Standing In-Between

The Problem

A Beginning of an Answer

A Theology of Protest

Gomer and God


Standing In-Between

The interpreter (Latin, interpres ) is one who stands between the offers and negotiates the price (Latin, inter + pretium ), or one who mediates between the parties (Latin, inter + partes ). The interpreter is an intermediary, an agent; hence, a spokesperson, ambassador, or one who expounds a text, dream, law, or omen.

Doing theology is an act of inter- pretation, of standing between the text-tradition, God, and the reader or believer. In the period after the holocaust and at a time when we are increasingly aware of child abuse, inter-pretation is crucial, it is the ineluctable task of the theologian. For me, there are several rules which guide inter- pretation:

First, in discourse with one another and before God, we must always speak the truth, as best as we know it and can express it. Sometimes, the truth is awesome; sometimes, it is awful. But we owe it to one another, to the tradition, and to God to speak the truth and to let the truth stand, unmitigated by our anxiety or our dreams -- even if the truth is heretical by community standards.

What we perceive as truth changes as we change intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually. The inner resonance by which we judge something to be true is tuned differently at different moments in our lives. Sometimes, it is distorted by rage or by joy, by ideas or by fear. "Truth has legs"[2] but "the seal of the Holy One, blessed be God, is truth"[3] and so we must speak it -- even if it is critical and offensive.

Second, there are ways of disposing of those parts of the tradition with which one does not agree. One can label them a product of their historical period and, therefore, out-moded, primitive, old-fashioned. This is a very seductive method which allows us freedom to select from the tradition that which we find appealing and to exclude that which we find offensive. But it contains two assumptions. The first is that of historicism, that is, when we have identified the conditions in which something was created, we can classify it as belonging to those conditions and not engage it existentially. For example, the patriarchalism of biblical and rabbinic tradition can be contextualized and then existentially dismissed as archaic. The second assumption is that of moral evolution, that is, that the modern period is morally more sophisticated than earlier periods; hence, we can disregard the moral imperatives of earlier times. For example, the eye-for-an-eye teaching can be contextualized and then discarded as morally primitive compared to today's more advanced ethical standards. Both these assumptions are very naive. Establishing historical situatedness does not absolve us from existential engagement, and the century of Auschwitz and Hiroshima cannot boast of its moral excellence. Both historicism and moral evolutionism are motifs of modern culture which can be wrong and misleading.

By contrast, I choose to engage seriously the texts as we have received them. The tradition expresses this by saying that the Book of Psalms was written with the holy spirit and that the inter- pretive tradition embodies the presence of the Shekhina. There is, thus, for me, a certain sacredness to the tradition, prima facie, and I try to work within it. For this reason, I reject attempts to "clean up" the angry psalms, to interpret away the rage, to make them more "pious." The Book of Psalms, perhaps more than the rest of Scripture-tradition, deals with the dark side of the human psyche. Human nature has not changed since the biblical period; the psalmist seeks to bring all of life into the presence of God, in God's fullness and in ours; and the inter- preter must face that fact and deal with the texts which deal with it.

Third, in accepting the tradition as the home within which one does theology, I accept also the rule that one cannot reject God. One can question God, one can accuse God -- but one cannot reject God. This is a rule inherent in the inter- pretive process, for to inter- pret is to stand between God and the people, to mediate, to negotiate; not to deny God. In addition, my own personal religious experience forces itself upon me. I suppose that, if I had no awareness at all of the holy and personal presence of God, I would be free to deny God. But, having experienced that Presence, I cannot deny it exists, nor can I deny that it engages me and that I engage it. The analogy is to psychology: one can be angry with, accuse, repress, or even curse one's father or mother; but one cannot deny her or his existence.

This leads to a paradox. By not denying God and, at the same time, by trying to speak the truth, one is easily drawn into heresy (from the Greek, "to take to oneself"). Herr-esy is the arrogation of critical judgement to oneself, the assertion of the right to dissent. But dissent is always from something, from some order. To make a heretical claim is to dissent from the text, that is, from the community which inter- prets the text, from the tradition which mediates the text. Some of what I say is heretical. But, I choose to stay within the tradition, to assert my questions within the language and text of the community, to put forward my critique to God Godself. To do otherwise is to reject God, the tradition, the community, and the integrated self. To do otherwise is to fail at inter- pretation.

Fourth, inter- pretation is the interaction of the personalities of God, the writers of the sacred texts, the readers, and the teachers; hence, inter- pretation is always plurivocal. The reader changes, the inter- preter changes, God too responds to God's creatures. Time adds to the number of those who read and inter- pret.[4] In the end, the text has more than one meaning, the reader reads on more than one level, and the teacher teaches more than one meaning. Text and life itself are multifaceted; inter-pretation is multi-dimensional. Plurivocity is normal; not hierarchy, not the single authoritative teaching. Creation is an English garden, not a French park. To write theology is to resist the temptation to make authoritative declarations of doctrine, textual interpretation, and religious practice. Rather, to do theology is to speak deeply and authentically yet to preserve the many-sidedness of R/reality. Plurivocity is, thus, not only normal; it is normative, it is what the norm should be.

Because the tradition is, and because we are, plurivocal; because life itself is multifaceted though sequential; the text can only be read seriatim, that is, one unit after another. At one moment, we / the text speak of rage; at another, of healing. At one moment, we / the text inter- pret holiness; at another, we inter- pret beauty; at still another, we inter- pret righteous indignation. The Hebrew word for truth, 'emet, is composed of the first, the middle, and the last letter of the alphabet; it embraces all. Truth does not harmonize or homogenize all; it embraces all, one after the other, seriatim. We, seekers of truth, must follow this seal of God if we are to be true to truth, if we are to be real within reality.

These rules guide my standing in-between, my relation, my inter- pretation, my inter- mediacy of the text- tradition. They keep me in touch with my constituencies who are God, the text, the tradition, the reader, life, and my self. These rules create the rooms in the home within which I think, write, act, and do theology.

The Problem

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In the middle ages, thinkers debated the question of whether God has any qualities that are crucial to our understanding of God, that are part of God's very essence. Maimonides taught: God is so unlike anything we can think that God cannot have any attributes at all. At our most coherent, therefore, we can only say that God is not a member of the class of beings that possess any given trait or its contrary. This is the via negativa, "negative theology."[5] Saadia Gaon taught: God must have some attributes; that is the evidence of the Scripture and the tradition; it is also the result of logic for, without words, we cannot talk of God at all. Hence, according to Saadia, there are some qualities which are of God's essence, and others which are just words we use to relate to God. The former are called "essential attributes"; the latter are called "accidental attributes."[6]

As I see it,[7] God has two essential attributes of which we are aware by virtue of the sacred texts of the tradition and by virtue of our own personal experience of God; they are holiness and personality. "Holiness" is that quality that conveys the sense of the sacred. It is an awareness sui generis; it is not an extension of the aesthetic, the moral, or a psychological projection. Holiness, sometimes called "wholly otherness," is a quality we sense in moments, in people, in texts, and in places. It is our cue to the presence of God in that context. "Personality" is that quality that conveys the person- ness of the subject who engages us. It is that congery of emotion, intellect, moral judgment, and personal presence that identifies each of us to ourselves and to others. God, too, has personality. We know this from the texts and traditions, and from our own experience of God's Presence. A trans-personal God, as in some eastern traditions or in certain philosophical understandings of Judaism is, in my opinion, an incorrect reading of the texts of God's Presence.[8] It contradicts the tradition, as well as common Jewish experience.

Holiness and personality are the imago Dei , the selem 'Elohim , the image of God in which humanity is created. God put that image into us (Gen. 1:26-7). God stamped (Hebrew, hitbi`a ) it into us. It is our coin / mold (Hebrew, matbe`a ), our nature (Hebrew, teva`). It is what God and we have in common. It is that which enables us to talk about, and with, God. This is the theology of image. Holiness and personality, then, are attributes (Hebrew, yahasim ); they are relation and relatedness (Hebrew, yahas ). To inter- pret theologically is to use that stamp, that mold; to work with that nature; to speak those attributes. Hence, to do theology faith- fully, one must accept the holiness and personal- ness of God, of the text, of the reader, and of the inter- preter who stands in-between.

However, in a remarkable little book entitled, Batter My Heart, [9] Gracia Fay Ellwood has gathered together most of the violent and abusive passages in the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures. I thought I had read them all but Ellwood showed me some new ones, as well as some old ones in a new light.

God is the abusive husband who goes through the well-known fight-beat-reconcile cycle.[10] God wounds, heals, and wounds again:

I have crushed, and I shall heal; there is no escape from My hand (Dt. 32:39).

Who gave Jacob for a spoil and Israel to the robbers? Was it not the Lord, the One against Whom we sinned [in] not wishing to go in His ways and [in] not listening to His Torah? Therefore, God poured His wrath and the fury of battle on him, setting him on fire all around.... Now, thus says the Lord, your Creator, Jacob; the One that formed you, Israel: "Do not be afraid for I have redeemed you. When you go through water, I am with you and the rivers will not sweep you away; when you go in the midst of fire, you will not be burned and the flame will not consume you ... Since you are precious in my sight and honored, I love you" (Is. 42:24 - 43:4).

Awake! Awake! Arise Jerusalem, which has drunk of the cup of the Lord's anger from His hand; you have drunk to the dregs the beaker-cup of poison.... Two things have happened to you, who will bemoan your fate? -- desolation and destruction, famine and sword -- who can comfort you? Your sons have fainted and lie on the street corners like antelopes in a net, full of the wrath of the Lord and of the rebuke of God.... Thus says your lord and God, the Lord, Who will fight the battle of His people: "Behold, I have taken the cup of poison from your hand, the beaker-cup of My wrath; you shall drink of it no more. I shall put it into the hands of those that afflict you..." (Is. 51:17-23).

God is also the humiliator of the oppressed woman, the one who strips the unfaithful wife naked and encourages gang rape.

"This is your fate, the portion measured out to you by Me," says the Lord, "because you have forgotten Me and put your trust in that which is false. I shall surely cover your face with your skirts and your personal parts will be seen" (Jer. 13:25-6).

The Lord said: "Since the daughters of Zion have grown haughty, walking with stretched-forth necks and roving eyes, provocative in their steps and wiggling their feet, the Lord will smite the head of the daughters of Zion with scabs and will expose their personal parts" (Is. 3:16-17).

In two searing passages, God sexually abuses Israel, and then takes her back in love.

Now I shall expose her nakedness before the eyes of her lovers; no man can save her from Me.... I shall betroth you to Me forever; I shall betroth you to Me with justice and fairness, with grace and love; and I shall betroth you to Me in faithfulness and, then, you will know the Lord (Hos. 2:12,21-22).

And I passed by and saw you rolling in your blood and I said: "In your very bloodiness, live! In your very bloodiness, live!" ... "I spread My garment over you, I covered your nakedness; and I swore a covenant to you," said the Lord, "and you became Mine".... Thus says the Lord: "Since your lewdness has been poured forth and you have revealed your personal parts in your carryings-on with your lovers ... Therefore, I shall gather all your lovers to whom you pledged yourself, those whom you loved together with those whom you hated, I shall gather them all against you round about, and I shall expose your private parts to them and they shall see your nakedness.... I shall give you over to their power and they shall break your back and shatter your proud points; they shall strip you of your clothes and take your valuable things, and leave you nude and naked .... Then I shall have satisfied My wrath against you and My jealousy shall pass from you; I shall be calm, and I will be angry no longer" (Ezek. 16:6-8,36-42).[11]

And, then, there are the passages where God curses the people:

"And if you do not listen to Me in this and you go rebelliously with Me, I shall go in the rage of rebellion with you, punishing you sevenfold for your sins ... You shall eat the flesh of your boys and consume the bodies of your girls...." As He rejoiced over you to show goodness to you and to multiply you, so will He rejoice over you to destroy you and to annihilate you ... "In the morning you will say, `Would that it were evening' and in the evening you will say, `Would that it were morning' because of the fear which you will feel in your heart and the sights which you will see with your eyes" (Lev. 26:27,29; Dt. 28:63,67).

"Were it not written, it would not be possible to speak thus."[12]

God, in these passages, Ellwood points out is the "nuturing betrayer" or the "betraying nurturer."[13] The picture is not better in the Christian Scriptures."[14]

And then there are the historical and personal texts, the searing stories of the abuse of children and women.[15] These are the life texts through which the scriptural texts are read; they are the inter-texts. These inter-texts rupture our ability to read Scripture; they fragment the sanity and the wholeness of our discourse. The effect is devastating, as S. Ringe has commented: "Both the silence of women and their silencing -- the contempt in which they are held and the violence with which they are treated -- in the Bible mirror the realities of many women's lives. For them, the Bible is experienced as giving the divine stamp of approval to their suffering. Far from bringing healing of the hurt or empowerment toward freedom from oppression, the Bible seems to bless the harm and abuse with which women live and sometimes die."[16] And then there are the historical and personal texts of the holocaust. They, too, are life inter-texts and they, too, rupture our reading of Scripture and our discourse.[17]

What shall we do with scriptural passages like those cited above? How shall we read them in their twentieth-century context of the holocaust, family abuse, and, God forbid, the destruction of the State of Israel?[18] For, two sets of questions now pose themselves: (1) Is abusiveness, then, an attribute of God? Is abusiveness a quality without which we cannot understand the ultimate reality that we call God? And (2) if this is so, what constitutes a theologically and Jewishly proper response to this realization? What ought to be our stance vis-à-vis God, if the texts of our tradition and other sources of human knowledge lead us to conclude that God may be abusive in some aspects of God's behavior?

A Beginning of an Answer

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We must begin by realizing that moments of abusive behavior are characterized not only by deep human suffering but, more importantly, by the innocence of the victim. When anyone acts abusively, the victim is wholly innocent. What happens to the victim is not in any way her or his fault. He or she is the hurt party; she or he is the blameless object of abuse. Whatever one's previous wrongdoings, they are in no proportion whatsoever to the abuse meted out. The innocence of the victim, not the cruelty of the perpetrator, is what makes abusive behavior "abusive." The faultlessness of the victim is what defines another's behavior as "abusive." For this reason, we acknowledge that punishment which is measured and proportional to the act is not "abusive" while punishment that is disproportional, out of measure, is "abusive." For the same reason, we reject victimization of the victim.

Now, this must be true also of our relationship to God. If God's actions are out of measure, they are "abusive." If God's behavior towards us is not in proportion to our sinfulness, then God's actions are "abusive." We may not know why God is abusive; but it makes no difference. Abusive behavior is abusive, in God as well as in human beings.

We must, therefore, under the seal of truth, start by admitting that Scripture does indeed portray God as an abusing person; that God, as agent in our sacred texts, does indeed act abusively; that God, as described in the Bible, acts like an abusing male: husband, father, and lord. In such moments, the innocent are just that -- innocent; they are victims. Their sins, and all humans are sin-ful, simply do not account for the action taken against them. In such moments the innocent are "abused" by a power greater than they. (In this mode, God "caused" the holocaust, or "allowed" it to happen). Further, we must start by admitting that, read inter-textually with the lives of abused persons, the impact of such scriptural texts is devastating.

Our deepest psychological and theological instincts move us to denial; our deepest spiritual sense rebels against this: It cannot be so, God cannot be an abusing Parent, God cannot be an abusing spouse. Can one not, somehow, put these passages under erasure? Can one not, somehow, inter-pret these passages away?

There are several ways to set about the task of erasure. The traditional way is to speak of our sin and, hence, render God's actions not abusive but justified. I cannot accept, however, that throwing one million children on burning pyres was justified. I cannot accept that, even though the Jewish people was sinful, the holocaust was fitting punishment for the sin. Nor can I accept that years of physical and/or sexual abuse is punishment for the wrongdoing of any child.

Ellwood has another way of erasure. She assembled these passages as an act of piety for, while she is an academic, she is also a Quaker and admits that, "[b]ecause the final authority for the Friends is not the written page but the Light within and because of their commitment to nonviolence and equality, they find it comparatively easy to learn from the Bible's wealth without struggling with `difficult' passages that affirm violence."[19] One way to deal with God's abusivenss, then, is to say, on spiritual grounds, that those passages cannot represent actions of the "true" God; they are not "Scripture." This approach seems to me to be spiritually, as well as theologically and textually, unsophisticated precisely because it suppresses the "difficult" side of human and divine being, precisely because it denies the "dark dispositions" of the personalist image which is the bond between by God and humanity.

Others use contextualism and historicism to read such passages into a "primitive" human past which contrasts with our more "advanced" ethical consciousness. This approach, too, appears to me to be intellectually, theologically, and ethically unjustified precisely because, as I stated at the beginning of this chapter, this thinking embodies the historical fallacy and the wholly unwarranted assumption of human moral progress. To claim, too, that these texts reflect only patriarchal contexts and processes which distort theology and therefore to leave God untouched by such texts also seems to me to relieve the inter-pretive tradition of its theological responsibility and to undermine precisely the serious religiosity of such `texts of terror.'[20]

I disagree with these views because human beings do have a dark side; they do have "dark dispositions"; and this aspect of humanness runs very deep, perhaps deeper than goodness. Sixty years of experience with psychoanalysis and psychotherapy, fifty years of study of the holocaust, and a decade of contact with survivors of child abuse have surely taught us to take into account more fully the dark side of humanity. Anthropologically, ethical censorship of our view of humankind is false, and dangerous. Theologically, the ethical censorship of sacred texts and traditions deprives us of knowledge of a basic part of God's personality. We cannot understand God (or ourselves) if we censor out what we do not like, or what we would like not to see. The texts on God's abusiveness are there. To censor them out because they are not "ethical" is to limit our understanding of the complexity of human and divine existence. It is to underrate and undermine the theology of image. It is to deprive ourselves and God of the fullness of self-understanding and interrelatedness. One cannot just cast aside the "bad" passages and concentrate on the "positive" sources, e.g., the Song of Songs, long seen as a love dialogue between God and the people, and the references to humans as the friends and lovers of God (Is. 41:8, etc.). Rather, accept what you do not want to know and, "with the tender strength that comes from an openness to your own deepest wounding,"[21] turn to address God.

If we must admit that God is sometimes abusive, we also know, however, that God is not always abusive. God is usually loving and fair; God is often kind and merciful. We know, from our own experience or from that of others, that God is, indeed, these things too. Our gratitude for God's fairness, love, kindness, and mercy does not stop us, however, from acknowledging God's abusiveness.

What, then, is a proper stance toward God?

A Theology of Protest

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First, one must wrestle mightily with the truth of God's abusiveness and then one must acknowledge it. Reluctant as we are to admit that God can act abusively, we must be willing to admit that it is so. Truth, to ourselves and to God, is the first spiritual and theological response.

Second, in Night, [22] Elie Wiesel tells the story, but he also speaks his rage:

Never shall I forget that night, the first night in the camp, which has turned my life into one long night, seven times cursed and seven times sealed. Never shall I forget the little faces of the children, whose bodies I saw turned into wreaths of smoke beneath a silent blue sky.

Never shall I forget those flames which consumed my faith forever.

Never shall I forget that nocturnal silence which deprived me, for all eternity, of the desire to live. Never shall I forget those moments which murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to dust. Never shall I forget these things, even if I am condemned to live as long as God Himself. Never.

Wiesel confronts God again, later in his own life, in Ani Maamin, [23] a little known oratorio, the title of which means, "I Believe." The oratorio, which is a modern re-reading of a midrash on Lamentations, ends with the patriarchs reproaching God and God crying. Significantly, the book is dedicated to Wiesel's son.

Although Wiesel takes up the theme of the holocaust in all of his books, he approaches the issue of God's responsibility yet again in The Trial of God. [24] This play, which is a modern re-reading of the Book of Job, is set in the midst of the Chmielnitsky (Cossack) massacres of the Jews in 1348-1349. God is put on trial by an innkeeper named Berish, three wandering Jews, and a defending attorney called Sam, abbreviated from Samael, one of the names of Satan. The victims recount the horrors they have seen even as the threat against them grows. The substance of the play is the vivid debate among the wanderers, Berish, Sam, and the other characters concerning God's culpability in the pogrom. At the end, the three itinerants are completely taken in by Satan, that is, they accept the usual defenses of God.[25]

The hero of The Trial of God is, in my opinion, Berish who, although resistant in the beginning to the idea of a trial of God, insists to the very end that he will hold God responsible and yet stay loyal to his Jewish identity and to God:

If He insists upon going on with His methods, let Him -- but I won't say Amen. Let Him crush me, I won't say Kaddish. Let Him kill me, let Him kill us all, I shall shout and shout that it's His fault. I'll use my last energy to make my protest known. Whether I live or die, I submit to Him no longer.... And they kept quiet? Too bad -- then I'll speak for them. For them, too, I'll demand justice... To you, judges, I'll shout, "Tell Him what He should not have done; tell Him to stop the bloodshed now...."

I lived as a Jew, and it is as a Jew that I die -- and it is as a Jew that, with my last breath, I shall shout my protest to God! And because the end is near, I shall shout louder! Because the end is near, I'll tell Him that He's more guilty than ever![26]

With this play, probably Wiesel's most powerful confrontation with God and the holocaust, Wiesel has explicitly adopted the way of the "theology of protest." As the paradigmatic survivor of the holocaust, Wiesel has let it be known that he, and hence we, cannot forgive God; nor can he, and hence we, be silent. He must let his voice ring out, he must protest; and, so must we.

The theology of protest goes back to the Bible and is present most forcefully in the Book of Job. The central figure in that text, Job, never questions God's existence, nor God's power to do what God is doing. Rather, Job questions God's justification, God's morality, God's justice. Throughout, Job rejects the moral panaceas and theological rationalizations of his friends, as does God in the end. No pat answers; rather, the repeated assertion of his innocence and the recurrent questioning of God's justice. No easy resolutions; rather, the repeated assertion of loyalty to God and the recurrent accusation of injustice:

And Job answered [the friends] saying: "How long will you aggravate me and oppress me with words? Ten times you have humiliated me; are you not ashamed that you have dealt harshly with me? ... Know now that it is God Who has twisted me, Who has cast His net upon me. I shout `Violence' but I am not answered. I cry out but there is no fairness. He has blocked my way; I cannot pass ... My skin and flesh cling to my bones, and I am left with [only] my skull. ... For I know that my R/redeemer is alive and, though H/he be the last being in the universe, when the period of my abuse is at an end, [all] this shall be struck away and then, from my [reconstituted] body, I shall see God, Whom I once envisioned, Whom my eyes once saw, and Who was [then] not strange to me..." [27]

Between the Book of Job and Elie Wiesel, there is a long tradition of the theology of protest. It has been very well documented by Anson Laytner in Arguing With God: A Jewish Tradition.[28] After thoroughly reviewing the biblical and rabbinic materials, Laytner deals with the modern materials. He begins with the hasidic traditions, including the protest-threat of the Kotzker Rebbe:

Send us our Messiah, for we have no more strength to suffer. Show me a sign, O God. Otherwise I rebel against You. If You do not keep Your covenant, then neither will I keep the promise, and it is all over: we are through with being Your Chosen People, Your unique treasure.[29]

Although echoed in the early rabbinic materials, this statement (and there are others like it) is audacious to the point of being almost heretical. Following this, Laytner, with Roskies and Mintz, moves to the popular and secular literature of protest, including Bialik's poem in which God calls us to rebel against God.[30]

Moving into the holocaust and post-holocaust literature, Laytner cites from contemporary Jewish poets: Glatstein, Greenberg, Zeitlin, Segal, Moldowsky, Katzenelson and others. This material is very bitter:

"You watched ... There is no God in you, false, empty heavens."

"We shall remember, Lord God, that in these years, You settled with Your eternal people every old score."

"O God of Mercy / For the time being / Choose another people. / We are tired of death, tired of corpses, / We have no more prayers.... / Grant us one more blessing - - / Take back the gift of our separateness."[31]

In this vein, Laytner also cites the din Torah, the rabbinic "trial of God," tradition which grew up in the camps:

"Creator of the worlds, You are mighty and terrible beyond all doubt. But from the circle of true lovers of Israel, we Galicians, forever shut You out." [32]

As part of his discussion of the holocaust and post-holocaust material, Laytner presents, too, an extended analysis of Wiesel, in the course of which he sets forth two principles which characterize Wiesel's position. First, there is Wiesel's "faithful defiance," embodied in Berish's position and, second, there is Wiesel's "defiant activism," rooted in the words of a character from another work: "Maybe God is dead, but man [sic] is alive ... Suffering is given to the living ... it is man's [sic] duty to make it cease."[33]

Laytner's work in bringing before us the long tradition of the theology of protest, even in its secularized modern forms, is very important. The depth and breadth of this tradition leads me to suggest that, in the post-holocaust era, challenge is a proper religious affection.[34] Given our post-holocaust setting and given the continued insecurity of the Jewish people in the modern world, protest is a religiously proper faith stance toward God. Furthermore, in an era when we are also becoming familiar with the depth and breadth of child abuse, we must assert again that challenge is a proper religious affection. Given what we know of sexual, physical, and emotional abuse of children and its effects on later adult life, protest is a religiously proper faith stance toward God. Stated generally: Given Jewish history and family violence as our generations have experienced them, a theology of protest is a proper theology and unrelenting challenge is a proper religious affection for us to have.

Further reflection on the ending of the Book of Job and on the ending of The Trial of God is very disquieting. In the ending according to the poetic section of the Book of Job (chapters 40:1 - 42:6), God overwhelms and threatens Job who, in turn, responds:

The Lord answered Job, saying, "Shall he who argues with the Mighty One condemn Him?! Let him who rebukes God answer for that!"

And Job answered the Lord saying, "Behold, I am nothing; what shall I say to You in return? I put my hand to my mouth. I have spoken once, I shall not respond; even twice, I shall not continue" (40:1-5).

There follow fifty-two verses, most of them in the form of rhetorical questions, all of which are intended to show God's might and Job's insignificance. The tone is set at the beginning:

The Lord answered Job from the storm saying, "Gird your loins like a man! I will interrogate you! Give me your answers! Would you void My judgement?! Would you declare Me guilty, so that you be innocent?!" (40:6-8).

At the end of this tirade, Job responds in the most enigmatic of texts:[35]

And Job answered the Lord, saying, "I know that You can do everything, that no scheme is impossible for You.

Who is it who `unknowingly hides counsel'? Indeed, I have related -- even though I do not understand -- things which are hidden from me and that which I do not know.

Listen, I pray, and I will speak. `I will interrogate You. Give me Your answers.'

I had heard of You through the hearing of the ear, but now my eyes have seen You. Therefore, I am as nothing and I am remorseful, being [only] dust and ashes" (42:1- 6).[36]

What kind of a God reacts this way to a suffering loyal servant? What kind of personality does such a God have? Jung comments bitterly on this:[37] "... it is Yahweh himself who darkens his own counsel.... He turns the tables on Job and blames him for what he himself does: man is not permitted to have an opinion about him.... For seventy-one verses he proclaims his world-creating power to his miserable victim, who sits in ashes and scratches his sores with potsherds, and who by now has had enough of superhuman violence." While I disagree with Jung's Christological resolution to this problem, I agree that the ending of the Book of Job according to the poetic section reveals a God Who is an abuser. What became of the relationship of Job and God after this tirade? Did Job trust and worship God again? Does the enigmatic last sentence mean that Job was so terrified that he repressed his question completely? Or, does it mean that Job had a religious, or mystical, experience which transformed his question and his spiritual being to a higher plane?[38] Does the ending signify that Job was somehow satisfied with having attracted God's direct attention and that that was enough?[39] Do these closing verses indicate that Job resolved his suffering by ultimately accepting his inferior status and hence God's judgement?[40]

The prose ending to the Book of Job (42:7-17) is no easier to understand: Job's happiness is returned to him in greater measure than before; he is reinstated in this world, better off than he was. But, did Job simply take up his relationship with God again, with no after-effects? Did Job accept his second blessing without question? Did he resume his pious life without reservation?

The ending of The Trial of God is even more disturbing: the remaining Jews are killed in the recurrence of the pogrom; the last Jews of Europe are exterminated; a final solution. There is no repression and getting on with life; no compensating religious experience; no satisfaction of having been addressed by God; no accepting of one's inferiority and, hence, of God's judgement. There is also no return of happiness; no second blessing; no resumed relationship with God; no reinstated life of piety. The ending of The Trial of God seems to preclude life after suffering.

The Book of Job as well as The Trial of God, then, are silent on the religious nature of life after suffering. In both works, abuse has traumatized the text into a deep silence. But what would constitute a proper religious response to abuse in a life lived after abuse? What would be an appropriate spiritual response to abuse within a life after suffering?

There is the response of protest for, as noted above, Berish is the hero of the play and it is Berish's "faithful defiance" that is its main motif.[41] There is also "defiant activism" embodied in the life of Wiesel himself who has survived and has gone on to a distinguished, constructive post-holocaust life. Still, is there nothing else? no other religious affection? no other theology?

There are several effective ways to deal with abuse, depending upon the nature of the abused: One can repress the abuse and go on living one's life as best as one can. Many survivors of child abuse and the holocaust do this: they try not to think of it; and they go on with the daily tasks of living, as best as they can. One can also subsume the abuse into some greater experience or cause. Many survivors of child abuse and the holocaust do this: they dedicate themselves to God, or to the Jewish people, or to caring service to others; and they go on with the practical tasks of a life devoted to the cause they have adopted. And, one can also live with the dark shadows of the past, allowing them to haunt one, to disorient one toward life and the world, even as one goes on with life. Many survivors of child abuse and the holocaust do this: they remain consciously and unconsciously haunted by the abuse, they remain distrustful and wary of others, they stay hypervigilant against impending abuse; and they go on with the daily tasks of living, as best they can, in a world that is potentially hostile, indeed dangerous.

I understand those who suppress, as well as those who lift up, the terror of their past; I have deep empathy for both these responses to abuse, and I honor them both. However, I also understand and empathize with those who live in the continuous shadow of the holocaust, who remain hypervigilant and yet persevere through life. I think, therefore that, in the post-holocaust era, we can say that distrust is also a proper religious affection. Given our post-holocaust setting and given the continued insecurity of the Jewish people in the modern world, sustained suspicion is a religiously proper faith stance toward God. Furthermore, in an era when we are also becoming familiar with the depth and breadth of child abuse, we must assert again that distrust is a proper religious affection. Given what we know of sexual, physical, and emotional abuse of children and its effects on later adult life, sustained suspicion is a religiously proper faith stance toward God. As adult survivors of child abuse have told me again and again, the appropriate non-sick response to abuse is turning away, a necessarily unforgiving stance, and maintaining the question whether, given the intensity of the abuse, one even ought to accept comfort from the F/father. Stated generally: Given Jewish history and family violence as our generations have experienced them, distrust is a proper religious affection and a theology of sustained suspicion is a proper theology to have.

Gomer and God

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In her recent article,[42] Naomi Graetz has surfaced one of the abusive passages in Scripture in the context of the recitation of the haftarah. First, Graetz has pointed carefully to the passage's abusing moments, including the realization that, according to Hosea: "Israel has to suffer in order to be entitled to this new betrothal. She has to be battered into submission in order to kiss and make up at the end.... God is not suggesting a full-fledged partnership, despite His declarations. Hosea's portrayal of Israel as a sinning woman returning abjectly to the open arms of her husband who graciously accepts her -- after her great suffering and providing she repents-- has limited the potential of the relationship.... We have a right to be suspicious and cautious about renewing the relationship under the old contract. Unless there be a new relationship, one of partnership, we will revert tothe old master / slave relationship.... shuvah must be mutual" (37, 38, 42).

Second, Graetz has shown that, while we may want to think of this as only metaphor,[43] it is more than that. It is a very powerful image which does have its impact. Reverse it, to see for yourself: "Yet, why do not symbols describing the sinning of Israel in terms of masculine lust or promiscuity with foreign women dominate the work of these prophets? ... Why is Israel represented in the image of a faithless wife or harlot rather than in the image of a rapist?" (33, 36). Language has power; God uses it to create.

Finally, Graetz also sensitively reads the inter-text; she insists that we read the Hosea text in the con-text of real women's experience: "... the message of the prophets can be understood as permitting husbands to abuse their wives psychologically and physically" (36). If anything, Graetz has understated the intertext, as the quotation from Sharon Ringe[44] and others show.

Scolnic contends that: "These passages are about love, not wife-battering. They are about forgiveness, not punishment. We see things from the point of view of a man who has the right to do all these things, to strip her, humiliate her, etc., but doesn't and, instead, seeks reconciliation" (49). This seems to me to be naive, if language (even as metaphor) has power. A threat is an attitude; it is an affection. Furthermore, even if Gomer is "a promiscuous woman" and not "a faithful wife in a bad marriage" (49), is the threatened abuse justified? Is even threatening the abuse justified? Better to identify with Gomer / Israel than with Hosea / God.

I agree, however, that rejection of the text is not the way. The text does say what it says, and it is abusive. Better to admit the truth than to cover it up with interpretation, or to exclude it from the public canon. My instinct would be to keep the text and to preach on abuse.


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In the inner reaches of Jewish religious reflection, the question is asked whether God can make a mistake, whether God can sin. The biblical evidence is that God can make a mistake: God changes God's mind in the case of Noah and in the desert regarding the rebellious people.[45] In the Rosh ha-Shana liturgy, God prays that God's mercy overcome God's anger implying, if not stating clearly, that God can be overwhelmed by factors in Godself.[46] And, in the zoharic strain of Jewish mystical thinking, God's inner stability can be destoyed, provoking great destruction.[47] In a personalist theology, then, God can sin.

But, how does God repent? How does God do teshuva? If the echoes of the Book of Lamentations and the Book of Job are heard seriously, God repents by talking to us, by seeing us, by taking notice of us, by acknowledging us in some concrete way. For some Jews, the creation and continued existence of the State of Israel is such an acknowledgement. For others, that is insufficient on three grounds: First, the trauma has simply been too great, the loss too severe. Second, the very historicism that allows us to rationalize away certain texts also forces us to see history for what it really was; we can no longer paradigmatize history and count this suffering in with all the others. The holocaust is abuse, and there is no excuse for it. Finally, we know from a study of repentance in Jewish tradition[48] and from an examination of the therapy of healing from abuse[49] that acknowledgement of the abused by the abuser is simply not enough. Both Jewish teaching and proper therapy require much more: they require knowledge by the abuser of the grounds and causes of the abusing behaviors; and a commitment, acceptable to the abused, never to abuse again. They require self-empowerment of the abused; and reestablished intersubjectivity and interrelatedness, if possible, between the abused and the abuser. In the post-holocaust era, it is not enough to push abuse out of our minds and hearts. In the era of increasing knowledge of child abuse, it is not enough to accept reality for what it was and go on with life. Rather: a theology of protest and sustained suspicion, as well as the religious affections of unrelenting challenge, are the proper response.

Confronting and admitting the truth about abuse, protest and challenge to it, and distrust and suspicion of those who practice it -- these are the appropriate spiritual and theological responses to abuse for the contemporary Jew. However, theology is not enough. We need to have a new model of religious and spiritual healing and, then, we need to turn to God in prayer in a way that will embody this theology of protest.[50] Inter-pretation allows us, indeed forces us, to stand in-between God, the sacred texts, the people, and our selves.

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[1] The following discussion first appeared in Conservative Judaism 45:3 (Spring 1993) 72-89 as part of a lively discussion on the liturgical appropriateness of Hosea and Ezekiel. The material is based on D. Blumenthal, Facing the Abusing God: A Theology of Protest, Louisville, KY, Westminster / John Knox: fall 1993 -- hereinafter: Facing.

[2] Aleph-Bet of Rabbi Akiva, second version, Batei Midrashot, ed. A. J. Wertheimer, 2:404; cf. also, Maimonides, Mishne Torah, "Hilkhot Teshuva," 4:3.

[3] Talmud, Shabbat 55a.

[4] Cf. H. Fisch, Poetry with a Purpose: Biblical Poetics and Interpretation (Bloomington, Indiana University Press: 1988) -- reviewed by me in Midstream (August-Spetember 1992) 41-3 -- 109-15 that, in reading biblical poetry, the I immediately invokes the I-Thou which, in turn, immediately invokes the we-Thou.

[5] Maimonides, Guide of the Perplexed, transl. S. Pines (Chicago, University of Chicago Press: 1963) I: 50-58.

[6] Saadia Gaon, The Book of Beliefs and Opinions, transl. S. Rosenblatt (New Haven, Yale University Press: 1948) II:1-4, 13. For a more complete exposition of these two schools of thought, cf. D. Blumenthal, "Croyance et attributs essentiels dans la théologie médiévale et moderne," forthcoming.

[7] For a fuller discussion of this, cf. Facing, ch. 3 and 4.

[8] Cf., e.g., A. J. Heschel, The Prophets (San Francisco, Harper and Row: 1962) vol. II; M. Kadushin, The Rabbinic Mind (New York, Jewish Theological Seminary: 1952) 194-324; D. Blumenthal, review of D. Klemm, Hermeneutical Inquiry and R. Chopp, The Praxis of Suffering in Religious Studies Review 15 (1989) 122-5; and A. Green, "Rethinking Theology: Language, Experience, and Reality," The Reconstructionist (Sept. 1988) 8-13.

[9] Wallingford, PA, Pendle Hill Pamphlets: 1988.

[10] This seems not to be the pattern of contemporary abusing Jewish husbands. Cf. M. Scarf, Battered Jewish Wives: Case Studies in the Response to Rage (Lewiston, NY, Edwin Mellen Press: 1988) -- reviewed by me in Conservative Judaism, 43:3 (Summer 1991) 88-9 -- ch. 6.

[11] Cf. Fisch, 44, where this passage is referred to as a "romantic tale of the foundling girl who becomes the beautiful bride of her foster father" [sic].

[12] Talmud, Sanhedrin 95b, Hulin 91b, Eruvin 22a, etc. There are other abuse-laden passages; I have gathered them in Facing, in the commentary entitled "Con- verses," to the end of Psalm 109.

[13] Ellwood, 16.

[14 ]Ellwood, 20-23, with special attention to Revelations 17-19. Feminist scholarship has been very active in bringing these passages to light. In addition to the works of P. Trible and M. Bal, see now C. Newsom and S. Ringe, The Women's Bible Commentary (Louisville, KY, Westminster / John Knox: 1992), especially the essay on Jeremiah by K. O'Connor (169-77) and the naming of the Hebrew word for abuse --`inna, used to designate rape and to characterize Sarah's treatment of Hagar -- by T. Frymer-Kensky (55). Feminist scholars have also pointed to the "rhetoric of blame" in the use of women as symbols of wickedness and as metaphors for unacceptable behavior (162, 170, 179). Van Dijk-Hemmes has put it well, "Why is Israel represented in the image of a faithless wife or harlot rather than in the image of a rapist" (cited in N. Graetz, "The Haftarah Tradition and the Metaphoric Battering of Hosea's Wife," Conservative Judaism, 45:1 [Fall, 1992] 29-42, at note 24).

[15] The literature on this grows daily. Cf. S. Fraser, My Father's House: A Memoir of Incest and Healing (New York, Ticknor and Fields: 1988) for a very powerful literary rendering and L. J. "Tess" Tessier, "Women Sexually Abused as Children: The Spiritual Consequences," Second Opinion, 17: 3 (January 1992) 11-23, for a good analytic study.

[16] The Women's Bible Commentary, 4.

[17] Here, too, the literature is enormous. Cf. the works of Wiesel, Des Pres, and others.

[18] The most unspoken of the horrors of contemporary Jewish existence is the possibility of the destruction of the State of Israel. This event would evoke unbearable guilt in contemporary Jewry and would provoke an unparalleled loss of faith in God among Jews. For this reason, defense of the State of Israel, not defense of Jewish religion, is the litmus test of loyalty for Jews everywhere.

[19] Batter My Heart, 3.

[20] Cf. R. Trible, Texts of Terror: Literary-Feminist Readings of Biblical Narratives, Philadelphia, Fortress Press:1984.

[21] K. Steele, "Sitting With the Shattered Soul," Pilgrimage: Journal of Personal Exploration and Psychotherapy, 15:6 (1989) 24.

[22] transl. S. Rodway (New York, Avon Books: 1960 / 1979) 44.

[23] transl. M. Wiesel (New York, Random House: 1973).

[24] transl. M. Wiesel (New York, Schocken Books: 1979).

[25] In his portrayal of Berish and the friends, Wiesel echoes the Book of Job. However, in casting Satan as the only defender of God and in the ending of the play, in which the pogrom recurrs and the remnant victims are probably exterminated, Wiesel departs from the biblical and rabbinic understanding of the texts.

[26] The Trial of God, 133-4, 156.

27 Job ch. 19. The King James translation renders: "My bone cleaveth to my skin and to my flesh, and I am escaped with the skin of my teeth.... For I know that my redeemer liveth, and that he shall stand at the latter day upon the earth. And though after my skin worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God. Whom I shall see for myself, and mine eyes shall behold, and not another; though my reins be consumed within me." For my translation, cf. D. Blumenthal, "A Play on Words in the Nineteenth Chapter of Job," Vetus Testamentum, 16:4 (1966) 497-501.

[28] Northvale, NJ, Jason Aronson: 1990 -- reviewed by me in Modern Judaism, 12:1 (Feb. 1992) 105-10.

[29] Laytner, 189.

[30] Laytner, 192-3.

[31] Laytner, 203-8.

[32] Laytner, 206, with note 50 for other incidents of such "trials of God."

[33] Laytner, 221-5. The analysis of Wiesel is found on 214-27.

[34] A "religious affection" is an ongoing emotional attitude that one should have toward God, as opposed to a "feeling" which is an emotion which comes and passes quickly. Gratitude, for example, is an "affection" although we experience it intermittently. The proposal here is that protest be admitted as a religious affection.

[35] The phrases in single quotation marks are a reprise of God's words in a very pointed repartee. Note, too, that each verse is a thought unto itself; for that reason, I have set each one off in a separate paragraph. This is typical fragmented, lapidary biblical style.

[36] Alternate for the last phrase: "Therefore, I renounce and am comforted, being ..." Any two-fold combination of the four verbs seems to me to be justified. Therein lies the difficulty.

[37] C. Jung, Answer to Job, transl. F.C. Hull (Princeton, NJ, Princeton University Press: 1958) 16.

[38] This is the view of Rudolph Otto in The Idea of the Holy (New York, Oxford University Press:1958) 77ff. and André Neher, The Exile of the Word (Philadelphia, Jewish Publication Society: 1981) 205, though Neher goes on, citing Wiesel, to say that the proper modern stance is one of "silence and perhaps" (227-39).

[39] This is a recurring biblical theme: that our suffering is mitigated when we have been "seen," noticed, or acknowledged by God. Thus, for example, the four framing chapters of the Book of Lamentations, written after the destruction of Jerusalem and its great temple, have three main themes: mourning over the terrible losses (1:1-11,16; 2:9-16,18-19; 4:1-5,7-10,14-19,17-20,22; 5:2-6,8-18); an admission that God is responsible for the destruction wreaked on the people (1:12-15,17,21; 2:1-8,17-21; 4:11,16); and a prayer for direct attention from God, a call for God to "see" the suffering of the people (1:9,11,20; 2:20; 5:1,19-22). Note, too, the themes of anger and revenge (1:22; 4:21; 5:7) and the sinfulness of the people (1:18; 4:6,13). Cf. Fisch, 30-2 and 37-41 that, while God does not answer Job's questions directly, God does make two points: first, that God can be summoned and will appear and, second, that survival, choosing life, is the primary response.

[40] This is the view of Robert Gordis in The Book of God and Man (Chicago, University of Chicago: 1956) ch. 10-11.

[41] I understand, then, Berish's protest, and not the ending, to be the message of the Trial of God.

[42] See above, n. 14.

[43] Cf. B. Scolnic's response to Graetz, Conservative Judaism, ibid., 42-52 and, on this point, 47.

[44] Ibid.

[45] Gen. 6:6 and Ex. 32:14. Cf. also I Sam. 15:11,35; II Sam. 24:16; Joel 2:13-14; Amos 7:3,6; Jonah 3:9,10; 4:2; Jer. 26:13,19; Ps. 106:45; I Chr. 21:15.

[46] "Our God and God of our ancestors, call up a memory of us before You, a good memory, and take note of us in the most ancient heavens, a noting of deliverance and mercy. Remember for us, O Lord our God, the covenant, the grace, and the oath you took to Abraham, our father, on Mt. Moriah. May the binding which Abraham, our father, bound Isaac, his son, on the altar in which he suppressed his mercy to do Your will with a whole heart appear before You. So, too, may Your mercy suppress Your anger from upon us and, in Your great goodness, may Your wrath turn away from Your people, Your city, and Your portion" (Rosh ha-Shana liturgy, "Remembrances"; J. Hertz, The Authorized Daily Prayerbook [New York, Bloch Publishing: 1960] 880-2). I have commented on this passage more fully in the final chapter of Facing.

[47] Cf. D. Blumenthal, Understanding Jewish Mysticism (New York, Ktav: 1978) Part Two and I. Tishby, The Wisdom of the Zohar, transl. D. Goldstein (Littman Library / Oxford University Press: 1989) Parts II, IV, and V.

[48] Cf., e.g., Maimonides, Mishne Torah, "Laws on Repentance," esp. ch. 2.

[49] Cf. E. Gil, Treatment of Adult Survivors of Child Abuse (Walnut Creek, CA, Launch Press: 1988) -- reviewed by me in Religious Studies Review, 18:3 (July 1992) 209-11.

[50] In the last chapters of Facing, I have made some suggestions for a new religious healing and have proposed some changes for the daily and High Holiday liturgy that embody this theology.

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