Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Sunday, 26 April 2009

The Linear God

The Book of Iyov has always been somewhat troubling to me. For those of you who haven't gone through it, here's a capsule summary:
Iyov is this great guy living in the land of Utz. He's got everything: a wife, kids, property, cattle and the good sense not to have invested with Bernie Madoff. He's righteous too, constantly giving to the poor, celebrating his good fortune with his family and going overboard in acts of repentance just in case he or someone in his family has done wrong.
Up in Heaven, the Satan (in a great speaking role) comes before God who says, in effect, "Iyov is this great guy, you know?" The Satan responds by noting that, in his opinion, the only reason Iyov is so righteous is because God is so good to him. Take it all away, he offers, and Iyov won't be so swell.
So God says "Fine, take everything away and let's see what happens."
The next thing you know, Iyov's lost it all. His family is wiped out except for his wife, his cattle is stolen and his mutual funds tank (something about ABCP's I think). He's left with nothing except some boils on his body and a wife eager to nag at him about how lousy things suddenly are. But he refuses to curse God, instead uttering the famous line: The Lord hath given, the Lord hath taken, blessed be the name of the Lord.
Thus endeth the first part.
In the second part, three friends who are eventually joined by a fourth, come to comfort Iyov. Unfortunately, things don't go so well here either. Iyov, frustrated by being unable to comprehend why everything has gone south for him, cries out against God's handling of the universe. The friends, don't fare much better, each of them trying an approach based on the premise: God punishes the sinner, you got punished, therefore you're a sinner so admit it already and stop saying God is unjust. And the response from Iyov continues to be: I didn't sin! This isn't how justice works, therefore God must not be just.
Thus endeth the second part.
At the end of the book, in response to Iyov's challenge to answer for His perceived lack of justice, God Himself appears but His appearance is most troublesome. His justification for the misfortune that He has allowed to befall Job is, essentially: Hey, I'm God and you just don't understand things the way I do. To make matters even more confusing, God finishes off by giving Iyov back everything he lost and promising not to smite the loins of the friends who had spent the whole book justifying God's conduct in the first place, if Iyov requested that He not do so.
And here endeth the book.
Naturally, like all other books in the Bible, one cannot simply read this story at a surface level and expect to understand it. One is obliged to look deeper into the text to see what the meaning of the text is.
The first thing to understand, as Rav Soloveitchik notes, is that Iyov really isn't the great guy a superficial reading of the text implies. In fact, his major imperfection seems directly tied into how he responds to the Satan destroying his life.
Iyov, for starters, may be a nice guy but reading the text clearly shows that he is doing it on condition. He believes in God and he knows that he's doing wall thanks to His beneficence, and he's eager to do what he needs to do to keep that beneficence coming. Worship Him? Fine. Give to charity? Sure. Fast in case of unknown sins? Great. He thinks in a linear pattern. Justice means God does good to one who does good in His eyes. I do good, I get good. I want good, therefoere I will do good. And as long as I do good, I get God's goodness. Done.
The Satan's challenge isn't a giant cosmic bet. God does have better things to do (I sure hope) than sit up in Heaven rolling the dice. Hey, let's give this guy weevils in the groin and see if he complains. Let's give this other guy ten million dollars and see what he does with it. We might think like that but it is a grave mistake to attribute such simplicity to God.
No, the Satan's challenge is very simple. Unlike in non-Jewish mythology, he's not into lies. Rather, he simply states the truth the way he sees it. In response to God's statement "See how great Iyov is?" he notes the linearity of the relationship. "He's only good because You've been good to him. Take that good away and let's see if, in the absence of a linear relationship, he still think's You're so hot."
And as the story goes on to tell us, Iyov is confounded by the loss of cause and effect. Until now, the universe was easy to understand. Believing in God and worshiping Him was easy to do. Suddenly the world is a complex place where doing good does not lead to getting good and he doesn't know how to handle it. For Iyov, the loss of simplicity is not replaced with the thought: Perhaps there's something going on I don't understand. Rather he continues to insist that he does understand everything and therefore if something doesn't make sense, it's because nothing makes sense. There is no justice, just randomness. He was doing well before, He isn't now, but there's no higher purpose, just the tossing of the dice and he got snake eyes.
For the friends, there is a similar lack of ability to understand the situation. The seeming randomness that has stuck Iyov hasn't hit them... yet. Therefore they continue to indulge in the original paradigm: You do good, you get good. Therefore since Iyov is getting badness, he must have done bad.
But then what to make of God's entrance at the end of the story? Again, a closer reading of the text reveals a depth not easily noted. Yes, God clearly points out that the universe is so complicated that only He is qualified to run it and say what's right and wrong. Things happen in our world that we, as short lived beings trapped in time, cannot completely appreciate. Something bad happens to us, we cry out but it is hard to have faith that perhaps this is all for the best. A child gets cancer, chalilah. A person is struck and crippled after being struck by a drink driver who walks away unharmed (it seems the bastards always walk away unharmed), a person works hard to build a business only to have it stolen away by someone unscrupulous. To our eyes this is injustice. These people committed no sin, yet they are seemingly punished. Where is justice?
The Book of Judges tells us about a wicked man named Micah. Micah steals money from his mother and when he admits it she takes the money and helps him set up an idolatrous shrine. Things end badly for him when a group of people from Dan, looking for a place to live and a priest to lead them in worship, take off with his house Levy and his idol.
But the Midrash gives us an interesting background on Micah. According to our Sages, Moshe had an Iyov-like moment in Egypt at the start of his career. The Egyptians apparently had developed a method of Jewish population control that involved take our children and putting them into walls as bricks. Moshe complained to God about the seeming injustice of this. Adults who might have sinned, he could understand, but children who were blameless? How could God allow this to happen? God's response was: Fine, rescue one of those kids and see what happens. Chazal tell us that he did so and the baby turned out to be Micah.
If one accepts this Midrash as a literal historical happening, one must accept that the events of the Midrash and those recounted in the Book of Judges occured decades apart and that Micah revealed the depth of his corruption (he had seen God at Har Sinai and then raised a shrine to an idol) only after Moshe Rabeinu, a"h, died.
Imagine meeting Moshe Rabeinu on the day before his death. What would have his impression of Micah been? Nice kid, nothing really stands out about him. Zeh hu. In his eyes, he might have even thought: See? What was God talking about? Nothing bad happened because I saved him from becoming a brick. Yet long after his death the child's true nature came forth and corrupts hundreds of Jewish souls.
We forget, as creatures trapped in time, that God exists outside of time, seeing as he exists outside of everything He created and time is one of those things. We see things in a linear fashion. Today is the tomorrow I worried about yesterday (Sher O Shayari). We also have a strong psychological tenderness to anthropomorphize our conception of the universe because we have difficulty with the idea that everything in the universe does think like we do. We do it with animals, we do it with history, and worst of all, we do it with God. We think about how events happen, apply our limited ability to judge to the event, and then assume God must think like us. And if something unjust happens, we blame God. We think this is wrong. In our estimation it's bad, therefore it must be and therefore God has, chalilah, done wrong.
Only God doesn't think like us. It is axiomatic that we cannot comprehend His thoughts or how He runs the universe and it out arrogant human nature to believe we can understand both. This is what the book of Iyov comes to show us. Iyov, for all his great love of God, was a slave to a simplistic philosophy. I've figured out how the universe works, he said when things were going well. No you haven't, says God at the end of the book. You see cause and effect from a limited mortal perspective. You cannot possibly see the entire picture. That is why I allowed you, Iyov, to be seemingly be punished for nothing, to show you through bitter example that service and love of God is unconditional. What might seem bad to you is, in the greater scheme of things that only God can understand, really good and the point of faith is to be able to take a step back and see that.
Now, I'm not saying this is easy. If it was, countless trees that were sacrified to create paper to fill countless philosophy books that have cured insomnia for countless university students would still be standing and combatting global warming. Faith in the face of apparent injustice or random destruction is the hardest faith to maintain but that is the challenge of the Jew.
Indeed, I am convinced that most people who claim to reject God and Torah fall into this trap. They create a godhead that is simple and linear: Do good and this god does good for you because he said that he believes in justice and rewarding the righteous. Then when injustice happens, they clap their hands together and say: See? There's injustice. If there was really a god out there enforcing justice (as we understand it) then injustice wouldn't happen. Therefore there's no god.
How limited. How frustrating. A non-existent diety that doesn't come close to matching what we know of the Living God from our holy source, coupled with the unrealistic expectation that this omnipotent diety do what is right in our eyes because we can't possibly conceive of what is right being any other way.
And lest you think: Oh great, 50 paragraphs just to find him taking another swipe at the non-religious, let me inform you of a messy truth: too many Torah observant Jews think this way. I wouldn't have been able to say this two generations ago but nowadays it's quite easy to see this fault in the Jewish community. Really, of all those boys sitting in Lakewood or New York and learning, what proportion are there because a fire of determination to learn burns in their neshamah, and who would stay at learn come what may, and how many are there because there's money in it for them and who would leave if things got too tough? How many of us engage in the latest chumros not out of a hearfelt desire to please God and improve our neshamos but because we're afraid that if we don't keep up with the Jonesteins, that somewhat a vengeful diety will vent his rath upon our loins (and probably the other parts as well)? For how many of us is faith tied into a sense of doing well? This is the mistake of Iyov.
Indeed, is our history not essentially one great book of Iyov? Promised to be the Chosen People, picked for the greatest of futures, we have suffered more than any other people in history (if only because the nations who suffered more have disappeared and we're still around to receive more troubles). How is this consistent with what the Torah promised us? But we have faith that the big picture will be revealed when Moshiach Tzidkeinu appears (he's got a lot of 'splainin' to do Lucy) and it is that faith tha thas allowed us to endure as a people no matter what has happened to us.
This, then, is the point of the book of Iyov: to remind us that God is not a linear diety, trapped in time and cause-and-effect like us. He exists beyond and outside of such petty limitations. Perhaps this is what Chazal meant when they noted that it is a constant mitzvah to be aware of His presence. Being aware is easy. Being aware and remembering that we cannot understand His nature despite His closeness to us is another.


David said...

"This, then, is the point of the book of Iyov: to remind us that God is not a linear diety, trapped in time and cause-and-effect like us. He exists beyond and outside of such petty limitations. ... Being aware is easy. Being aware and remembering that we cannot understand His nature despite His closeness to us is another."

Which is a roundabout and long way of saying: You just can't understand, so believe it anyway without expecting a convincing explanation. Honestly, I wouldn't even give my four-year-old that kind of an explanation for why he needs to eat his vegetables or clean up his toys. Any reason that an adult should be expected to buy it?

Garnel Ironheart said...

You cannot compare the distance between you and your child to the distance between God and you. One of the fundamental principles of Judaism, and one that is incredibly hard to accept, is that we cannot understand God, no matter how hard we try because, being finite, we cannot understand the infinite.
You may not like that principle and you may reject it because of that. I would submit that you would be making Iyov's mistake as well.

David said...

That's a cop-out. In fact, it's the standard cop-out offered by religious apologists whenever confronted with the break-down of their notions of theodicy. The problem is that the principle (regardless of whether or not I like it) is indefensible. You either accept it on faith, or you remain unpersuaded. Thus, to the extent that accepting it on faith gratifies you, then there's no reason you shouldn't (if you don't hurt anyone else). If it doesn't particularly amuse or gratify you, then I'm not sure I can see a reason to accept it.