Does Belief in God Necessitate That We Believe God has Total Control?  

The fanatic believes that by uttering the words Allahu Akbar and detonating a bomb it demonstrates that God is on his/her side. Conversely, if your enemy stops you from committing murder, they are infidels working against Allah. Have you ever watched football teams kneel down before an important play, beseeching God to determine the outcome? Have you seen how disappointed a Green Bay Packer fan can get when they realize that God now prefers the Chicago Bears? Are you not exasperated by a religious flippancy that arbitrarily introduces God into the mundane? Isn’t it astonishing that millions of American think like Ted Cruz and believe that God really cares who wins the elections? Yet, that is exactly what some very intelligent people want us to believe. Many may consider it heresy to even question this basic tenet. If so, I am guilty as charged.

Although I believe in God, I think it is highly irrational to believe that God intervenes regularly in my daily life. Of course being omnipotent and omniscient suggests that He may at times choose to intervene, but it behooves me to realize that I, and only I, should be held accountable for my wrongdoings. Did God cause me to write this article? Is he standing over my shoulder dictating each thought? If my spelling and grammar are wrong, should I be absolved from disparaging criticism?

One of the most challenging and difficult questions a rabbi is asked is – where was God during the Holocaust? If God controls the world, where is He in times of need? Greater minds than mine have tried to resolve this question, but ultimately no explanation will ever be satisfactory. Though I am humbled by the passion, dedication, and commitment of many survivors, nevertheless, I can’t find fault with those that chose to abandon religion and lost faith in God. If I was told that the Holocaust was the result of God’s wrath and that He was exacting vengeance for the sins of the generation, of course I would be disillusioned.

I find these ideologies humiliating to the six million holy souls, and demeaning to God Himself. I find the mere concept reprehensible and am distressed that this view is widely promoted by rabbis and scholars. Furthermore, their selective Godliness is indeed telling; while they have no problem positing a divine involvement in the Holocaust, they fail to acknowledge God’s presence in 1948 and 1967. When it comes to the formation of the State of Israel or the miraculous victory during the six-day war, God’s absence is palpable. Their political ideologies which are at odds with Zionism trumps their otherwise unstinting belief that God is in control. Is anyone really comfortable thinking that God was behind the murder of Ezra Schwartz and dozens of other innocents Israelis?

There are two verses in this week’s Torah portion that may shed light on the issue. When Joseph discloses who he is, he assures his brothers that he doesn’t hold them responsible. He states: And now don’t be grieved, nor angry that you sold me into slavery; for it was God who orchestrated it to preserve life. A few verses later he continues: And now, realize it was not you that sent me there, but God; and he has made into a viceroy for the House of Pharaoh and the people of Egypt.
Let us for a moment analyze who the brothers were. While the Torah is not beyond castigating them for wrongdoing and enumerating their numerous failures, they are still referred to as Shivtei Kah – or the 12 tribes of God (Not Israel). These brothers were all highly pious and dedicated to God. Yet, it took Joseph to get them to understand that it was not their actions that sent him into slavery, it was God who orchestrated his enslavement. The default position taken by the brothers, who religiously believed in God, was to accept responsibility and remove God from any complicity. They humbly apologized for their misdeeds and imagined wholeheartedly that they were at fault. It was Joseph who understood that his brothers were only a conduit and that everything that occurred was designed and choreographed by God. It was Joseph that gave credibility to the concept that God does at times intervene. At times, but not usually.

The Talmud teaches that ma’aseh avot siman l’banim – the deeds of our ancestors are a model for their descendants. Our ancestors, the brothers of Joseph, highlight that although belief in God is paramount, it is not congruous with the belief that God controls all. Indeed, those that try to present this ideology mis-translate a passage in our daily prayers. It states: Yotzer or u’voreh choshech – we praise the Almighty for creating light and darkness. However, when you analyze the actual text from the book of Isaiah it reads: God creates light which corresponds to good and he also creates ra which corresponds to bad or evil.

So does God play favorites? I doubt it. I don’t imagine that God wants Israelis to die at the hand of terrorists. Nor for that matter does He want Bangladeshis or Africans to suffer from famine and drought. He doesn’t want children dying from starvation or North Koreans suffering from a tyrannical leader. He also would not want ISIS or Al Qaeda to have any military successes. But that is not the way He created the world; He decided that His world would be composed of both good and bad. And yes, there are times when bad people do acts that are heinous and unexplainable and other times when good people accomplish the most amazing things. And since I can’t be certain when God is actually intervening, my method is simple: when something good happens I attribute it to God, and when something bad happens I blame it on man.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Jack Engel

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