From here on out, especially considering my freer schedule, I’m going to try and do a blog post every day that it is feasible for me to do so. The quality may suffer, but at least I’ll be productive.
Following up on my last blog post, I got to thinking about the various ways we think about our relationship to God. The most prominent approach seems to be one of an unquestionable authority, “our father, our king”. I’m not to diminish the importance of such paradigms, nor their place within Jewish tradition and liturgy. But I think its worth questioning whether it is the right approach to be most prominent in today’s age. I, like many my age, are relatively skeptical of authority, and the question that can be asked when God is portrayed as an authority figure is “why?”. On what basis does such authority lie? Why do we listen to God? Because we are afraid of punishment? Does God’s authority come from the same place that obedience to a tyrannical dictator does? God was certainly not democratically elected.
I think that a much more effective way of thinking about God and religion is through the paradigm of the relationship of a lover to their beloved. It is an analogy our generation can understand; everyone falls in love eventually, and our culture is saturated entirely with stories of romance, as opposed to the total lack of an idea of absolute and unquestionable authority.
The question one could ask is whether such a paradigm will leave in its wake a Judaism which ebbs with the uncertain tides of emotional connection. If one bases their religiosity on a positive feeling, when that positive feeling is not elicited, so does the religiosity. It leads to enthusiastic kabbalash shabboses, but sparsely attended shacharises. Say what you want about absolute authority, it does engender obedience in ways that love does not seem to be able to do.
I would answer that religion is more than mere love of God, it is a relationship with God, built on a foundation of love but with loyalty and commitment. The above question assumes a “one-night stand” with God, as it were. But a relationship is quite obviously more than that. It entails monogamous commitment to one’s lover (hence no idol worship), the promotion of conspicuous symbols of one’s commitment to one’s lover such as wedding rings (a large amount of mitzvos), remembering of important dates and anniversaries (yamim tovim), and time set aside for the maintenance of the relationship (shabbos, davening). As you can see, such a paradigm would subsume a large portion of the Jewish religion. This would not get rid of the concept of “fear of God.” We need not define such fear purely in terms of the fear of punishment by an authority figure. Instead, let us talk about the fear of letting a loved one down, fear inspired by love, rather than vice versa.
But, one could ask, can this really be called a relationship when it is so one-sided, the beloved being an entity that does not seem to talk back to us or otherwise communicate with us?
I would offer three different avenues for the bidirectionality of our relationship with God: Torah, Tefillah, and Maasim Tovim.
As I’ve said before, a relationship demands unconditional love, but to a certain extent. Blind love to an beloved who abuses you is an unhealthy relationship, and our relationship with God must be a healthy one. Therefore God provides us with avenues to improve our relationship with him, by giving us input into its terms. In this way, Torah and its interpretation, understanding the demands of our relationship, explaining the reasons for them, and, in some cases, renegotiating them, represents the first way that God relates to us. In Tefillah, we cry out to God for help with our needs, explaining to God the strains on our relationship with him, and we hope that he answers, but the important thing is that he is listening to what we have to say. With Maasim Tovim, we actively help make the world a better place, improving the conditions of our relationship with God.
Thus, I believe that the only way to ground a philosophy of Judaism in a love of God and relationship with God that is not essentially rational but must be negotiated within rational terms. This love of God must, like any other relationship, make demands of us, asking of us commitment, loyalty, and faith. God, as a non-abusive beloved, allows us to understand the terms of our relationship, speak our concerns with him, and take action to adjust it.
This is a rougher essay than I necessarily like, but at least I wrote it, which is sort of the point.