Do the Bible’s stories actually connect us to God?

I sat quietly that morning near the rear of a parsha class that I attend weekly. Usually I sit closer to the action, but a certain melancholy based on the sometimes fatuous nature of traditional Torah explanations wafted in toward me that particular Shabbat.

The gifted teacher that the Rabbi is, he typically chooses a few key passages that describe an incident or episode worthy of discussion. This time, we dissected the respective motives of Joseph and his brothers when they had just arrived in Egypt with their father Jacob, with Joseph telling them where to reside and what to say (or not say) about themselves to the Egyptians. Was Joseph being manipulative? Were his brothers afraid that a still-angry Joseph would retaliate for their having sold him into slavery? Were they, alternatively, each totally honorable in their intentions? A story of dynamic human interaction, to be sure. And, as usual, the attending group, consisting largely of intelligent attendees possessed of Torah scholarship and knowledge about real world human dynamics, each aggressively weighed in.

Still, notwithstanding my backbencher status that morning, I couldn’t resist, despite the beckoning (maybe, remonstrating) plea from my friend seated nearby that I not do so: “Rabbi, you usually manage to bring Godliness to bear in these discussions. But how can this story somehow make me [or did I say, “us”] better relate to God?”  No disrespect at all to the Rabbi whom I greatly admire, I probably could ask the same question about the stories chosen most weeks.

At least for me, and especially without the arrogations by the scholarly rabbis of old, many of these stories have no facial spirituality to them whatever.  And if one were to consider those stories through the prism of the mind of an atheist or secular humanist, one might indeed gain as much about moral (or immoral) and ethical behavior from the stories – with God having no role whatsoever, or even existing for them.

My question to the Rabbi, which may have been taken rhetorically by the attendees, was met largely with laughter by the assembled – I’m known, after all, for more than occasional irreverence.  But this particular question was serious – I was struggling to find God in our weekly story. I wasn’t positive of the reason for the laughter. It could have been as simple as, “There he goes again”.  But maybe the others did find the spiritual connection I missed.  Maybe they didn’t care about the spirituality and came to class, instead, for such an intellectual discussion.  Or maybe they felt that intellectual discussion about the Torah’s teachings is itself a sufficient connection to God.

And what of that spirituality – are the words of the Torah intended to actually bring us closer to (a loving) God, or to be in fear of a remarkably different kind of God.  Are these stories, and the sometimes tortured rationalizations of ancient or even some contemporary rabbis who always have taken the hard line, utilized to bring us to heel rather than to appreciate and act with human decency?

To be sure, many lessons of ethical behavior can be learned from these stories – indeed, if sometimes by our learning to do the precise opposite of the conduct described in the text – without the need for God to have any role in our lives (or theirs). Unquestionably, I note at risk of being declared a heretic, atheists and even idol worshipers (assuming they still exist), can learn moral behavior from reading (even if not “learning”) the Torah!

All that said, if the entire – at least, principal – goal of Torah is to bring us closer to God, and I, for one, certainly want it to be, how can we interpret incidents of ungodly acts as bringing us closer to Him?  Do we actually connect better to God, for example, through Cain’s murder of his brother; through Jacob’s theft of Esau’s birthright; and through Joseph’s vengeful actions against his brothers, or their willingness to kill him?  Yes, of course, one might argue that one may better relate to God by learning how our forefathers failed.  However, those failures could have been committed by non-believers who had no interest whatsoever in a spiritual life with God. Is relating to God better accomplished because those mercurial stories just happen to be told in the Bible, rather than in a lay volume containing moralizing philosophical thought?

Ultimately, isn’t it so, the answer to the question presented here really boils down to what the Five Books of Moses really is.  Is it, simply, a history of the Jewish people (until the death of Moses)?  Is it a presentation of moral principles? Or is it a statement of the Jewish people’s obligations to God – morality, as viewed by contemporary mankind, having nothing to do with it at all. It lays out God’s demands, period!

At bottom, if studying the questionable rivalries in the Book of Genesis is to have any meaning for us as a “Godly experience”, we simply can’t accept the wayward conduct of “God’s children” by always rationalizing it – whether that conduct be, e.g., the defrauding of an addled parent for personal aggrandizement; the theft of a sibling’s birthright, however “birthright” might be defined; the lauding of a sibling over his brothers; the willingness to kill a spoiled brother who is favored by his father; or a brother’s acts of vengeance to retaliate for perceived past offense.

These episodes must necessarily be considered on two levels: the manner in which mankind actually dealt with itself (frequently, with wrongmindedness), and the price mankind must eventually pay for it, maybe at God’s hand. Will we finally acknowledge that God Himself recognizes the unethical and immoral acts committed even by his “chosen”, rather than as justifiable through tortured explanations that make heroes out of villains?  And will we see them warranting repudiation or punishment in a civilized society, and in an “afterlife” (whatever that might be)? It seems to me that if we do, these stories, indeed these iconic episodes, will help bring us closer – more relatable – to God. Godly people do absolutely commit wrong and God surely knows it as a part of life, so why don’t we? If we don’t see it, if we see condoning the non-condonable as acceptable, one might wonder whether God has taken a permanent furlough and we are, sadly, left to our own devices.

Finally, lest it go unsaid, these stories, especially those in Genesis, trouble us greatly precisely because they’re found in the Torah — so we expect them to be particularly meaningful, bringing us closer to God (in my view). If we are simply to consider them as literature, it may well be that Shakespeare, for example, is simply better at it— a better dramatist. While we enjoy Shakespeare, when we read or study him, unlike when we read or study the Torah, we’re not  troubled in a soulful way by the story he tells.  If there is worth in the Torah in bringing us closer to God, it seems that it must be about condemning conduct when it deserves condemnation, not soft pedaling it as if to maintain that our heroes always act heroically.

So to answer the question posed by the title: Yes, the Bible’s stories each help to connect us to God, if we are willing to accept what they really say.

About the Author
Joel Cohen is a white-collar criminal defense lawyer at Stroock in New York and previously a prosecutor. He speaks and writes on law, ethics and policy (NY Law Journal, The Hill and Law & Crime). He teaches a course on "How Judges Decide" at Fordham Law School and Cardozo Law School. He has published “Truth Be Veiled,” “Blindfolds Off: Judges on How They Decide” and his latest book, "I Swear: The Meaning of an Oath," as well as works of Biblical fiction including “Moses: A Memoir.” The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the Stroock firm or its lawyers.