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What Kind of G-d do the Jews Have?

A man wrote me about his search for a better understanding of G-d's plan, and he wrote of his opinions about G-d, saying that he disagreed with the Jewish concept of G-d. It turned out that he didn't really know anything about the Jewish concept of G-d. He just thought he did. So I resolved to write something about it. Here is his statement, and my response.

"The G-d I envision bears little resemblance to the One worshiped by my ancestors, and that's why I'm not particularly observant. The traditional Jewish G-d is far too vindictive, vain, and controlling for my tastes. My personal deity is more teacher, less judge (and that, I know, is blasphemous!)"

My Response:

Actually, G-d, as you believe in Him, is actually very close to What Judaism teaches about G-d, and is very close to What your Jewish ancestors worshiped. I am surprised you think otherwise. I will attempt to respond to all your points.

If you study what Jewish tradition has to say about "the traditional Jewish G-d," you will never find anywhere that G-d is referred to or thought of as vindictive, vain, or controlling. Since you use the word "traditional," we can take examples only from that Tradition. I challenge you to find me even one such statement anywhere in Jewish teachings.

Quite the contrary, our Holy Tradition says only good things about G-d. Let us study the record through the generations.

We'll start with Abraham, the father of our People. Abraham prayed for mercy, and said to G-d: "Shall the whole world's Judge not act justly?" (Genesis 18:25) Here we see that Abraham said that G-d is a just Judge, and not vindictive at all.

When Isaac blessed his son Jacob, among other things he said: "May G-d grant you the dew of heaven and the fat of the earth...." (Genesis 27:28) Evidently Isaac believed that G-d gives people good things.

Jacob likewise understood G-d to be Provider and Protector. Jacob prayed, "If G-d will be with me...If He will protect me on the journey that I am taking, if He gives me bread to eat and clothing to wear, and if I return in peace to my father's house, then Hashem will be my G-d" (Genesis 28:20-21). That is what G-d is to us: the Ultimate Provider and Protector.

Most of Jacob's children were named with thanks to G-d. Reuben was because "G-d has seen my troubles." (Genesis 29:32) Simon: "G-d has heard...." (Ibid, 29:33) Judah: "I will praise G-d..." (Verse 35) And so on.

About a hundred years later, Joseph told his brothers: "Don't be afraid... You might have meant to do me harm, but G-d made it come out good. He made it come out as it actually did, so that the life of a great nation would be preserved." (Genesis 50:19-20)

And later, just before he passed away, Joseph told his family: "G-d is sure to grant you special providence..." (Ibid, verse 24)

And now we come to Moses. If I were to write all the good Moses has said about G-d, this article would be far too long. I shall have to be strict with myself, and quote just a few.

"My strength and song is G-d, and this is my deliverance...(Exodus 15:2)
"With love, You led the people you rescued...." (Ibid, verse 13)
"Hashem, Hashem, Omnipotent, merciful and graciously free-giving, slow to anger, with tremendous love and truth. He remembers good deeds for thousands of generations, forgiving sin, rebellion and error." (Exodus 34:6)

Note that G-d remembers good deeds for thousands of generations. "Thousands" (in plural) means at least two thousand, says the Talmud. If we assume that a generation is about twenty years (the age when the average generation is giving birth to the next generation), that makes 40,000 years! In other words, G-d benefits us with the rewards of the good deeds of ancestors for 40,000 years! And the Patriarchs, who have the greatest merits of all, lived less than 4,000 years ago. That means we have merits left for us for more than 35,000 years yet to come.

But to continue:

"G-d is slow to anger, great in love, and forgiving of sin and rebellion..." (Numbers 14:18)
"Of course, Hashem did not consent to listen to Balaam, and Hashem your G-d transformed the curse into a blessing, because Hashem your G-d loves you." (Deut 23:6)
"You, the Levite, and the proselyte in your midst shall thus rejoice in all the good that Hashem your G-d has granted you and your family." (Deut. 26:11)
"The eternal G-d is a shelter above, with His everlasting arms beneath....Happy are you, Israel! Who is like you? You are a nation saved by G-d, the Shield Who helps you, and your triumphant Sword...." (Deut. 22:26-29)

The generation after Moses had Joshua as leader. Joshua constantly spoke to Israel about the good things that G-d promised and gave them. See, for example, Joshua 23:14, et. all. In Chapter 24 Joshua gives a long exposition about all the good that G-d has done for the Children of Israel.

And so on, all throughout the history of the Jewish Tradition. Can you really read the Books of the Psalms and state that the Traditional Jewish G-d is vain, vindictive, and controlling? There is not one word of negativity against G-d anywhere in Psalms. All of Psalms is filled with the goodness of G-d! There are so many examples; I shall just pick a few out at random.

"But you Hashem are as a shield about me, my glory and lifter of my head. With my voice I called out to Hashem, and He answered me. I lay down and I slept; I awoke, because Hashem sustains me." (3:4-6)
"And they will trust in You, those who know Your Name, for You have never forsaken those who seek You, Hashem." (9:11)
"I trust in Your loving kindness, my heart will exult in Your deliverance. I will sing to Hashem, for He has dealt kindly with me." (13:6)
"And he said: I love You, Hashem, my strength. Hashem is my rock, my fortress, and my rescuer.
My Almighty, my Rock, I take refuge in Him, my shield, and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold." (18:2-3)
"The Torah of Hashem is perfect, it restores the soul; the testimony of Hashem is trustworthy, making the simple person wise. The precepts of Hashem are upright, rejoicing the heart; the commandment of Hashem is clear, enlightening the eyes. The fear of Hashem is pure, it endures forever,; the judgments of Hashem are true, they are righteous -- when understood in unison. More desirable than gold, even more than quantities of fine gold; sweeter than honey and the drippings of honeycombs. Even Your servant is careful of them, for in observing them there is great reward." (19:8-12)

Three times a day we recite Psalm 145. In it, we say, among many other things:

"Hashem is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and great in kindliness. Hashem is good to all, His mercies are on all His creatures. . . Hashem supports all the fallen, and straightens all the bent. The eyes of all look to You with hope, and You give them their food in its proper time. You open Your Hand, and satisfy the desire of every living thing. Righteous is Hashem in all His ways, and magnanimous in all His deeds. Hashem is close to all who call upon Him -- to all who call upon Him sincerely. . ."

I could go on forever just quoting Psalms for examples of the goodness of the Traditional Jewish G-d. If you want to learn about the Traditional Jewish G-d, study the Artscroll or Metsudah translation of Psalms.

Later, the Prophet Isaiah (circa 620 B.C.E.) also declared the goodness of G-d: "...our G-d, who is abundantly forgiving." (Isaiah 55:7) And the Prophet Ezekiel (circa 428 B.C.E.) said, "Do I desire at all the death of the wicked? asks the Master, Hashem. Isn't it his returning from his ways, so that he may live [that I desire?]" (Ezekiel 18:23) And the Prophet Nehemiah (circa 347 B.C.E.) said, "You, O G-d of forgiveness, are gracious and merciful, slow to anger, abundant in kindness and truth, and abundantly beneficent." (Nehemiah 9:17)

G-d's goodness is not only "Traditional," it is basic to our beliefs. This is why prayers composed by Prophets and Rabbis throughout all the ages speak only of G-d's good. You will find nowhere in Jewish writings that G-d is vindictive. Even after there were no longer any Prophets, the Rabbis continued the teaching of the Tradition that G-d is good.

As the Era of Prophecy came to a close, the Prophet-Rabbis of the Great Assembly (circa 345 B.C.E.) formulated universal prayers from the many prayers that existed from former years. The Shemonah Esray (also called the Amidah) prayer was one of these. We pray this three times a day as well. In part of it, we say:

We gratefully thank You . . . for our lives, which are committed to Your power, and for our souls that are entrusted to You; for Your miracles that are with us every day; and for your wonders and favors in every season -- evening, morning, and afternoon. The Beneficent One, for Your compassions are never exhausted, and the Compassionate One, for Your kindness never ends, for we have always put our hope in You.

Only 200 years later, Rabbi Shimon ben Shetach (circa 139 B.C.E.) wrote a prayer that we say every Shabbos and Holiday. Part of it says:

G-d of all creatures, Master of all generations, acclaimed with a multitude of praises, Who directs His world with kindness and His creatures with compassion.
Hashem is alert; He neither dozes nor sleeps. He rouses those who sleep and awakens those who slumber; He gives speech to the mute; releases the fetters of captives; He supports the fallen and straightens the bent. To You alone we give thanks.
Even were our mouths filled with song like water fills the sea, and our tongues filled with rejoicing like its many waves; and our lips filled with praises as vast as the sky; even if hope lit up our eyes as bright as the sun and the moon; even if our hands were spread out in prayer like the wings of the eagles of the sky, and even if our feet could dance as lightly as deer -- we still would not have the ability to thank You enough, Hashem, our G-d, and G-d of our ancestors, nor bless Your Name for even one thousandth, one millionth, or one hundred millionth of all the favors, miracles, and wonders that You have done for our ancestors and ourselves.

And just about 270 years later (circa 132 CE), the Rabbis composed a new blessing, which was added on to the end of the Blessings after Meals:

Blessed are You, Hashem our G-d, King of the universe, Mighty G-d, our Father, our King, our Might, our Creator, our Rescuer, our Maker, our Holy One, Holy One of Jacob, our Shepherd, the Shepherd of Israel, the King Who is good and does good to all. Who, each and every day, has done good for us, does good for us, and will do good for us; He has bestowed, He bestows, and He will forever bestow upon us grace, kindness and mercy, relief, rescue and success, blessing and salvation, consolation, sustenance and nourishment, compassion, life, peace and everything good; and may He never cause us to lack any good.

That is the traditional Jewish G-d; no other. Judaism has always taught that G-d is good. The Tomer Devorah (Palm Tree of Deborah), by Rabbi Moshe Cordevero (1522-1570) explains what Moses meant when he said about G-d: "Who is like You?"

Imagine that you wanted to hit your friend. He not only lets you hit him, but he actually picks up your arm to help you hit him.

Whenever you commit a sin, you use the energy G-d gave you to do so. You sin with the very ability of movement granted you by your Creator. G-d not only refrains from taking away your ability and energy, He sustains you while you're in the midst of the very act of rebelling against Him! He actually gives you the energy with which to reject Him!

That's controlling? That's vain and vindictive?

What you have described as the "traditional Jewish G-d" is actually what the Christians have always told the world the Jew supposedly believes. But it is not what the Jew believes. It is merely Christian propaganda. The Christians would have the world believe that they invented the concept of the merciful G-d. The Christians and other detractors look only at the relatively few places where G-d warns us of the consequences of evil deeds. They refuse to look and see that throughout the Torah G-d speaks of love and compassion.

The good, love, and compassion with which the Torah speaks to us outnumbers the dire warnings by at least five hundred!

The truth is that the Torah is replete with the concept of G-d's mercies, and it is the very essence of Judaism. It is in fact antithetical to Jewish Law to believe that G-d is cruel.

The Torah tells us: "You should know in your heart that just as a father chastises his son, so does Hashem your G-d chastise you." (Deut. 8:5) The Torah is not referring to a deranged man who chastises his son out of cruelty. Hashem chastises us because He loves us, and He wishes for us to walk the path that will be good for us. When we deviate from that path, we are pulling ourselves away from the good that Hashem has in store for us. Somehow, we must be warned.

Look through all of our prayers. These prayers come from the basics of our beliefs and principles. You will see only good things said about G-d.

And by the way, the prayers were not created because G-d needs our prayers. G-d has no need for anything we do or say. (Nevertheless, G-d wants our prayers, and delights in them.) We need the prayers, and we need the good deeds.

G-d created the world so that there would be recipients to whom to give goodness and pleasure. Not recipients who merely sit back and enjoy undeserved good, not freeloaders who have no conception of the good being done for them, but people who have worked hard to become holy, and that way have become worthy of that good reward.

You go on to say: "My personal deity is more teacher, less judge (and that, I know, is blasphemous!)" Again, I don't know where you get the idea that this is blasphemous. Not only is it not blasphemous, it is in fact what Judaism believes. Every day, in the morning prayers, we say:

Blessed are You, Hashem our G-d, King of the universe, Who has made us holy with His commandments and commanded us to engross ourselves in words of Torah. Please, Hashem our G-d, sweeten the words of Your Torah in our mouth and in the mouth of Your people, the House of Israel. May we, our offspring, and our offspring's offspring, and the offspring of all Your people, the House of Israel -- all of us -- know Your Name and study Your Torah for its own sake. Blessed are You, Hashem, Who teaches Torah to His nation Israel.

We say this every day. Yet nowhere in the daily prayers do we bless G-d for constantly judging us. We mention judgment once during the Amidah, where we bless G-d "Who loves charity and judgment." G-d is charitable and merciful in judgment.

And in yet another daily prayer we say:

With an eternal love You have loved us, Hashem our G-d; with exceedingly great pity have you pitied us. Our Father, our King, for the sake of Your great Name, and for the sake of our forefathers who have trusted in You and whom You taught the laws of life, to do Your will wholeheartedly, may You be equally gracious to us and teach us.
Our Father, merciful Father, Who acts mercifully, have mercy on us, and instill understanding in our hearts to understand, to elucidate, to listen, learn, teach, safeguard, perform and fulfill all the words of Your Torah's teachings with love.
Enlighten our eyes in Your Torah, attach our hearts to Your Commandments, and unify our hearts to love and fear Your Name. . .Blessed are You, Hashem, Who chooses His nation Israel with love.

The only time we make repeated references to G-d judging us is on Rosh Hashonoh and Yom Kippur, and even then we bless G-d not for judging us, but for forgiving us! If you wish to understand the "Traditional Jewish G-d," read through the prayers of Rosh Hashonoh and Yom Kippur.

In fact, on both Rosh Hashonoh and Yom Kippur we even pray that G-d not judge us, but to look upon us as a father looks upon a son, and if we must be judged, let G-d strengthen mercy over judgment. If G-d were "controlling, vain and vindictive," as you claim, we would not have that hope.

And this is not simply a mere hope. The Torah assures us that G-d forgives us on Yom Kippur, and therefore we are required to believe that! For this reason, it is the custom of Chassidim to gather together after breaking the Yom Kippur fast and dance and sing with joy, because the Torah has assured us that we have been forgiven.

The difference here is that you look on judgment as if it were a harsh, cruel thing, something bad. To Traditional Judaism, G-d's judgment is pure and good, as in Abraham's prayer: "Shall the whole world's Judge not act justly?" that I quoted above, and in King David's Psalm 19 that I quoted earlier: "...the judgments of Hashem are true, they are righteous--when understood in unison."

But you have to learn all of G-d's judgments, to see the full force of the goodness of G-d's judgments.

When G-d judges us, we are assured of mercy. When the Prophet Gad told King David that G-d offered a choice of any one of three consequences for a dangerous act that had been committed, King David said, "Let us fall into G-d's Hand, for His mercy is great, and let me not fall into the hands of man." (II Samuel 24:14) In other words, "let whatever happens be only in the hand of G-d." For G-d is merciful, not "vain and vindictive." For that matter, G-d had given the choice to King David, and this brings into question your assertion that the G-d of the Jews is "controlling."

To us as well, Traditional, Orthodox Jews, G-d is more Teacher than Judge. How can you state that "the G-d [you] envision bears little resemblance to the One worshiped by [your] ancestors," when you are in fact unaware of how your ancestors envisioned G-d? You do not know how Traditional Judaism views G-d. I think you would enjoy finding out what your ancestors actually believed. Throw away your mistaken preconceptions, and come learn the truth. Come have the Torah be sweetened in your mouth as well, and learn the truth of what the Torah teaches.

Then you will have that "better understanding of His plan," for which you say you are searching.

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