God and the Tragedy Test

Jan 21, 2020 by

God and the Tragedy Test

So who, exactly, is the God we believe in? This is not only a question for rabbis, it is a question for every Jew. And it may well be an urgent one, one that our Movement needs to address seriously, and sooner rather than later.

It is a question that took on special meaning for me when I was well along in my rabbinate. After the sudden and tragic death of our 26-year-old daughter Talia in 2012, skilled though I may have been at answering God questions for congregants, (though I’m anything but sure that I was) I found myself unable to answer them to my own satisfaction. It was disconcerting, to say the least.

So I embarked upon a search and concluded that the God who people meet in our congregations—the God of many of our sacred texts, liturgies, and holidays—is a God that many, if not most of them, cannot and do not believe in. Moreover, the same can be said for many of us.

My journey led me to the God I refer to as the “God of Law and Spirit.” It is not complicated.

The God who intervenes in history, the God who answers the prayers and does the will of those who love and serve her, the God who executes righteous judgement, is simply not a God that coheres with most people’s life experience or understanding. Before my daughter’s death, I allowed myself to finesse these issues and, on occasion, to plead ignorance in the face of them. In the wake of it, I no longer could.

Like us, our people look at the world and see that moral and righteous conduct do not protect them, or for that matter anyone else, from the ravages of nature, the laws of physics, or the predations of our fellow human beings. Like us, they are acutely aware that much of the world’s suffering is morally incomprehensible. Like us, they see that the Bible’s promises to reward and protect the good and the upright have been mocked throughout the length and breadth of human history. This may help to explain why many of our rabbinates place greater emphasis on Torah and Israel than they do on God.

But God is the ultimate underpinning of Jewish life. Without a God who is genuinely alive in the hearts and minds of our people, it becomes difficult, if not impossible, to sustain an enduring faith.

We know that challenges to biblical notions of God go back at least as far as the Book of Job. The Rabbis, too, dealt with them extensively, and often creatively. As have philosophers and theologians from antiquity until today.

But such sophisticated understandings are typically not what our people encounter in our liturgy, sacred stories, or holidays. Certainly not in any clear or systematic form.

It is good that we are strong on tikkun olam. It is good that our communal life is strong. But Judaism and Jewish life will never be as strong as we need them to be without a true and living God in the hearts, minds, and lives of our people.

We need to offer God-language, God-teaching, and God-understanding that is coherent, comprehensible, and above all, believable.

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In my search I looked for a God who could, as I came to call it, “pass the tragedy test.” I needed a God who could make at least some sense in the wake of life-upending loss.

Many people, whether they have directly experienced tragedy or not, are on the lookout for such a God as well. Few of us can live so much as a day without witnessing testimony to the world’s violence, chaos, and injustice. Where is the God who makes sense in such a world? Where is the God who cannot be dismissed as a relic of the ancient religious imagination?

My journey led me to the God I refer to as the “God of Law and Spirit.” It is not complicated.

The “Law” is derived, in varying degrees, from the understandings of Maimonides, Spinoza, Einstein, and others. In essence, the Laws of the universe rule us all. They are invariable, immutable, and all-inclusive. They control everything from the farthest cosmos to the subatomic particles within us and around us. We either live in accordance with these laws or we do not live at all. I understand God as being one with them.

In addition to Law, there is Spirit, the qualities we all recognize as essential for religious life, for spiritual life, and even for life itself: love, kindness, compassion; the pursuits of wisdom, justice, holiness, and sacred experience.

I believe the God of Law and Spirit to be worthy of our devotion, service, commitment, and aspiration. Because it is neither wrong nor foolish to believe that:

  1. The laws of physics and nature are all-encompassing, universal, and determinative.
  2. These laws, God’s Laws, if you will, can create tragic outcomes—for no higher purpose or reason.
  3. God does not intervene in our lives to prevent such tragedies—or to inflict them.
  4. God nevertheless lives in Spirit. Through the sacred values of goodness, love, wisdom, compassion, justice, and more.

The God of Law and Spirit offers honest and believable answers to more than a few of our timeless questions. Why did my daughter die? Because when a 100-pound human being is struck by a three-ton motor vehicle moving at speed, the Law determines what the outcome will be. No amount of righteous behavior, and Talia had much of it on her ledger, can change that.

Alas, this God is limited, but at least this God does not ask us to accept myths that often fail, and fail spectacularly, in the face of tragedy. I think of the God of Law and Spirit as a God for grownups.

Again, the God presented in our liturgy, Torah readings, sacred legends, and holidays does not always meet this standard. And when people are offered a God who is at variance where their life observations, they distance themselves from their faith.

They may remain “cultural Jews.” They may consider themselves “secular Jews.” They may call themselves “spiritual but not religious.” In no small measure because we have not given them an intellectually honest way to be both.

I don’t pretend to have anywhere near all of the answers. It is my hope that collectively, we can search, find, articulate, and ultimately instill them into our own lives, and the lives of our people.

It is time for us to ask as a Conference—because this is a place from which rabbis can lead—questions such as, To whom, exactly, are we addressing our prayers? Where is the God we can really believe in? Is there a better response to morally inexplicable tragedy than to plead ignorance and hug?

Beginning with the first Pittsburgh Platform in 1885, and on three formal occasions since, Reform Judaism has addressed these issues. I submit that it is time to put them on our agenda once again.


Rabbi Richard Agler is the Founding Rabbi and Rabbi Emeritus of Congregation B’nai Israel in Boca Raton, Florida. He is the author of The Tragedy Test: Making Sense of Life-Changing Loss (Wipf and Stock, 2018). He’s also the director of the Tali Fund, where he supports the work of the Talia Agler Girls Shelter for trafficked, abused, and exploited girls in Nairobi, Kenya, and promotes awareness and registration for organ donation.

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