June 27, 2012
Open Letter to Ellie About God
What follows is a response to “My God Problem” posted by Julie Wiener at the Jewish Week, regarding some difficult questions her eight-year-old daughter Ellie has been asking about God.
You have been asking some excellent questions about God. Have you ever heard someone say, “Ask a silly question, get a silly answer?” Well, as unfair as it may seem, one of the ways you can tell you have asked a really good question is you may not get an answer at all. Good questions are the ones that make people stop and think.
Since the questions you are asking are so good, I, like your Mom, don’t have set answers for you. What I do have is some information, and some more questions for you and your Mom to think about.
Your Mom may have already told you that the word “Israel” means “struggles with God.” That is what the Jewish people do. We struggle with God. Some people, who don’t know our traditions so well, might mistakenly think your struggle means you are in the process of separating yourself from Judaism or from God. However, I see you as a person who is entering into an important conversation that has been going on among our people for thousands of years. Your questions mean you are one of us.
Below are my questions for you:
Have you considered who may have written the Torah, and why?
Some people think God wrote the Torah, with every story written exactly the way it actually happened. Some think every word, even every letter, came directly from God, and as such has deep meaning.
Others think the Torah was written by ordinary human beings, with human goals and motivations in mind. There is a group of scholars who believe the Torah is made up of stories written by a number of different people over a long period of time, and then pieced together by others. In fact, there are books, like “The Bible Sources Revealed” by Richard Elliott Friedman that show who they think wrote which parts.
To address one of your specific questions, scholars like Friedman believe the part in the Torah that says God hardened Pharaoh’s heart was added by one of these other authors some time after the original story had been written. So maybe that’s just something someone made up to make the story more dramatic, even if it makes the story less accurate. In other words, some of the things in the Torah may say more about the people who wrote it than they say about God.
If the Torah isn’t the direct word of God, should we still study it or follow what it says?
Even if the Torah wasn’t written directly by God, it’s still possible that it contains things God wants us to know and to do. Even works of complete fiction (and I’m not saying the Torah is a work of fiction) can serve to teach us important ideas and values. The Torah has brought meaning into the lives of millions of people over thousands of years. It contains a lot of wisdom, and has served us well. I think it would be a mistake to throw it out just because it may not have been written directly by God.
Does God have to be perfect?
Some of your questions imply you think God should be perfect, as if you think God shouldn’t get angry or make bad decisions or say mean things. One of the things I like about the Torah is that none of the heroes are perfect, including God. Some people, like Abraham, even argue with God, and are able to change God’s mind. This shows me that sometimes God may make bad decisions. The imperfection of everyone in the Torah, including God, helps remind me that I can expect to make mistakes, too, no matter how hard I try to do the right thing. That doesn’t mean I should give up. God didn’t.
I bet sometimes your Mom or Dad get angry or do other things you don’t like, and you still love them and know they want the best for you. I bet sometimes you get angry or make bad decisions, and your parents still love you, too. I don’t think we have to be perfect for God to love us. Maybe God learns and evolves over time like we do – after all, we were all made in God’s image. Is it fair for us to expect God to be perfect all the time?
Ellie, I’m glad you are asking these questions, and I hope you will keep asking them. I hope what I have written here helps you to ask even more great questions, and I hope you will keep speaking about them with your Mom. You know better than I do what a special person she is. Your questions show me you are special, too.
With love and respect,