Tuesday, February 22, 2011

God's Role in All This

By Susan Esther Barnes

Last night I had just passed the halfway point in Rabbi Lawrence Kushner's excellent book I'm God; You're Not, pictured above, when I reached a passage on pages 124-125 and came to a screeching halt.

This is where he says, "When you're facing an unknown future - and the future is always unknown - you have three options. First option: everything is fated, it's all meant to be. In other words, predestination."

He eventually settles on what he calls the third option, that God is everything, concluding "the entire glorious, horrible, holy, terrifying wondrous mess we call creation is a continuous manifestation of the Divine." He says, "Everything is the way it's supposed to be."

Maybe I'm a little dense, but I don't see how what he calls option 3 is effectively different than option 1. In neither case do I see any room for humans to have any effect on the outcome of anything. Either options strikes me as an invitation to sit back and do nothing. It's all predestined and/or it's all the way it's supposed to be anyway.

I don't understand why he so quickly dismisses what he calls option 2, or free will. He claims that if we excercise free will, that means God "refuses to intervene," and that would mean "God is effectively irrelevant."

The trouble is, he is basing his conclusion on a faulty assumption. Humans can have free will without God having to refuse to intervene. Even if God doesn't do things for us or make us do things, God can still influence us to do things.

A few years ago when this same Rabbi Kushner spoke at our synagogue, he told a lovely story. (I may have misremembered some of the details, but the important parts are here.) He was leading a Torah Study group when he had to leave early to meet with the bar mitzvah family before services started. The room was crowded, so it took him a while to extricate himself.

Then, for no apparent reason, and even though he has never done anything like this before or since, he squeezed back into the room to whisper in a man's ear, "Don't look now, but that woman in the red dress sitting across the table from you is a rabbi, and she's single." Then he left.

When Torah Study was over, the man struck up a conversation with the woman, they started dating, and eventually Rabbi Kushner presided at their wedding.

Why did he turn around and squeeze back into the room to say such a thing to this man? I would say he was excercising his own free will, but that the idea to do it was God's, not his.

Based on this story, as well as my own experiences, I would say God is giving us hints, giving us helpful suggestions, in a still small voice on a regular basis. Sometimes we're listening; often we're not. Sometimes we follow God's suggestions and things get better for us, and sometimes we don't, and things get worse.

This isn't to say that every time something bad happens to us it means we've done something wrong or failed to listen to God - far from it. In fact, if that were the case, we wouldn't really be exercising free will at all, we'd just be trying to avoid punishment. Random things happen, both good and bad, through no fault or action of our own or God's.

But God sees things we don't see, God has the big picture view, and God wants our lives to be better. So maybe option 4 (or just a revised option 2) is that, when faced with an uncertain future, we have the ability to act on our own free will. And the more we make God relevant in our lives by listening for and following God's good advice and suggestions, the better off we will be.


  1. I see a difference between the two but now that I try to type it out it just sounds silly. I view life as pretty random so I could take #3 and turn it into something he never intended.

  2. Excellent review Susan! I so love that you're talking to the text. it brings me back to grad school and makes me very, very happy!

    I think that your points are perfect- there's a danger in dismissing anything; but free will, choice, the need to take action and DO something? That's vital!

    And for the record: doesn't take away from the belief in paths and so on.

    The path is there, but we need to take it!

    I can always count on food for thought from *you* sweet friend! Thanks for that! XO

  3. Galit -

    Thanks. I not only talked to the text, I talked to the man by sending him an email with a link to my post, and had a nice email exchange with him.

    I also attended a class of his last week, and hope to attend more in the coming months. He's an amazing teacher; I feel very lucky to have him teaching near where I live!