God As a Tragic Character

Shabbat Parah Shemini By :  Ismar Schorsch Rabbi Herman Abramovitz Distinguished Service Professor of Jewish History and Chancellor Emeritus Posted On Apr 2, 2005 / 5765 | Torah Commentary

Ours is not the first generation to discover that we live in an imperfect world. The founders of rabbinic Judaism, the Rabbis, were acutely aware of the flaws inherent in our species. Indeed, so was God as depicted in the Tanakh. In the arresting words of Yochanan Muffs of JTS, paraphrasing his teacher and mine, Saul Lieberman:

The truly tragic figure in the Bible is not Jacob or King Saul, or even Job, but the Lord Himself, who is constantly torn between His love for Israel and His profound exasperation with them. The Lord, who in the optimistic and almost naïve glow of youth declares that the world is indeed “very good” (Genesis 1:31), is so profoundly depressed over the moral corruption of the man He created that He says, “I regret having made them” (Genesis 6:7). How much cosmic agony in this divine attestation of failure! He drowns sinful mankind in a watery holocaust – and lives to regret it: “I will not continue to destroy the world on account of man, for man’s instincts are evil from his youth” (Genesis 8:21). The naiveté of God’s original optimism and the depth of His subsequent pessimism are transmuted into what one may call a divine realism. God now realizes that one cannot expect perfection from man, and that human corruption is something He will have to make peace with. Man is not totally good nor is he totally bad, he is simply human. “Of Image and Imagination in the Bible”, J. James Tissot Biblical Paintings, 1982: Jewish Museum, 9).

My comment on the dietary laws, which appear for the first time in this week’s parashah (chap.11), is inspired by this original insight.

What humans might consume as food was of concern to God from the moment of creation. In the Garden of Eden, God had set the bar high. All creatures of the animal kingdom were to be vegetarian. Dietary needs could be met without shedding blood (Genesis 1:29-30). After the flood, however, and the decadence which triggered it, God lowered the bar. Animals would now be fair game for human consumption. In this less than idyllic world, the one remaining restriction forbade eating blood. The prohibition preserved a trace of respect for the sanctity of all life (Genesis 9:3-4).

Later at Mount Sinai, God partially withdrew the carte blanche he had extended to No·ah’s descendants. Israel would be held to a higher bar, removing much of the animal kingdom from its menu. The past, though, did not give God a lot of assurance that Israel would comply. Humanity since Adam had given scant evidence of an ability or willingness to curb its appetite and passions. And yet, civilization rests on self-denial for the benefit of the whole. With Israel God seems to be testing the waters, whether at least a sample of humanity could renounce enough of its combative instincts to forge a just and harmonious society. God was still learning.

In the special haftarah for Shabbat Parah, the prophet Ezekiel envisions the ultimate acknowledgement by God of failure. A long history of inconsistency and transgression had cost Israel its temple and sovereignty. God’s statutes did not lead Israel to hallow its land, but to defile it. Nevertheless, God would one day redeem Israel from the nadir of its exile to clear God’s own name among the nations. And then, in an extraordinary admission of inadequacy, Ezekiel has God promise to a restored and purified Israel, the ability to live fully by the lofty norms of divine law by virtue of a heart transplant! “And I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit into you: I will remove the heart of stone from your body and give you a heart of flesh; and I will put My spirit into you” (Ezekiel 36:26-27). In other words, the endowment given to humanity at creation was simply insufficient to reach the stage of fulfillment originally envisioned. Even the revelation at Sinai did not rectify the situation entirely. For most, the Torah remained external. No amount of study and practice could fully and permanently internalize it. What Ezekiel yearns for is a mutation of human nature which will make us naturally and irreversibly good, a state in which the Torah will be encoded in our very genes. Only a second instance of divine creation would eventually yield a degree of perfection that eluded the first.

In the meantime, the Torah would continue to bring forth a few rare models who anticipate the grandeur of the end. For the rest of us, it would temper our baser proclivities with a regimen of holy deeds. In retrospect, the God of Israel is a mirror of human maturation, blending an unfolding sense of reality with the need to transcend it.

Shabbat shalom,

Ismar Schorsch

The publication and distribution of Dr. Schorsch’s commentary on Parashat Sh’mini are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.