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Is God our enemy? A midrash for the Three Weeks

How should God react to the suffering of His people? Should He rage? Comfort? Primo Levi says He should spit. Surely He should help
Attribution: Daniel Hagerman, WikiCommons

The Three Weeks always rouse us to wonder whether and how far our Jewish pain is shared by God. The Bible constantly assures us that in time of calamity God suffers with us. Harold Kushner’s book, “When Bad Things Happen to Good People,” says that when things go wrong, God sits shiva. Suffering is not limited to human beings but extends to God too, and we expect Him to strike out in the interests of morality and to protect the people of Israel… and Himself.

Though the Bible is certain that God is on our side, Primo Levi said, “If I were God I would spit” (Survival in Auschwitz, 1961). Spitting, of course, is not very elegant, but it is a sometimes necessary mark of disapproval.

Why should God want to spit? There are several possible answers. On one level, it shows His sympathy because He is sorry for us, though maybe He thinks we have not responded properly and might have angered Him in some way, so that, as the Book of Lamentations says, He has become our enemy. He would spit on a hostile force for its cruelty and callousness. On another level He might decide to spit on the world for pushing Him aside and ignoring His moral dictates.

Primo Levi has a section in “If This is a Man” (1959) about the “selection” process in Auschwitz. It depicts “old Kuhn praying aloud” and thanking God that he has not been chosen for annihilation. Levi says, “If I was God, I would spit at Kuhn’s prayer.” Does this mean that Kuhn thinks that all one needs to do is to pray, and this annoys God? Is it that He scorns the piety of an “old Kuhn” who offers a prayer for being still alive? Is He a God who wants more than piety? Maybe God is spitting on “old Kuhn” for imagining that the Nazis care about God Himself, about prayer… or about the Kuhns of this world. Strangely, evilly, some Nazis went to church on Sunday and on Monday they killed babies.

Kuhn is the symbol of victimhood. By praying and trusting in God, even if there is nothing more that he thinks he can do, he feels calmer. He has no guarantee that his reprieve will last. He cannot be certain what will follow, but, for the moment, he is still there. He presumably hopes God will keep him alive and relatively intact; will avenge and rescue the other victims; will punish the Nazis; will exercise His omnipotence by weakening and overpowering the enemy and preventing their getting away with their inhumanity; and will assure the victims as to His love and support. Kuhn presumably feels better to know God is there; he hopes he will survive further, and he has faith that he will see the enemy finally defeated.

Does Kuhn have options other than merely praying? He could choose to do some or all of the following:

  1. To suffer martyrdom and die for the sake of God.
  2. To remain silent, like Aaron after his sons died.
  3. To call on God to punish the enemy and avenge the dead.
  4. To wonder why God is not taking firm action now without delaying.
  5. To confront God and argue with Him, not just to pray.
  6. Like Bialik at the time of the pogroms, to rage against God.
  7. Like shtetl people, to say: “If God lived in my village I would break His windows.”

Presumably God chooses to spit because He thinks Kuhn is too weak.

An Australian navy chaplain asked me at a military conference, “Can I shout at God?” The Jewish answer is yes. Not that it’s so easy. Richard Rubenstein sadly says: “There’s no answer…the cosmos is cold and unfeeling…God is not listening….” Rubenstein’s is not the God of the Bible. The biblical God is neither cold nor unfeeling, neither unaware nor unmoved when good people suffer.  Adapting Shakespeare, we ask, “Has not God feelings?” We ascribe human feelings to Him because human language is all we have. We think it is natural for Him to show strong emotions, though we expect the emotions earlier, before our pain is impossible to bear. If He is angry, so are we. Not just with the enemy but with God. Surely He ought to help us. What do He and we say to each other?

God is angry. He says, “The axis of evil nations and their chief dictator have misused the free will that I give to every human being; My world has brushed Me aside and said, ‘You’re irrelevant: we make the decisions, not You!’  My Jews don’t deserve their suffering and I shudder at their plight.” We reply, “It’s all very well for You to shudder, O God, but You don’t always act morally! Levi Yitzhak had a tailor who said, ‘I admit I steal little pieces of cloth… but You make orphans!’”

“Silence!” says God. “Or else I shall turn the world back to water!” We reply, “We suffer for You every day! Why not intervene now, why wait for later? Why postpone Your concern?” God says, “I weep and suffer with You. I sit shiva, I feel your pain!” We reply, “So why are You paralyzed and unable to act?” God says, “Give Me time!  Don’t despair of My salvation!”  We reply, “How long will it be, O Lord? We need help now.” God says, “Be patient, O man; the time will come!” We reply, “We need support, not advice. Why don’t You act, why don’t You save us? We’re desperate for You to extricate us from the mire!”

God says, “I use the agency of a willing enemy like Pharaoh, then I punish him.” Shocked, we reply, “Surely You’re not saying Hitler the Wicked (may his name be blotted out) is Your servant?” God says, “In some sense, yes. You can be assured that he will end up destroyed and eradicated — but I have to wait for the right moment!” We reply, “Do it Your way, but do it now!”

God says, “Don’t leave everything to Me!”  We say, “There are things that only You can do… not everything (that would be abdication), not nothing (that would be arrogance).”

God says, “I saw you bruised and battered. I saw great communities devastated and ruined, great lives ended in Auschwitz, great books burned, great faith blotted out. Surely you saw Me come out of the shadows and rebuild life for the survivors!” Man replies, “Am Yisra’el chai! We thank You for giving us new opportunities and new hopes — but we believe You could have acted much sooner. We also implore You, make sure no paganist dark night happens again, and if it does, please bring light earlier!”

About the Author
Rabbi Raymond Apple was for many years Australia’s highest profile rabbi and the leading spokesman on Jewish religious issues. After serving congregations in London, Rabbi Apple was chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, for 32 years. He also held many public roles, particularly in the fields of chaplaincy, interfaith dialogue and Freemasonry, and is the recipient of several national and civic honours. Now retired, he lives in Jerusalem.
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