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Does God punish us?

Still Small Voice is a collection of 18 interviews with rabbis tackling 18 questions about God, published during the month of Elul, a time of Jewish reflection and accountability. Click here to read the introduction to the series.

It’s hard to watch God’s wrath and not feel alienated.

God’s punishments in the Torah seem disproportionate. He drowns all of humanity soon after creating us; orders thousands killed for building the Golden Calf; and opens the earth to swallow rebels who question Moses’ authority in the desert. I can’t square those scorched-earth rebukes — not to mention the coronavirus? — with a loving God.

But when I spoke to Rabbi David Wolpe, who heads the largest Conservative synagogue west of the Mississippi, he rejected entirely the idea that God punishes.

Wolpe, 61, a nationally known author and speaker whom I met in 2007 at a conference called “Why Be Jewish?,” said the image of a punitive God is from a Biblical time that no longer applies. He suggested that God had to start out as a tougher parent so that a nascent people could absorb the rules; once we learned them, we were free to be ethical — or not.

Today’s God, Wolpe said, is not a punisher — and did not orchestrate the pandemic. Today we have a different divinity, which asks more of us.

The first of Wolpe’s eight books, published in 1990, was “The Healer of Shattered Hearts: A Jewish View of God.”, He told me he wrote it “entirely because I came out of a Jewish religious tradition where nobody ever talked about God.”

“Partly because when we talk about God in English, it sounds Christian — we can’t help it; English is a Christian language,” Wolpe explained in our interview. “So when you say ‘faith’ or ‘grace’ or ‘love,’ they all sound Christian.

“I came from a Jewish tradition that didn’t talk about God, and it used to drive me nuts because this is what we’re supposed to be built on,” he added. “And it’s still true. For most non-Orthodox Jews, that is still not the conversation most of them want to have.”

That gets to why I embarked on this project: in two decades of writing about Jewish practice and identity, I had rarely touched on the divine. Whenever I talked about my own book, “My Jewish Year: 18 Holidays, One Wondering Jew,”, people asked why it was more focused on ritual than God.

When I invited Rabbi Wolpe to send a text to elucidate his take on whether and how God punishes, he chose a passage from the Book of Kings (19:11-13). It’s one I’ve long favored because of its poetry. And because its idea rings true — that God would appear not in storms, but in stillness.

And, behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and brake in pieces the rocks before the Lord; but the Lord was not in the wind: and after the wind an earthquake; but the Lord was not in the earthquake: And after the earthquake a fire; but the Lord was not in the fire: and after the fire, a still small voice.

The passage has become a refrain in my head and inspired the title this project Still Small Voice. In it, I explore 18 questions about God with 18 Jewish thinkers.

My conversation with Wolpe follows, edited for clarity and length. You can read other interviews, about other questions, [here]((, and I hope you’ll send (patient) feedback to [email protected].

‘That’s a very mechanical and small god’
Rabbi David Wolpe

Rabbi David Wolpe Image by Angelie Zaslavsky

Rabbi David Wolpe: The reason that I go to that text is because what the reader expects is that God is going to be in the earthquake and fire, God is going to be in the huge public, crushing demonstrations, because that’s how God appeared throughout most of the Torah. But the Hebrew — “kol d’mama daka”— means the thin voice of silence. I think the text is preparing us for how God is going to function in our lives now: these soft voices in conscience, in whispers, not in grand gestures.

Abigail Pogrebin: But how do we look at those grand gestures and not say God is a punishing God?

DW: You can go through the entire Jewish tradition from beginning to end and find God’s punishments. I see it as an earlier understanding of the way God works.

In the same way that it starts with children, you have to do the punishment part so that people’s ethical intuitions will be trained. But once they are trained, then you have to step back and say, “OK, now you know what you’re supposed to do. Go do it.”

And then the essence of your connection to God is in relationship, not in goodies that God dispenses from the sky. Even if they’re really important goodies.

AP: Like what?

DW: Like someone who says, “God, please heal my sick mother,” and the mother dies. And then they say, “I don’t believe in God anymore.” What kind of God did they believe in? They believed in a God who, if you say the right words the right way does what you want. That’s a very mechanical and small God.

AP: So then where’s the big God? If you’re saying God is not punishing us — not causing someone to live or die depending on behavior — where is God’s power?

DW: God’s power is in the ability of human beings. And to some extent, I suppose, in the natural process to work for healing. In the way that God has set up the world and how you can still relate to God and draw strength from God.

I remember when I was treated for cancer in the hospital and all these rabbis were telling me they were saying Mi Shebeirach for me, and I was really grateful; it did give me strength. But I did not believe for a second that God would look down and say, “You know, no one’s praying for that other patient in Bed 4, so he can succumb to cancer, but Wolpe’s got a bunch of people praying for him, so I’m going to save Wolpe.” I’m putting it crudely, but that’s the theology behind it.

‘I believe deeply in randomness’

AP: So you don’t believe that God is mapping out who’s rewarded or punished.

DW: I believe deeply in randomness. The reason that I do is, first of all, from observation. As the Rabbis put it, the righteous man suffers and the wicked man prospers. We know that your deeds don’t control your fate in this world, and the Talmud says that in several different iterations.

At a certain point I realized that randomness was the only way you could construct a world if you wanted to achieve goodness.

AP: Why does goodness require randomness?

DW: Because when people ask, “Why don’t good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people?” —what they’re wishing for is a world that’s built like a Skinner box, where if you do good, you get rewarded, if you do bad, you get punished. In such a world, everyone would do good, but it wouldn’t be real goodness.

If every time I stole, I was going to get a disease, I would never steal. Not because I thought stealing was wrong, but because I thought it was dangerous to me. But the definition of a good act is to do something without knowing what the consequences will be to you.

AP: We should do good simply because we believe in goodness.

DW: Right — not because I know that if I give money to tzedakah, God’s going to prevent me from getting Covid. So much of religion is built on almost a child-like level of religiosity — “if you do this, you get a cookie. If you do that, you have to go to bed early.” But at a certain point, you hope that children reach the stage where they’ll do it for the intrinsic reason.

When people say, “God did this because I did that,” what they’re basically doing is destroying the possibility of genuine human goodness. So if you ask me, “Does God punish?” my answer is no. God doesn’t work that way.

I think that it makes much more sense to think that God creates a world in which you can turn to God for guidance, encouragement, for strength.

So I see God’s power in the natural processes of the world and through human beings, too. But I don’t think that God supernaturally reaches down to take out tumors or quell viruses.

‘When a crisis comes along, we’re really tested’

AP: So what’s happening with God right now? Should we even be talking about God in this pandemic? Is there any kind of God presence here?

DW: Yes. In the sense that, we are called upon to be both witnesses and healers. And that call is from God.

AP: How should we answer it?

DW: The way in which we react to this crisis determines our faith and how much we want to realize God’s mission in this world. We know day to day how we ought to live—at least in broad outlines. But when a crisis comes along, we’re really tested.

And that’s when you find out the extent to which your relationship to God has actually shaped the way you act in this world, whether you really believe that other creations — other human beings — are in God’s image too, and whether you really have a responsibility to them.

AP: Why do you think rabbis don’t talk more readily about God?

DW: Because the Jewish tent is broader without it. I never said it that way before now, but I think that’s why. Because without God, you can include the people who love Israel but don’t believe in God; you can include the people who love Jews but don’t believe in God; and the people who haven’t walked into a synagogue for years and never thought about God but still feel Jewish.

AP: Can a Judaism without God sustain itself?

DW: No. Because we are a religious family. That’s our raison d’etre. We have this mission, and this relationship with God throughout history. And that’s why we’re here.

‘If you don’t like the word God, I understand that’

AP: What do you say to the person who says, “I’m sort of a literalist, and when I see breathtaking things or I feel moved, I don’t know why I would put the word ‘God’ to that — that seems like an arbitrary label.”

DW: Here’s what I would say: The world is not really divided between believers and nonbelievers, but between materialists and non-materialists. Either you think the world is only stuff, everything is chemicals — we’re made only of synapses — or you think spiritual realities are real — there’s something about a soul that makes your heart sing, there’s a mystery at the heart of the universe.

If you believe that those spiritual realities are real, then you believe in some source of those realities, whatever you want to call that source. If you don’t like the word God, I understand that, but you’re on the religious side if you believe that there’s more to this world than stuff.

AP: And the idea that rationalists want some proof of God’s existence?

DW: Ultimately, the proof is in presence. And if you feel God’s presence, that’s your proof. It says in Proverbs: “The fool says in his heart, ‘there is no God.’ It doesn’t say it in his head. It says it in his heart, because that’s where you feel God or don’t feel God.”

AP: So you either have it or don’t.

DW: No, you can cultivate it — like an appreciation for music or art. I’m not intrinsically a religious person. I cultivated that sense in myself. I really believe that. There are some people who have told me they’ve never doubted God. They are born with that talent, just like some people are born with perfect pitch. That’s not me. I have to work at it.

Abigail Pogrebin, a freelance journalist, author, and public speaker, is a Forward contributing writer. Follow her on Twitter. @apogrebin. David Wolpe is senior rabbi of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles. He can be found on twitter at @RabbiWolpe.

A mosaic of participating rabbis

Image by Angelie Zaslavsky

Still Small Voice: 18 Questions About God is a special project for the month of Elul, a traditional period of reflection and accountability. Click here to read the next interview in the series, and here to browse the collection.


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