Is God a Work in Progress?

Alex Braver
January 29, 2013
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The story of the Bible is the story of God and God’s work in progress: humanity.  But humanity has a way of constantly surprising God, and throughout the books of the Hebrew Bible, we see God test out many strategies for dealing with this strange new creature.  And in a way that is somewhat counterintuitive for those of us who think of God as all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-good, many of these strategies don’t seem to really work at first.  So, maybe it’s worth thinking about God as a work in progress, too??

Let’s take a moment to think about some of the ways that God shows up in the Biblical narrative:

God “walks around” in the Garden of Eden and asks rhetorical questions directly to his first few creations: “Where are you, Adam and Eve?”  “Where is your brother, Cain?”  God opens the celestial floodgates to drown the entire planet, and rains fire down from heaven onto particularly bad neighborhoods.  God appears as a disembodied voice to Abraham saying “Leave your homeland!” and “Sacrifice your son!”  God sends angels disguised as humans to deliver pregnancy-test results to Sarah, and appears in a nighttime vision of a stairway to heaven, and sends a dreams of starving cows at just the right moment to just the right person so that our hero Joseph can interpret it correctly.

God sends plagues and splits the sea and appears in fire and cloud, in shofar blasts and in an overwhelming voice from Sinai.  But God also dwells in the midst of the people in a tent, and spends an entire book detailing how God’s presence can be maintained there through a regime of ritual purity and animal sacrifice.  God makes the earth swallow up a rebellion against Moses, and speaks through the mouth of a talking donkey.  God sentences an entire generation of Israelites to death, but God also promises the land to their children.

God’s presence is made known through the strength of Israel’s armies reconquering the land of Israel from the Canaanites, and God’s presence comes to dwell in a massive Temple in Jerusalem.  God punishes Kings and saves them, plays politics and stands outside politics.  God speaks through prophets, filling them so fully with the divine pathos that they have no choice but to scream and shout and sing, and God speaks to them as a heartbroken parent whose child has rebelled and as a jilted lover whose partner has cheated.  God appears in the well-worn image of the bearded king on the throne, and in esoteric symbols of four-faced animal creatures bearing a flying chariot covered with eyes.  God destroys God’s own house, even while weeping over its destruction.  And even then, God appears in Persian exile with Esther through acts of random chance and luck, even though God is not mentioned.

The point, as Heschel would put it, is that God’s project is to be “in search of man”, and that this search is unending.  From this perspective, the Biblical narrative as a whole is the story of the continuing struggle to make God’s pet project—humanity–work out as intended.

We haven’t entirely given up the search, either; the search is mutual.  We still look for God in Talmudic law and Kabbalsitic mysticism, in medieval philosophy and liturgical poetry, in Hassidic spirituality and Zionist nationalism, in modern calls to justice and equality and in new ways I can only begin to imagine.  God is found equally in the burning bush and in the burning mountain, in the still small voice and in the voice of the shofar.  Why can’t we also imagine a God that can be found both in the synagogue and at a protest, in an art studio and at a yoga studio?

I am an observant Jew and a rabbinical student, and in many ways my struggle to seek God, or be sought by God, is often defined by Jewish law and ritual and text.  But I am fortunate to live in a time where Jewish engagement is pluralistic and multi-vocal, where we have open to us many paths to engage with Judaism.  Just as God experiments with many different ways of reaching humanity, maybe we can follow God’s example and experiment with many different ways of reaching God.  Our Judaisms themselves should be works in progress.  The way I think about Judaism and spirituality is very different than it was in my childhood, or a few years ago, or even a few months ago.  At times I feel very connected to books, at others times to prayer, at other times to spirituality and my emotional life.  They are all tools in the toolbox of Judaism, all ways I try to work on the project of finding and being found by God.

We’re told to “seek God where God may be found” (Isaiah 55:6), yet in the same book we read “the whole earth is filled with God’s glory!” (6:3), because anywhere we look, and in any way we look, we can find the divine presence…as long as we’re looking.

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Alex Braver is a rabbinic fellow at B'nai Jeshurun and a third-year rabbinical student at the Jewish Theological Seminary. He has also served as a student chaplain, studied at Yeshivat Hadar, and tutored remedial math and English at a charter school in Boston. He graduated from Brandeis University in 2009 with majors in history and politics.

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