Rabbi Elli Tikvah Sarah – 2nd September 2020
How do you Liberal Jews see God? Thoughts on Ki Tavo
How do you Liberal Jews see God? Well, of course, there will be as many answers to that question as there are Liberal Jews – probably more.
The Torah begins with God the Creator. One of my favourite Psalms is 104, which is a lyrical portrayal of the abundant sustenance of the Eternal One, who ‘sends streams to spring forth in the valleys; they run between the mountains, / giving drink to the beasts of the field, quenching the thirst of the wild asses’ (104:10-11).
For many of us, there may be a prevailing image of God as a Liberator, redeeming our ancestors from slavery. Every time I read it, I am captivated by the image of God in the opening scene at Mount Sinai: ‘You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, how I bore you on Eagle’s wings and brought you to Me’ (Yitro, Exodus 19:4).
And then there are the comforting images of God, beautifully evoked in Psalms 23 and 121, which are recited at funerals and memorial services because of the way in which they convey the sense of the presence of the Eternal One with us in our trials and tribulations. ‘Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil, for you are with me, Your staff and rod they comfort me’ (Psalm 23:4) ‘I lift up my eyes to the hills: from where shall my help come? / My help comes from the Eternal One, Maker of heaven and earth, / who will not let you lose your foothold, for your Guardian does not slumber’ (Psalm 121:1-3).
In addition to the awe-inspiring images of God the Creator and Liberator and the comforting images of the presence of God alongside us, there is a more challenging portrayal of God in the Bible: The God not so much of Justice as of Judgement, meting out punishment to those who disobey His commandments. This punishing God is presented as an all-powerful male; later expressed by the Babylonian sages in one of the earliest prayers, the Aleinu, which was composed for Rosh Ha-Shanah, as melech malchei ha-m’lachim, ‘the King above the King of Kings’ (‘the King of Kings’ being the designation used by Assyrian and Babylonian rulers in the Ancient Near East).
And so, we read in this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tavo, a series of curses that begin with the word, Arur, ‘Cursed’ (Deuteronomy 27:15-26; 28:16-19). When I say ‘we’ read, I don’t actually mean that ‘we’, Liberal Jews read these verses. In the Torah, curses are accompanied by blessings; we read the blessings in Ki Tavo that begin with a word that is much more familiar to us: Baruch, ‘Blessed’ (28:3-6). But in the context of the Torah the two are inextricably connected: blessings, the reward for obedience; curses, the punishment we receive if we disobey (28:1-2; 15).
The Torah presents us with a theology of reward and punishment. But Liberal Jews avoid confronting the underside of the beneficent God. So, we don’t just excise the curses and punishments described in Ki Tavo (see also: Deuteronomy 28:20-68) – and also in the portion B’chukkotai (Leviticus 26: 14-45) – we also omit a passage with its warnings against disobedience that became the second paragraph of the Sh’ma, (Eikev, Deut. 11:13-21): ‘Take care not to be lured away to serve other gods and worship them. / For then the Eternal One will be roused to anger against you, and shut up the heavens, so that there is no rain, and the ground does not yield its produce; and then you will quickly perish from the good land which the Eternal One is giving you’ (11:16-17). The second paragraph of the Sh’ma was omitted from the 1967 prayer book, Service of the Heart, and although it is in Siddur Lev Chadash, it is not included in any of the services (1995, pp. 539-540).
There is nothing wrong with selecting and emphasising the teachings in the Torah that mesh with our values as Liberal Jews and excluding those that don’t. But we should also be prepared to engage more complexly with the rewarding/punishing God of the Bible. In his creative version of the second paragraph of the Sh’ma, which is included in the draft Shabbat morning service of the new prayer book, Siddur Shirah Chadashah, Rabbi David Cooper, Z”L, who died on July 11 (2020), reworks the verses to express our responsibility for the Earth: ‘Watch yourselves that you do not become seduced by a desire to dominate and possess, destroying the work creation. For then, the Source of creation will turn against you, and the world in which live will no longer sustain you…’
And there’s also another issue: The need for a plurality of images of God. In the development of the liturgy, the images of God as ‘King’ and ‘Father’ have predominated. In the inclusive translation introduced in Siddur Lev Chadash, these images were rendered in a gender-neutral way, as ‘Sovereign’ and ‘Parent’. But is this sufficient? Restricting images of God has the effect of capturing and reducing the Eternal. Expanding images reminds us that the Eternal is beyond our imagination to conceive. And so, in the draft Shabbat morning service, we have multiplied the ways in which we address God to include Sh’chinah, M’kor Chayyeinu, ‘Divine Presence, Source of our life’ (first used in Machzor Ruach Chadashah (2003) and Ein Ha-Chayyim, ‘Wellspring of life’.
How do Liberal Jews see God? Hopefully, in the years to come, as our repertoire of images becomes broader, we will deepen our awareness of the elusive, boundless Eternal.