It’s Complicated with Judaism

by Kara A. Kaufman

A rabbi once told me that Judaism is not a religion.

I was confused.

Ethnicity? Nope. Culture? Wrong again. After pausing just long enough, the rabbi spilled his secret. Judaism is not a religion, he told me. It’s a relationship.

In the rabbi’s opinion, the primary purpose of every element of Judaism is to strengthen our relationship with God. We pray to verbally connect to God; we obey mitzvot even if we do not fully understand them (just as we would—or should—if a loved one asks for a favor without providing a full explanation). On Friday nights, we rise to greet the Sabbath bride. Judaism is a labor of love.

In his new book, In the Whirlwind: God and Humanity in Conflict, Yale Law School Professor Robert A. Burt analyzes the Bible through the framework of its relationships. As Burt noted during a recent talk in Washington, DC, he is not a theologian or a biblical scholar. Yet, after teaching an annual seminar entitled “The Book of Job and Injustice,” he became fascinated with the Bible’s deep insights into the human condition. Burt applies a psychoanalytic approach to biblical texts, relying on religious scholars for added insights into the nuances of Hebrew words and phrases. He studies what is written in ink and what is unstated between the lines in order to better understand—for himself and his students—the motivations behind the actions of the many figures in the Bible. It is as if he zooms in on these biblical narratives and asks, “What’s in it for humanity?” and then, “What’s in it for God?” Burt concludes that, at a fundamental level, both humanity and God seek love. “In God’s last appearance in the Hebrew Bible, in the Book of Job,” Burt writes, “his command for unconditional love seems to explode with primal force.”

As with the relationships between parent and child or teacher and student, the connection between God and humanity hinges on authority, argues Burt. At first, God insists on “unconditional obedience.” But once humans break God’s initial trust during their brief stay in the Garden of Eden, God reverts to other tactics. He makes promises, first to Noah, and then to Abraham and his descendants, then invitations (with the Israelites at Sinai) and then again makes commands and doles out punishment (with Moses’ declamation in Deuteronomy, as well as Kings Saul and David), changing tones and varying his offers each time in an attempt to craft the ideal roadmap for connection. His motive? Love and intimacy, which, as Burt argues, is embedded in his covenant at Sinai and in the first commandment—that the Jewish people should have “no other gods beside Me.”

However, humanity does not always take the bait. One of In the Whirlwind’s most intriguing arguments is that God’s authority and control is not perfect. Rather, it is rife with trials and mistrials, steps forward and steps back. “God persistently attempts to exert control over the humans he created, if not over the entire universe,” Burt writes, “and he repeatedly fails.” Humans frequently resist God’s authority. Moses and Job openly argue with God. The Jewish people grumble through the desert, fashion a golden calf, and go through spiritual “fallings out.”

As Burt’s title, God and Humanity in Conflict, aptly illustrates, love requires conflict if it is to succeed. I grew up thinking that Judaism was a religion, culture, ethnicity, way of life—yet never once would I have described it as a relationship. But maybe this new classification is merited. Perhaps biblical narratives give us a model of an interaction with God and authority that is not perfect, but instead grows through struggle, questions, and conflict. Perhaps our spiritual and emotional connection to God is more “human” than we may think.

And perhaps that is also what makes it so divine.

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