Dear Jew in the City-
We see a fire and brimstone God throughout the Torah, and then a softer God elsewhere. But isn’t a relationship where the other person is sometimes abusive and sometimes nice still an abusive relationship?
Trying to Connect
Thanks for your question. By “we see a fire and brimstone God throughout the Torah and then a softer God elsewhere,” I assume you may be referring to the common misconception that God as described in the Jewish Bible (what some call the “Old Testament”) is a vengeful God of wrath while God as described in the Christian Bible (what some call the “New Testament”) is a forgiving God of love. This belief has been fostered by cherry-picking verses from each source, though in reality each Bible has verses that seem harsh and verses that seem longsuffering. This is a topic we have addressed before, so you can refer to that article for more on this issue. If you don’t mean that… well, I’m not sure what else you might be referring to. (Talmud and Midrash?)
Putting that question aside, I agree with half your premise: if a spouse or parent (or anyone else) is nice 50% of the time and abusive 50% of the time, it is indeed an abusive relationship. But I have to disagree with the assumption that God is ever “abusive” to us. God’s inherent goodness is a basic tenet of Judaism, as expressed in such verses as Psalms 92:16 (“…God is upright; He is my Rock and there is no injustice in Him”), 2 Chronicles 19:7 (“…with Hashem our God there is no unfairness, favoritism or corruption”), Deuteronomy 32:4 (“He is a faithful God; there is no injustice in Him”), et al.
Sure, sometimes God can be strict with us, but that’s not the same as being abusive. It’s like a parent who disciplines a child. When the child gets out of line, the parent may have to respond with a time-out, grounding, or even corporal punishment. (I’m not a fan of spanking per se but if a child runs into the street, a swift “potch” may be called for in order to discourage such impulsive behavior. Such “tough love” is completely for the child’s protection.)
Someone once objected to an article I wrote in which I compared the way God disciplines us to the way we’re supposed to discipline our children. “I’m not a child and I don’t need to be disciplined,” he wrote. First of all, such an attitude is supremely arrogant; a human child is a lot closer intellectually to a human adult than a person of any age is to God! A child also thinks that he should be able to do whatever he wants without consequences but a parent knows that doing certain things could have a negative impact on a child physically, emotionally or ethically. For this reason, we punish them if they eat too much candy, visit age-inappropriate web sites or shoplift. Similarly, God knows that certain things are bad for us spiritually and He dissuades us accordingly.
Second of all, it’s not even my simile – it’s King Solomon’s and it’s in the Bible! Proverbs 3:12 says, “God chastises the one He loves, just as a father does to a son in whom he delights.”
That being the case, it’s not abusive to punish us in an attempt to direct us back onto the straight-and-narrow. If anything, not being strict when we need it might be considered neglectful parenting! Proverbs 13:24 tells us that “One who spares his rod hates his son; one who loves him disciplines him when necessary.” What would you say if your neighbors permitted their kids to run wild at all hours of the day and night without any parental intervention? You’d call Child Services! Once again, God applies the same standard to us as we should apply to our smaller, less-developed humans. Not stepping in would be the irresponsible thing! (How literally we should take “sparing the rod” is also a topic we have discussed before.)
There can be many reasons why God permits unpleasant things to occur to us. These include (but are not limited to): to test us so that we know what we are capable of; to punish us for our misdeeds; to keep us from dangerous situations; to motivate us to examine our deeds and change our ways. The entire Book of Job is an examination of the question of why righteous people suffer, a phenomenon not even Moses could fully comprehend (Talmud Brachos 7a, based on Exodus 33:13). Nevertheless, King Solomon tells us that it is a joyous occasion when God punishes a righteous person in order to correct his ways (see Rashi and other commentaries on Proverbs 21:15).
We may not always intuit the reasons for our trials but we should always be confident that, whatever the reason, they are for our ultimate good, as per Deuteronomy 8:16, “…that He might afflict you and test you, which would be for your own benefit in the future.”
Rabbi Jack Abramowitz
JITC Educational Correspondent