Saturday, February 02, 2008

Throwing God Overboard

I just finished reading Dara Horn's In the Image. It's one of those novels I've been meaning to read for quite some time since it's in my area (Jewish American literature). I think Horn is a spectacular writer, and I like this particular novel because it integrates all sorts of ideas about God, religion, memory, ethics, philosophy, culture, and love. And, it's a great story that's easy to read and easy to get sucked into--not overly experimental or "academic."

Like most academics, I'm an obsessive highlighter and note-taker. Here, however, I found myself highlighting not the things that I would go back and try to integrate into an academic essay, but those things that somehow resonated with me on a personal level. One of the most intriguing things about this text is the idea of hundreds of tefillin being cast over the sides of ships by people who were fleeing the pogroms and their former lives in Russia and Eastern Europe. It's not the main point of the story, but it surfaces and re-surfaces on a few occasions.

I'm not quite sure what to make of it. There's something useful in thinking about the tefillin, instruments used to bind quite literally "the law" (biblically speaking) to the human body, being cast away into a sea of forgetfulness. I am interested in what Commandment looks like today, in a post-Holocaust world, and I like to think that the casting away of tefillin symbolizes an effort to reject literalist readings of the bible and of the notion of Commandment.

At one point in the story, Leora, the main character, is in an old store full of used clothing, furniture, and other odds and ends. She finds an old set of tefillin that is so damaged (having resided at the bottom of the ocean for many years) that the parchment inside is exposed:

Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One.

Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. And these words which I command you this day shall be on your heart. . . You shall bind them as a sign upon your hand, and they shall be frontlets between your eyes. And you shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.
What, I wonder, does it mean today, in our world--a world that has been disappointed by the silence and inaction of any divine being--to love God? Is it not possible that a dogmatic and unwavering commitment to the law, and literalist interpretations of it, disallows the possibility to love God?

It is in this spirit that I like the idea of the discareded tefillin. On the other hand, not to be cliche or anything, but is this also an instance of throwing the baby out with the bathwater (okay, so I am cliche)? Must religion and ritual and everything we have perceived of as sacred be cast away in order for us to truly know and "love" God? Sometimes, in some instances, yes, I think so. But sometimes, casting everything "sacred" into the sea of forgetfulness might be the worst mistake we have ever made.

Forgetting, itself, is what might be the most transgressive element of this impulse. I have never believed even in the saying "forgive and forget." And, what is forgiveness, anyway? I know that when I talk about it in class with my students no one can agree on its meaning.

As Leora keeps reading the parchment, she sees:

And if you listen to my commandments...then I will give the land rain in its proper season, early rain and late rain, and you will harvest your grain and wine and oil. I will give grass in the fields for your cattle, and you will eat and be satisfied. Take care, lest your heart be deceived and you turn away and serve other gods and worship them. For then the anger of the Lord will be kindled against you, and he will stop up the heavens and there will be no rain; the earth will not yield its produce, and you will soon disappear from the good land which the Lord gives you (110).
The commandments (and blessings), she realizes with a jolt, are conditional. And it all seems suddenly false to her.

"Surely," she thinks "there were people who listened to the commandments and still found themselves going hungry--not to mention others who ignored the commandments and watched all their dreams come true. . . . If people really had thrown their tefillin overboard on their way to America, people who had been starving to death in Europe and probably still starved in New York, perhaps it wasn't just because tefillin were archaic. Maybe it was because tefillin were wrong" (111).

And yet, it still, sometimes, seems that it would be so much easier to believe in a God who hands out rewards and punishments like an overbearing parent does to his naive and ungrateful child. It would be so much easier to believe in God as the benevolent provider, rather than the God who has shown himself to be so forgetful, apathetic, and downright unloveable at times.
Sometimes I just want to say, "Be who I always believed you were, who I used to imagine you were. Be that. Fix this mess." But I know that the responsibility was never his, that it was always mine.


myshkin2 said...

I'm certainly way out of my league here, but it's my understanding of the Hebrew Bible that it ultimately ends up with a sort of skewed view of divine reward and punishment--and that the Deuteronomistic (?) view, related to the importance of Kingship (human not divine), is that divine response doesn't come immediately, so that it's almost impossible to establish some sort of cause and effect--in terms of covenant-breaking and divine retribution. Because once there were kings and the institution of kingship, things got confused. So the Babylonian exile could be viewed as punishment for what some king did 200 years before. As bizarre as this seems (to me at least) it does open the door for a more nuanced view of the divine will. Because things aren't clearly related, then that might allow for an understanding, say, of the Shoah--which is ultimately one huge stumbling block for all of this stuff that you write about.

Anonymous said...

My question is, isn't part of belief free choice? And what free choice is it if G-d is all sunshine and flowers...any moron would believe in G-d if it were that easy. The true test of real faith is precisely when things are at their bleakest...when Rabbi Akiva was having his flesh flayed by the Romans and was still able to say "Shema Yisrael Hashem Elokeinu Hashem Echad." Thank G-d, our challenges are not what Rabbi Akiva's were, however true "free will" comes from believing even when when understanding eludes us entirely.

Monica said...


Yes, you are right about it being virtually impossible to pin down some kind of cause/effect relationship between humans' behavior and divine retribution. But then there are those instances (like what is written on the parchment inside tefillin) that seem to contradict that. It does seem, though, that regardless what is in the Hebrew bible, people cannot help but want to think of God in the punishment/reward sense. But you're right to bring up the Shoah in this discussion--by adopting the view that God is a punishment/reward giver, we pave the way for theodicy, for finding some kind of divine purpose behind the suffering of the Shoah (and other tragedies). But the problem with this is that suffering of this kind has no meaning, no purpose.