Man Plans, God Laughs


By Lawrence Kushner and Gary D. Schmidt
Illustrated by Matthew J. Baek
32 pages. Jewish Lights Publishing. $16.99.


One of the most depressing books I have ever read is Stephen J. Gouldís Wonderful Life. I was one of those saps who still believed in the neat little diorama of evolution I was shown in grade school in which the stooped-over hairy ape gradually evolved into the upright, far-less-furry homo sapien. Think again, said Gould. The process was never so orderly. Rather it was a series of genetic accidents and random shifts in the environment that produced man. We owed our existence not to the excellence of our design or some innate force in nature that made our development inevitable, but to plain old dumb luck. Man has no more rightful claim to superiority in the cosmic scheme of things than a louse.

This may seem like a somewhat backward-ass way to get into a review of a childrenís book, but bear with me because In Godís Hands, based on a traditional Jewish folktale, is very much about plain old dumb luck. The character Jacob is a rich man given to laziness and nodding off during his rabbiís sermons. David stands at the other end of the economic spectrum, the synagogueís impoverished caretaker, so badly off that he can no longer afford to feed his own children (Itís never explained why the temple is paying him such subsistence wages). One day, David startles awake at shul and hears a passage from Leviticus in which God enjoins his followers to bring him a dozen challot. Meanwhile, the desperate and famished David prays to God for food. He opens the ark one day and there, lo and behold, is the bread that Jacob placed there.

Neither man knows about the other. Jacob assumes God is genuinely gobbling up all the bread (this was pre-Atkins) while David believes the Almighty is answering his prayers. Several years later, when all is revealed, each man immediately is thrown into a spiritual crisisówhat they thought was Godís doing was just happenstance. Finally, the rabbi comes along to set them straight. This is how God works, he explains. ďYour handís are Godís hands.Ē What seems like coincidence or just a lucky occurrence is very often the Big Guyís handiwork.

Kushner is an esteemed rabbi and scholar currently in residence at Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco. He has written two well-received books for adults on Jewish spirituality, the most recent of which, The Way Into Jewish Mystical Tradition, was a finalist for the National Jewish Book Award several years ago. His co-author, Gary Schmidt (a goy!), teaches literature at Calvin College in Michigan. The best thing about the book is Baekís illustrations, which with their light blue swirls, magical skies, and expressive faces conjure up a wondrous, mountainous place where you could almost believe miracles do happen.

Except that I donít believe it. I believe that what Kushner and his collaborators have come up with here is the Jewish equivalent of intelligent design. Lifeís complexity, though it may seem random, is due to Godís existence. As Kushner puts it, quoting himself, on his website, ďThrough all of creation, just beneath the surface, joining each person and every other thing, in one luminous organism of sacred responsibility, we discover lines of connection.Ē Those lines may not be direct, perceptible, or knowable, but rest assured, in Godís hands, everything does somehow make sense.

Itís not just that I wouldnít feel comfortable using this theory to explain to my son evolution, or for that matter the Holocaust or death. Itís that I couldnít even use it to explain the Swiffer. I can see my son, emboldened by his assignation as the wise son on Passover, asking me how the Swiffer fits into Godís overall plan. I will either have to make the preposterous claim that the mop replacement is Godís way of making our lives more convenient (was mopping really so hard?) or that God operates in ways we canít understand, a claim my kid will be wise enough to see as a cop-out. Or if I contend that the Swiffer is the result of God giving us free will and this is the best weíve come up with, well, Iím basically admitting Heís abandoned us. With the first death of a loved one, an experience of social injustice, or just a perusal of Gouldís book, my son will get a glimpse of the randomness and frequent, if not constant, meaninglessness of life. Come age 13, heíll look back at In Godís Hands as a bald-faced lie.

I recently read an obscure play by Paddy Chayefsky, Gideon, that I think is not only an overlooked masterpiece, but is also about as accurate a depiction of the God in the Torahóthe Jewish Godóas I have ever seen. (Chayefsky is best known as the screenwriter of the film Network). The playís protagonist, Gideon, is a schlemiel summoned by an angel of the Lord to defend his people from an attacking tribe. The angel declares Gideon a prophet and soon our hesitant hero finds himself in command of an understaffed army facing a ruthless enemy (we could use Gideon in Iraq). Gideon hems and haws, insisting heís not the right guy for the job, but eventually comes around when he smites his foes. Gideon then professes undying love for the Lord.

But itís a tough love to sustain. God turns out to be demanding, vengeful, and capricious. He makes it very clear to Gideon that He doesnít care a whit about man except in so far as He can use him as a pawn in his grand cosmic schemes. His choice of Gideon, an obscure laborer, to be his messenger is completely arbitrary. Itís not as though Gideon were a morally upright man. And when Gideon starts getting a little cocky, God tells him to knock it off. The only acceptable love of the Lord involves complete abjection and selflessness. Gideon in the end rejects this God. His love for man is simply too suffocating.

Now I know this type of God doesnít really lend himself to childrenís literature. Itís not exactly comforting for a Jewish kid to learn that God is more overbearing than your mother. But it strikes me that even though itís not dealt with in the play, one characteristic of Chayefskyís God must necessarily be that Heís a jokester. He plays pranks on us just for kicks. Of course, this is cruel, unimaginably cruel, really, since Heís the one who created us in the first place, but itís also pretty funny. I think kids would love to see such a God in action. Itís the same appeal as a Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton movieóman reduced to a bumbling fool by forces beyond his control. I think that completely accords with a kidís view of the world, and itís only as adults that we deceive ourselves into exaggerating our powers of self-determination.

Everything in this society conspires to convince our kids that they matter, that who they are matters, and that their lives are redolent with meaning. But the real miracle God enacts every day is tripping us up, spoiling our best-made plans, and keeping us from achieving our dreams. We humans simply cannot afford to be allowed to succeed. The consequence will be self-destruction.

Man is nothing. This is what we need to teach our children.