Of course I believe in Hashem, but he’s the Boogey Man waiting to strike me down.
These horrifying words were uttered by an attendee at the first Project Makom shabbaton several years ago during dinner. Where did such an abhorrent idea come from? How could a person possibly have a relationship with God if she felt this way?
Unfortunately, as time passed, and I became more familiar with the people who have experienced Judaism in an abusive way (note: the people who have a healthy perspective on Torah and mitzvos are not coming to Project Makom), I began to realize how many Jews have been raised with a terrifying understanding of Hashem both in school and at home.
A few months, ago I met a woman who told me that on 9/11, as the soot was entering her school in Brooklyn, the teachers gathered her and her classmates together in order to let them know that their breach of tznius is what caused the Twin Towers to fall. Needless to say, this “lesson” had catastrophic effects on this woman’s life, both as terms of her emotional well-being and her relationship to Judaism.
Then, there was the school principal who told one of our members and her classmates that if they didn’t perform a certain community tradition they would end up like the woman who developed a major disformity on her body
And finally, there was the family who had moved their son to a less “extreme” school, yet at the shabbos lunch we shared with them, their 10 year old son cried to his father, “Tatte, rebbe says that for every aveira (sin) we do, it’s 5 minutes more in gehenom which is one hundred times hotter than the hottest fire. Tatte, I’m so scared of Hashem.” The father tried to comfort his son, “Don’t worry, Hashem is a good guy.” But it was clear that the damage had already been done.
Of course we have a concept of schar v’onesh (reward and punishment) in Judaism, but first off, we do not know why suffering occurs in this world (click here to see more on that), and anyone who claims to know not only is wrong, but has actually gone against Jewish law by saying onas devarim (hurtful words).
When it comes to punishment in The World To Come, again, no one actually knows how the punishment is meted out. While “onesh” could mean being beaten with a stick or being burning in the hottest fires imaginable, punishment could also be understood as a consequence.
How would a loving (sane?!) Parent deliver a punishment in the form of a consequence? If His child is disrespectful and doesn’t listen, while all the other kids are outside playing, His child might have to stay inside and be bored. That is a very different picture of Hashem than too many Jewish children are being raised on.
Perhaps Jewish schools can remind their students more often of Hashem’s 13 Attributes of Mercy which we say on the High Holidays, the time when we are considering the consequences of our mistakes: Merciful God, merciful God, powerful God, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abundant in kindness and truth. Preserver of kindness for thousands of generations, forgiver of iniquity, willful sin and error, and Who cleanses. (Exodus 34:6-7)
While terrorizing children may cause submission to Authority in the short term, it has a way of breaking a human being in the long term. I recently met a woman who went to a school with heavy amount of fear and guilt, and she confided in me that several years ago she and her friends would have so much fun mocking me and my positivity, but what she realized is that they were all actually jealous of my relationship to Hashem as it was so pure and sincere and not sullied with all the garbage theirs was. She admitted that the opportunity to see Hashem as I do had been robbed from her. (This is not the first time someone has told me nearly this same exact story from start to finish!)
We are cheating countless people out of the very essence of why they were put here on earth! Yes, we are supposed to have a fear (or perhaps awe) of God, but what Hashem wants most is for us to Love Him with all our hearts, with all our souls, and with all our might. Such feelings are not possible when you are living in utter terror of your Creator.