This is My God, the God of My Father’s Religious Language

As a general rule, Modern Orthodox thinkers have always preferred personal religious experience to objective proofs as a basis for faith.[1] To some degree, this is a function of necessity, as Modern Orthodox thinkers tend to be less than convinced of the viability of objective proofs. As such, it is unsurprising that much has been made of a quote from the Kotzker Rebbe on the topic.

This is my God, and I will glorify Him, the God of my fathers and I will exalt him(Shemot 15:2). First one had to be able to say, this is my God; then one could add, the God of my father.”[2]

The Kotzker puts personal religious experience on a pedestal. Regardless of whether or not objective proof is possible, it is not desirable, at least, not at first. First, a person must have a personal relationship with the Divine, and only then should they worry about how their faith relates to that of their tradition.

The idea that personal experience can tell you about the Divine becomes problematic, however, when held up against 20th century conceptions of the relationship between language and thought. We think and understand in language, a language we absorb from the community around us, and our personal experience of the Divine is therefore inseparable from that community.[3] This was discussed by the Christian mystic and theologian Paul Tillich in his book Dynamics of Faith, though he does not discuss the problems this raises.

The act of faith, like every act in mans spiritual life, is dependent on language and therefore on community. For only in the community of spiritual beings is language alive. Without language there is no act of faith, no religious experience. This refers to language generally and to the special language in every function of mans spiritual life. The religious language, the language of symbol and myth, is created in the community of the believers and cannot be fully understood outside this community. But within it, the religious language enables the act of faith to have a concrete content. Faith needs its language, as does every act of personality; without language it would be blind, not directed toward a content, not conscious of itself. This is the reason for the predominant significance of the community of faith. Only as a member of such a community (even if in isolation or expulsion) can man have a content for his ultimate concern. Only in a community of language can man actualize his faith.[4]

Tillich is concerned with the question of how a personal, individual thing like faith can ever be part of a communal thing like organized religion. Tillich points to the fact that personal experience of the Divine is something we, by force, translate into our own language, a language we get from our community, and thus even personal religiosity has a communal aspect. While this solves Tillichs problem, it alludes to our own. A persons experience of the Divine is mediated through the terms they possess for thinking about the Divine, terms they learned from their tradition and community. How much can our personal experience then tell us about the Divine? It seems like the answer is, perhaps, very little; anything we learn from our experience will have more to do with our language than with something external to us, something objective. The Modern Orthodox believer is thus left in a quandary, challenged and inspired by personal experience of the Divine, but unsure of what to make of it, of exactly what and how much it can really tell them.

The way out of this quandary may be in reversing our expectations, asking not What can my linguistic experience of the Divine tell me about the Divine?but What can my linguistic experience of the Divine tell me about my language?The answer to that question is much clearer. The fact of experiencing the Divine through our language means that the Divine is willing to be, or capable of being, expressed in our language. Thus our language, and the religious tradition it both is born out of and gives birth to, are vehicles through which I can connect to the Divine. Our experiences may not be able to tell us about the Divine, but maybe they dont need to. The Kotzker said that what is really important is not the Divine as it exists beyond us, but rather the Divine as we relate to it. Not whether there is a God, but whether we have a God.

[1] This is in contrast to the approach generally taken by Haredi thinkers. For more on this see the phenomenal chapter on popular theological works in Yoel Finkelmans Strictly Kosher Reading.

[2] AJ Heschel, A Passion For Truth, pg. 188; similar in S. Raz and E. Levin, The Sayings of Menahem Mendel of Kotzk, pg. 12. Also in Rav Shagar, Al Kapot HaManoul (Hebrew).

[3] The degree to which our language shapes our thought is hotly debated, but the fact that we need language to conceptualize abstract ideas, and the corresponding fact that all conceptualization happens in a language, seems inescapable.

[4] Tillich, Dynamics of Faith, pg. 23-24.

Parashat Lekh-Lekha – Struggling with the Divine Ideal

וְאֶעֶשְׂךָ לְגוֹי גָּדוֹל

Parashat Lekh-Lekha is a seminal moment in Sefer Bereishit, and in the Torah as a whole, marking a narrowing of ‘א’s focus from a more universal approach to a much more particular one. Previously, ‘א was dealing with all of mankind, now he’s working with just one man and his family. The previous attempts to let humanity make something of itself had failed dramatically, always ending in punishment and exile. The punishment for mankind’s first failure was only relieved when ‘א concluded that mankind would not be able to merit the removal of the punishment on their own (Bereishit 8:21). Now ‘א has decided to do something new, to start over with an individual. The question this immediately obligates is why this particular individual. Of all the nations and all the people born since the flood (Bereishit 10, 11:10-26), why this particular individual? Why Avraham (then known as Avram)? Numerous answers have been given to this question throughout history, their great number resulting from the lack of any clear information in the text about it. Avraham’s story begins at the beginning of the twelfth chapter of Bereishit, the beginning of Parashat Lekh-Lekha, when ‘א simply begins to speak to Avraham, commanding him to leave his home and to go to the land of Canaan. Before this we only hear about Avraham as a member of his father’s house, as a character in Terah’s story. Due to this sudden command, most understandings of why Avraham was chosen build off the rich story and character that develop around Avraham in the ensuing chapters. However, Avraham presumably chosen due to being unique in some way, due to something special about him, and by looking at the details of his life in Terah’s house, we should be able to determine what this unique characteristic is, and in doing so determine something about what made Avraham right to be the new start of ‘א’s great project.

The story of the Tower of Bavel in the eleventh chapter of Bereishit is followed by a listing of the line of Shem, son of Noah, culminating in the household of Terah.

27 Now these are the generations of Terah. Terah begot Avram, Nahor, and Haran; and Haran begot Lot. 28 And Haran died in the presence of his father Terah in the land of his birth, in Ur of the Chaldeans. 29 And Avram and Nahor took them wives: the name of Avram’s wife was Sarai; and the name of Nahor’s wife, Milcah, the daughter of Haran, the father of Milcah, and the father of Yiscah. 30 And Sarai was barren; she had no child. 31 And Terah took Avram his son, and Lot the son of Haran, his son’s son, and Sarai his daughter-in-law, his son Avram’s wife; and they went forth with them from Ur of the Chaldeans, to go into the land of Canaan; and they came unto Haran, and dwelt there. 32 And the days of Terah were two hundred and five years; and Terah died in Haran.

There are numerous things that this depiction tells us about Avraham. We know from here that he was the son of Terah, that he left Ur Kasdim, that he was married, etc. However, none of these things are unique to him. Minimally, they are all shared by his brother, Nahor. What makes Avraham unique is one single characteristic: his wife, Sarai, is barren. The uniqueness of this situation is something that becomes even clearer when looked at in the broader context of the not just the genealogy of Shem at the end of Bereishit 11, but all of the genealogical tables that form the structure of the first 11 chapters of Bereishit, and of Sefer Bereishit as a whole[1].

The genealogical tables of Sefer Bereishit all share a basic structure, such as that which can be seen in the beginning of the line of Shem in Bereishit 11.

10 These are the generations of Shem. Shem was a hundred years old, and begot Arpachshad two years after the flood. 11 And Shem lived after he begot Arpachshad five hundred years, and begot sons and daughters. 12 And Arpachshad lived five and thirty years, and begot Shelah. 13 And Arpachshad lived after he begot Shelah four hundred and three years, and begot sons and daughters.

The genealogical tables are structured such that they introduce a person by way of how old they were when they gave birth to their primary successor, and then it says how many years they lived after that and that they had other sons and daughters. Then their primary successor is reintroduced by way of how old they were when they gave birth to their primary successor, and then it says how many years they lived after that and that they had other sons and daughters. With a few exceptions, this pattern repeats throughout the genealogical tables from Adam (Bereishit 5:1) through Terah (Bereishit 11:26). Then Avraham is introduced and the whole process seems to come to a screeching halt. There could not be a clearer message that Avraham represents a break with everything that came before him. Avraham is unique, he is something new, not because of something he has, but because of what he lacks.

Assuming that the lack of a child, particularly through his wife Sarai, is what makes Avraham unique and creates a common theme and background unifying many, if not all, of the events of Avraham’s life. Avraham twice travels to a kingdom where Sarai is threatened with a life married to the king. While this would be bad enough on its own, against the backdrop of Avraham’s childlessness, it takes on the added significance of a tangible threat to the woman who is supposed to give birth to the descendants that ‘א promised Avraham. Avraham’s nephew Lot serves as a surrogate child[2] filling this gap until Avraham is promised descendants of his own[3], surfacing and disappearing from the story, but always in the role of a potential inheritor. Then Avraham is visited by three messengers, and one of them tells them him that Sarai will give birth in one years time, a much more concrete promise than ever before. This is immediately followed by Avraham being told that ‘א is going to destroy Sedom and Gamorah, and it is up to him to decide if the fact that he does not need Lot as an heir will be a factor in whether or not he argues with ‘א to save Sedom. Avraham’s final narrative is Akedat Yitzchak, the Binding of Isaac. Avraham is commanded by ‘א to sacrifice the son he had finally received. An impossible task for any father, this test is heightened by the way it constitutes a rejection of everything Avraham had longed for all these years. These are just a few of the events of Avraham’s life that work off his being childless, a theme that is heightened dramatically by the counterpoint of ‘א’s promise.

Avraham’s story opens with ‘א promising that He will make Avraham a great nation (12:2). Then upon his arrival in the land of Canaan, Avraham is promised that his descendants will inherit the land (12:7). After Avraham and Lot part ways, ‘א again promises Avraham that his descendants will inherit the land(13:14-17). In Bereishit 15:4 Avraham is promised that his descendants will be more numerous than the stars of the sky. These promises and others highlight the constant tension of Avraham’s journeys, which start with the promise of giving birth to a nation (12:2) and finally ends when his son is married off (Bereishit 24) and when he gives birth to sons and daughters (Bereishit 25). Interwoven with these promises are tests that threaten the likelihood of these promises actually coming to fruition.

Avram is chosen because he feels a lack, a sense that things are not the way they ought to be[4]. Avraham’s journeys transform this into an extended experience of the tension between the reality of his daily life and the divine ideal of ‘א’s promise. It is this tension that brought Avraham to struggle with ‘א on numerous occasions. He challenged ‘א on the grounds that the only inheritor he had was the servant running his household (15:2), in clear contradiction to ‘א’s promise. Avraham was someone who was bothered by the disconnect between the way things are and they way they ought to be. This is further manifest when Avraham prays for Sedom, unable to comprehend how the “Judge of All Earth” could do such injustice (18:25). It is this inclination to struggle that made Avraham the right choice for the start of ‘א’s new project. Being in a relationship with ‘א means living with a constant awareness of the tension between ‘א’s ideal and the living reality, and struggling with that. However, being religious does not mean to give up on either half of this tension, but to embrace it in its entirety. This tension motivates us to try and do something to alleviate it, something to help reality along until it matches with the ideal. It should motivate us to “keep the way of the LORD, to do righteousness and justice” (Bereishit 18:19). To be religious is to be bothered, to struggle, to be dissatisfied with the imperfect nature of ‘א’s world. ‘א promised the forefathers children and yet their wives were barren, because ‘א wants the righteous to struggle with the fact that this world does not match up to what it could be[5]. The essence of faith is to remain dedicated to the divine ideal even when it seems like the real world remains stubbornly unchanged by our attempts at godliness[6].

[1] This is discussed by R’ Menachem Leibtag here. His arguments are not entirely compelling, but there is much he says that is undoubtedly correct.

[2] The idea that Lot would serve in place of Avraham’s children is raised in Bereishit Rabbah 41:5.

[3] Lot’s presence, which is almost painfully obvious when they are leaving Ur Kasdim (11:31) and Haran(12:4-5), is suddenly and mysteriously absent when they journey to Egypt (12:10), reappearing only after the threat to Sarai in Egypt.

[4] This is expressed by a famous midrash (Bereishit Rabbah 39:1) that depicts Avraham first discovering ‘א as a person who happens upon a burning city and is struck by the fact that the city must have a master who should be saving it and, when they voice this concern, the master (‘א) appears.

[5] Talmud Bavli, Masekhet Yevamot, 64a.

[6] Mishna Avot, 2:16

Parashat Ki Tetse – Amalek and the Oppression of the Disadvantaged

וְלֹא יָרֵא אֱ׳לֹהִים

Parashat Ki Tetse represents the bulk of the laws and commandments of Sefer Devarim, containing 74 out of the 613 commandments in the Torah. These laws are capped by a review of the attack on Bnei Yisrael by Amalek and the commandment to wipe them out from Shemot 17:8-16 (Devarim 25:17-19).

(17) Remember what Amalek did to you by the way as you came forth from Egypt; (18) how they met you by the way, and cut down the weak that were straggling behind, when you were tired and weary, and you did not fear God. (19) And it shall be, when the Lord your God has given you rest from all your enemies round about, in the land which the Lord your God gives you for an inheritance to possess it, that you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from beneath the heavens; you shall not forget.

While this formulation of “They attacked you, you must fight them” is fairly straightforward, at its center is a line that is not entirely clear. The phrase “and did not fear God,” “וְלֹא יָרֵא אֱ׳לֹהִים,” could be referring to either Amalek or Bnei Yisrael. Most commentators have understood it to be referring to Amalek, as an additional explanation of why they are evil, or perhaps as an explanation as to why they attacked Bnei Yisrael. However, The Hizkuni brings a midrash from the Mekhilta suggesting that instead the phrase is part of the description of Bnei Yisrael, attached to “when you were tired and weary.” This seems somewhat strange, but taking a closer look both at our passage from Devarim 25 and the parallel passage from Shemot 17 will show that it actually is very fitting, and that this may change not only the way we understand its connection to the laws that precede it, and their implications for our lives today.

The passage from Sefer Devarim can be broken down into two rather even halves[1]. Verses 17-18, containing 23 words, describe the attack by Amalek. Verse 19, with 24 words, describes the commandment to Bnei Yisrael to eradicate Amalek in the future. These two halves mirror each other in their structure. The first half starts with “Remember,” and the second half ends with “you shall not forget.” The first half emphasizes that Amalek attacked Bnei Yisrael when they were “on the way,” while the second half states that Bnei Yisrael shall eradicate the memory of Amalek only once they are in the land that ‘א has given them for an inheritance. The first half states that Bnei Yisrael were attacked when they were “tired and weary,” and they are commanded to go to war with Amalek once “the Lord your God has given you rest.” Finally, the commandment to “blot out the memory of Amalek from beneath the heavens,” to the last child, responds to the way Amalek “cut down the weak that were straggling behind.” This type of mirror structure is very common is passages in the Torah, and understanding “and did not fear God” as referring to Bnei Yisrael makes it fit much better.[2] It also identifies their lack of fear of God as part of what made Bnei Yisrael vulnerable to Amalek in the desert, which helps explain an odd occurrence in the passage from Shemot.

The passage in Shemot goes into much greater detail when discussing the original battle between Amalek and Bnei Yisrael. It summarizes the initial attack simply as “And Amalek came, and made war with Yisrael in Rephidim” (Shemot 17:8), and then jumps into a description of Bnei Yisrael’s response that is totally lacking in the passage from Devarim.

(9) And Moshe said to Yehoshua: ‘Choose men for us, and go out and make war on Amalek; tomorrow I will stand on the top of the hill with the staff of God (אֱ׳לֹהִים) in my hand.’ (10) So Yehoshua did as Moshe had said to him, and fought with Amalek; and Moshe, Aaron, and Hur went up to the top of the hill. (11) And it was that when Moshe held up his hand Israel prevailed; and when he rested his hand, Amalek prevailed. (12) But Moshe’ hands were heavy; and they took a stone, and put it under him, and he sat upon it; and Aaron and Hur stayed up his hands, the one on the one side, and the other on the other side; and his hands were steady until the going down of the sun. (13) And Yehoshua weakened Amalek and his people with the edge of the sword. (Shemot 17:8-14)

This passage lacks the emphasis on the weakness of Bnei Yisrael found in the passage from Devarim. The sole reminder of it is the odd dependence of the Israelite warriors on Moshe’s raising his hand. This becomes a little clearer upon realizing that it is not Moshe’s hand that is important, for two verses earlier the Torah goes out of its way to say that Moshe’s hand, about to be raised and rested, will be holding the staff of God. Moshe would raise this staff and the people would be able to see it and it would remind them of ‘א who had taken them out of Egypt and split the sea before them and they would be emboldened[3]. Integrating this with the passage from Devarim, this would indicate that Bnei Yisrael’s weakness, which was a function of their being tired and weary and not fearing God (אֱ׳לֹהִים), was alleviated when they were emboldened by seeing the staff of God (אֱ׳לֹהִים) and all it represented.

The idea that Bnei Yisrael “did not fear God” is not mentioned at the end of Shemot 17, but it fits quite well in context. Shemot 17 is the end of the whole sequence stretching from just after the Israelites left Egypt until Yitro’s appearance at Har Sinai. The first half of the sequence is the miraculous lead up to the splitting of the sea, and the second half consists mainly of Bnei Yisrael complaining about not having food or water. The transition from the first half to the second is somewhat startling, as the narrative of the splitting of the sea ends with the statement that “the people feared the Lord” (Shemot 14:31), a significant step up from the way that “the people feared” Paroah (14:10) at the beginning of the narrative. Then all of a sudden they’re complaining, and can’t follow the rules ‘א gives them regarding the manna that falls from heaven, until finally they exclaim, “Is ‘א in our midst or not?” (Shemot 17:7) It’s not incredibly clear from the text where this comes from, but all of this comes right before they are attacked by Amalek where, according to our reading, Bnei Yisrael already “did not fear God.” Thus the reason for all of the complaining was that the people “did not fear God”. This leads to the question of just why it is that the fear of ‘א explicitly mentioned in Shemot 14:31 disappeared, but that is beyond the scope of this composition[4] (I discuss it at some length here). Thus, having struggled with a lack of food, water, and fear of God, the people were “tired and weary and did not fear God” (Devarim 25:18), when Amalek attacked (Shemot 17:8; Devarim 25:17).

Returning to the passage in Sefer Devarim, it’s important to take a minute to note its context. It caps the main law code of Sefer Devarim, coming at the end of a section of largely interpersonal laws beginning in 21:10. Examination of these laws shows that the majority of them share a common theme, not only with each other, but also with the passage dealing with Amalek. Most of these laws deal with not just simple interpersonal laws, but with the laws governing how Bnei Yisrael should interact with those in a position of weakness. This includes captives (21:10-14), children (21:15-17, 18-21), disliked wives (21:15-17, 22:13-21), the dead (21:22-23), foreigners (23:4-9), escaped slaves (23:16-17), widows (24:17-18), and others. With this in mind, it’s obvious that perhaps the main difference between the Amalek passage in Shemot and the one in Devarim is that in the Devarim passage Bnei Yisrael are specifically depicted as being in a position of weakness. The Torah specifically says that Bnei Yisrael “weakened Amalek and his people with the edge of the sword” (Shemot 17:14), while when Amalek attacked Bnei Yisrael they “cut down the weak that were straggling behind” (Devarim 25:18). In this way the Torah likens anyone who oppresses those they have power over to Amalek attacking the Israelites, just out of slavery and floundering in the wilderness (minimally in regard to the preceding laws, more probably as a general statement).

At this point, it’s worth taking an aside to discuss the meaning of the phrase “Fear of God.” It’s a phrase with a long history both in and beyond the biblical texts. In modern contexts it is often understood as “reverence,” or “awe,” or even as an existential fear of being obliterated by the presence of an Infinite God[5]. In the biblical text, the concept comes up in a variety of contexts. Its original appearances are in Sefer Bereishit, in the narratives surrounding Avraham, and then it shows up throughout various sections of the Torah, including the laws of Vayikra and Devarim. However, it would be hard from all of this to pin down exactly what it means. The closest we can get to a specific definition is found in Shemot 20:17, where Moshe tells the people that ‘א appeared so intimidatingly on Har Sinai “in order that the fear of him may ever be with you, so that you do not go astray.” Essentially, “Fear of God” is way of relating to, or thinking about, ‘א that will cause a person to keep far from sin. It’s not clear what this way is, however. So all we know about a group that is described as “not fearing God” is that some aspect of the way they think about or relate to ‘א is leading them to transgress the Law, or be more inclined to, which fits very well with the complaints and rebellions leading up to Amalek’s attack in Shemot 17.

This understanding needs to be shaded back into our reading of the Amalek passage in Sefer Devarim. Part of the weakness of Bnei Yisrael at that time was that they “did not fear God” (Devarim 25:18). The exact way in which this is a weakness is not completely clear, but it could certainly be understood as meaning that the Israelites had thought ‘א was not with them (Shemot 17:7), or that being “א’s Nation” while lacking fear of ‘א, was causing confusion and crisis within them (16:2-3; 17:2-3). Certainly such things are true in our own time. Most people struggle, or have struggled, with faith and doubt and performance of the Law at some point in their lives. In a religious community, people with religious struggles are automatically in a position of weakness. They are by their very thoughts made outsiders. Where Bnei Yisrael had Moshe’s staff as a reminder of ‘א’s connection with them, and the miracles they had seen with their own eyes, today we have nothing of the sort. Faith and doubt are a much more meaningful struggle today than they were in the times of the Torah, and that’s a good thing, but they are also harder. Rather than reinforcing this difficulty and pushing away people who struggle with these concepts, we need to draw them close and make them feel loved. Instead of seeing their struggles as a cause for castigation and estrangement, we should see them as an opportunity to embrace and raise up those in a position of weakness in our communities.


[1] I am indebted for this analysis to this essay by R’ Elchanan Samet.

[2] Attaching it to Bnei Yisrael rather than Amalek also solve some linguistic issues as well. For more, see R’ Elchanan Samet, Op cit.

[3] See Rashbam’s commentary ad loc.

[4] One could argue that the suffering and the complaining of the desert journey caused them to lose their fear of God, but I’m not sure it’s that important of a difference.

[5] Rav Soloveitchik, “And From There You Shall Seek”.