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Does God believe we can be better?

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.

If we take Yom Kippur seriously — brave internal reckoning, real repentance, and a commitment to do better — it suggests we believe in some force that judges and forgives.

Call this force God or not, we sign onto the idea that someone or something will absolve us, give us another chance to improve.

Does that mean that God always thinks we’re capable of being better?

Rabbi Ari Lamm, chief executive of Bnai Zion, an organization that supports educational and humanitarian projects in the United States and Israel, says yes.

I approached him to talk about the divine as part of my months-long exploration of the divine, Still Small Voice: 18 Questions about God.

Lamm is 33, earned a PhD in ancient Judaism and Christianity at Princeton University, descends from rabbinic royalty and was previously special advisor to the president of Yeshiva University.

He is unequivocal that God has faith in our potential, which is a reassuring message to hear right before confessing all the ways we’ve tripped up.

“We don’t have a Moses among us now,” he told me. “We don’t have a King David among us. But at the same time, you can look back through history and look at this story of incredible growth, how we’ve gone from being infants in the garden of Eden, where every possible need was cared for us by a benevolent parent-God, to taking responsibility for a sovereign territory all on our own in the land of Israel.

“We, as a Jewish people, have opportunities to do and accomplish things that are good and right, that God loves and approves — that our ancestors could only dream of.”

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.

‘A relationship implies a dialogue’
Ari Lamm

Image by Angelie Zaslavsky

Rabbi Ari Lamm: When you think about the most essential relationship that there could possibly be — the relationship between God and humankind, I think you have to ask: Does God have the same expectations of us that we have of our family, friends and colleagues: can we grow?

Abigail Pogrebin: When you say “we,” are you referring to each of us improving personally or the Jewish people?

AL: I actually mean it in both of those senses. Does God expect that I, as a person, Ari Lamm, can become a better version of myself? Can the nature of that individual relationship with God change?

And it also raises the question: can our collective relationship as the Jewish people with our God and our creator change? Can that relationship go through development?

AP: When you talk about “relationship with God,” are you positing that we all have one?

AL: I think the answer is undoubtedly yes. That applies both to the believer as well as to the person who doesn’t find him or herself believing. A relationship implies a dialogue.

AP: About what?

AL: Our struggle to make sense of everyday life. I often say that to the extent that there is a conflict between science and religion, it seems pretty obvious to me that science has, by far, the higher bar to clear in making sense of our life.

‘The world that we live in is extremely strange’

AP: Religion explains the unexplainable better than science?

AL: The world that we live in is extremely strange, as anybody who’s lived in it for more than five minutes can tell you. Religion has a much more intuitive account of everyday life. The idea that everything can be reduced to equations, facts and figures, just seems incongruous with the experience of lived life.

AP: So in a sense, proof of God is the fact that the world is unprovable.

AL: I think, over the course of our time on this rotating sphere Earth, if you are anything like the average person — who may or may not believe by the way — you’re constantly struggling to make sense of all the strange things that happen to you in the vicissitudes of everyday experience. Many people identify that mystery, even if they wouldn’t call it God — they just call it real life. And it’s in that struggle, that desire to cope with the weirdness around us, that you’ll find your relationship with God, whether you characterize it that way or not. I think that’s the kind of relationship that we’re talking about.

AP: Have you always been a believer?

AL: Always. I’m a believer not because I examined all the other options, weighed them equally and made the choice to be a believer.

I’m a believer in the God of Israel and the Jewish tradition because I was raised in a deeply committed Jewish family, and I find there to be something morally compelling about all of the collective sacrifices and effort that my ancestors put into stewarding and developing that tradition that I think is binding upon me.

AP: Does this construct — that God believes we can improve — apply to those who weren’t raised as you were?

AL: If someone said to me, “I did not grow up in your tradition and actually my ancestors are Buddhists or from a Hindu tradition, and I am doing my best to live out the highest values in that tradition,” I would actually not only accept that, but encourage it. Because one of the unique things about the Jewish tradition is that we actually don’t require that everybody become Jewish.

When we look forward to the redemptive era — the culmination of history in the Jewish sense, we don’t look forward to an era in which everybody is going to be Jewish. We look forward to an era in which everybody is going to be the best version of their tradition.

That’s why we’re not a proselytizing religion, nor are we a conquering religion. We’re not allowed to go out and actively recruit people to join us.

AP: How would you then encapsulate the Jewish mission?

AL: What we are expected to do is create a model society that holds up a mirror to the rest of the world and shows them a world both as it is, but also as it could be.

‘God has taken the step of trusting us more’

AP: When you say you were “raised in a deeply committed Jewish family,” can you expand on that?

AL: On my father’s side, my great-great-grandfather, Rabbi Yehoshua Baumol, was an early rabbinic authority, who made his way to these shores from Europe.

His nephew and son-in-law, Rabbi Yosef Baumol, was the founder of the Crown Heights Yeshiva, which is still famous to this day.

My paternal grandfather, Rabbi Norman Lamm, was the president of Yeshiva University, a first-rate theologian, and in my admittedly-prejudiced opinion, I think the greatest American Jewish orator who ever lived.

And my maternal great-grandfather, a fellow by the name of Rabbi Tzvi Aryeh Senders, for whom I’m named, was one of the preeminent ritual slaughterers in the United States, and actually wrote the classical textbook on kosher meat preparation that’s still used by traditionalist Jews today.

AP: Wow. That’s a little bit of pressure.

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.

AL: A teacher of mine once said that, “Genealogy like that is like a bunch of zeros; unless you put a “1” in front of them, it’s not really worth anything.”

AP: Let’s go to the text you sent me in order to flesh out your thinking.

AL: The text is from the Tosefta, which is one of the earliest rabbinic documents. In this passage, what it basically says is, we don’t have prophets anymore and yet what do we have? People like Hillel.

AP: One of the most famous, revered ancient rabbis.

AL: Yes, of all the greatest post-biblical sages in Jewish history, Hillel is sort of the signature wise man, whose authority and influence essentially launches a religious tradition.

What happens in this passage is that the Rabbis mark the loss of prophecy not as a tragedy, but rather as a transition to the period of Hillel.

When the latter prophets – Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi – died, the holy spirit ceased from Israel. However, He still communicated with them via the sound of a voice. An incident occurred in which the sages gathered into the upper chamber of the house of Guriah in Jericho, and the sound of a voice emerged and said to them: “There is here a person among you who is suitable to receive the holy spirit but will not because the current generation is unworthy of this.” The sages cast their eyes upon Hillel the Elder. (Tosefta Sotah 13.3)

AP: So “the period of Hillel” as you put it is the period of rabbis — humans, not prophets — doing the work God requires.

AL: Yes. First we had direct unfiltered access to God, (the revelation of Mount Sinai), then we had mediated access to the voice of God through the prophets, then eventually we had to make do without that connection at all.

The rabbis see the transition from prophet to rabbi not necessarily as a tragedy or a decline, but rather as an opportunity for growth, for human beings to actually take more control of the reins of history. We have reached the point in our spiritual maturity where we don’t need a prophet to directly tell us how we should behave. God has taken the step of trusting us more.

AP: The parents cede control.

‘You are going to fall off your bike’

AL: The parents take off the training wheels on your bike. God is saying, OK, now you ride around for a little bit and see how it feels. And of course, inevitably we’re going to stumble; there are terrible moments of destruction in Jewish history where, on account of either our sins or the cruelty of others, things go awry.

Inevitably when your parents take off the training wheels, you are going to fall off your bike, but the main thing is you’re the one steering now.

I think the Rabbis conceive of Jewish history in the very same way: we take greater control of what it means to grow — both as a people and as a society.

AP: So in your text, is Hillel a stand-in for us average Jews?

AL: There’s that moment in this tractate where God says, Listen, if we were back in the olden days, Hillel would have gotten the Holy Spirit and been a prophet. But we’re not back in the old days. We’re now. And therefore Hillel is just a plain old rabbi who’s not a prophet. He’s just a plain old human being.

What the rabbis are therefore saying is that maybe Hillel can’t be a Jeremiah or an Isaiah; but he can be something just as great — the founder of rabbinic Judaism. So this text, which is at the same time marking the death of something is also marking the birth of something.

AP: But it’s not saying, “You, too, can be a Hillel.” God is not positing that, “Everybody now can carry my word or hear me.”

AL: I think that actually is the implication. The transition from prophet to rabbi is a democratization of the divine connection.

I think everybody should aspire to be like a Hillel. And I think that is something that we believe is achievable. To be someone learned in Jewish texts and values, to be a representative of God’s values in wider human society is something that we can all do. And that’s a sign of our maturity as a species and a people.

‘How can I possibly have done better?’’

AP: Can you apply that paradigm to this modern crisis we’re living though? Are we capable of doing better in the midst of a plague?

AL: What I’m about to outline is very volatile, so I think it’s important to couch it with careful language. I think what the religious tradition does best is that it doesn’t demand, but it suggests to a believer that the best way for you to cope with tragedy is both to ask, “Is it possible that I am in some way responsible for this?” And: “Can I better myself in order to remove myself as a potential cause of anything bad?”

I want to distinguish that very carefully from a distinct mode of religious engagement, which is when people say that YOU are the cause of all the bad things happening in the world, and YOU have to go and improve YOURself. That is what the Book of Job rightly condemns.

But I do think it’s a healthy thing that religion asks each one of us to look at ourselves and say, “What have I done wrong? How can I possibly become better?”

‘I question your sense of reality’

AP: I want to get back to the idea that prophecy ended. You’re not the first rabbi to tell me we have no prophets any more; you all seem to accept that as a given. But skeptics might say, there never were prophets in the first place. It’s all made up.

AL: I don’t want to sound harsh, but that sounds to me like when my daughter has a tantrum because it’s bedtime and she’ll come up with the most ludicrous excuses for why she should stay up longer. That doesn’t change the reality that it’s bedtime.

To say it in a more politic way: if somebody truly believes that the world is such a straightforward, easily understandable place, that any claim to supernatural enlightenment and wisdom should prima facie be rejected, I suppose I can do little for that person.

If someone is really and truly committed to a world and a human lived experience that is so orderly that neither God nor prophets can be allowed, I question your sense of reality, but there’s little I can do to help you.

But if you’re the kind of person who may not be a believer — at least in organized religion — but you are open to the basic strangeness of human life and experience, even if you’re not a Jew, even if you’re spiritual but not religious, that’s the kind of person I’d love to have a conversation with.

Abigail Pogrebin, author of My Jewish Year; 18 Holidays, One Wondering Jew, is a Forward contributing writer. Follow her on Twitter. @apogrebin. Rabbi Ari Lamm is chief executive of the B’nai Zion Foundation, @AriLamm @bnaizion

Mosaic of 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 previous interview in the series, and here to browse the collection.


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