Reading the words of the last of the prophets, Malachi, as we do in the haftarah for Shabbat Hagadol, before Pesakh, I begin to see how Judaism may have sown the seeds of its own eventual displacement by Christianity. In fact, it may be G”d’s own fault that things turned out as they did.
Let’s face it – we’re a stubborn lot – have been from the beginning.
From the very days of your fathers you have turned away from My laws and not observed them. (Mal 3:7 – JPS)
It is yet another restatement of a perpetual theme and a perpetual problem. It’s an impossible situation. G”d creates us and gives us free will. G”d then gives us laws to follow. In hindsight, it might have been better to hold off on the free will, allowing humanity to develop first with a strong sense of duty, obligation, and obedience to their Creator. Do we not, in dealing with children, begin by using strict controls and gradually allowing them greater freedom? Is this yet another example of Bad Parenting 101 by G”d?
G’d continually offers the Israelites the opportunity to turn back to G”d and follow G”d’s commandments. At every turn G”d sent patriarchs, messengers, and prophets to proclaim these opportunities. We might acquiesce for a while, but eventually we drift back into our stubborn defiant ways.
We get away with it. We are like the savvy child, envelope-pushing teenager. We discover our parents can be manipulated. We discover our parents aren’t always consistent with follow-through. Sometimes punishments are meted out, sometimes the punishments get forgotten or overlooked. Sometimes our parents just don’t have the energy or will to be the enforcers. So we get away with it, and keep on pushing to see how much we can get away with. They are our parents, and they love us.
It is no surprise that Malachi put these words in the mouths of the people:
“It is useless to serve G”d. What have we gained by keeping G”d’s charge and walking in abject awe of the L”rd of Hosts?” (Mal 3:14 – JPS)
We figured out the inconsistency. We learned that we can often live with the consequences of our disobedience. They’re not so bad.
Like any parent, G”d gets mad. Typical of any parent, G”d often feels remorse for acting upon those feelings. You can be darn sure that the children figure that out, and play it for all it’s worth.
G”d may punish us, but, in the end, we get forgiven, or get another chance. Eventually, G”d develops another strategy. G”d will send a messenger, a prophet (in the case of this haftarah, Elijah) that will just set everything right, put righteous behavior in our hearts.
It’s a fairly logical step from there to the idea of a permanent atonement in which expiation is made through the life of a martyred prophet. Seen from the Christian point of view, it lends credence to the common Christian predilection for reading and interpreting the Tanakh as foreshadowing and preparation for the coming of their understanding of the messiah. As reluctant as I am to admit it, as a Jew, there may be something to the idea that G”d, having given up on the idea of humanity (and in particular, the Jewish people) willingly and steadfastly clinging to and following G”d’s commandments, decided to go another route.
It is a common misperception on the part of Jews and other non-Christians that the sacrifice of Jesus of Nazareth simply becomes an easy out enabling people to continue in their sinful ways, knowing that, in the end, they will be forgiven. That is not, with rare exception, a normative understanding of Christianity by Christians. We Jews often revel in what we believe is the superiority of our system (largely a construct of the rabbis) for expiation of sin, which requires continual effort, and which is moment by moment (for the most part-though Yom Kippur is slowly evolving into our own momentary substitute for continual effort.) Christianity is not as simplistic as “Jesus died for your sins, go ahead and sin, you’ll be forgiven.” Self reflection and making regular expiation for sins through prayer or action forms is not unique to Judaism, and is a normative expectation of Christianity and Islam, among other religious traditions.
All that being said, there’s a lot of indicators in the Torah and Tanakh that G”d’s methodology for dealing with the effects of having given humanity free will has gradually shifted over time and exhibits G”d’s ever-increasing frustration that perhaps humanity won’t get there by itself.
As a strategy, it’s not a bad approach. While it’s easy to suggest that perhaps G”d made a mistake in giving us free will from the outset, one can also argue that it was and still is worth the risk. If, in the end, it’s all about G”d controlling us so that we obey, it seems a pretty unsatisfactory outcome for both G”d and us.
We Jews know (and knew at the time of the first stirrings of the Jesus cult) that this is not an easy situation to address, and that it is likely to endure, perhaps in perpetuity. We Jews have taken one approach to addressing the tensions inherent in the system. Christians, Muslim, and others have taken different approaches. I’d like to think that it’s not a matter of which approach is the right one. The struggle continues. It’s possible that the best solution is that there not be a definitive outcome.That humanity’s free will shall always be in tension with that which is best for humanity (which, if you work from a more religious perspective, is what G”d tells us is best.)
So, in thinking it over, having given us free will does not automatically put us on a trajectory that inevitably leads to Christianity as a solution. It merely leads to Christianity (and Islam, and Judaism as they have evolved) as possible responses. A clever G”d will recognize that, as creatures with free will, having options on how to reconcile that with religious obligations is probably a more successful approach than simply trying to make us all act and believe the same way. It does not require supersession, but co-existence. It’s G”d saying “by giving you free will I have limited my options, so I leave it to you to figure it out.” That’s pretty brave on G”d’s part, because invariably one of the solutions we’ll come up with is that there is no G”d. Rather than fear the “death of G”d” perhaps we can look at it as the ultimate act of tzimtzum?
[A reminder to my readers that these writings are thought processes revealed, and deliberate efforts to examine an issue from all sides. Don’t assume they reveal my own beliefs and understandings.]
©2011 by Adrian A. Durlester
Other musings on this parasha:
Aharei Mot-Kedoshim 5770 - Redux 5762 - Dis tinct Unities and United Dis junctions
Aharei Mot-Kedoshim 5769-Schroedinger's Cat 5769 (Redux 5761 w/new comments)
Akharei Mot-Kedoshim 5767 - Insults Don't Weigh Anything?
Aharei Mot-Kedoshim 5766-Redux 5761 & 5762
Acharei Mot-Kedoshim 5764-Whither Zion?
Acharei Mot-Kedoshim 5762 - Dis tinct Unities and United Dis junctions
Acharei Mot-Kedoshim 5761 - Schroedinger's Cat & Torah