pray, I talk to God.  When I study God talks to me.”

But the old Rabbis add another role for the purpose of the Torah.  They say, “when Jews went through the hardships and terrors of their history; when they felt alone and abandoned, when they were being murdered day in and day out, when they had no energy to carry the Torah, the Torah carried them.”

What does that mean?  Our religious traditions assure us that whatever we are going through, wherever we are, we are accompanied, carried and given strength to meet the day.  I am not sure this is true, but I like the notion that sometimes when we have our doubts and irreligiosity, reject our tradition, yet we are accompanied.  It is even said the letters of the Torah are watching over us day and night to keep us sane. 

So, as you go through what you are going through, think, it may be possible you are not alone.

Friday, January 10, 2020

Remembering Mr. Lipton

As a boy I attended a Yeshiva (Jewish parochial school) in the Bronx.  We began the day with six hours of Hebrew subjects.  After lunch we had five hours of English subjects.  My 4th grade teacher for one of those English classes was Mr.  Lipton. 

He was tall, with red hair and a quiet way about him.  He struck me and my friends as a kind-hearted person who cared about his students.

Mr. Lipton introduced us to Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer.  We would take out our books and Mr. Lipton would read to us from the books as we followed along.  He had a fetching voice which drew you into the story.  I remember being entranced by the books and I still remember them.

Then there was his guitar.  Mr. Lipton taught us to sing folk songs, some were Spanish tunes.  Here we were, 4th grade Yeshiva students and he opened our eyes to a wider world of which most of us were unaware. 

Part of being Jewish, we learned from Mr. Lipton, was not only loving and studying Jewish texts.  It was not just being immersed in Jewish questions.  It was Mr. Lipton’s legacy every weekday afternoon to remind us there was a larger world out there and we should be aware of it.  And most important he taught us to think and ask good questions.

To Mr. Lipton, thank you for being you.

Friday, January 3, 2020

Antisemitism, What Can I Say or Do

As a Jewish teacher, I feel I should say something about the recent rise in anti-semitic attacks, something helpful, something which would make sense out of such craziness, but I am not sure my words will make any difference.

History teaches us the persecution and killing of Jews will never stop.  We cannot change the world and we feel helpless.  But it is precisely because we feel helpless, we should do everything we can.

Wherever you live, you can say, “Not here, Not in my Town, Not in my place!!!”

You can stand up and speak out.  Do what you can do wherever you are.

Happy and sane New Year 2020,

Murray Haar

Sunday, December 22, 2019

Chanukah and Christmas After the Holocaust

The Holocaust, arguably, has been the most studied event in human history.  And yet, 75 years after the liberation of Auschwitz, has anything changed?

I would say yes but not enough.  Many of us who have studied what happened in those days, are horrified by what happened and have discovered the capacity for evil inside human beings.  We have learned how an entire society can be overtaken with hatred and fear.  We have been forced to see the capacity of human beings to kill other human beings in large numbers.  And today we are compelled to see the ongoing “lethal obsession” with hatred of Jews.

Let’s be honest: Despite all the hoopla surrounding Christmas and Chanukah, the Holocaust was a time when the darkness overwhelmed the light.  The Holocaust years were a time when human evil defeated the divine purpose of redeeming the world.  And no amount of religious piety should diminish what happened during those days.

If we Jews and Christians keep on talking, teaching and exhorting about the Holocaust, it is because we refuse to believe that human beings cannot be human.  We refuse to believe hate and fear will have the final word.  We refuse.

This Chanukah and Christmas let us commit ourselves anew to remember those days, to teach them to our children, and to do everything we can to prevent the darkness from overcoming the light