With Friends Like God

by Sy Schechtman subtlesy@ix.netcom.com

The Jews have had almost a four thousand year relationship with God, the Almighty, ruler of the Universe. At first this relationship was somewhat tentative, the Almighty being only a local deity, and the surrounding pagans with their corresponding ( so they mistakenly thought) super human entities worthy of worship. But as the Jewish Bible attests, the Jews were able to rise up from Egyptian slavery with the aid of God's miracles and Moses leadership to a position of power in the ancient near east and impress their neighbors with their message of the one God in heaven who is sovereign and central to humanities' struggle for salvation and redemption. Gradually, as we know, this message of ethical monotheism spread throughout the western world. By the end of the Jewish Bible , indeed, the Jewish prophets are proclaiming the omnipotence of God, the Ruler of History. From the basic Jewish doctrines, with significant modifications, the '"sister" or "daughter" religions of Christianity and Islam arose.

Jews have always claimed some primacy as God's chosen, His first loved, the people who pioneered in what was then the radical proclamation of the spiritual and ethical unity of the cosmos and the essential holiness of God's creation. And for the first few hundred years of Jewish history after the liberation from Egyptian slavery Judaism was indeed triumphant, successfully establishing an important kingdom under the charismatic leaders Saul, David, and the wise and worldly Solomon. God's concern and imprint on this upward path, against the heavy pressure of intransigent neighbor Canaanite, Perizzite, Jebusite,etc. is always just a breath or two away, as the people He promised this land of "milk and honey" strive mightily, and successfully to realize His promise--His famous covenant that he would love and cherish the Jews in return for their right conduct as outlined in His Holy Torah--the precious gift of moral, ethical and religious life that He gave to the Jews.

After the reign of Solomon Jewish history is never the same from a standpoint of prestige or power, however. Theologically, of course, much of the glory of Jewish thought is still to come, but a good bit of it is devoted to poking in the debris of the loss of Jewish power as the kingdom is split in two after Solomon's death. And trying to rationalize the loss of material wealth and power as the result of the displeasure of the Lord with his erring stiff necked people. People still His dearly beloved but who have strayed from the path of the Covenant that the Jews at Sinai solemnly entered into, not only for those standing in awe on that most awesome day at Sinai, but with "him who is not standing before me on this day" . And this message of backsliding is proclaimed and reiterated by the famous literary prophets, Amos, Hosea, Isaiah, Ezekiel, Jeremiah, et al. It is the Jewish people who have not lived up to the demands of the Covenant, usually failing the ethical and moral mitzvoth required. In Isaiah's famous words, in the much quoted King James version, "Bring me no more vain oblations" no more perfect ritual sacrifices devoid of the true ethical and moral spirit of justice and responsibility for one's neighbor. God, the Ruler of History, is waiting anxiously for His erring flock to return to the right path. In Isaiah's instance, God has used Assyria as the "rod of history" to punish the Jews in 721 BCE by overwhelming the Northern Kingdom and dispersing the Jews therein into the first Diaspora, one aspect of which was the the beginning of the mythic, alluring "lost tribes of the wandering Jews" of history who claimed to be the North American antecedents of his new Mormon nation in Utah.

The smaller southern kingdom of Judah was overwhelmed about 150 years later by the new empire on the block, the Babylonians. This time a reprieve is in the works, foretold by the second Isaiah , the famous '"comfort ye, comfort ye" the Lord has heard of your travail and will relent. And lo, soon after (or perhaps a tad before) the captors of Jews did relent, too, ---the Persians, who have overwhelmed the originally conquering Babylonians -- and the Jews are allowed to return to Judah, and they do so albeit not too hurriedly. God is still pictured as in control, ordering a census of the returning people to make sure intermarried couples are rejected or converted.

It is true that hereafter God's overt presence is less visible, and the greatest Jewish victory before the astonishing Jewish military posture in modern Israel is the equally astonishing Jewish victory in biblical times, the celebrated Maccabean overthrow of the Greek Hellenistic oppressor, Antiochus Epiphanes, accomplished without any heavenly intervention. In this first war ever for religious freedom, the Jews fight a guerrilla war first under Judah Maccabee, and then his sons, not only against the offending Greeks, but also in protest against their own priestly class, who were much into the modern ways of Hellenistic sophistication. All this is done without any direct divine command or even any prophetic urging on behalf of "the will of the Lord". Only at the very end of the revolt, when the temple in Jerusalem is again in Jewish hands is there a suggestion of heavenly intervention, when the naer tamied is rekindled and burns for eight days with only a supposed single day supply of oil. Most interestingly, perhaps because of no direct divine connection, this stirring and important event in Jewish history, which happened before the canonization of all the works that make Torah--about 200 BCE- is not included in the Jewish Bible , becoming only part of the Apocrypha, the subsidiary, more secular ancient Jewish saga. (Strangely, the Purim story, which also has no direct divine connection, is included in the accepted Torah canon. And this event, also a resounding Jewish success story but with no apparent historic roots, has no direct heavenly interaction or intercession.)

But God is the still Master of the Universe although His ways perhaps have become somewhat inscrutable. His awesome presence is most powerfully stated in the Book of Job, one of the many great literary biblical writings. Job, terribly afflicted with heaven's torments as result of a test of his faith in the Lord, vainly protests his innocence, while his friends insist that it must be merited since the righteous could not suffer so. His wife, who can not endure his stubborn stance of aggrieved innocence, finally in despair says "Curse God and die". Which Job refuses to do --- and at last his Maker appears--a face to face audience such as only Moses had many centuries before. In a celebrated religious manifesto the Lord proclaims His unquestioned sovereignty over creation and man's inability to understand His ways. Man has a definite place in the total scheme of things and must be satisfied as such. And Job is satisfied. The ways of God the Omnipotent are perhaps inexplicable but somehow just and inevitable. And, for sure, there is the Ruler of the Universe, and Job has seen Him.

Many years after the victory of the Jews over Greek religious oppression-- about three centuries--the Jewish fate in the ancient world became irrevocably doomed. Or so it seemed. And the ways of the caring, actively involved Ruler of the Universe became ever more inscrutable. This small, contentious --- stiff necked is the biblical term--people tangled mightily with the Goliath of its time--the Roman Empire. The Jewish rebellion, begun in 66 AD lasted four years and at first it seemed like merely a snarling unhappy cur was yapping at the heel of the mighty conqueror. But soon the subject peoples of the empire took notice as the uprising endured and powerful reinforcements had to be called in from other parts of the far flung Roman world to support the siege of Jerusalem. Finally the Romans overcame the stubborn Jewish revolt, and Jerusalem was sacked. But lo! 65 short years later the Jews were back in the arena against the Roman oppressor, fighting unjust taxation and religious intolerance. Now the venerated religious leader of the Jews, Rabbi Akiva, thought the heroic leader of the insurrection at this time, Bar Kochba, was the true Messiah, come to rid the Jewish people of the cruel Roman oppression and lead the in gathering of the Jewish people from the Diaspora. But the Jewish hope for a divine sign was not realized. The Jews this time were finally routed in the grim siege atop Mount Masada, and the final, complete end of the Jewish presence in Palestine was decreed and significantly accomplished by the now very resolute Roman victors. The temple in Jerusalem, central to the religion in ancient time, was destroyed and the priestly cult ministering to it vanished.

Scripturally the rabinnic sages deal with this cataclysm by again blaming the Jewish people for their lack of adherence to the Law. While the Jewish people were united against the Roman oppressor, they were sorely divided factionally on a religious basis; Pharisee against Sadducee, the marginal outlaw Sicarai group, the isolated, reclusive Essence sect, etc. The politics of power denied the primacy of God and his proper worship and so reaped the Lord's just wrath. Perhaps is also possible to understand the Lord's rather severe punishing position as a calculated mixing of the Jewish personna--and His Torah-- with the gentile world, and so spreading this "Jewish Gospel' so that the ignorant spiritually thirsting pagan would at last realize the validity of the One God concept and His Holy Message. By the time of the abortive rebellion against Rome there was already this type of "mixing"; millions of Jews in the Diaspora, and most of them spoke not Hebrew or Aramaic, but a Greek dialect called the Koine. And these were loyal Jewish expatriates, sending back their annual tithes as prescribed in the Torah to the temple in Jerusalem for the maintenance of the priestly class who headed the cult of sacrifice, then the sole means of worship. So many Jews who spoke no word of the loshen kodesh----the holy language of Hebrew---necessitated the first translation of the Jewish Bible into Greek , the famous Septuagint--the Seventy-- because supposedly seventy select scholars were involved in this very serious business. Also there was the very well known Philo of Alexandria, a Jewish philosopher at about that time who tried to reconcile Jews and gentiles by reconciling Plato and Aristotle with the story of Moses and Judaism and other biblical concepts, He wrote many tracts and was well received, especially among the upper classes. Maimonides again attempted the same thing many centuries later in his famous "A Guide to the Perplexed", --attracting both protests and praise from various opposed Jewish sects.

It is possible to speculate that this was indeed God's plan. The time was certainly ripe for a leap forward by humanity from the limiting confines of puerile paganism, and the Jews at that time were not bashful in the practice of their life style even though their eating standards and intermarriage bans precluded active intermixing. And there were about 6,000,000 Jews then, a vastly larger percentage of the world population then than now. (Then we comprised possibly 6 percent of the world, and now the hard fact of the matter is about thirteen or fourteen million Jews to about 5 billion gentiles---about one quarter of one per cent!!). So it is possible that among the gentiles, in the Diaspora, some pro Jewish movement and conversion was going on. If nothing else this active exile Jewish community was preparing the gentile world for the basic concept of monotheism, a unifying caring morality, one overwhelming force for the guidance and uplift of humanity.

For, in the first century of the common era, a minuscule group of actively proselytizing "new Jews" were proclaiming an altered or augmented kind of religion. This movement was making only modest headway until two events occurred. We have alluded to one, the all out struggle of the Jews to free the shackles of Roman domination. The whole Empire watched the prolonged and almost successful Jewish effort. Their final defeat undoubtedly cast a negative shadow on the Jewish cause, even though, of course, "might makes right" is the last spiritual stance one should espouse. Then there was Paul, who was Saul the Jew first. He raised the spirits of the dubious gentile in the near east pagan world by promising Christ without any Jewish strings attached. The original disciples of Christ, who knew him as a Jewish rabbi in Palestine, had preached of Jesus as the consummate was proclaiming the Messiah, born of the house of David. This doctrine failed to make much headway on devout Jewish minds, who were used to the traditional burdens and concepts of the Torah, but in the non Jewish near east, when Paul lifted the rigors of the Mosaic Law (circumcision, kashruth, 613 mitzvoth and daily worship--three times day) and required much simpler beliefs and religious "burdens" Christianity made relatively rapid headway. Not long after Paul's compelling new missionary doctrines the paths of Jew and new Jew became that of competing Jew and Christian, with both antagonistic of the other camp and its infidel beliefs. But perhaps the saving grace of the spread of ethical monotheism to the hitherto pagan mind in this newer Christian version, more palatable to others.

For by now it could no longer be that the Jews were the transgressors, the perpetual violators of the covenant with God, as proclaimed by the prophets. Many times, as in Job, His ways were inscrutable in the still steadfastly loyal Jewish belief.

So while the Jew waited patiently for redemption and return to his homeland in Eretz Isroel God evidently had further missionary work in store for him. And the Jew devoutly shouldered the burden of continual exile in furtherance of his continuing faith in the original covenental agreement which in its seeming Divine breach, if only temporary, already had cost many, many thousands of lives in the battles for Jerusalem and endless trauma in the dislocations of the numerous exiles from Israel, And a small but seemingly miraculous opening in implementing this long range goal of Jewish survival and redemption was the last minute amnesty of the Roman conqueror in allowing a small band of Jewish sages to escape the engulfing Roman horde and continue the Jewish tradition at small academies in Sura and Pumbeditha, small towns in the nearby countryside.

This was part of the impetus that helped to bring about an astonishing transformation of the face, if not the core of Judaism, to serve the needs of a completely stateless people. With the end of the temple and the ruling priestly class and their control of the religion--and access to God-- the Jews brought front and center their recently canonized monumental encounter with God in the Pentateuch- the five Books of Moses-- and the commentaries, caveats, prophets, prayers, and even love poetry appended thereto, what we today call variously The Torah, or Old Testament, or The Jewish Bible, or the Tanach. Starting from the beginning of creation and including the Divine Revelations to Abraham, Jacob Isaac, Moses and all the complaining and exhorting prophets, even unto Ecclessiastes, the last accepted book in the biblical canon, not long before the common era and the advent of Christ. (Ecclessiastes, by the way is a book which Freud or other modern therapists could profit from, and probably did.) It was an ancient transformation which turned the Jews into an international entity, a homeless dispersed people with a common unique heritage. The motto, in crass modern terms was "have book(Torah) and will travel". The suddenly emergent class of rabbis(teachers) were the replacements of the high and mighty priest; weekly personal prayers with rabbinic help and leadership telling the profound and moving story of the last thousand years of the Jews involvement with the active and caring Ruler of the Universe.

With this new democratic dynamic, the Jews endured and at times prospered in various parts of the world. In Babylonia their sages bought forth an elaboration and harmonization of the Torah according to the changed circumstances of the far flung Jewish community. This great synthesis of the profound Jewish experience with the Almighty and the holy path proclaimed for all of life was known as the Talmud and was a reinterpretation and restructuring of life for the Jew to meet the demands of life in more or less permanent exile. And somehow the local rabbinic courts and leadership around the world were able to relate to and still retain and even augment the relevance of their God and His message in their still very vibrant Torah with the rational current emendations that the Talmud represented. In exile it still represented a total and coherent manual for a Jewish life and it was the lingua franca by which dispersed Jewish communities maintained continuity and spiritual contact. Besides the comfortable Babylonian community the Jews found refuge and sometimes succor in various parts of Europe and North Africa. But always with the tenuous hope of ultimate redemption and return to their homeland.

The Jewish fate seemed ever to languish despite all the effort and ingenuity employed, however. The formerly hopeful and even defiant cry of "next year in Jerusalem" at the end of many prayer services became, as the centuries wore on, only a wistful and forlorn formula. No matter how patiently the Jew endured and remained hopefully in place God seemed not to notice, and even seemed to be actively favoring the newer revelations of the Divine plan. The more so because there was now "the new Jerusalem" the Christian and Moslem religious ascendancy claiming their new prominence in God's affections . And, indeed, the place of the Jew was by now much altered. Despite the miraculous escape from oblivion with the utter Roman rout and temple destruction and the occasional flowering of Jewish culture in medieval Spain and several other places, it seemed that the Jews were on probation with the Almighty at best. No longer did the Jewish people blame their on erring ways for their continuing plight in the Diaspora. Somehow God had forgotten His first chosen, and might even be responsible for raising up competing religious movements who certainly tolerated Jews very minimally at best. An at worst actively persecuted them if they did not leave their backward faith. But many did not convert and stood in place as Jews believing firmly that the Jewish path as their Torah insisted was still the true path to a noble and even holy life. God had perhaps temporarily forgotten them, or was "hiding His face" or had even gone into exile with His beloved Jews.

In between the continuing exiles across western Europe and into the more welcoming areas in eastern Europe there were redeeming eras of peace and stability and even a joyous resurgence of direct emotional upward thrusting toward God--a hopeful interlude that the Chassidic movement represented. An almost exuberant time in the Polish pale of settlement punctuating recurrent pogroms in the middle ages which God evidently tolerated as well as the false messiahs who misled the Jews several times in their fervent hope that God had finally remembered, as in the days of yore in the glorious liberation from Egypt many thousands of years before. Then His presence was almost a daily manifestation, leading in the day as cloud over the tent of meeting, and at night as a pillar of fire. Not only did the false messiahs once again dim such hopes but so did the Cossack bandit Chmielicki, whose massacres of many thousands of Jews in the seventeenth century became the paradigm for murder en masse of a defenseless and innocent people. As we all know this example was exceeded considerably in our century. The nation and leader was of course different but the people slaughtered were the same Jews. Indeed Elie Weisel in one of his memorable books quotes a half crazed chassid fleeing from the Nazis in central Europe breaking into an abandoned synagogue for refuge and hearing several Jews down in the basement praying. "Jews" he urges, "don't pray so loud or God will know that there are still some Jews left around here." He also relates the grim concentration camp story of the chassidic master with his small group of surviving students, calling the Ribbono shel Olam --- the universe-- a liar. How could the Master of the Universe be a liar, his devoted students complain? "Because", the chassidic master mourned, "if God opened His window in heaven and looked down He would say 'I did not cause this, and He would be a liar'.

Elie Weisel, a living legend in our time, who has endured this century's culminating crime against the Jews--the Holocaust-- in the abominable pits of Auschwitz, has devoted his life to be a witness as a survivor of this demonic and almost successful plan to finally solve the nagging "Jewish question" by the simple expedient of making all Europe, at least, "Juden rein"---clean of all Jews. The simple Nazi plan to attain this cherished goal of sanitizing the environment and conforming it to Nordic purity was total extermination of the Jews, mostly into ashes in the various crematoria such as Auschwitz, (after working them in heinous forced slave labor conditions that turned them into useless walking skeletons) and direct slaughter and mass burial by the Einsatzgruppe who simply followed behind the conquering Wehrmacht in Poland and Russia and quickly and unceremoniously rounded up the Jews in the area and, after making them dig their own mass grave, lined them up in front of the yawning freshly dug pit and shot them artfully enough so they toppled backward into the grave with little further effort needed at burial in the ground.

To Elie Weisel this ultimate Jewish disaster is caused by both man and God. He has grave reservations about the divine purpose but still insists on standing within the circle of Jewish tradition and belief questioning the seemingly errant plan of the Deity much as the famous chassidic rabbi of Berdichev many years ago who stood on Yom Kippur Eve before his devoted flock and refused to start the prayers on this most holy of nights, complaining bitterly of God's seeming indifference to the fate of His Jews. But even though he received no answer, unlike the biblical Job, he continued the service after awhile. And so does Elie Weisel continue very much an observant Jew, but still with serious theological questions. We, of course can question God's Providence further. The supposed positive aftermath of the holocaust debacle was the almost miraculous creation of the state of Israel after much turmoil, bloodshed and enormous--and continuing-- -hostility in the region. Millions of Arabs then and now are almost venomously anti Israel and, secondarily, anti Jewish. Israel is now a proud fifty years old, a minuscule mite in an overwhelming mass of unaccepting Arabs, now prosperous but like a circus juggler on a tight rope with no safety net underneath, and trying to balance precariously in the air all the ideological needs of a very beleaguered state. It needs the largest and most determined army in the world to stay alive, as the Arabs have not forsworn their "destroy the Jews" covenant and the people are famous for their mostly frenetic pace, partly as a result of their tension filled past in establishing the state-- and the currently dubious prospects for a resolution of these conflicts. The word "please" is not a normal part of their speech. There is hardly any net emigration and the people are tiring of the pressure of standing in place enduring the partially mobilized "normalcy" of their daily lives. Coupled with the constant peril of the state of Israel we have the opposite peril in the United States, still the reservoir of the largest Jewish population. Here we are suffering from too much"love" and acceptance, and assimilation is a rapidly spreading blight. So much so that many astute Israeli observers of the American Jewish scene are beginning to discount the importance, long range, of the viability of important continuing financial support from this country, and consequently listening less sympathetically to our desires regarding our differing religious stance, notably in Israel, where the Orthodox battle over turf with their more modern Jewish Reform and Conservative brethren is falling on less responsive ears than previously .

There have have been other times and places when events looked bleak and dire, but now the still God obsessed Jew devoutly hopes for the saving grace of events that seem miraculous, with the aid of saving ways unforeseen by human wisdom, as the hand of God surely has done when there seemed no way out--many centuries ago.. For this has been the worst Jewish century since the Second temple was destroyed and the Jews scattered into near oblivion. There are probably less Jews percentage wise in the world today than ever before, a mere one quarter of one percent, and surrounded in their fifty year old nation by a seemingly endless sea of Arab hostility. And threatened, on the other side of the world by the other age old Jewish Diaspora problem, too much comfortable acceptance and what has usually been its long range consequence, assimilation and continuing erosion of Jewish identity.

For the God obsessed person, viewing the above dour presentation one is tempted to say that with friends like God one needs no enemies. The caring, involved Master of the Universe of the Torah has been indifferent to our fate for the last two thousand years. We have persevered, loyally standing in place, awaiting prayerfully a redemption that finally was accomplished in the now fifty year old Israeli state with the blood, sweat and lives of many Jewish bodies. And a redemption tenuous at best, and the only religious slogan applicable is the sturdy Calvinist one of "God helps him who helps himself." Indeed, one might go even further, with the Holocaust in mind, and have the temerity to say that it is not only divine indifference but even malevolence that is involved in the cataclysmic genocide the Jews were subjected to. That the Jews had served their purpose and set up the One God concept and their compulsive insistence on such rigorous worship and observance that they employed to implement it frightened the Lord, much as the eating of tree of knowledge in the beginning caused dismay and insecurity in the heavens above. And that as a result somehow God's celebrated justice has been inverted(perverted?) and we have had not only one initial Lamb of God--the Jewish Jesus-- but millions of Jewish sacrificial lambs since then who died in the blessed Jewish mode of Kiddush ha Shem--sanctification of the Name-- or at least in place as long suffering Jews, innocently murdered for their Jewish identity.

But still to be Jewish is to be part of that almost eternal group of people, small and select, in fact or fiction, who stood in hushed awe at that mythic or real revelation calling on them to be "holy nation, a kingdom of priests and teachers, ,for I your God am holy. " An almost eternal group of people for that revelation also insisted that "I make this covenant with him that is standing before me today and him who is not standing before me this day." To be holy is to be different, to control your animal appetites and channel them for the nourishment of both body and soul. And the Jewish Torah whether of Divine origin or very inspired human creation is still the best guide to conduct that will sustain the highest aspirations of both individual and societal secular and spiritual growth. There is both the stimulus for human perfectibility and also careful nurture for the rights of all humans..."Justice, justice shall you pursue " ,..."what is hurtful to you do not do unto you neighbors...."am I my brother's keeper""--(yes, you most certainly are!!). Originally 613 divine commandments (mitzvoth) were elaborated as the "burden or yoke " of the Torah,, while the righteous non Jew (gentile) was considered "worthy of the world to come" if little more than the ten commandments were obeyed. Time has canceled the need for many of these ancient commandments but Jews of all persuasions still honor a large array of ethical and moral laws as well as relevant ritual commands. The goal then and now is to improve oneself and the world. This world, not some ephemeral world to come. The goal is the Messiah to come and inhabit this world, or a messianic age of comparable beatific splendor made possible by the deeds and works of people striving to be holy, -- less bestial, more caring and doing justly.

Only a small group of people can sign on to this still radical doctrine that insists that one's efforts are crucial to one's salvation and ultimate redemption. And that there is a moral and ethical unity in the universe, some Ultimate Power beyond our comprehension that sanctions humanity's efforts to be holy, to improve the world. Because every Jew, initially then and even now, be they religious or completely secular, assumed the "burden of the Torah" to some extent, the Jew throughout the ages has been a very significant over achiever. The Jewish presence throughout history has always appeared far larger than the actual number of Jews at that time. Indeed the number of prominent Jews that have contributed to the march of progress throughout the ages has made people both envious and fearful. Therefore most gentiles secretly applaud when the Jew is found to be in the wrong, for there has always been a double standard--the Jew supposedly committed to a higher code of conduct which other people feel is not attainable for them. The Jew has been demonized at the same time as both filthy rich capitalist and conniving red bolshevik. Meanwhile winning countless Nobel prizes in many areas, and enriching the world with much artistic accomplishment and making the uninformed think that the omnipresent Jew was indeed in control of at least some of the levers of power. And meanwhile, always taking the side of the oppressed and being very charitable, even now unto George Soros with his almost billion dollar giveaways. To be Jewish is to be humble, and also infinitely creative and so be able to endure as we have and still aspire..... and still hope somehow that the face of God, or eternity, will still shine upon us...for Lord do we not at last now deserve it? Or perhaps the ever inscrutable God of the Jews has honed us now with adversity to that level of relative holiness that was His plan all along and the new millennium will see at last some form of wondrous redemption for all. Perhaps I can "lift up my eyes to heaven whence cometh my redeemer" one more time with prayerful hope.