When World War II ended, I was four years old. Even at that age I knew about the Holocaust. When American soldiers liberated the people in the concentration camps, films came back that were shown in the newsreels that local theaters projected before and between feature films. I saw the gaunt figures staring through the fences, and watched our soldiers moving piles of stiff, naked, dead bodies.
My parents gave me a religious education and I was bar mitzvah at 13. But from the safety of America I nevertheless grew up with a strong and deep anger at any God who could allow such things to happen, and now as an adult, at one who could allow repeated, continuing brutal, genocidal attacks in many places around the globe.
When I graduated from law school, I joined the Peace Corps and served in Iran. One of the men I knew there was Murray N., an archaeologist. One evening, Murray asked me if I would babysit for his children while he and his wife did something they needed to do. I was happy to oblige but Murray wanted to do something nice for me, and he put in my hands a new translation of the Bible from the ancient Hebrew, on which he himself had worked. Before they left, Murray showed me some of the dramatic changes in the translation.
The signature words of the Jewish people that I had grown up with were translated as “Hear oh Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.” But the new translation about which Murray was excited read: “Hear oh Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord alone.” Suddenly in that new translation one saw a path to monotheism, not a fait accompli. The Lord is our only God implies that there are other Gods but they are not ours. That concept of a competition among Gods makes sense of the vain God that inhabits portions of the Old Testament. God punished those who strayed, who did not show total obedience, and rewarded Abraham for obedience to God in what was truly an abomination, Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his own son the way that lambs were sacrificed. God was angry about how people prayed and how they depicted or understood God.
But that vain and angry God makes no sense in a monotheist world in which there are no other Gods. By the end of the Old Testament, the image of God has changed radically to a loving, caring God, a God of justice.
If there is only one God, it makes no sense for God to care how we address Him or Her, standing up or on our knees, in Latin, Arabic, Hebrew or English. “Justice, justice shalt thou pursue” makes far more sense for a solitary God.
For me, the only God I can respect is a God in tears about the great brutality of this world that God seems unable to control. I refuse to believe in a God that could have gotten it right.
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