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February 10, 2012  RSS feed
Rabbinically Speaking

Text: T T T

Rabbinically Speaking

Hijacking God
By Rabbi Richard Birnholz Congregation Schaarai Zedek

When Joseph, the second in command in Egypt, stood in front of his brothers who had sold him into slavery many years before, he told them that they should not fear retaliation. Why? Because he believed that while they meant their treatment of him for evil, God meant it for good. Joseph suggests that it was God who led the brothers to sell Joseph so he would end up in Egypt, store food and be able to feed his brothers when famine forced them out of Canaan.

This explanation establishes the comforting notion that bad things which afflict us are really good things in disguise because they are part of a greater divine plan we cannot perceive. How does Joseph know that his brothers’ evil deed was part of a greater plan for good? That question has always bothered me because there are too many unhappy outcomes that leave us wondering: where was God?

Reading God’s mind is dangerous business. Linking outcomes with assumed cosmic plans is even more treacherous. It leaves an opening for people with questionable agendas to self anoint those agendas with pseudo-Divine oil and call the outcome the work of God’s hands. This is the kind of God play that gives religion a bad name.

I am glad that Joseph landed in Egypt, that he attained high office and that the combination of the two saved the lives of our Patriarchs. But I find nothing in Torah to convince me that this was all part of God’s plan and not sheer coincidence.

The danger of reading our own tainted agenda into our interpretation of Torah is problematic when it comes to theology – to “God talk.” It can be even more harmful when it is applied to human behavior.

One only has to look at the way the Bible was used to justify slavery and segregation in the South to see that coopting God’s power for our own benefit can lead to great injustice. Sixty years ago, segregationists did not first read the Bible and get the idea of slavery from it. Rather they brought their desire to perpetuate racial discrimation to the words of the Bible and then used ancient biblical law to justify what they wanted to do. Had the sequence been the other way around, they would have similarly read the biblical law about stoning to death a stubborn and rebellious son and taken that cue to follow this practice as well. Reading God’s mind is both folly and fraught with danger.

I believe that God has a divine plan, but I do not know how it works or have any insight into what it is. I know from Jewish teachings that my job is to help make the world more just and that I must leave the rest to God. Besides, it is a matter of logic. If I really knew what God knows, then I would not need God in the first place.

Rabbinically Speaking is published as a public service by the Jewish Press in cooperation with the Tampa Rabbinical Association which assigns the column on a rotating basis.

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