THE VIOLENCE OF GOD:
DIALOGIC FRAGMENTS
by Julie Shoshana Pfau and David R. Blumenthal

JULIE SHOSHANA PFAU is a graduate student in religion at Emory University.

DAVID R. BLUMENTHAL teaches and writes on constructive Jewish theology, medieval Judaism, Jewish mysticism, and holocaust studies. His previous published works include eleven books, among them the two-volume Understanding Jewish Mysticism (1978, 1982), God at the Center (Harper & Row, 1988; reprinted Jason Aronson, 1994), and Facing the Abusing God: A Theology of Protest (Westminster/ John Knox, 1993). His newest book is The Banality of Good and Evil: Moral Lessons from the Shoah and Jewish Tradition (Georgetown University Press: 1999).

How can you relate to an abusive God in a positive way?

Introduction

In 1993, I published my post-shoah(1) theology entitled Facing the Abusing God: A Theology of Protest (Westminster John Knox). The book did not have the impact on Jewish and Christian theologians, on psychotherapists, or on holocaust survivors that it should have had. The reasons for this are complicated and I have tried to explain them elsewhere.(2) However, the book has been read very steadily by survivors of child abuse and occasional doctoral students from whom I receive a steady stream of letters. The exchange below is a very good example and I am grateful to Julie Pfau for her willingness to publish these letters, as well as for her forthrightness in expressing herself. While I did the initial editing, Julie had an equal voice in what appears here and she is truly a co-author. I am also grateful to Catherine Madsen, the co-editor of this issue of Cross Currents, for her support of this project.

There are several advantages to the letter genre for doing theology. First, both authors can allow their doubts to surface and their thoughts to evolve. Second, letters follow the natural associative power of the mind, covering more than one topic and doing this in a non-logical order. This enables readers to follow one strand, while letting another go unattended. Third, the letter genre allows the authors to leave some matters unresolved. True theology is in the questions, not in the answers. Finally, in good correspondence, the issues are sharply drawn and it is the reader who must hear both sides and decide which line of thinking rings truer.

-- DRB

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Tuesday, May 23, 2000
Dr. Blumenthal:

In "Confronting the Character of God: Text and Praxis"(3) you address the issue that I have the most difficulty with regarding Facing the Abusing God but I still don't understand. You say that the covenant means we are to alternate protest with acceptance. And in "Theodicy: Dissonance in Theory and Praxis"(4) you suggest that Farley's unwillingness to worship the abusive God is rooted in "the prior commitment to the total goodness of God" and go on to suggest that the objection to the theology of abuse comes from a prejudgment that God is omnibenevolent because we need God to be this way. It is this issue that I want to address because I don't agree.

The problem isn't an unwillingness to consider God as evil or abusive. I have done so countless times. I even wrote an entire paper in college going through all the reasons why that was the only answer to the question of suffering. So I don't have a prior commitment to thinking of God as good. I have a prior commitment to not worshiping that which is evil. I don't believe the issue can be so easily relegated to a psychological need to depend on a good God. The problem is, once it is determined that God is abusive and evil, why would we worship and praise Him? It is one thing to acknowledge that a person is abusive and to say it is wrong and then to move on without dwelling on it. It is another thing to worship someone who is abusive. To worship and praise evil is destructive -- to the self and to the world. The only thing that could ethically be done in relation to an abusive God is protest. The argument that God has flaws as well as strengths, like people, doesn't work at all on this level. True, we all have flaws and we don't reject others for being imperfect. But the kind of flaws we are talking about go far beyond the norm. Abuse is such a grievous flaw that it negates any good qualities. To continue with a positive relationship in the absence of repentance and change can only taint oneself.

So, the question isn't: How can you call God abusive? That is easy, relatively. The question is: How can you relate to an abusive God in a positive way? I was thrilled to see a book that told me it was okay to suggest that God is abusive and sick. The mere fact of the existence of such a book allowed me to face the possibility and be honest about how I felt without feeling alone and completely wracked by guilt. This was especially important for me because I had been in an unhealthy religious environment where questioning even minor things was wrong. So I think your book is absolutely vital. But it doesn't address the problem that I ran up against in my questioning. I concluded that God was not good, that the evil and sickness in the world were God's responsibility, that God was negligent at best or possibly evil. But I couldn't worship God when I believed that. I still acknowledged that He was God. I just wasn't going to say anything good about Him. Why would I? The only way I could say good things about God was if I did not hold the position that God was evil and/or negligent.

Let me give a real-life example. There was a person named Tom that I was acquainted with in high school and who was friends with my husband. He was a debater and later worked with debate kids. My husband, Kelly, and I spent a lot of time with him and had tons of fun. When we got married, Tom was an usher at our wedding. Granted, Tom was an alcoholic and tended to be obnoxious, but he seemed to be a basically decent person under all his loud-mouthed ranting. So he wasn't perfect, but I still was willing to hang out with him and look for his good points. The spring before I began graduate school, I found out that Tom had raped a girl I was acquainted with on the debate circuit. The police gave the girl a lie detector test and didn't bother to go question Tom for two weeks, so the scratch marks were gone. He got away with it. He was drunk when he did it. I might have taken a better view if he had acknowledged that he was wrong and helped her pay for therapy. But he wouldn't do it. So long as he does not make things right with her (as much as they can be made right), I will not speak to him or bother to look for his good points. Raping her and not living up to his guilt negates any good qualities he might have. He is despicable and not worthy of friendship or respect. I will never say anything good about him, especially when it might mislead someone into trusting him.

So, if I feel that way about a human, why should I treat God any differently?

This leads to an even larger question: Doesn't overlooking cruel abuse in God imply that we should do the same in real life? If we say about God: "God is abusive, but He's pretty great when He's not on a rampage," why shouldn't we say, "Tom is a rapist, but he's still a good guy"; or, "Yes, he beats his wife, but he isn't so bad"; or, "He may not have the moral sense to know that molesting children is wrong, but he is a brilliant man with a lot to offer the world"; or, "Sure, Hitler ordered the genocide of the Jews, but he made such a great, prosperous and orderly nation"? When facing people like that, we should do so only with defiance and with words of condemnation on our lips.

How do you keep us and God in covenant? What am I missing? I should add that, in spite of my doubts, I do still relate to God and do it as an abusive God. I do still challenge God, and get angry at God, and scream at God, and curse God. But I cannot do so and maintain a positive relationship with God. I know this contradicts all that I wrote above, but that is the contradiction I live in. That is why your book is so important. That is also why I want to know how you do it. Per the advice of my mentor in college, sometimes I have to put the whole issue on a shelf for awhile because a person cannot live in a constant state of uncertainty without a little bit of rest from it. But I try not to rest for too long either, because that isn't any healthier. One thing is certain, even talking about this subject brings up all my feelings of rage at God.

I think I need to stop now. (This is why writing is so much easier.)

Julie

* * *

Wednesday, May 24, 2000
Dear Julie,

I do not know what to say. You have made an argument which I have heard before, but you have made it more strongly than others. There seem to be two points: (1) "Abuse is such a grievous flaw that it negates any good qualities." I cannot worship such a God, even though I admit that He is God. (2) "Doesn't overlooking cruel abuse in God imply that we should do the same in real life?" with the analogy to Tom as a rapist but also a good guy.

The second is easier to answer: No. Even if we "overlook" abuse by God, that is no justification for doing it with humans, though one could argue that the abuser does not lose his fundamental humanity by being an abuser; he only obligates us to separate him from ourselves and others he may hurt.

The first question is more difficult. Still, I think I said that one does not "overlook" evil in God. One admits it and then one protests it. To protest is not to overlook; it is to engage. And one engages only when one has a basic instinct that something is to be gained, that the other is capable of redemptive action. That is all I am calling for.

Except that I think that, in order to pursue the process of protest, one must indeed develop a sense of the redeemability of the other -- which is why one worships. One does not worship an abusive God or an evil God; one worships (in the sense of praise) the non-abusive side of God. Also, one "worships" the abusive side but with protest prayer, which is not exactly worship in the sense you mean it.

I hope this is helpful. Please respond.

Shalom, DRB

* * *

Thursday, May 25, 2000
Dr. Blumenthal:

I think I am having a difficult time with the concept of separating out the two aspects of God. It is hard for me to conceive of God in that way. It may seem odd that this is difficult for me considering the way I tend to separate parts of myself at times (the emotional vs. the logical). I am just stuck on the concept of worshiping any aspect of a being that abuses. I think I can engage with any aspect of that God, but not through worship.

Using real-life examples helps me to get a grasp on things, so, another example. My grandpa who died in January was an alcoholic and had a history of abusiveness. He was also terribly sexist and racist. I would still visit him and be civil to him, but I would not say good things about him and I would not enjoy any interaction we had. Sometimes I would find a dark humor in his twisted views and lazy alcoholic behavior, but I would not call that positive. So, unlike the other example I gave last time, I engaged with him, but not in a positive way. The only reason I did so was because he was my grandpa and because my family would have been disrupted if I had shunned him or had said all I wanted to say about him. But the more I think about it, the less like engagement that seems. I think true engagement would mean being honest and open. I could not be that way with him.

The analogy for relating to God is not clear. The family relationship with my grandpa put him in a special category: as long as he wasn't actively abusing anyone, I still would let myself be in his presence. By analogy, I would say that since I have a special kind of relationship to God, I guess I wouldn't cut Him off. I would still "visit" out of a sense of obligation, but not out of joy. I would not say good things about him, but I wouldn't protest either because protest, as you said, requires a belief that the abusive one would change. It also requires trust. I would not "talk back" to someone (God) who could crush me and lacked the self-control not to do it. I only challenge people whom I trust. On the other hand, I suppose I do trust God enough to be able to get angry at Him and protest. Either that, or I just don't care anymore what He might do.

I don't think I have any good models to work with here. Or maybe the problem is that I have too many good models for dealing with people who are abusive. Between my own experiences and those of my friends, I have acquired an extensive exposure to different kinds of evil and abuse, and various ways of responding to the people involved. I could run through every example and try to apply it to God, but I don't know if I should. Besides, I don't think I have even one example that involves having a positive relationship with such a person. I am confused. I just can't imagine treating an abusive God differently from an abusive person. What is the rationale for treating God differently than humans? Like Berish,(5) I think we should hold God to the same standard of justice.

I am glad that I can challenge God and protest to God and that I can feel angry at God without it meaning I am possessed by demons (as the Vineyard people(6) thought), but it is so much easier to deny God's power. My mind knows that it doesn't work, that it isn't logical that God could have the power to create a world but doesn't have enough power to stop evil. Therefore, my mind must conclude that God is not good, but my heart can't handle that. So I go back and forth between my mind and my heart, and I can't integrate the two because they are contradictory.

Maybe I am afraid of my feelings. When I hear stories on the news about children being raped, I get so angry. I want nothing but death for abusers. I don't want to talk to them at all. I just want them all dead. We put murderers to death, but I think raping children is a worse crime. Because it is murder too. It murders the soul. I think that is worthy of death. I am afraid to feel that way about God. I say protest prayers and I ask God "why," but all I really want is to lash out. I even threatened God once when I was afraid Kelly might have some kind of tumor. I don't even remember what I threatened God with since I have no power over God, but I did anyway. And the earth didn't open up and swallow me, so that was a positive thing. And my husband was okay, so that was even better. I guess that might be a basis for trust. I can trust that God won't kill me if I get mad at Him and rant. But I don't think that is enough. Besides, He might just be busy picking on other people right now and He'll get back to me later. Abusers are unlike most people. One can do something wrong and the abuser might not seem upset, but the abuser is really just waiting for a good time to get back at his/her victim. It could be a long time later, but abusers don't forget. This might sound paranoid to some, but dealing with abusive people calls for a redefinition of "paranoid."

I think, for me, the main reason I had to reject Christianity was because god killing his son went too far. I could never worship a god that evil. I had no basic instinct that that god was capable of redemption. (It seems ironic to me that the so-called redeeming god is incapable of being redeemed.) I determined that, if that was what god was like, I would rather spend eternity in hell than be in heaven with him. (Of course, I eventually stopped believing that non-belief in Jesus meant hell.) A god that kills his son is the worst because he doesn't just allow evil, he ordains it. I wrote something once on the book of Job when I was trying to grapple with this issue. It ended up with Jesus being god coming to earth to be punished for his sins. It was kind of cool, but it just didn't work for me. I stopped believing anything about Jesus and recently re-wrote the story to expunge the Christian imagery.

As a Jew, I guess I think there might be some hope for God. But I am more afraid of God than anything else. I don't know if I can trust God until God is trust-worthy. I don't know how God could be proven trustworthy. Maybe an apology would do it. But I don't even know if that would be enough. There should also be retribution. All this probably has nothing to do with God. Maybe what I should say is that, as a Jew, I feel as if there might be some hope for me.

The idea of worshiping the good side of God and protesting the bad side really isn't that different from what I actually do, in spite of all the problems I have with it. The difference is, when I worship the good side of God, I deny that there even is an abusive side to God. I have to essentialize God as good in order to worship, or I just couldn't do it. If I didn't do this, I would stay in a constant state of protest and uncertainty which I would be unable to handle. Maybe your way is just the more honest way, the nondenial way. Sometimes children idealize their abusers because they can't retain sanity knowing that their lives depend on someone who is evil. They blame themselves instead. This is what some religious people do in relation to God. Then there is the other way. Denial and forgetting. When things are good, forget that the person was ever bad. Forget that bad things even happened. When things are bad, forget that the person was ever good. Don't allow the two worlds to mix or there won't be any world that seems safe. This is my way of relating to God. I face the abusive God, but I keep Him separate. Maybe what bothers me about the book is also its strength. Or not. I don't know.

I am going on a cruise tomorrow and will be incommunicado for a few days. Unless the ship sinks. . . then it will be much longer. I look forward to hearing from you.

Julie

* * *

Friday, May 26, 2000
Dear Julie,

Welcome back from your vacation. I've read your second letter and I find it somewhat disoriented and disorienting. You seem to have a lot of anger just below the surface, which leads to wanting to cut God out of your life and not wanting to do that, and so on. This makes dealing with the theology a little more difficult. May I suggest the following: that you separate your need to give voice to your pain and anguish from your need to generate a functioning theology.

To give voice to your anger, write a commentary to a psalm. Any one will do. You can choose a praising psalm and write a counter-commentary, like "Con-verses,"(7) or you can choose an angry psalm and write a voiced commentary. If necessary, write two (or more) commentaries with each one corresponding to one of your voices. That will give form to the various and contradictory things you are saying. And form helps.

As you know from the chapter on seriatim,(8) I believe that life does not permit us to take a single, one-way view of life. We alternate our positions and we move forward in an irregular way. It is, therefore, okay to be contradictory, to want to love and to hate at the same time. It's just that each movement must have a form and we must consciously not stay on one tack too long.

Let's keep writing. You have very good writing skills. Do the commentaries.

Shalom, DRB

* * *

Sunday, May 28, 2000
Dr. Blumenthal:

Disoriented and disorienting is right! That is why I often avoid the whole subject. I ignore it so I don't even realize sometimes how angry I am. I did what you said and wrote something on Psalm 30 with the two different voices. I don't know if it could rightly be called a commentary though. I am glad you suggested it. It was an interesting and intense exercise. I found that the experience was very similar to the times when I have written things like "Isaac Loses His Laughter."(9) The difference is, this time I wasn't projecting my feelings onto another character who had very different experiences from my own.

I believe doing these types of things helps because writing is a way of healing. It helps emotionally because it is a way of expressing emotions and putting experiences into some kind of narrative framework. Research done by James Pennebaker(10) shows that writing also helps physical health. I am just not entirely sure how it helps theologically.

I agree that my anger and pain make theology difficult. But a theology that does not include those feelings would not be an honest theology. Writing helps to abate these feelings to some extent which may make theology easier, but that is only because less intense emotion means less theological difficulty to begin with.

I know that it is probably impossible, but I feel a need for a theology that works when I am intensely angry and when I am feeling good. I have not learned to live comfortably with contradiction. I can deal with pain, and uncertainty, and lack of answers, but I can't seem to reconcile myself to the idea that these can exist alongside the good things. Let me amend that statement. I believe that life is filled with joy and pain, with pleasure along with suffering. I know that these things can coexist and that each individual has a huge variety of positive and negative experiences. That is a part of the chaos of this messed-up world and I can accept that. What I can't reconcile myself to is the idea that God, and my interactions with God, are just as contradictory and chaotic. I want God to be above that, to be better than the world. I don't necessarily mean that God must be good. God can be evil and abusive, and I can reconcile myself to that. It is uncertainty that I can't stand. I can't stand not knowing where I stand or what might happen. If it is one way (either way), then I can deal with it.

To use your analogy of sailing,(11) I feel as if I am at the mercy of violent and shifting winds that I cannot possibly hope to adjust to and deal with. They will toss me about until I feel as if I must die, and then they will calm down and all will be at peace for a time, until it starts up again. The randomness is what is impossible to deal with. It can't be both ways. When a storm is coming, sailors prepare their ship so they can get through the storm. They fasten things down, adjust the sails, and make sure the hatches are closed tightly. But a ship could not sail normally in such a state. The conditions on a ship during normal, calm times are totally different from conditions during a violent storm. A ship could not function if it had to be constantly in a state of preparedness for a violent storm. That's the way I feel with God. I feel that it can't be both ways. I either need to be constantly prepared for abusive behavior and then I can have some hope of coping with it and surviving it, or I need to be able to relax in the knowledge that God does not abuse. I can't relax if abuse could come at any moment. I need to know, one way or the other.

I don't see, however, how giving form to the different contradictory elements will help with this. It won't make them any less contradictory. It will help me in a self-awareness sense, but it won't resolve the overall dilemma. Of course, you have more experience in this area and I could be missing the point. Can you explain how it helps?

Julie

* * *

Monday, May 29, 2000
Dear Julie,

Two questions:

1. Why? Why does the relationship with God have to be the opposite of what you describe as real?

The real world moves between peacefulness-reflectiveness-love and anger-fear-anxiety: "I believe that life is filled with joy and pain, with pleasure along with suffering. I know that these things can coexist and that each individual has a huge variety of positive and negative experiences. That is part of the chaos of this messed-up world and I can accept that." I agree. But why does God have to be different?

To put this another way: Isn't expecting -- indeed, demanding -- that our relationship with God should be either all positive or all negative a little unrealistic? A little, may I say it, immature? Your God-relationship is what Freud called an illusion, the future of which is not very bright.(12) Why not a mature, realistic expectation of what God -- and we -- may, and may not, expect of one another? Do you expect your marriage to be without anxiety? You know better. And if the interplay of positive and negative is mature enough for your marriage, why is not tolerance and coping good enough for your relationship with God?

2. You have set up the problem as a dichotomy: "It is uncertainty I cannot stand. I can't stand not knowing where I stand or what might happen. If it is one way (either way), then I can deal with it."

Polar constructions are almost always wrong and, as you know, they particularly characterize patriarchal culture, which I think is not your favorite.

Consider another method. A Venn diagram is a series of overlapping circles and, as a mapping device, I find it more flexible than Harvard outlines. Value-concepts,(13) for instance, overlap and they are better mapped by using a Venn diagram. What would your worldview, especially your theological worldview, look like using a Venn diagram? What would your circles be composed of? This is a very important question and worth some thinking time. Sailing may not be the metaphor for you, but the forces of light against the forces of darkness is worse, as you know.

Shalom, DRB

* * *

Thursday, June 1, 2000
Dr. Blumenthal:

1. Why does the relationship with God have to be different from the real world? Because if God is the same as the world, then God is not much of a God. If God is the same as the world, I might as well worship a tree, because trees rarely hurt anyone.

I am not asking that the relationship with God be all positive or all negative. I am asking that it be all abuse or no abuse. As I mentioned before, abuse is on a completely different level from disappointment, or anxiety, or an occasional hurtful word.

You did not address the other part of the sailing example and it is important here. A ship cannot function normally while it is battened down for a storm. That is an apt analogy for what it takes to deal with an abusive God. Dealing with abusers requires a constant state of vigilance. You can never let your guard down and just relax with such a person. It is not possible to have a normal relationship. A normal relationship has positives and negatives; abuse goes beyond this.

You still have not addressed the question of why an abusive God should be treated differently from Tom the rapist. I am willing to tolerate the normal ups and downs of a relationship, but I have no tolerance for those who violate others. You suggest that it is a bit immature to expect that the relationship be all positive or all negative. On the contrary, I would contend that it reflects a certain level of immaturity to believe that we have to be subjected to an abusive authority. A child who is abused has a reason to look for the good in his/her abuser, but an adult knows that s/he can leave and has the power to do so. An adult need not search past the sick abusiveness to try to find a shred of good.

It may be that the future of my God relationship isn't very bright -- that remains to be seen. But I don't know that I care if it is or not. I have been keeping God at arm's length for quite some time now. After being a part of a charismatic cult church, I am no longer looking for close or intense experiences with God. I still have occasional moments of closeness, but they are almost inadvertent and are much more controlled. I don't know if I really believe that God is with us or can be felt by us. Maybe I do believe it but just want no part of it. I am afraid of God and I am afraid of religious people. My God relationship is rather bleak and I don't see much likelihood of that changing. In a way, though, I still long for a close relationship with God. But, whether I want to or not, I just can't see trusting God or religious people again. Maybe that is what hurts the most.

2. Polar constructions: While I agree that polar constructions are generally flawed, when it comes to abuse they are appropriate. A person is either an abuser or not. There is no room for uncertainty because too much is at stake. Abusers require separate treatment and it is important to know which a person is so that appropriate steps can be taken -- either preparing oneself for the worst or separating oneself. I will not let my guard down completely with anyone unless I know they are basically trustworthy. It takes time to figure that out, but it is worth doing. To trust indiscriminately is dangerous. This applies to God as well.

I think I am going in circles.

Julie

* * *

Wednesday, June 14, 2000
Dear Julie,

I'm not sure what to say to your letter. You have set up the case of abuse as outside the rules of normal behavior. Part of me agrees with you but part of me says, "If abuse is beyond the pale of conciliation, what is teshuva?"(14) and "If abuse is beyond redemption, what are we do to with our own recalcitrant sinfulness?"

It seems to me that we all have a level of anger and even of sinfulness that cannot be managed by will, or law, or piety, or psychotherapy; and that we must accept that in ourselves and in others, even in God. Granted, from a practical point of view, we must separate ourselves from abuse to preserve ourselves. Still, I have maintained that, contrary to human abuse, we should not do that (even though we can do it) with divine abuse because God is God, not a human; because that is the nature of covenant with the divine.

I know this is the weakest part of the argument, but, given the tradition, I see no other alternative, even though maintaining relationship with the Abuser is counter-intuitive and maybe stupid.

That we have the adult ability to leave God, I also grant. I have even argued that most post-shoah Jews have, instinctively not intellectually, done so for exactly this reason. But, that does not mean that the only adult response is to do that, as you suggest. I think that being present, protesting, and not leaving is a more mature response, especially (and perhaps, only) when one knows one could leave.

That God has faults does not make God less God, not in my eyes. And any thought in that direction, I regard as projection and falsification. So that part doesn't bother me.

Shalom, DRB

* * *

Thursday, June 15, 2000
Dr. Blumenthal:

I think that maintaining a relationship with the abuser is counterintuitive, yet I just converted to Judaism and am thrilled about it. The whole thing goes far beyond logic and far deeper than any feelings of anger, fear, etc. that are directed against God.

Teshuva is something that I was not taking into account. I expect God to do teshuva someday. Until that happens, I have no reason to treat God differently from an unrepentant abuser. Going back to my example of Tom the rapist, I would have been somewhat willing to associate with him if he had owned up to his responsibility and tried to make things right. I would do the same with God. In both cases, however, I would not be able to act as if nothing had happened. It would only mean a willingness on my part to try to reestablish some kind of relationship. Trust would have to be rebuilt and that would take quite some time.

I try to put the issue of abuse and our response to abuse into absolutes because I think, theoretically, that is the way it should be done. However, once again my practice does not always fit my ideals. It is fairly easy to shun Tom the rapist because he was only a friend, and not even a close one. My relationship with my grandpa was another matter entirely. There, I did not have the courage to do what I have been saying people should do. Part of it was an uncertainty with myself and part of it was a fear of the consequences. It is hypocritical for me to insist that we must shun the abuser when I failed to do it myself. However, putting aside my contradictory practices, I still think that God is different from people -- but not in a way that benefits God. Because I do not fear God in the way that I fear some people, it is easier for me to do with God what I keep saying needs to be done: to shun God. Thus, I am more willing to separate myself from God than I am to shun some people.

I have decided that I have been mistaken in reducing the options for response to two: leaving, or staying and behaving as if all were well. The idea of staying and protesting is an option with God where it isn't an option with abusive persons. Sometimes it doesn't work to protest and accuse a person who abuses because they could lash out and abuse again in response, or because no one would listen or believe. With toxic relationships, one often has to make a choice between leaving and doing nothing. But God doesn't fight back, as human abusers do, nor does God have a family that would take sides. True, problems can arise with some of God's people, but that isn't quite the same. If an argument could be carried out without further abuse, I think it could be a valuable thing. It is hard for me to conceive of that possibility because human abusers would not have such an argument on fair terms. Maybe God is different in that respect; maybe it is possible to stay and protest.

I think one thing that is interesting in Judaism is that one can leave God without leaving. When I was a senior in college, I took a class called "Light in the Darkness: Courage and Evil in the Twentieth Century" and part of it was to visit survivors of the shoah. I asked one woman how she thought about and related to God after what she had been through. Her response was that she didn't talk about God for a long time because she didn't want to blaspheme, but that she continued to be observant of ritual, etc. At that time I was struck by the fact that some Christians would say she was going to hell because she was Jewish, but I thought her response in the face of suffering was more courageous and faithful than most Christians would be able to manage. She didn't have that "personal relationship" that my fundamentalist friends espoused, but she continued to maintain something instead of throwing it all away. She did what she could and I admired that. Fundamentalist Christianity doesn't provide room for that. It teaches that actions are irrelevant, and stresses that there must be an emotional bond with God, as well as absolute trust. Once those are gone, there is nothing left. With Judaism, there is much more involved than just an emotional bond. Therefore, if that bond is damaged, it doesn't leave a person completely out in the cold. Because there are other things to connect a person to Judaism, it is possible to stay with it and maybe, in time, that bond can be reestablished. That doesn't work if a person leaves.

It may be apparent that I am a bit more positive in this letter. I think I am somewhat less hostile toward God since my conversion. It was such an incredible experience that I have been feeling closer to God and have been more willing to focus on the positive (frightening, isn't it). I haven't felt the way I felt last Friday night since my wedding. It dawned on me how blessed I have been in the last few years. Sure, I had wretched experiences in my past, but now I seem to be getting everything I want. It makes me wonder when it will all come crashing down around me. But maybe it doesn't have to.

Julie (Shoshana)(15)

* * *

Sunday, June 18, 2000
Dear Julie,

Yes, your last letter was more positive. But how and why did your conversion make it easier? True, one can remain Jewish, even faith-ful, and be angry at God in Judaism, as did the woman you interviewed. But, on the other hand, there is no intermediary between us and God -- no son of God, no mother of God, to appeal to. To be Jewish is to face God, Face-to-face, or at least to avert one's eyes from a face-to-Face look. It seems to me that being Jewish would make it more difficult, not easier.

I, too, have reflected upon the fact that it is easier to protest to God than it is to protest to people. I am not sure it is fear of consequences because the fear of God is, or should be, real. I think it is because the texts, and our intimate personal experience of God, lead us to realize that God is also good; that God is not always abusive; that God, especially when God is wrong, is limited by God's own covenant. To put it theologically, covenant limits God, as well as limiting us. It is covenant that makes it possible for us to say that God has done wrong. Covenant forces God to hear our protest, even if God doesn't react to it. Covenant forces God to tolerate our protest. If God were not a covenantal God, I think I could not believe and I certainly could not protest. It also guarantees God's goodness and God's good behavior, given inevitable fits of abuse. Human abusers, by contrast, have unilaterally shattered the covenant that binds humans together. For that reason, one could not protest in the camps or the gulag; perhaps also not in a situation of family abuse. Covenant is episodic in human life; it is abiding in God's life.

I am coming to understand why you don't want a God with whom you have a reciprocal feeling relationship. If that is all your previous extremist church experience taught you, you would be correct in fleeing that understanding of God. I would not, however, hold God or the Bible (or, for that matter, all of Christianity and the church) responsible for the stupidity and cruelty of the people you knew. Their so-called intimacy with God was delusional. I always say of people who preach love but want to convert others that they don't understand love. To love is to accept the other, not to wish to change the other, especially not through emotional and spiritual violence.

Julie, I have been asked to write an article for Cross Currents on religion and violence, and perhaps the best contribution I could make would be to edit our correspondence into an article entitled "The Violence of God: Dialogic Fragments." If you are willing to do this, I would be glad to spend some time editing the letters and we would then share the editorial work until it meets our joint expectations. There are several options: You do not, of course, have to do this at all. If you do decide to do it, you can sign your name; or you can remain anonymous. Do think about this. Your thoughts are those of many, many people and it is usually good to get such thoughts out into the public light. No pressure; just think about it and let me know.

Shalom, DRB

* * *

Tuesday, June 20, 2000
Dr. Blumenthal:

I can't say that my conversion necessarily made anything easier on a theological level. It is my general outlook that improved. Converting to Judaism is one of the best things that has ever happened to me and I am on a bit of a high because of it. Along with a more positive mood comes a more positive outlook and a better frame of mind when considering God.

Oddly enough, I don't think that I have flipped to the other pole of my bi-polar religious experience -- the one where I refuse to think that God is abusive. I think I am in a different place and I am not certain why, or where, that is.

I do not consider the idea of Jesus as an "intermediary" important or helpful. I would rather face God personally and speak my mind directly than have to depend on some second party as a go-between. I wonder how accurate communication would be if it were always through a second party. As in the phone game, the more people between the sending of a message and its final outcome, the more likely it is to be distorted. Obviously, Christians would not believe that Jesus would distort the message, not least because they believe that Jesus and God are one. Lacking their beliefs about the person of Jesus, I prefer to handle my communications myself.

I also find the idea of Jesus as an intermediary problematic because Jesus epitomizes, to me, the idea of divine abuse. As I mentioned before, God killing his alleged son is beyond what I am willing to accept. If facing the abusive God requires some hope for God's redemption, then I would not bother to face that God at all. I understand the theology behind the idea of Jesus' death, but I couldn't get past the view of it as abuse. That is one of the many reasons that I could not be a Christian.

The fear of God is not, and should not be, the same as the fear of violent human beings. I do not fear that God will smack me around if I get out of line. I do not fear that God would rape me, the way I need to fear some men. I am not sure I know what it means to fear God. I prefer to identify with God having no fear. I am afraid of enough things in this life without fearing God as well. To fear God would be to experience the ultimate in terror because God is inescapable and overwhelmingly powerful. I am afraid to fear God.

I agree that it is the covenant that allows us to protest to God, that forces God to listen to us. I was talking to another student and he said something that made me think. He suggested that cutting the abuser off isn't a good answer because the abuser won't change alone. I do not think that it is possible to change another person if the person is unwilling. But it isn't possible to influence a person if there is no dialogue at all. If there are safety issues, the attempt should not be made. But if it is possible to have a dialogue in safety, it may be worthwhile. The dialogue should contain no excuses or justifications. It should not even be a friendly conversation because that would imply that the abuse did not matter. It is possible to hope, not expect, that a challenging and honest dialogue would lead the abuser to realize his wrongs and rethink his future course of actions.

I do not think the covenant guarantees God's goodness or good behavior. I think that good and wrongful behavior have always been possible for God. Before Abraham, God was acting in ways that covered the spectrum of good and bad. God chose to create humans with the ability to disobey and do evil things. Then God placed temptation before them, when God could have done otherwise. A good term for this is entrapment! When humans did disobey, God's punishments were excessive and included even future generations who were not guilty of the crime at hand. Later, God chose favorites -- with terrible consequences -- and killed off most of humanity in the flood. Given the pattern of abusive behavior that we see later in Scripture, I wonder if we should believe the flood was truly justified. Maybe God typically overreacts in an abusive way and then tries to justify it after the fact by blaming it on the victims. I do not think the covenant necessarily influences the rightness or wrongness of God's behavior, it just offers us due process. It gives us the ability to speak out and protest when God acts in an immoral way. I hope it also means that God will be accountable for God's actions.

I do want a reciprocal feeling relationship with God, I just do not think that a feeling relationship should be the only thing or even the central moment. Also, even though I want a reciprocal feeling relationship, I am afraid of it. I know that the supposed connection with God in the charismatic church of which I was a part was false. It doesn't seem to matter that I know that intellectually. My experiences there hurt me on an emotional and spiritual level that does not always respond to logic. I do not hold the Bible or all Christianity responsible. Indeed, my experiences in the Lutheran church were extremely positive. But I do think I hold God somewhat responsible even though this isn't rational. Or maybe I don't hold God responsible. Maybe God just got bound up in all the negative feelings and now I can't untangle Him.

The people at the charismatic church encouraged others to open up completely in order to be "healed." At that point, I had not dealt with my rape and what I needed was therapy, but they didn't approve of therapy. They said that God would heal, and encouraged me to open up completely so they could pray for my healing. The problem is that opening up like that is almost like reopening the wound. When I didn't get better, they said that I wasn't letting go, that I didn't have faith, that I was just trying to get attention, and that I had demons. It was as if they had wounded me, again, in the place that I had already been hurt. It also meant that God got added into all this in a negative way. This isn't the origin of my occasional hostility toward God, but it certainly made things worse. Now, I associate emotional and spiritual pain with prayer, especially with prayer that involves any strong emotional component.

Finally, I do not think that it is easier to protest to God for the reason you gave. It isn't (for me) that personal experience and texts show God to be good in contrast to experiences with a human abuser. Human abusers can have good points in the same way that God can have good points. I think it is because God's abuse is more removed from God. To put it another way, God's abuse is not Face-to-face. God abuses through intermediaries, through criminal neglect / absence. Human abusers are actually physically present when they abuse. You actually see their rage and their out-of-control actions. It is frightening to be in their physical presence because they use their physical selves to abuse with. Not so with God.

On the matter of publication: I am not answering yet; I am exploring the possibility. In order to give you an answer, I have some questions and concerns that I need to think about.

First, I wonder if it would reflect negatively on me. I have expressed some of my deepest theological and emotional conflicts in these letters and I do not know how they make me look. As you know, I want to be a teacher and writer. Will these letters taint people's views of anything I write in the future? I don't want people not to take me seriously. Yes, you wrote Facing the Abusing God, but you were doing it in an academic way. It was very logical. It presents a challenging and controversial view of God, but it doesn't portray you in an irrational and highly emotional light. Or, maybe I am just overreacting, again, to my emotions.

Second, I do not normally talk this openly. I am writing openly to you because I trust you. I do not know about the trustworthiness of anyone who might read these things.

I know that these fears are probably rather irrational, but it would help if you would respond. I trust that you will give me an objective opinion about my first concern. Telling me more about the journal could help me with the second concern. In any case, writing back and forth helps me to process some of the material. The only reason I was able to publish the Isaac piece was because I was projecting my feelings about my rape onto Isaac and not owning it. I knew that, if someone asked, I could always say it had no real connection to my life. This is different.

I like the idea of publishing the letters on a more theoretical level because I think it could be helpful for others who have similar thoughts and feelings. I know I found the letters toward the end of your book helpful. I just need to figure out if it is something I could live with. I think doing it anonymously might be a cop-out. Let me know what you think.

Julie (Shoshana)

* * *

Wednesday, June 21, 2000
Dear Julie,

As always, your letter is thoughtful. This has been a wonderful exchange.

I certainly accept your comments about conversion and its indirect connection to your relationship to God. I think it is probably too early to know what the whole looks like.

I accept, too, that one fears fearing God.

You are probably also correct that the covenant does not guarantee God's goodness. However, it seems to me that it is one of the two major sources of our knowledge of God's goodness, the other being our own positive experience of God. It certainly does mean that God is accountable.

I think the death camps let us see the rage of God; no?

On the matter of publication: I am not sure what to advise. Yes, anonymous is a cop-out, but discretion, especially at a vulnerable stage in life, is not foolishness.

The best way to learn about any periodical is to go to the university library and read a few issues. This one is a serious, non-conformist interreligious periodical. The editors of this issue will certainly be sensitive to your concerns. The most important thing is that you feel comfortable with whatever form the project may take.

Shalom, DRB

* * *

Thursday, June 22, 2000
Dr. Blumenthal:

The camps definitely let us see the rage of God, but not in the same way. God is obscured. God does not actually pull a trigger or put a person into a furnace. God has lackeys who do His dirty work for Him. This does not make God any less accountable. It just means that we do not see God acting violently; we see the results.

Seeing God's rage indirectly is bad enough. It leaves one with a generalized fear. One does not actually have to see a person abused to experience trauma. Often children will hear one parent abuse another without seeing it, or a child might only see the results of the abuse. But actually seeing is different. When you don't see the abuse, it is easier to deny it, to distance it. People who see abuse still do these things, but it requires more mental and emotional effort. Actually seeing something means the image will remain and it can crop up at any time; it can haunt you. It is indelibly engraved into the mind. Maybe that is why God does not allow us to see Him or make images of Him. God knows that it would be more difficult for us to overlook His abuse. Right now, God knows that it is more likely that we will blame His human tools. Seeing violence also means that, sometimes, when you look at other people, you will see it in them -- even if they are not abusers.

I am having some second thoughts about my statement that God is not an active abuser. I still think this is partly true; I certainly want it to be true. However, my story about Tamar and the commentary I wrote on Psalm 30 both reveal a different view. In both cases, I have written to God saying, "You did this to me." There is, then, definitely a part of me that sees God as doing, more than just neglecting to act. In fact, what I wrote about Psalm 30 reflects a view of God as watching sexual abuse and rape and getting off on it like some kind of perverted voyeur. This image of God disturbs me and I really avoid thinking of it much. I certainly don't know what to do with this conception of God. It makes the idea of being in God's presence and protesting a distinctly uncomfortable thought. Though it is completely irrational, this image is a very powerful influence and I am not sure how to get around it. Maybe this is why I have so much difficulty sometimes with the whole concept of God as abuser -- because it hits too close to the image of God that I already have and want to deny.

I have another thought on the conversion subject. I think before my conversion I was more uncertain of my place in relation to God. I identified as a Jew, but I knew I wasn't officially a Jew yet. I think on some level I felt as if I had no secure grounding. Now I feel as if I have a solid place to stand and that helps on a more existential level.

I have thoroughly enjoyed this exchange of letters -- I love this work! It is wonderful to be able to hash through some of this with someone who has a clue. I have not known many people who would have the knowledge or the desire to talk about God, evil, theology, and abuse in a way that doesn't try to make God look good all the time. It is intellectually stimulating! On top of that, I find it helpful spiritually and emotionally to be able to write to you about my thoughts and feelings about God. It is not helpful to let all this just float around in my head without taking a closer look and getting input from an objective person. I still don't have answers, but I think I have a bit more clarity. At the very least, I am increasing my self-knowledge and I am thinking more about God.

On the matter of publication: I would like your opinion about my first concern, my future credibility. You have enough experience and know enough people to be able to tell me if this is a realistic concern, though I realize that there are no guarantees.

Please let me know what you think and then I will let you know in a few days what I decide.

Julie (Shoshana)

* * *

Thursday, June 22, 2000
Dear Julie,

I am of two minds on the subject of credibility. On the one hand, the truth is the truth. As the Talmud says, "Truth is the seal of God." We have an obligation to speak the truth -- to ourselves, to others, and to God. Also, when we speak the truth, others hear it and know. People recognize the truth when they hear it, even if they cannot react to it. In that sense, it is worth putting your name to this. You will make friends and enemies, as I did with Facing.

On the other hand, it is very early in your career for you to be taking such a radical stand. For the time being, I am content to begin the editing process and we will see.

Shalom, DRB

* * *

Thursday, June 22, 2000
Dr. Blumenthal:

Frankly, I am not used to anyone suggesting that the truth has so much value. I am used to people suggesting that my truth is the wrong truth. I really don't agree with that view, but I expect it from other people. After my experiences with a dysfunctional religious community, I believe that it is vital for religious communities to be open to all of the experiences, feelings, and thoughts of those who are a part of them. I am very passionate about this issue -- in theory. I am wondering what it says about me and my commitment to this value if I say it is important and then don't act on it myself. How are religious communities going to become more open if no one steps forward and speaks openly? Do I really mean to say that I want religious communities to be open and that others should take the risk, but not I? That is terribly hypocritical. I want to advocate change but I don't want to take the risk of being involved with the change. The question is: Can I overcome my own fears? I am afraid of being open and emotionally vulnerable. The last time I did that in a religious community I got hurt. I am afraid to trust religious people. It is sad, too, because theoretically they should be the most trustworthy. (Did you know that I was actually afraid of you after you talked about being a kind of channel for God's power, or whatever, when you pray for people? I associate that kind of stuff with the people at the Vineyard.) Clearly, trusting religious people is not my strength!

Anyway, I haven't figured it out yet. I never would have thought that a question of publishing something could be so complicated.

Julie (Shoshana)

Postscript

I agreed to publish these letters because people's religious experiences so often end up being separated from their actual lives when religion should be what connects the fullness of our lives to God and community. I see two important elements to the process of reconnecting our lives, God, and community. The first element is the willingness to be honest and the willingness to listen to that honesty. This is necessary within our religious communities, but also in academic circles. These letters are a reflection of this first element and sharing them is an attempt to open discussion on all relevant levels of discourse. I can also say that writing these letters to a fellow Jew (and also sharing them with my rabbi) has, in itself, been a healing experience. It has not "healed" my painful God-concept, nor has it eliminated or answered my questions. However, it has restored some of my faith in religious community. It has allowed me to begin the process of re-connecting my thoughts and feelings about God and my interactions with other people of faith.

The second element of re-connection is to incorporate that honesty into our communal interactions with God. Though it can be uncomfortable and painful to include, people should not have to look outside their faith communities to meet their spiritual needs. I believe that liturgy should be developed and incorporated that speaks to the many experiences of those who pray -- even the difficult ones. It will not hurt God. Nor do I think it will hurt our religious communities. Indeed, openness and acceptance can build a stronger community by bonding people together in solidarity. The attempt of religious communities to defend themselves and God from theologically uncomfortable ideas only worsens the situation. It re-wounds people who are already hurting and sometimes drives them away from God and community. It provides fuel for the very attitudes that are being defended against. Although Dr. Blumenthal proposed some ideas for liturgy at the end of Facing the Abusing God, they have not taken hold. It is my hope that more will be done and that such liturgy will be incorporated into our worship.

-- JSP

Notes

1. [Back to text]  It is my custom never to capitalize the word that refers to the destruction of the Jewish people in our time. Rather, we capitalize words that refer to God. I also prefer "shoah" to "holocaust" because the latter term has overtones of sacrifice, which the murder of six million Jews certainly was not.

2. [Back to text]  See n. 3.

3. [Back to text]  D. Blumenthal, "Confronting the Character of God," God in the Fray: A Tribute to Walter Brueggemann, ed. T. Linafelt and T. Beal (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1998) 38-51; available on my website: under "Articles."

4. [Back to text]  D. Blumenthal, "Theodicy: Dissonance in Theory and Praxis," Concilium, 1:95-106, which appeared simultaneously also in Italian, German, French, and Spanish; available on my website.

5. [Back to text]  The "hero" of Elie Wiesel's The Trial of God (New York: Schocken Books, 1979).

6. [Back to text]  This is a very aggressive charismatic cult church with which Julie was associated for a while.

7. [Back to text]  "Con-verses" is a commentary that reads against the text. See Facing, the section entitled "Texting."

8. [Back to text]  See Facing, chap. 5.

9. [Back to text]  J. Pfau, "Isaac Loses His Laughter," CCAR Journal: A Reform Jewish Quarterly (Winter 2000): 77-79; also available on Blumenthal's website under "Student Work."

10. [Back to text]  J. W. Pennebaker, Opening Up: The Healing Power of Expressing Emotions (New York: Guilford Press, 1990).

11. [Back to text]  See Facing, ch. 5.

12. [Back to text]  An allusion to Freud's famous book on religion, The Future of an Illusion.

13. [Back to text]  "Value-concepts" are ideas that can be discussed, but they are also values that have a normative thrust. For example, love can be discussed, and there are, indeed, many kinds of love. But it is also a value, something we should practice. For more on this, see D. Blumenthal, The Banality of Good and Evil: Moral Lessons from the Shoah and Jewish Tradition (Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 1999), ch. 7 and 10 for humanist and Jewish value-concepts respectively; see also M. Kadushin, The Rabbinic Mind (New York: Jewish Theological Seminary, 1952).

14. [Back to text]  Teshuva is the process of repentance. See D. Blumenthal, "Repentance and Forgiveness," Cross Currents (Spring 1998) 75-81; also available on my website.

15. [Back to text]  Shoshana is Julie's new Hebrew name.

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Source: Cross Currents, Summer 2001, Vol. 51,  No 2