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Commentary: Hey, New York Times, leave my God alone

I like snark. But theo-snark? Not so much.

(Sebastian Scheiner | AP)An Israeli ultra-Orthodox Jewish man prays as others participate in the Cohanim priestly caste blessing during the Jewish holiday of Passover at the Western Wall, the holiest site where Jews can pray in Old Jerusalem on Sunday, April 12, 2020.

I like snark.

Rapierlike sarcasm; biting social satire. I am all-in.

But theo-snark? Not so much.

Theo-snark is a good term for the Passover “gift,” the op-ed “afikomen,” that The New York Times gave its Jewish readers just in time for the spring festival of freedom. I am referring to Shalom Auslander’s essay, “In This Time of War, I Propose We Give Up God.”

Auslander is a novelist and short story writer and a refugee from a yeshiva education in Spring Valley, N.Y. I have admired his writing for many years.

I have read and reread his memoir “Foreskin’s Lament,” in which we find this passage about Auslander’s struggle with God:

One day in yeshiva, the rabbi refers to God as “Our Father Who is in heaven…” – Avinu she ba’shamayim.

I shuddered.

There’s another one?

In heaven?

That’s God?

Did He stumble around in his underwear? How big was His fist? As big as a car? As big as a house? What was it like to be punched by a house? I mean, if God ever got drunk…”

Auslander was saying: If you have an image of God as a father, and if your image of a father is of an abusive, drunken slob, or, for that matter, as an emotionally absent father, and if your liturgical tradition portrays God as a father, then there is a design flaw in that image.

The stories in Auslander’s short story collection, “Beware of God,” are hysterically heretical. In the title story, he imagines a man named Bloom escaping death because of the botched attempts of the heavenly retinue, led by the Angel of Death, to hasten his demise.

God is getting burnt out on the whole thing.

People thought His job was easy. All their preposterous prayers … Save me, heal me, cure me. Like He could if He wanted to. They were all part of the same cosmic continuum, Himself included. Creation was a production nightmare.

Auslander’s God is not lovable. Auslander’s God is the cliché (and theologically antisemitic) “angry God of the Old Testament.”

And what, for Auslander, would be the signature piece of that angry God?

You guessed it. Because it is Passover, Auslander explains in the Times essay why he does not like the plagues God brought upon the Egyptians.

God, it seems, paints with a wide brush. He paints with a roller. In Egypt, said our rabbi, he even killed firstborn cattle. He killed cows. If he were mortal, the God of Jews, Christians and Muslims would be dragged to The Hague. And yet we praise him. We emulate him. We implore our children to be like him.

Struggling with God is the trademark of the Jewish faith. It is why we are Yisrael — “the God wrestlers.”

But Shalom is not wrestling. He is walking away from the fight, petulantly.

If I could have a cup of coffee with Shalom, I might explain to him why the Bible speaks of plagues on Egypt.

First, theology • Each plague is aimed at a particular Egyptian god — each of which represents values that are anathema to the world that the Torah would want to create.

Second, biblical foreign policy • The plagues affect all of Egypt because it is never only the actions of a ruler that are implicated in societal evil. Those actions saturate the moral bones of that society.

In reality, Auslander wants a society with moral heft:

This year, at the end of the Seder, let’s indeed throw our doors open — to strangers. To people who aren’t our own. To the terrifying them, to the evil others, those people who seem so different from us, those we think are our enemies or who think us theirs, but who, if they sat down around the table with us, we’d no doubt find despise the pharaohs of this world as much as we do, and who dream of the same damned thing as us all: Peace.

In my imagined coffee with Shalom, I would remind him that the people most committed to creating that kind of society are those who see the task he describes as a religious imperative. I would remind him that people who are committed to doing good works actually do them under religious auspices.

(Not all, to be sure. As my friend and teacher Donniel Hartman writes in “Putting God Second: How To Save Religion From Itself”: You don’t have to be religious to be good. And, sadly, many religious people are not good.)

Last week I accompanied 30 of my Reform colleagues on a mission to Poland to help Ukrainian refugees. We visited the refugee centers at the Ukraine border. We witnessed the work of many nongovernmental organizations — people setting up food counters for refugees, doctors tending to wounds, people offering counseling, people cheering up children and playing with them, helping to re-create a semblance of a normal life.

The majority of those NGOs were religious. Yes, Jews — the Joint Distribution Committee, Hadassah, various Israeli organizations — but also evangelical Christians, Muslims and Sikhs, to name but a few.

Because theirs is not the angry God of Auslander’s fevered imagination.

No. Their God is the one that demands “chesed” — love born out of covenant relationships — and justice. The one revealed in the human heart. The one who emerges out of the sacred human deed.

Our mission is to imitate not God’s anger, but God’s chesed and almost obsessive thirst for justice.

As Art Green writes:

God never let the Hebrews forget that they had once been slaves. He demanded that they treat strangers with welcome and compassion. He called for the dignity of rest for every human being, even for beasts of labor. Above all, He demanded justice: justice for the downtrodden, for widows and orphans, for the poor and needy of every sort, no matter whether they were members of His chosen tribe or not.

Since I love snark, let me reserve some snark for The New York Times.

Sunday was Easter. I scoured the pages of The Times, searching for that essay that would lambast and lampoon the death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.

I must have missed it.

But, when it comes to the Jews or Jewish theology, go for it. Because you can attack Jewish sensitivities and sensibilities — religious and otherwise — with impunity.

And, when it comes to belief in God in general, you can mock that God in a way that you would never mock — oh, let us say — sports.

Finally, even though Auslander and God are not exactly on speaking terms, I have words that Shalom could actually say to God.

It comes from the pen and soul of Daniel Matt, one of the world’s foremost authorities on Jewish mysticism, as found in the wonderful anthology “Jewish Men Pray”:

May I unlearn all the familiar names that have been attached to You.

May I erase all the images that have been fashioned of You.

May I see through all of the filters that have been imposed on You.

I yearn to discover You in all Your naked glory.

Then, overwhelmed and ravished, I will celebrate Your traces again and again.

In all names, all forms, all being.

I do not need for Shalom Auslander to believe in God. But he might try to experience God as a mature adult, not with the eyes of an adolescent refugee from Orthodoxy.

I return to Passover, and to the Passover Haggadah, and to the four children whose responses are central to the narrative.

Auslander has long delighted in being the “wicked (or rebellious, or querulous) child.” We listen to his or her question: “What does this service mean to you?”

It is a good question. What does God mean to us?

(The views expressed in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)

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