I believe in God. Let’s start there. I really like the idea that there is a greater power in the universe, beyond what we so far have been able to explain with science, and I believe that I have personally felt God’s presence in the world.
I’m a born-and-raised Jew, though my parents never demanded that I believe, only that I respect their traditions while I lived in their house. I decided, growing up, that I liked those traditions, and that I believed in God.
My relationship with God is, in a word, complicated. Sometimes I’m more reverent than others. I praise God some days and on others I mutter snarky comments to God that would make Tevye the Milkman proud. I go through phases where I write G-d instead of God, out of respect for the holy name. Other times – like now – I think, “God’s name isn’t actually ‘God,’ so what does it matter how I spell it in English? It’s not like he/she/they/whatever minds.”
This complicated relationship with God is pretty typical for Jews. Our patriarch Jacob is known for literally wrestling with God. Rabbis have been debating God’s laws, intentions, and even God’s very existence for over five thousand years. There are atheist Jews.
There’s an old joke about three rabbis debating a point, two trying to convince the third to change his mind. Eventually God shouts down from the heavens to say that the third rabbi is, in fact, correct. To that the two rabbis say, “Eh, it’s still just two on two.”
Recently I spent several days working at an event with a lot of motivational speakers. A recurring theme of these speakers’ presentations was that God had a plan for everyone. Some of them hedged their comments by saying that they weren’t trying to force their beliefs on anyone, and that we could call God whatever we wanted, but they maintained that God had a plan for everyone.
But that isn’t a general God concept. This is a specifically Christian concept. For Jews, God has an intent, but not necessarily a plan. God began creation, but now he’s pretty hands-off about it; it’s our job to continue the creation process and heal the world. The closest Jews get to the concept of God having a plan is the stuff we say on Yom Kippur about God inscribing people into the book of life for a new year. According to Judaism, if God has a plan – and that’s a big “if” – it’s re-written at least yearly, and we can ask for it to be altered.
A lot of Christians I’ve met in my life take comfort in the idea that God has everything planned out for them. They respond to their failures with the line, “God must have something else planned for me,” and with tragedies with the line, “God must be trying to teach me something.” Which is all well and good in my opinion for a lot of the smaller bad things that happen in the world.
But some bad things are just too big for me to understand as a part of a plan. Children get incurable cancers. Tornadoes wipe away entire communities in a single night. All over the world, all throughout history, people in power label a group as the source of all their problems and use that as reason to murder millions, and no miracle stops them.
The question of why bad things happen to good people is a question that people have been asking forever. My personal conclusion is this: God is not all-powerful.
If God is all-powerful, if God has a plan for all of us and controls everything that happens to us, and those things involve child cancer and genocide, then how could God be good?
Perhaps my brain is just too mortal and fallible to comprehend the logic of God. I certainly don’t have enough hubris to claim that I understand God’s will. But with the mind and the morals that I do have, I cannot see a completely all-powerful God who controlled everything and yet caused or allowed such things to happen as good.
I very much prefer to believe that God is good. I don’t want to believe in a cruel God. Therefore, God must not be all-powerful. God must not control everything. And I’m fine with that.
We say that humans were made in the image of God. Humans are imperfect, so God too may be imperfect. I can believe in an imperfect God. I am very happy with the idea that when bad things happen, God is watching with as much horror as we are.
That isn’t to say that God never does anything for us. As I said, I believe I have felt God’s presence. We call it b’shert – when things just work out so well there’s no way someone wasn’t pulling the strings. B’shert is leaving the house, realizing you left your cell phone, and going back in to find that you left the stove on. B’shert is the little voice in your head telling you to take a different route to work, and later you learn that there was a big accident on your normal route. B’shert is the tornado missing your house.
B’shert is God exerting influence on the world. It is not God controlling everything. It is not God following a plan. It is not God making bad things happen to good people. I do not believe that God does any of those things.
Perhaps one day, after I die, I will come face-to-face with God.
Perhaps God will say to me, “You’re wrong. I’m all-powerful, and I controlled everything, and you’re going to hell for believing incorrectly.”
To that I would reply, “Send me to hell, then. I’ll be in good company there, with the Jews, atheists, homosexuals, and everyone else you’ve arbitrarily damned. We know how to suffer together.”
Or perhaps God will say to me, “You’re wrong. I’m all-powerful, and I controlled everything. But I forgive you for not believing. Come with me to heaven.”
To that I would reply, “No. I will not go with you. You may have forgiven me, but I have not forgiven you.”