When Jews think of God, what comes to mind? I would wager it is usually the Father of rebuke who either gently but firmly guides his stiff-necked people or sternly warns of dire consequences and harshly punishes.
Of course, there are, as well, innumerable references to God as faithful and compassionate, the very essence of loving-kindness who blesses His people with peace.
There is, however, an alternative vision in the popular imagination that is grounded in the Talmud. This alternative vision is prominent in post-Holocaust stories like this one:
“The rabbi of Radsin saw a cattle car standing on a siding. The doors were open, he looked inside, his blood ran cold, and he went to the nearest village. There, with the money he had intended to use to buy his train ticket to Warsaw, he bribed a few farmers to take the corpses out of the car and bury them.
“When the corpses had been taken out, the rabbi still heard a sound in the car. He climbed in and looked. God was cowering in a corner of the car and crying. The rabbi refused to comfort him.”
The crying God who needs consolation is a dramatic and powerful image. Its antecedent is found in the Talmud composed thousands of years ago. The Talmud quotes Jeremiah where God says that His “soul weeps in His distress over the pain of the Jews”. Rav Tamir Granot writes that this joint weeping – the Jews and God – creates a new intimacy with God, the sort of intimacy that sometimes develops between people who reveal their shared suffering to each other.
Rav Granot cites a story by S.Z. Shragai about a Chassid who refuses to pray because he was angry at God after the Holocaust but who eventually relents:
“‘Strictly speaking, I don’t have to pray. Still, is the Almighty not in need and worthy of pity? What does He have in the world? What is left to Him? And if he was compassionate towards me and left me alive, He deserves for me to show compassion towards Him, too. That’s why I got up to pray.’
“He finished speaking, tears rolled from his eyes and he began to weep: ‘Woe…the Master of the Universe also needs pity.’”
This story stands as a striking rebuttal to the first story about the man who refused to comfort the crying God.
However, in both stories, the portrayal of God is the same – as identifying in the suffering of his people to the point of weeping with them.
What does this idea convey? Perhaps that God gave people free will and that they have too often used it for destructive rather than creative purposes. In that case, God reflects the pain, anger and despair of the victims. Obviously, He could choose not to allow evil acts to be committed, but that would make robots, not human beings of his creations. So, people remain free, with all the potential for good and mischief, and God is left to judge the wrongdoer and commiserate with the victims.
If this aspect of our tradition were better known and more prominently part of Jewish discourse, would it make a difference to today’s Jews? Would people feel less alienated and distant from their religion? Would they understand that Judaism constitutes a multi-layered religious conversation throughout the ages? That it is not about easy answers to complex questions but rather a sustained engagement with the fundamental questions of life? Could it serve as the basis for the beginning of a thoughtful dialogue?
Limited knowledge of Jewish source texts in early years does not equip the university-bound student or the young professional with an appreciation of the depth of Jewish wisdom literature, the sweep of Jewish history and the range of discussions about issues of real concern and relevance today.
Organizations of various denominations struggle valiantly but mostly ineffectively, according to the Pew survey, to reach out to educate young Jews about their own birthright.
Serious people in a secular age of science and technology need to be engaged in a profound way if they are ever to explore their own religious heritage. It is devoutly to be wished that new avenues will be explored to spark an attempt at a meaningful renewal.n
Paul Socken is distinguished professor emeritus of the University of Waterloo.