For the Love of God: Personal, Political, Paradoxical


"Just as a rock hit by a hammer yields many splinters and sparks, so may a Biblical verse yield many meanings."—Talmud, Sanhedrin 34a

"Revelation is never something over and done with or gone for good or in danger of slipping away into the past; it is ongoing."—Gerald R. Bruns, “Midrash and Allegory”

"Our notion of a personal God is one symbolic way of speaking about the divine, but it cannot contain the far more elusive reality. Most [traditions] would agree that any statement about God had to have two characteristics. It must be paradoxical, to remind us that God cannot be contained in a neat, coherent system of thought; and it must be apophatic, that is, it should lead us to a moment of silent awe and wonder, because when we are speaking of the reality of god we are at the end of what words or thoughts can usefully do."—Karen Armstrong, The Spiral Staircase

At a crucial moment in his life, the patriarch Jacob wrestles with a mysterious stranger, commonly understood to be an angel. They wrestle all night, neither one winning. As dawn approaches, the stranger says, “Let me go, for dawn is coming.” Jacob replies, “I will not let you go unless you bless me” (Gen 32: 26). The stranger then blesses Jacob with his new name, Israel, declaring that he has fought with God and with men, and has prevailed.  Next to my front door hangs an etching of these two figures wrestling, which I made when I was twenty-two, in an art class. Jacob is struggling hard while the angel is smiling. The etching’s title is Jacob’s demand for blessing. I loved that sentence, which I had read over and over in the King James Version. It brought tears to my eyes every time.  I will not let thee go except thou bless me. Wasn’t the angel waiting for Jacob to say exactly those words? I did not anticipate that, decades later, much of my own writing life would be spent wrestling with the Bible, recognizing its masculine and authoritarian bias, and nonetheless attempting to wrestle a blessing from it.

Open disclosure: I write as a Jew, a woman, a wife and mother, a third-generation lefty, a feminist, a poet. And I write as a reader, for whom words are primary—even sacred—realities. The Hebrew Bible marks, for me, the point in Western culture where human life, human language, and the human experience of the divine, most fully converge. I can learn from it. I can wrestle with it. It fights back, and we both grow stronger. It is both a primary source of my most strongly held values and a source of much that I deplore and struggle against. I believe that the Bible, and God in the Bible, want to be wrestled with. This is how they stay alive. This is why the sages say, “There is always another interpretation.”

In writing For the Love of God: the Bible as an Open Book, with its explorations of the Song of Songs, Ruth, Psalms, Ecclesiastes, Jonah and Job, I was motivated most strongly by the crisis of the times we are living through.  All around us, in America and globally, we see Jews, Christians, and Muslims using their sacred texts as a security blanket, a blindfold, and worst of all, a weapon.  We see fear and hatred snuggling up to the Bible. We see the passionate intensity of those who think God is on their side, and project a God in their own violent and self-righteous image. Sad to say, there is plenty in the Bible to justify their stance. My essay on Psalms, written just after 9/11/2001, struggles with this reality: the God who is invoked to “smash” our “enemies.” But what about the Song of Songs? Rabbi Akiva called this book the Holy of Holies. What about Ruth, full of boundary-crossing and love of the stranger? And Ecclesiastes, who says we can’t know anything about God? Or Jonah, who is a lot like some of our own fellow-citizens, as he sits there in the desert hoping God will nuke Nineveh—and God asks him to think again? And what about the Book of Job, with its questioning of divine justice and its paradoxical double ending that ultimately throws moral choice into our own collective and individual laps? Far from conveying a single message or representing a consistent view of what we are doing when we love God, these books deviate radically from one another as well as from any “normative” view. Yes, they are all deeply political. And yes, they contradict each other.

I wanted to be scrupulously analytical in my reading of these writings; I also wanted to be personal. To take scripture personally and analytically is not to disrespect it. On the contrary. As the scholar Gerald Bruns argues, when we read in the Bible, “if the text does not apply to us it is an empty text…. although the text was composed in a situation very different from our own, it must be taken in relation to our situation if it is to have any force.”[i] Readers who use the Bible both as a window into reality and as a mirror into the self will emerge with a sharper understanding of themselves, their worlds, their spiritual paths, their multiple choices.

When I read the Song of Songs, the 16-year-old in me revives. Once again I am in love for the first time, body and soul are fused, and the world itself is holy. When I read Ruth, I suspend disbelief, relax, and enjoy a tale in which humanity trumps nationality. Reading Psalms is again completely different. These white-hot poems go straight to the limbic system. Love, terror, hate, joy, trust, doubt, rage, need—my emotions are laid out like blueprints on a draughtsman’s table. Some of them are exalted. Others are horribly destructive. Then when I read Ecclesiastes I am intellectually exhilarated and feel capable of achieving serenity, when I read Jonah I come face to face with my depressive and suicidal impulses, and when I read Job I am the descendant of East European Jews who thought it was up to them to make the world a better place. Reading Job I am the person who attends demonstrations, signs petitions, and believes in tikkun olam, the mending of the world.  I am also the wife and mother who is silenced in Job, and must ultimately speak.

I am these selves; my readers, I assume, are equally complex and contradictory. For the Love of God—and I want my title to convey both awe and exasperation—I hope my readers, too, will engage in sacred acts of personal wrestling. For the love of God, I would like to see in my lifetime, or the lifetimes of my granddaughters on this planet, a world in which thought is free and in which there are new sacred songs, along with a new idea of what is sacred. If they choose to be believers in a God, I hope my granddaughters find themselves a God worth worshiping, with an ethics worth pursuing. I hope that they and their generation, or some generation soon after them, will come to wrestle God and man, like Jacob, and prevail. That would be something new under the sun.