Do You Have “G!D” Problems?
This week’s Parasha, Vayishlach, contains a turning point moment for Yaakov/Jacob who is renamed Israel, meaning “one who wrestles/struggles with G!D.”
Since we are called the people of Israel after him, our character as a people is related to this meaning, as Dennis Prager notes in his commentary on this portion:
Years ago, a Muslim woman called my radio show and asked me why I was not a Muslim. She asked this question with complete sincerity, and I answered her with equal sincerity.
The name of her religion, I told her, is Islam, which in Arabic means “submission (to God).” The name of the Jewish people is Israel, which in Hebrew means “struggle with God.”
I'd rather struggle with God, I said, than only submit to God. She thanked me and hung up. The answer apparently satisfied her.
Arguing/struggling with G!D is not only Jewishly permitted, it is central to the Torah and later Judaism. In this regard, as in others, the Torah is unique. In no other foundational religious text of which I am aware is arguing with G!D a religious expectation.
And yet, all one has to do is read the Torah. The very first (proto)Jew, Abraham, argues with G!D, as does the greatest (proto)Jew, Moses. (It is worth noting that though Muslims consider Abraham their father as well, apparently arguing with G!D has no place in the Quran or in normative Islam.)
It is difficult to overstate the importance of this Jewish concept.
For one thing, it enabled Jews to believe in the importance of reason - G!D Himself could be challenged on the basis of reason and morality; one does not have to suspend reason to be a believing Jew. Indeed, it assured Jews that belief in G!D was itself the apotheosis of reason.
For another, it had profound psychological benefits to Jews. We do not have to squelch our questioning of, or even our anger at, G!D. One can be both religious and authentically be wrestling with one’s faith.
I will never forget making a shivah call on a Chabad rabbi who had suddenly lost his young wife. He looked at me and said in Yiddish, "Mann tracht und Gott lacht" - "man plans and G!D laughs." It is difficult to imagine an equally religious priest, minister or imam making such a somewhat critical statement.
As the well-known Holocaust survivor, Elie Wiesel, was quoted as saying: “The opposite of faith is not heresy; it’s indifference.”
In other words, as long as a Jew has some emotion attached to G!D, even if it is anger or rage, there is still engagement, i.e., relationship.
The result is that even some very believing, faithful, Orthodox Jews have argued with and challenged G!D, even going so far as to put G!D on trial. It has been written that the 18th century Hassidic Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev (in the Ukraine) stopped Yom Kippur Neilah services and 150 years before Elie Wiesel wrote about Jewish prisoners putting God on trial in Auschwitz for abandoning the Jewish people, put God on trial in the Ukraine for the enormous suffering Jews endured in his time.
The irony is that after the rabbis in both eras found G!D guilty as charged, they continued to pray. In other words, they may have been angry but they were still in relationship.
The lack of struggle with G!D lies at the other end of Jewry - among secular Jews. While religious Jews understand the need for questioning G!D, many secular and atheistic Jews have assumed that struggling with G!D is no longer necessary. They have simply abandoned G!D - and any attempts to believe in G!D.
But to be true to "Israel," one must struggle with G!D. Abandoning G!D or, even worse, arguing that G!D is not morally or Jewishly necessary is not being true to the essential meaning of "Israel."
Of course, a Jew who does not believe in G!D is still a Jew (because of the cultural and community components to Judaism that exist side by side with the religious elements). In other words, atheist Jews are full members of the Jewish people.
A colleague of mine, Rabbi John Rosove, once asked: “Do you have to believe in God to be a Jew?” He answered… “The search, whether or not we use the world ‘God,’ pulls us into the deep and vital current of Judaism. And it doesn’t demand that the atheists and agnostics among us suspend their doubts and disbelief.”1
But if "Israel" matters, if G!D and the "struggle with G!D" are defining characteristics of Judaism, an atheist Jew should still struggle with their theology (or lack thereof). Judaism without G!D is not Judaism. Nor can Judaism long survive without belief in G!D.
And this seems to me to be fairly consistent thinking. If believers are allowed and encouraged to wrestle with their faith, then why shouldn’t atheists be allowed and encouraged to wrestle with theirs?
As a rabbi, as the saying goes, my job is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. Which means we all need to step into the discomfort of wrestling/struggling with G!D, believers and non-believers alike. That is what being part of the people “Israel” demands.