Sunday, December 14, 2008

Old God. New Tricks.

In the Winter 2008 issue of Reform Judaism magazine Rabbi Jack H. Bloom, a Reform Rabbi and practicing psychotherapist, is interviewed regarding his personal theology.

The interview opens well with Rabbi Bloom challenging the unwillingness of Torah commentators to admit rather than gloss over the dark-side of God. His examples come from Numbers 15:32 where God has the Jews murder one of their own for the crime of gathering sticks on Shabbat, and Leviticus 23:29-30 where God threatens to “cut off” from the Chosen anyone who works on Yom Kippur.

Rabbi Bloom goes on to blame our failure to admit God’s dark-side on our “pediatric view of divinity” that looks at God the way young children look at their parents. Little kids see mom and dad as Perfect Parents rather than as complex and flawed human beings. Similarly we excuse God’s dark-side in order to maintain our illusion of the perfect divine Parent, and hence “stay mired in a less mature, dysfunctional, and ultimately disappointing relationship with the Divine.”

As we seek a more mature relationship with God, Rabbi Bloom argues, we will also help God mature as well. Just as parents can learn from their children, so God can learn from us. In fact, Rabbi Bloom says, helping God mature is “an essential part of our [the Jewish people’s] covenantal relationship” with God.

Drawing upon his psychological training, Rabbi Bloom explains that God’s immaturity and violent nature are rooted in God’s low self-esteem. God wants to be loved, but rather than inviting our love by acting lovingly toward us, God demands it: “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your might” (Deuteronomy 6:5). God doesn’t understand the difference between love and obedience, and hence cannot mature into a Being capable of engaging in authentic relationship with humanity.

We humans, Rabbi Bloom says, must teach God what true relationship is by modeling it among ourselves. As God watches us live lovingly, God will learn how to do so Himself.

I assume Rabbi Bloom means for us to take him literally, and that Reform Judaism means for us to take his theology seriously. So here is a serious, albeit brief, response to Rabbi Bloom: AAAAAARRRRRRGGGGGG!

And here is a no less serious albeit longer response:

Rabbi Bloom assumes that what we read about God in the Torah is true; that Torah actually reveals the nature of God. This is nonsense. Torah is a human document, and whatever its authors say about God tells us much about them and nothing about God, or even if there is a God. Being a psychologist as well as a Reform Rabbi I would have expected Rabbi Bloom to analyze the humans behind the Torah and not the God they imagine at the heart of it.

Here are a few questions worthy of serious psycho-spiritual exploration: Why did the ancient authors of Torah imagine such a violent God? Why did they place themselves in the role of both partner and victim with regard to this God? What does this say about our ancestors? What do we make of a people who imagine and worship a God suffering from low self-esteem? How does Torah’s image of a violent and self-loathing God shape the psyche of the Jewish people as we continue to raise our children with these stories and continue to read them uncritically ourselves?

According to Rabbi Bloom (and others) God creates the world because God wants to be loved. Prior to creation God is alone and lonely, and He seeks to remedy His situation by creating humans who will love and obey Him. And when we don’t do exactly what He wants us to do, He kicks us around until it is time for a nap. Yes, God is a four-year-old. But that was thousands of years ago. Hasn’t God grown up a bit by now? Hasn’t He learned anything from dealing with Jews lo these many years? Rabbi Bloom, by arguing that we humans must teach God how to “play nice” with his human friends, implies God has learned nothing. So what hope is there for us to teach God? If Abraham, Moses, Hillel, and Freud have failed, how are we going to succeed?

Given his reference to pediatric theology, I suspect Rabbi Bloom intends his theology for adults, but I don’t see how it can be so. On the surface it seems demeaning to adult thinking. It takes the Bible, or at least the Bible’s image of God, literally. I doubt most Reform Jews do. It assumes that God is an emotionally stunted Creator Who needs better role models. I don’t believe this, and don’t imagine many adults would buy it either.

So what can we do with Rabbi Bloom’s theology? We can turn it inside out, and argue that the authors of the Torah invented a God that reflected their own childhood experiences with dysfunctional and emotionally stunted fathers. We can argue that reading the Torah as the dreams a client might present in therapy tells us a lot about our ancestors. We can argue that, since their fantasies about their dysfunctional parents, now projected outward as a cosmically dysfunctional God, have shaped the Jewish psyche, we Jews still suffer from their childhood experiences. We can argue that the very fact that Jews continue to read the exploits of this dysfunctional Deity suggests that Judaism fosters a childlike mentality even in its adult members. We can argue that since we cannot admit to the madness of God and continue to blame ourselves for His anger and homicidal tendencies, insisting like the victim of abuse insists, that the Abuser is good and we are bad, that we suffer from a deep trauma at the heart of Judaism. It isn’t God that needs healing; it is we who believe in this God that need healing.

If this is true, we can then seek to heal ourselves. We can begin to analyze Jewish culture, family life, and religion as an example of abused children seeking to appease an unappeasable fantasy parent. And in so doing we might learn something about ourselves and take steps toward spiritual and cultural maturation.

Turning Rabbi Bloom’s theology inside out, might also be of value to our Christian cousins who, perhaps in rebellion against Our Father Who Art Quite Mad, imagined an all-loving God whose Son came to earth to free us from our failed efforts to earn God’s love.

The problem with Christianity, however, is that its early authors were themselves Jews who could not escape the trauma of biblical theology. And because of their Jewishness they abandoned the hope taught by the Son and retreated into the horror of the Father, and imagining an even more dysfunctional God than the Torah’s original.

Where the Torah’s God, after destroying almost all life with a flood, promises not to do so again, the God of the New Testament reneges on that promise and intends to destroy humanity once more. But the New Testament God can be bribed, and humanity can be ransomed. The cost? The death of God’s own Son. Whereas YHVH spared Abraham’s son on one hill, the New Testament God lets His own Son die horribly on another.

The Christian God is too Jewish to be the loving parent Christians want Him to be. And that is why, in the end, the Christian God of love condemns most of humanity to burn for all eternity in Hell, and sends the Prince of Peace to wage war against all those who, once again, refuse to obey the Lord with Low Self-Esteem.

If Rabbi Dr. Bloom had put the Jews on the couch rather than our divine fantasy, we might have learned something. If he had tried to heal us rather than our imagined Heavenly Father, we might turn to him for more insight. If he had argued that mainstream Jewish thinking about God that ignores the dark-side of God is analogous to an abused daughter blaming herself for the abusive actions of her father, then we could talk and maybe heal. But in fact all Rabbi Bloom did was to perpetuate the excuse and the abuse by blaming the victim: If only we would relate rightly with one another, Daddy would see what right relationship is and learn how to be the really really good Daddy we know He is. Please Daddy, we’re sorry. Please, give us another chance.

AAAAAARRRRRRGGGGGG!

11 comments:

Grégoire said...

Dear Rabbi Rami,

You have a lot of very interesting insights, as does Dr. Bloom. Unfortunately they're all being wasted worrying about the supernatural, and arguing among yourselves over how long your non-existed god's beard is.

The Sumerians had a storm god named ea-ue. A thousand years later, my parents and cousins are going into the Mormon temple actually believing they can talk to him. When you look at it that way, it's obviously pretty silly.

This is the only world we are ever going to know. How much more pleasant the world would be if we all turned our attentions to it, and to our fellow human beings, rather than squandering our efforts on some myth that should have been laughed out of circulation a thousand years ago.

Best...

Rabbi Rami said...

Gregoire, thanks for the comment. If you followed my argument, you know that I agree that the biblical god is a fiction of the biblical authors. And while it would be a good thing if we focused more on reality than ancient fantasy, the fact that millions of people still shape their lives and opinions of others according to the dictates of this god and his minions makes dealing with these beliefs relevant.

Also your judgments are a bit too quick. For example, you assume that the Sumerian God is the same as the God your parents believe in. I doubt that. Also Mormonism came on the scene around 3000 years after ea-ue, not 1000 as you mentioned. A more interesting question would be this: What do your parents get from being Mormons, and how are you coping without it?

As far as this being the only world we are going to know, while I tend to agree, I couldn't prove it. And if this is the only world, and if there is no judgment in the next world, I worry that those millions who find comfort in those beliefs would, when turning themselves to this world, end up battling all the more over scarce resources. After all if there is no reward in the next world, might they not seek to grab all they can in this world?

And finally, why hasn't the myth of the Judeo-Christian-Muslim God been laughed out of circulation? Why is Mithra dead and Jesus still alive? I am not saying it is because Mithra is false and Jesus is true, but because there is still something vital in Christianity that Mithraism lacked. Exploring what this something is might be most interesting.

Patti said...

There is nothing in the world like Rami fired-up. Man...such complexity and simplicity. Really good stuff.

Dr. Bloom had me there for a minute. I do think we tend to make-up God as we go along according to our precepts. And I love the psychological approach to how that might present itself. He lost me when he used his own bias to describe how God feels. That is just eeeewwww.

Grégoire said...

Dear Rabbi Rami,

Thanks for such an interesting response.

Also Mormonism came on the scene around 3000 years after ea-ue, not 1000 as you mentioned.

I think I was actually going to point out that 1000 years ago, my ancestors were still sacrificing their enemies to the gods of their local swamp (they were Nordic types). Ea of the Euphrates might be 2800 years gone, but Wotan and Thor are not quite so distant.

And I think that's what our descendants will look back and see when they study us, don't you? They'll see Mormons, Christians, Jews and others as people who were sort of quaint, silly and primitive. Interesting, but not that far removed from the barbarous.

A more interesting question would be this: What do your parents get from being Mormons, and how are you coping without it?

I get to keep 10% more money than they do, and 90% more free time. That's something that helps me cope.

And finally, why hasn't the myth of the Judeo-Christian-Muslim God been laughed out of circulation? Why is Mithra dead and Jesus still alive? I am not saying it is because Mithra is false and Jesus is true, but because there is still something vital in Christianity that Mithraism lacked. Exploring what this something is might be most interesting.

I think your argument here is predicated on the assumption that Christianity has been a static and unchanging belief system since its inception. I don't think that's the case. In the last century alone Christianity seems to have gone through some serious changes (the rise of the mega-church, and the invention of fundamentalism).

Jesus seems to have been many different gods through the generations, and I don't think he's the same character Saul of Tarsus dreamt up 2000 years ago. At some points in history, he's warlike, and at other points in history, he inspires people to lay down and submit, like good little sheep.

To me, he's just one piece in that repressive puzzle that Gramsci called Hegemony, but I realize I'm the minority on this particular forum.

Best...

G

Jeff said...

First of all, Jack Bloom is a member of both Reform and Conservative rabbinic organizations. I'm pretty sure he is ordained by JTS(Conservative)

Secondly, I think you are a taking him a little too literally. Being a shrink, he sees God in psychological terms, but like everything else we say about God, it is a metaphor (at least I hope so). His point is more how we should grow as humans and how this affects our view of God, even our metaphors.

Rabbi Rami said...

This is all very interesting. Gregoire notes that Christianity has and is going through changes and mentions the mega-church movement. Megachurch is a change in delivery system but not the message. A more promising change is the emergent church with the teachings of Borg, Spong, McClaren, and other postmodern theologians. Here we are getting a new message as well as a new delivery system.

I would like to see a truly postmodern Judaism, one that unabashedly declared Torah to be myth in the Joseph Campbell.

AaronHerschel said...

Gregoire

I was intrigued by your reference to Gramsci. However, I feel obligated to respond, a la Foucault, that hegemony is not established from the top-down; rather, it results from a whole simultaneous host of nodal conflicts within and between various interrelated and overlapping social groups. Humanism, Atheism, scientific positivism, and the spaghetti monster are all part of this game, which itself may be an inevitable result of human group dynamics. Is there culture without hegemony?

As per myth, I want to recall Roland Barthes definition of myth as a second order signifier that encodes and transmits a particular set of cultural values (usually as common sense). Barthes initially felt that one could demystify cultural codes, and one can, to a point. Yet Barthes himself had to admit that the demystification he practiced in "Mythologies" took on, within cultural studies, and for some members of his audience, the force of myth.

Mythology, in this sense, is a semiotic function: a kind of shorthand signifier for ideology of any kind. We can look at capitalist mythologies, socialist ones, religious and racially coded mythologies, et al. Myth is a semiotic function, and like all such functions, its relationship to a particular set of meanings is arbitrary. One does not destroy a myth, one only exchanges it for a new myth.

Religion, meanwhile, is clearly myth in Barthes sense, but this does not make it irrelevant or even undesirable. I would have to agree with the Rabbi that the presence of one religion or another in every human culture at every moment of our species' history argues that there are indeed some human drives (psychological, I assume) which only religion has so far been able to structure successfully. Even Gramsci felt that Marxism could not supplant religion unless it also met people's spiritual needs.

This suggests, to me, that there is more to religion than simple coercion. Note that, even when religion is no longer the primary signifier of the cultural dominant, it does not suddenly vanish.

In fact, we can see it adapting. Fundamentalism may be an expression of religion's displacement as the cultural dominant of the West under capital, since fundamentalist always want to reassert religion, their particular religion, as the defining mode of social organization (which at this point seems to have been secularized in economics). With this in mind, Mega-churches seem a fascinating adaptation of religion to the needs of mass market capital--aggregating the largest possible number of people under the umbrella of their religious brand. Postmodern incarnations, such as the emerging church, may reflect an adaptation to late capitalism's move away from mass to niche markets and the concomitant atomization of the social into lifestyle groups.

But if religion always has a relationship to hegemony, it is not necessarily entirely supportive. Christianity and Judaism have both played revolutionary roles at different times in history. Also, no religious system is fully homogenous. There are competing and subversive strains in each religion, some of them openly anti-hegemonic, even anarchistic (look to the Gospel of Thomas, Ecclesiastes, or Chuang Tzu). Those elements of religious thought should not be discounted.

Grégoire said...

Dear Aaron,

Thank you very much for such an interesting response. You bring up so many good points that I can't possibly address them, even internally, at the moment.

I feel a little bit like a dinner guest who has monopolized the conversation around the table. With apologies to the good Rabbi, I gotta just respond to a couple of minor points...

Hegemony in the original sense, at least as I understand it (and I'll agree that the term is now so overused as to make it almost meaningless -- Oliver North even used it in the 1980s) was just Gramsci's way of modernizing the Marxist idea of domination. Rather than putting the police and the army into the streets to beat us all over the head, the system is now structured toward having us agree with it without a fight. Priests, Politicians, and the guy who writes your favorite column in the daily paper all contribute to it.

I realize I probably have something of a "one-dimensional" take on it all, from your perspective. I just read in my spare time. It sounds like you've studied it in detail. That's one of the benefits of the internet, that I can get feedback from people who have more time to spend analyzing it all.

Even Gramsci felt that Marxism could not supplant religion unless it also met people's spiritual needs.

I read bits of the prison notebooks with my daughter a few months ago and we tried to make sense of this together. At one point Gramsci said something like "Socialism must develop a mysticism and a morality all its own".

At the time I interpreted this as a reflection of his upbringing. Like anyone else, the inherent structure of his life was crystallized in his youth as a Roman Catholic. For a very long time I tried to purge myself of all my Mormonism. I realized this was futile only a few years ago. I displaced a bit of my own internal angst into the text, I suppose, but I think it might be a valid way to look at the idea.

I guess I see Gramsci's ideal as the gradual acquiescence to the reality of one's dominant structures, and the rejection of the romantic notion of free-will. I have felt at times as though I have been written into a pre-determined script, and the outcome is fixed at the level of the unconscious. Rationalism and independence do not seem to exist, except as delusional notions or unattainable ideals.

Reality exists at the whim of the structure. My structure is Mormonism. I don't like it, didn't ask for it, but can't be bothered to fight it any more either. That doesn't mean I believe in any of that nonsense consciously, but at the lowest levels I see the world through that particular lens.

The fact that I've acquiesced to some extent doesn't mean I have no hope for the future. I could introduce our host to my parents, who would refer to the good Rabbi here as a "gentile" and try to convert him to their version of mythological "truth". It wouldn't be a sign of disrespect, in their minds. They'd feel like they were doing him a favor. I hope, and "pray" (LOL!) that my children will see the last generation of people with this need to divide themselves up by a meaningless label.

This is the real beef I have with religion. It's not that it allows people to believe nonsense. I have no problem with people who believe in bigfoot or space aliens, for example. It's that it inherently divides and causes strife.

Even those of you who attempt to approach it rationally only open the door to divisive feelings and chauvinism. Setting aside the Catholic/Protestant fighting, the Christian/Jewish fighting, the Muslim/Christian fighting, and all the other bloodbaths in history, we can simply look at the way gays and lesbians are being treated right now, in the supposedly enlightened secular American State of California to see the end result of religion.

In some ways (and I don't mean any disrespect, but I have to say it) I see people like you and the Rabbi as more dangerous than the true-believers. You're promoting the illusion of tolerance when at the core there is none to be found. I suspect your own modernist interpretations do more to prop the system up and prolong injustice than they do to heal the world. Now we're out of the Gramsci sphere and into Marcuse, but it's an extension of the same general idea.

With respect,

G

AaronHerschel said...

Gregoire,

Are you familiar with Althusser? He also felt that the self (or rather, the subject) was inevitably structured (and repressed) by ideology, while manufacturing consent (the acquiescence you mention) is the function of what Althusser called Ideological State Apparatuses (which include the school system, the family, the media, religious institutions, et al).

But if there is undoubtedly a structure here, it's important to remember that it is neither static nor singular. Though all ideologies constitute a subject/self, subjectivity/selfhood is not governed by a single ideology (religion for example). Instead, we exist at the interstices, flitting between various selves, operating now in accordance with one script, now in another. There is contradiction and conflict here, and a shifting relation to dominance.

Althusser suggests that contradiction between and within ideological and economic practices can account for social change, and further, that systemic change was possible, indeed inevitable, when these tensions reached a certain tipping point. I would double this at the level of the subject. For me, it is this constant renegotiation, this code switching or structural play, that (maybe!) constitutes free will.

As per your suggestion that religion supports, or creates, divisive relationships--well, of course. So does secular nationalism: witness Fascism, Stalinism, Maoism. So, for that matter, does science. Look at the way the language of science has been employed to shore up racism and colonialism.

I tend to follow postcolonial theory ad feminism on this. Subjectivity is necessary for individuals to achieve agency within culture. A certain amount of ideological labeling is thus inevitable, but one must always remember that ideology is only ideology: a set of socially coded beliefs and practices, not Truth or Nature. I am Jewish, but I am not Jewish in the same way as the next Jewish guy, nor am I only Jewish. Nor do i believe that Judaism should dominate government, economics, or culture. Like you with Mormonism, I find that Judaism has partly structured my basic approach to the world. I don't find this tragic or terrible. I just try to remind myself constantly that there are more things in heaven and earth then are dreamt of in my philosophy.

Grégoire said...

Dear Aaron,

I am familiar with Althusser but not extensively. I own a collection of essays (Lenin and Philosophy) but I read them years ago. I'll have to crack that book again.

I think I got my little auto-psychoanalytic insights from Claude Levi-Strauss. He was an anthropologist but most of his structural insights on myths are peripherally applicable. A myth is only a collective dream, anyway. I was a huge fan of his as a kid.

I tend to follow postcolonial theory ad feminism on this. Subjectivity is necessary for individuals to achieve agency within culture. A certain amount of ideological labeling is thus inevitable, but one must always remember that ideology is only ideology: a set of socially coded beliefs and practices, not Truth or Nature. I am Jewish, but I am not Jewish in the same way as the next Jewish guy, nor am I only Jewish. Nor do i believe that Judaism should dominate government, economics, or culture. Like you with Mormonism, I find that Judaism has partly structured my basic approach to the world. I don't find this tragic or terrible. I just try to remind myself constantly that there are more things in heaven and earth then are dreamt of in my philosophy.

Shakespeare is the great elucidator, isn't he?

You write the most interesting replies here. A post-colonial essay (in the spirit of Said or Fanon) would be fascinating to read. I'd beg you to start a weekly column in the vein of Rabbi Rami, but I imagine time is precious (as it is for everyone). Thanks again for such interesting insights, and happy holidays!

G

Jay said...

Rami, I hope you sent this to the editor or Reform Judaism magazine. I believe you are right and most Reform Jews agree with you; they just don't know it.