Still Small Voice is a collection of 18 interviews with clergy 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.
Is God good? The question alone can feel like heresy. I’ve learned enough about Jewish theology to know that God’s goodness is a tent pole for believers. And God is explained not only as being good, but as demanding good —from us.
Deuteronomy tells us to do good: we have to offer food to the stranger, the fatherless and the widow; “open our hands” to the poor; not shut our hearts against the needy; pursue justice.
But I also know the barriers to a belief that God is good. These hurdles exist not only in the tragedies, illnesses or injustices that hurt “good” people (which many believers contend God controlled). They also exist in our foundational text — the Torah itself.
Many struggle to find God’s goodness in Genesis when God destroys all of humanity in a flood and zaps Aaron’s sons when they offer the wrong kind of worship fire. In Exodus, three thousand Israelites are ordered killed because they built the Golden Calf.
I know it’s simplistic to say that because God punishes harshly in the Torah, God’s character is in question. And there’s rabbinic thinking — ancient and current — that God evolved from such scorched-earth tactics, once it was clear the people learned right from wrong.
Does God punish us? Rabbi David Wolpe explores Abigail Pogrebin’s question in another installment in our series, Still Small Voice.
I have long believed personally in God’s goodness; I see it in my daily blessings, our tradition’s orientation towards gratitude, and the way the Torah and prophets remind us that piety is useless without doing good for others. But I have found it difficult to defend God when some ask that perennial question: if God is good, why do so many awful things happen?
Rabbi Adam Kligfeld started our interview on the subject by saying it helps to make it less absolute. “One of the ways I think of this question is not whether or not God is all good or all wretched,” he explained, “but what is the Torah trying to tell us about the malleability of us and of God — the willingness to see one’s own frailties and move through them?”
Kligfeld and I met on an educational trip to Israel in 2018, where we were in the same five-person discussion group. I admired then and since his almost Zen-like handling of hard questions: he pushed me intellectually — without being pushy.
As senior rabbi at Temple Beth Am in Los Angeles, a traditional Conservative synagogue, Kligfeld, 48, has introduced new modes of prayer, including niggunim — songs without words — meditation.
When I asked him to pick a text to help me understand his approach to God’s goodness, he selected three:
God is good to all, and God’s mercies are upon all of God’s creations. (Psalms 145:9)
Give thanks to God for God is good. (Psalms 136:1)
It is not good for a person to be alone. (Genesis 2:18)
Our conversation is below, edited for clarity and length. To read other interviews with other rabbis in our series, Still Small Voice: 18 questions about God, click here. Send (gentle) feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.
‘Goodness is the defeat of loneliness’
Abigail Pogrebin: When you talk about malleability, you’re saying even God trips up — has moments of non-goodness — and learns, from humans, to “move through them,” as you put it?
Rabbi Adam Kligfeld: For all of the Torah examples that you gave — where God seems to be ruthless, unloving, and uncaring, there are human interventions that show that the human condition can impact the divine condition.
And just as we’re supposed to imitate God and we’re commanded to love God — even before we necessarily see God loving us — there are instances of humans influencing God. Abraham, Moshe and others put a mirror up to God and say, “This is what you currently look like, God. Is this how you want to be?”
AP: So God and humans school each other in what it means to be good.
AK: If we see Torah as a core, human, anthropological text, with divine stuff in it, it could be a way of introducing us to a God that aims for goodness, that grows in God’s own understanding of what is good — tov — and what is just and right, and both chastises humanity when we fail, and accepts chastisement from humanity when God’s self is not where God ought to be.
AP: So what, very basically, is tov? What does it mean for God to be “good”?
AK:Tov is, among other things, an antidote to loneliness. In the second chapter of Bereishit [Genesis], we get to a wonderful verse, which seems to describe what tov might be: “Lo tov heyot ha’adam levado”; “It is not good for a person to be alone.”
If we read it that way — that God’s response to seeing Adam alone is to provide a companion — then the absence of that companion is not tov. Goodness is the defeat of loneliness.
AP: I might put that on my fridge: “Goodness is the defeat of loneliness.”
AK:“Lo tov” — it is not tov to be alone means that it is tov to be with another. Or maybe even better: It is tov to help someone else be with another. And so perhaps when we say the verse in Psalms, “Give thanks to God, for God is good,” another way of translating that is, “Give thanks to a God who is so committed to none of us being lonely.”
The tables were turned on Still Small Voice’s Abigail Pogrebin this past week. Listen to Yehuda Kurtzer interview her about the series, her beliefs and more on his podcast here.
AP: Does that mean God is a divine matchmaker?
AK: One of the ways that we embody God’s tov is to make shidduchim [matches] and great friendships, bonds and partnerships. And also, in our relationship with God, we are existentially less lonely, because if we have a prayer-relationship, a study-relationship and a searching-relationship with God, then it may keep at bay and assuage some of the profound loneliness of what it means to be a human being.
AP: Before you go on, are you comfortable saying personally if your prayer life — or faith life — keeps loneliness at bay for you?
‘I expect most from myself’
AK: I’m definitely comfortable answering, “Sometimes.” I pray all the time. I get theological, philosophical and existential comfort from praying sometimes. And I’m okay with that.
I’ll make it personal: I am married all the time. And I get direct, immediate benefit from that bond some of the time. That’s not in any way an insult to my wife or my marriage. It’s the fact that we engage in ongoing, long-term behaviors to make a relationship that produces, over time, a tremendous bulwark against loneliness. But it doesn’t mean that every individual attempt is ecstatic.
So I expect nothing more from my God than from my wife and my marriage, and nothing more from my wife and my marriage than I expect from God. I expect most from myself: to offer the prayers, the kiss, the obedience, and for that to be my contribution to a relationship that hopefully, over years, will be so much better than not having been in it.
AP: So to address this current moment, if I’m your congregant coming to you and asking, “I don’t know if God’s hand is in the virus or is in George Floyd’s death.”
Can you help us understand God’s hand, or God’s goodness, in these painful things?
AK: I don’t see God’s hand in the individual encounter between that officer and George Floyd. I definitely reject what I sometimes call a “football theology” — where the wide receiver catches the touchdown in the last second of the game to win, and in the post-game interview, he thanks God for being with him so he could make the catch.
That makes me want to say, “Does that mean that God was against the cornerback who was trying to block the guy from catching the ball?”
It’s too convenient. I am not willing to pray to a God who preferred the wide receiver wearing the green uniform over the defender wearing the red. That’s not my divinity. And since I can’t see God in those mundane moments, I also don’t see God directly — God’s hand, God forbid — on the neck of George Floyd.
What I want to say to someone who feels that God is absent in the world is the age-old answer given by millions of sages: go exemplify God’s goodness and God’s God-ness in the way that you respond to these events. Don’t look for cues from the heavens.
Listen with your ear close, and your heart closer, to the voices of goodness in your tradition, identify those voices of goodness as godliness and go make it more real and visible in the world.
That, to me, is where God comes in. God comes in by listening to the loftiest and most beautiful sounds from religious tradition and reifying that in the world around you.
AP: Is that also how you talk about God to a family that loses someone too soon and feels somehow betrayed?
AK: I tell every family who is dealing with grief that when you hear the news that your loved one dies or you get to the funeral and we tear the ribbon, we’re going to say a blessing. We’re going to bless God, which is totally counterintuitive to what you’re feeling. We’re going to bless God — Baruch dayan ha’emet— “Blessed is the true judge.”
And what I say to them is that I don’t believe our tradition has an overly romantic view of God — that God is only with us when things are great and absent when things are bad.
The Talmud says explicitly: Just as you bless and invoke God when things are good, you must bless and invoke God when things are difficult — not blaming God. Acknowledge and invoke God’s presence in that moment, so that the moment is more pregnant with divine possibility.
So if we see that a baby taking his or her first breath is a moment that defies description, full of mystery, if that’s a “God Moment,” then it’s also a “God Moment” when someone takes their last breath, which also defies understanding and is mysterious.
It’s sad, but that’s a God moment, too. We ask ourselves, “How are God people supposed to react to this moment?” Not, “Why did God take my loved one?” God didn’t take my loved one. Humanity is mortal. My loved one was born, my loved one died.
What are God-Persons supposed to do in that moment?
‘I don’t believe that God does’
AP: So if all events are God Moments, and our labor is in the response — even to hard things, what is God’s labor these days?
AK: Going back to one of my earlier comments that God’s goodness is the antidote to loneliness, there’s a beloved Talmud text that says since the beginning of time, all God has been doing is making shidduchs — lining up people to be with each other.
It’s obviously a very heteronormative text, and a little bit fanciful, but I like the idea of God being present in people finding one another and being able to share lives with other people.
At the same time, I don’t mind my saying that even though I’m a rabbi and I’m a pretty traditional, conservative rabbi and a rabbi of faith and action, I don’t believe in, or pray to, a God who does. I believe that I do as a result of what I believe in. Belief in God stirs me to do the right and the good. That, to me, is belief.
Abigail Pogrebin, a freelance journalist, author, and public speaker, is a Forward contributing writer (email email@example.com). Follow her on Twitter, @apogrebin. Rabbi Adam Kligfeld is the senior rabbi of Temple Beth Am in L.A.
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.
Abigail Pogrebin has become a rare voice among American Jews, as a journalist and an explorer who shares with refreshing wit and candor her path to finding a meaningful Jewish life.
Is God good?