Ask the Rabbi

August 2019 QUESTION:

I recently read somewhere that Judaism teaches us that everything that happens in the world is the will and intention of God. I certainly don’t believe that…does that mean I am not a good Jew?

August 2019 ANSWER:

The statement does not mean that you are not a good Jew.

And the statement does not reflect what most Jews and others today believe.

There is a text in our prayerbook, in both the Shabbat evening and the Shabbat morning service, on the page facing the introduction to the Amidah, which says “Pray as if everything depends upon God; act as if everything depends upon you”. This is attributed to Rabbi Ferdinand Isserman, a Reform rabbi who lived in St Louis in the 1970s. The point of this is that prayer needs to be heartfelt and urgent, and that action needs to be immediate and responsible.

Judaism teaches us that God created the world, and that everything in it is God’s proper domain. But at the same time, Judaism teaches us that we have free will, and are responsible for our actions. So everything that happens in the world owes its origins in God’s creating of the world. But we are not taught by our tradition to just sit there and let thing happen to us. Rather, we are taught that we are partners with God in creating a more perfect world, which requires us to respond to the world around us in ways that will improve it.

There are undoubtedly Jews who do believe that everything that happens in the world is according to the will and intent of God. But that would have to include the evil that people do, and the tragedies that sometimes befall good people. Most of us, as members of the most progressive movement in Judaism, do not share that world view. We do not attribute the Holocaust, for example, to the will and intent of God, but rather, to the will and intent of some warped and disturbed human beings. That leaves us free to turn to God for comfort and consolation, and to aspire to higher and nobler actions.

I think Rabbi Isserman’s instructions to us put prayer and action into two separate realms, both of which are necessary for humans to function. On the one hand, prayer puts us in touch with the world as we would like it to be, and on the other hand, action puts us in touch with the world as it is. The challenge to us is to bring those two realms together.

Some of our fellow Jews pray fervently for the messiah to come. We Reform Jews pray fervently that we will have the strength, courage and will to make the messianic moment happen in our own time.

I suspect that, by Reform standards, you are a very good Jew.


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